Animal safety key at school and at home

October 15, 2008

By Chantelle Lusebrink

A bobcat kitten, first mistaken for a neighbor’s cat, sits Sept. 26 on a birdfeeder in a Newcastle backyard. Photo by Janet Craig

A bobcat kitten, first mistaken for a neighbor’s cat, sits Sept. 26 on a birdfeeder in a Newcastle backyard. Photo by Janet CraigWith students walking to and from schools and their bus stops this time of year, it’s important to remember that other critters are all around.

With more than 25,000 square miles of open forested lands, Issaquah is home to many furry creatures, including black bears, bobcats, cougars, coyotes, deer, opossum and raccoons.

While not all of them pose a threat to students, it’s important to talk to your child about animal safety, said Sara Niegowski, communications director for the district.

“Students need to learn to be safe coming and going from school, and when they are at their homes in general,” she said.

In the past three years, Issaquah schools have seen their fair share of wildlife on playgrounds, rummaging through trash bins or making their way across campuses to find shelter in nearby woods.

In 2006, there were several sightings of a bear roaming near Endeavour Elementary School. Last fall, Clark Elementary, Issaquah Middle and Issaquah High schools all sent out alerts about bear sightings. A bear was also spotted at Issaquah Creek, looking for salmon.

And last fall, officials at Beaver Lake Middle School sent an e-mail warning to families when a cougar was spotted in a wooded area west of the school’s campus.

Additional sightings of wildlife this fall prompted a district E-news alert and several bulletins in school newsletters.

When an animal is sighted at a school, officials determine the necessary steps to take.

Typically, that involves keeping students in the building if the animal is on campus, calling emergency authorities if necessary and sending out an e-mail alert to families, Niegowski said.

However, district officials are trying to get parents and students to think about the wildlife around them all the time, not just when an alert comes out, she said.

Just as schools have procedures for protecting students and animals, families should also take measures to make their homes and neighborhoods less interesting to animals by keeping garbage inside until trash collection day, keeping pet food and pets inside, and not feeding smaller wildlife, like birds, deer, wild cats or raccoons.

“The most important thing we can do is keep the ‘wild’ in wildlife,” said Russell Link, district biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Don’t feed them intentionally, or unintentionally. Because the majority of conflicts that people have with animals is because they become conditioned to food.”

This time of year can end tragically for animals that are taken away by fish and wildlife officials, according to department Sgt. Kim Chandler.

For instance, bears that are tranquilized and taken from neighborhoods this time of year are often euthanized, because the tranquilizers officials use taint the bear’s meat for up to 30 days. Because fall is hunting season, officials can’t take the chance of releasing a bear whose meat might be eaten later.

“When we tell people that part, suddenly the bear isn’t such a nuisance,” Chandler said.

Living in an area with abundant wildlife is also one of the many draws for residents and can be a great educational opportunity for students, Niegowski said.

Several schools have natural wildlife habitats and refuges on their property, so students can conduct biology experiments and learn about their native habitats.

“The benefits are far greater than any threat an animal poses,” Niegowski said. “We live in a natural area, where our students can see wild animals in their natural habitat and see the great ecosystem we have, and learn how to coexist.”

Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434 ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com.

What to do if you see a wild animal

Help keep them away:

Do not make contact with unknown animals.

Never feed unknown animals, including feral cats, squirrels, raccoons or deer. Bears and coyotes prey on these animals and also eat the food left for them by you.

If you see an unknown animal, report it to an adult or an agency immediately.

Keep garbage and compost piles securely covered.

Keep garbage indoors until garbage collection day.

Do not put oil, grease, dairy products, meat, bones or fruit into your compost bin.

Purchase special animal- or bear-proof containers.

Keep pet food and water inside, and keep pets indoors or confined to kennels or exercise yards.

Utilize electric fencing around livestock, fruit trees and beehives.

Thoroughly clean your barbecue after each use.

Minimize groundcover or low shrubbery that’s near play areas to avoid attracting wildlife.

Bears:

Most bear and human conflicts occur because bears become conditioned to human food.

If you see a bear, back away slowly, keeping your eyes on the bear. Do not turn and run.

Feed birds only in winter or hang feeders 15 feet above the ground.

Pick ripe fruit from trees and avoid letting it fall onto the ground to rot.

Do not go outside if a bear is in your yard. Keep your distance.

Cougars:

Stop, stand tall and don’t run.

Try to appear larger than the cougar.

Never take your eyes off the animal or turn your back.

Do not crouch down or try to hide.

If the animal displays aggressive behavior, shout, wave your arms and throw rocks.

If the cougar attacks, fight back aggressively and try to stay on your feet.

Coyotes:

They will generally run away when challenged, unless you are too close to a den or its young.

If a coyote approaches, pick up small children or pets immediately.

Wave your arms, shout and throw stones.

Make yourself appear larger by standing or stepping up onto a rock or stump.

(Sources: Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Grizzly Bear Outreach Project and the Issaquah School District)

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