How to Safely Deal With Wild Animals in NYC

So, there’s a bat in your apartment. Or a racoon on your fire escape. Or a dolphin on the beach. Who’re you going to call?

By Katie Honan, The City | Nov 27 5:00am EST

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There are more than 8 million humans in this city — but we’re not the only living things who can proudly call themselves New Yorkers.

Raccoons, deer, dolphins, coyotes, birds of all kinds and, of course, rats live among us, hustling to survive — just like anyone else..

And whether they fly, walk, or swim the rules for most wildlife are the same, experts say: Leave them alone.

“If you’re taking a very good picture on your cell phone, you’re too close,” Katrina Toal, the deputy director of WildlifeNYC within the city’s Parks Department, told THE CITY about most animal sightings.”

“Like any New Yorker, wildlife want their own space.”

Experts also don’t recommend feeding any untamed animals, since most have adapted to life in the big city and know what food they need to survive.

A squirrel gathers nuts in Central Park.

A squirrel gathers nuts in Central Park. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Sometimes, however, these animals could use some help, like if they’re sick or injured. In most cases, the best move is to call 311, experts say, and ask for assistance with an animal.

These calls should be within business hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., according to 311’s website, to connect with animal rescuers. Outside of those hours, or If an animal is acting extremely dangerous or appears to be rabid, 311 recommends calling 911.

Animal Care Centers of New York’s field services will only respond to wildlife calls if the animal is a risk to humans, or has bitten someone, and if the animal is sick, injured, or trapped – or is on the federal list of endangered species.

How we co-exist with these animals depends on who they are, but general rules apply.

By Land: Coyotes, Deer and Raccoons

In 2020, the NYPD warned park goers not to feed coyotes after multiple sightings in Central Park. While some people might be surprised to know these animals live in New York City, they aren’t all that uncommon. Last month, officials said there was an uptick in coyote sightings because of more room and ample food — and they were found living in every borough except Brooklyn.

The organization Gotham Coyote Project encourages people to report sightings to them, as they continue to track the breeding and travel patterns of urban coyotes.

Their website offers a comprehensive look at why coyotes are in New York City, noting that over the last 100 to 150 years, they’ve expanded beyond their old familiar territory of the western part of the continent. As they’ve moved east, they’ve adapted to life in New York.

“Coyotes have not been ‘pushed out’ of better, more pristine habitat,” the group says. “Coyotes are here because they can survive and reproduce successfully in our urban landscapes.”

But too much wildlife can wreak havoc, and the city takes steps to keep its animal population under control.

To cap a booming deer population on Staten Island, the Parks Department has since 2016 worked to capture and sterilize the animals in the borough. They’ve also worked with the Department of Transportation to add signs for humans to be aware of possible deers running around — and have spent millions of dollars to erect fencing and install tree guards to protect the island’s natural resources.

Animal control professionals labor to control the spread of rabies, too — especially in urban raccoons.

On a recent chilly morning at Green-Wood Cemetery, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture packed together about 300 fishy-smelling tablets into a curved black tube. They tied them to the base of a tree and closed the top.

The tablets are filled with vaccinations for rabies, and the idea is the raccoons who live in the Brooklyn cemetery — and the other woody parts of the city these four-legged critters spend their time — will eat them and become inoculated.

USDA Wildlife Specialist Jake DiBello sets food packets containing a rabies vaccine for raccoons at Green-Wood Cemetery.

USDA Wildlife Specialist Jake DiBello sets food packets containing a rabies vaccine for raccoons at Green-Wood Cemetery, Nov. 8, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The project is a partnership between the federal agency and the city’s health and parks departments, and the oral rabies vaccines are either stashed in bait stations or tossed by hand in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

Earlier this year, workers in helicopters tossed out the raccoon pills around  Staten Island.

“Wherever you have areas where you have dense populations of raccoons, you have opportunities for outbreaks,” Sally Slavinski, the health department’s director of zoonotic and vector borne diseases, told THE CITY.

Each year there are a handful of positive rabies cases mostly found in raccoons in the city. The worst outbreak happened in 2010, when there were hundreds of raccoons found with rabies in Central Park.

Slavinski said raccoons sickened with rabies are not usually violent; the virus makes them disoriented and tired. If someone comes across a raccoon they believe is sick, the rules are the same: Call 311, she said. From there, a representative will usually connect you to the nearest Animal Care Centers of NYC center if it’s between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. If it’s not within those hours, you are advised to call 911 if the animal appears unwell.

You can also directly contact a state-authorized wildlife rehabilitator. The state Department of Environmental Conservation authorizes and maintains a list of nearby wildlife rehabilitators based on their specialty.

