Prove your humanity

This story was originally published on April 29, 2016.

The sun hasn’t yet come up when I meet Officer Doug Bergman in a parking lot on Route 30. Part policeman, part wildlife biologist, Bergman is ready to roll. His mobile office/pickup truck is stocked with everything from a well-worn copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds to handcuffs. The words “Conservation Officer” are emblazoned on the side of the truck—which is also equipped with a deer rack and a console computer that lets him take dispatch calls from the field.

But his beat is a little different than that of most of Pennsylvania’s other 100 or so conservation officers. The district he patrols is a 350-square-mile swath of the state that includes most of the city of Pittsburgh. And in patrolling wildlife in and around the city, he finds there really isn’t such a thing as a “typical day.”

LISTEN: “On Patrol in Pittsburgh’s Urban Wilds”

At the moment, he’s been getting a ton of calls about wild turkeys—a species that is making itself right at home not only in suburban areas around Pittsburgh but in the city itself. They’re also one of the city’s rowdier wildlife characters, and Bergman finds people often don’t know quite what to do when they encounter them.

“They come out of these woodlots,” he says. “A lot of times it’s because someone is placing food for other animals and it attracts the turkeys. So then the turkeys show up and they become a nuisance to a point that people become afraid of them because of what they do. This time of year, the males posture, they strut, they gobble a lot and fight a lot. They are trying to establish dominance.”

His advice for what to do if you encounter a turkey with an attitude? Show it some dominance right back.

“Take a broom and chase it off your sidewalk,” he says.

It doesn’t take long for us to find a real-life example of just how comfortable turkeys have gotten in suburban Pittsburgh.

“Look out your window,” Bergman says, as we drive through the community of Edgewood. “See it scratching up the mulch? It’s looking for the seeds that have gotten buried. That’s what they do normally. They are here walking through the mulch beds scratching up the seeds that somebody put out there. Look—they’re eating birdseed along with the squirrel out at the bird feeder.”

Bergman says wildlife is adapting to urban and suburban areas just fine. It’s we humans that generally have the problems.

“This is a district driven by people calling to complain about wildlife,” he says. “The wildlife is here with us, even though people might not realize it. We have coyotes all through this district. Typically, that’s an animal people might be alarmed to see, but you have to learn to basically live with that and protect yourself in a way that allows the coyote to be there. Probably the best thing people could do would be to read about wildlife and understand their habits a little bit. It will help them coexist with wildlife easier.”

Deer stalk the fields around Pittsburgh's Middle Hill neighborhood, just a stone's throw from the busy Strip District. Photo: Steve Elgersma via Flickr

Deer stalk the fields around Pittsburgh’s Middle Hill neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the busy Strip District. Photo: Steve Elgersma via Flickr

Besides nuisance calls, Bergman also gets a lot of tips—calls from people snitching on neighbors who are trying to keep wildlife as pets. He’s confiscated raccoons, skunks, hedgehogs and a lot of sugar gliders—a squirrel-like animal from South America whose popularity has been fueled by the pocket pet craze.

“They are nocturnal and they’re not from here. The problem is that they can be detrimental to wildlife if they go unchecked. [People] see these things on the internet and they think, ‘Wow, that’s a neat pet.’ And the next thing—I show up and I’m taking the pet.”

Last month Bergman even confiscated a baby wolf somebody purchased in Ohio.

“[They had] a six-week-old baby wolf living inside a kitchen inside of a fenced area. Really? Five kids in the house and you bought a wolf puppy? Did you think it was going to stay a six-week puppy forever? Wolves are a species that will always establish dominance, and they are going to test that. It might not happen at six weeks old, but it will happen eventually.”

“The wildlife is here with us even though people might not realize it. Probably the best thing people could do would be to read about wildlife and understand their habits a little bit. It will help them coexist with wildlife easier.”

Another common assignment for Bergman: Euthanizing animals that have had unfortunate encounters with humans—especially deer injured on the side of the road.

“Sometimes, I’ll get a call and people have a blanket over it and the deer has three broken legs. And it’s not going to come back from that. It’s almost impossible for me to take a live deer to the vet, and nobody wants to see the animal suffer. If it’s usable, I’ll try to permit it out to a needy family. I keep a list. I have a couple butchers who grind the whole deer up and give it to food banks. Every deer that was shot in the Mt. Lebanon deer cull was donated to Hunters Sharing the Harvest. That’s a lot of meat for needy families, soup kitchens, food banks.”

Wildlife conservation officers used to be called game wardens, and most of their duties revolved around regulating hunters and going after poachers. That’s still a big part of the job—and a dangerous one. In fact, an officer was killed by a poacher in Adams County in 2010. But today, as human development encroaches more on wildlife habitats, protecting animals is becoming a bigger part of what wildlife officers like Bergman do.

“People have to realize the animals were here first,” he says. “Through development, we’ve taken away some of their habitat so they’ve adapted to us. Most of them, in general, can [coexist] with us. Pittsburgh is unique in that, within 20 miles of town, you can be in wild areas. So you get these animals that have a normal home range in those lands and they come up against the city and they learn to adapt to that.”

There may be signs we’re learning to adapt too. On the Sunday morning I spent with Officer Bergman, not one citizen complaint call came in. Maybe that means—for at least one weekend—the humans and wildlife were getting along.


Photo (top): Nick Normal via Flickr