Welcoming New Neighbors

by Gary Miller

Over the past few months, some new neighbors have introduced themselves in the Highlands.  We’ve not been very welcoming.

​Last October, a black bear got hit by a car on South Allen Street and sought safety by climbing up a tree outside 804 S. Allen Street.  It settled into the treetops for the day and left only when Alpha Fire Department hosed it down.  Luckily, it had no injuries from either the car or the hose and was escorted to Sproul State Forest the next day.

​In February, another new neighbor appeared.  This time, it was a coyote spotted near Fairmount Park.  No further news came forth about it, so we can assume the coyote is still coming and going, perhaps settling in.

​This summer, Highlanders noticed—visually or olfactorily—other new visitors.  Several neighbors wrote about smelling the distinctive odor of skunk in the morning.  Several skunks were spotted, including a small white one, in the neighborhood.

​What do we know about our new neighbors?  The Humane Society of the U.S. reports that encounters between people and black bears have been on the rise.  Bears have excellent eyesight and hearing, and their sense of smell is seven times sharper than a bloodhound’s.  That gives them a particularly good ability to find food, whether it is set out for pets or in bird feeders, stored in garbage cans, or sticking to barbecue grills.

​Bears tend to wait for an invitation to invade our personal space.  “Bears are normally wary of people, according to the Humane Society, “but if a bear finds food without getting frightened away, he may come back for more.  Each time this happens, he can become less fearful—and this habituation can lead to problems.

​The Humane Society has these tips for keeping bears at bay:

  • Make trash cans inaccessible by bringing them in at night or putting them in a protective enclosure.
  • Enclose your compost pile.
  • Keep recyclables inside or in a strongly locked enclosure.
  • Keep the barbecue grill clean of drippings.
  • Keep bird feeders away from the house.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission advises, “If you come across a bear on your property, there are two possible courses of action. The first is to make loud noises or shout at the bear from a distance – like you’d react to a dog getting into your trash. The second option is to leave the bear alone, and clean up the bear’s mess after it leaves. Follow up by making sure you eliminate whatever attracted the bear in the first place. You may need to talk to your neighbors, as well.


What about coyotes?  The Urban Coyote Initiative reports that “Urban coyotes are present in practically every city across the United States.”  The UCI notes that coyotes don’t need a large territory to thrive and that many urban coyotes do well in smaller areas than their rural cousins because of the easy access to food.  It emphasizes that, contrary to myth, urban coyotes don’t thrive on pets and dumpster garbage, but instead prefer small rodents and rabbits.  “Having coyotes living and thriving in an urban area is a positive sign of the health and biodiversity of urban areas,” according to the UCI. Their presence can be considered a thumbs-up for the quality of a city’s urban ecology.”  Indeed, cats tend to stay away from coyote turf, making the area safer and more inviting for songbirds.  At the same time, the presence of coyotes tends to make other urban wildlife—rodents, deer, geese, etc.—look for accommodationselsewhere.

​Our relationship with urban coyotes is a two-way street. The Urban Coyote Research Project notes, “It is important to stress that our relationship with coyotes is directly affected by our behavior — coyotes react to us, and we can foster mutual respect or a lack of respect through cues we send to them. Coyote removal is best employed as a solution only after education has been attempted or if there is an immediate, and obvious, threat to human safety.


The Humane Society reports that it is not difficult to identify a skunk.  Skunks, it says, are “. . .easily identifiable by their characteristic black and white striping, are infamous for producing a foul odor when frightened. Although a skunk’s spray is known mostly for its robust smell, it can also cause intense discomfort if it gets into a person or animal’s eyes.”  They add that we are much more likely to smell a skunk than to see one, unless the skunk has taken up residence in a local wood pile or under a backyard deck.  That said, the Humane Society also suggests that skunk sightings are not usually a worry for humans: “Because skunks are generally easy-going, they will not intentionally bother people. In fact, skunks may benefit humans by eating many insects and rodents many regard as pests.  They usually give plenty of warning before they attack, in hopes that people will just quietly move away.  Dogs, on the other hand, run a greater risk and, as one neighbor reported recently, it can take months for the smell to go away.  

Using traps to capture and relocate wild animals is increasingly popular.  However, the Pennsylvania Game Commission warns:  “Since skunks – as well as raccoons, bats, groundhogs, foxes and coyotes – are rabies vector species, they should not be relocated like other wildlife. Homeowners who set traps and catch these species face the choice of killing the animal or releasing it. Releasing a skunk or a raccoon can be a risky situation.”

What should one do if a wild animal becomes a problem?  The State College Borough website suggests, “If you need help with a wild animal contact the PA Game Commission at (814) 237-1857 or Centre Wildlife Care at (814) 692-0004.

Gary Miller is a member of the Hearts in the Highlands Editorial Board