The DEC can also be helpful with certain animals, and can be reached during business hours (718) 482-4922.

“You always want to respect wildlife,” Slavinski said. “Let them have their habitat; we maintain ours.”

By Air: Birds and Bats

Around 183 different species of birds fly through the city’s skies each year, enjoying its rich habitat as they migrate up and down the eastern shore, Catherine Quayle, the communications director for the Wild Bird Fund, told THE CITY.

“Migrating through the city are essentially every species that you might encounter on the East Coast, especially in the spring and all during migration,” she said. “We have an incredible diversity of birds.”

An animal rescuer carries an injured pigeon to the vet in Lower Manhattan, May 30, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Many of those diverse species, though, collide with the city’s bright skyscrapers — with the bright building lights both drawing them in and confusing them. An estimated 230,000 birds die each year in those crashes.

The buildings pose the largest threat to birds, Quayle said, but there are other on-the-ground dangers in the city, like lead poisoning from soil or attacks from cats or dogs. Sometimes birds get caught in glue traps placed to catch rats, she added.

The nonprofit Wild Bird Fund treats 10,000 mostly winged patients in New York City a year, with half being pigeons, according to Quayle. Nine out of 10 of their charges are birds, but they do treat the occasional turtle, groundhog, squirrel, or possum, too.

Poisoning ended the life of at least once beloved bird in the city recently. Barry the owl, who lived in Central Park and provided a welcome distraction to New Yorkers during the pandemic, died in 2021 due to a collision with a truck. An investigation by THE CITY later found Barry had high levels of poison in her body, with the veterinarian who performed the necropsy hypothesizing she ate a rat who had eaten poison.

(Rodenticide is not used in the city’s public parks, but residential and commercial buildings do use it — and both rats and birds travel outside of parks.)

Bats are also common in the city, although you’re more likely to see them at dusk in the late summer, Toal of Wildlife NYC said.

“They fly in this zig zag pattern, they have their eyes on their prize — rather their ears — they use a form of sonar so they’re trying to [catch] flying insects including mosquitoes,” she said.

They don’t intend to interact with humans, except in rare instances when they find their way into an attic.

Sometimes when temperatures drop, you may see bats laying on the ground due to them being “cold-stunned.” Toal recommends reaching out to 311 who can find an Urban Park Ranger to bring to Animal Care Centers or a wildlife rehabilitator.

If you find a bat in your house or apartment, the city most likely won’t send anyone to remove it if there’s no indication it’s sick.

If you can’t get the city to help you, you may have to hire a private animal removal company to remove a bat or a raccoon – which will cost you.

By Sea: Dolphins, Seals, Plovers and Whales

Cleaner waters surrounding New York City have increased sightings of whales, dolphins and sharks close to the shore, experts say. This marine life has rarely attacked, although a 65-year-old woman was believed to have been bitten by a shark off of Rockaway Beach this summer, suffering serious injuries.

The Suffolk County-based New York Marine Rescue Center helps rescue sea turtles, dolphins, porpoise, and seals that wash up along local coasts. 

These animals are federally-protected under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act — and getting within 150 feet from them could be considered harassment, the rescue group notes on their website.

A lifeguard watches over swimmers at Rockaway Beach, July 20, 2022. Credit: Katie Honan/THE CITY

If you come across a seal on the beach who looks fine, they could be sunbathing. But if you find a washed-up animal who looks hurt, the Marine Rescue Center recommends reaching out to them with as much information, and photos, if you have them. Their 24/7 hotline number is (631) 369-9829.

The Marine Rescue Center also works with beached or injured whales. In 2023, there was an alarming uptick in dead or beached whales, particularly humpbacks, along the East Coast.

An interactive map published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows there were four dead whales that washed up along Rockaway Beach between 2017 and 2023. In 2021, a dead humpback whale washed up on Staten Island.

Some of the dozens of whales who’ve died along the East Coast had evidence of being struck by a boat or vessel before they died, but the cause of death for some of the other whales is still unknown, according to a report published earlier this month by NOAA.

If you happen upon a live whale that appears in distress, or one that is stranded or dead, NOAA advises calling the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline in New York at (866) 755-6622.

New York City’s largest beach, Rockaway Beach, is also home to the endangered piping plovers, which are smaller shorebirds that breed along the Atlantic coast and on some inland beaches in the United States, according to the Parks Department. The beaches where they make their home are closed to sunbathers and beachgoers and their nests are monitored by the Parks Department’s Wildlife Unit.

NYC Plover Project, a volunteer organization, also monitors these birds.

Last June, two piping plover nests were damaged — and four eggs were stolen — at one of the sites in Far Rockaway. 

Damage to these nests is a federal offense, with a hefty fine and jail time if caught and convicted.

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