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March 1, 2011 > Ohlone Humane Society: Litter We Know, Or Do We?

Ohlone Humane Society: Litter We Know, Or Do We?

By Angela M. Hartman

How would you feel if you were responsible for injuring a wild animal as a result of littering? This essential question, and finding an answer, is part of a four month long project that Irvington High School Change Project students are working on with us at the Ohlone Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Newark.

This year we have three freshman students from Irvington High School who are investigating how litter affects urban wildlife in our community. Devin Sigler, Henry Lin and Matt Stanford are working on a project that we anticipate will change the way you feel about litter and how it is viewed by people in our community.

The Change Project students spent the first part of their project picking up litter at our wildlife rehabilitation center property and identifying how the different types of litter affects urban wildlife. During their litter removal project, the students asked me how this much litter could end up on our property. I told them the litter comes from humans, as there is no other source for generating waste. Litter thrown out of cars or carelessly abandoned by humans eventually is blown by wind, and washed by rain into our rivers and streams. This awareness gave the students the motivation to find out why it's happening and what they can do to make a change.

The Change Project students conducted an investigation to find out how people view litter and their reactions to it. They coordinated an undercover investigation at Irvington High School. First, they placed plastic water bottles in the hallways and high traffic areas to assess student behavior and their reaction to litter. From a distance, they covertly watched students react to the litter on the ground and recorded any reactions.

Among the high school students surveyed at Irvington High School, only 5% were proactive and picked up the litter. 12% of the students paused, looked at the litter, and walked away. The largest group of students, 83%, simply ignored the litter altogether. The results do not mean the students of Irvington High School are not concerned by litter but that we all have to take responsibility for cleaning up and understand the importance to educate people of all ages about litter and how it threatens urban wildlife.

So how does urban wildlife fit into the litter issue? Discarded litter is very harmful to our urban wildlife and, in many cases, causes death. We receive a large number of wild animals every year at the wildlife rehabilitation center tangled in discarded fishing line. For our water birds like herons, geese and ducks, being entangled in fishing line can be a death sentence. Imagine if your body, legs, and arms were stuck together with duct tape. How well would you be able to walk, swim or eat? This is what it's like for water bird urban wildlife that cannot free themselves from fishing line, plastic bags or six pack rings.

Mammals, such as skunks, squirrels, opossums, deer and foxes, are fighting the same battle. Litter left behind by humans like cigarette butts, plastic soda pack rings, plastic bags and food trash are all harmful; we receive numerous mammals each year injured or poisoned by litter. Mammals like raccoons love to fish for food in our local creeks and streams but when those waterways are polluted with floating plastic litter these animals have a good chance of consuming the litter. Why? Wildlife is incapable of identifying litter and may mistake a floating piece of plastic for a small fish. Once the litter is consumed, they may choke on the litter or it may block their esophagus preventing them from eating or end up in their digestive system causing an obstruction. Eventually most of these animals will starve to death due to the severity of these injuries.

The students' research results may also predict possible future trends. With 83% of those confronted by litter ignoring it, immediate action is necessary to persuade students that preservation of wildlife, the environment, the food chain and even human existence is dependent on our behavior. We can no longer take the attitude, "Well I didn't put that piece of trash there, so why should I pick it up?" The reason it needs to be picked up is because it's the right thing to do for our planet, future and each other.

If you would like to learn more about how you can make a difference in your community for urban wildlife, send me an email at We offer advice and humane solutions to dealing with wildlife if they are becoming a problem on your property. We also offer guidance on what to do if you find an injured, ill, or orphaned wild animal. Our wildlife center is open every day and we can be reached at (510) 797-9449.

The Ohlone Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center takes in over 1000 orphaned and injured wild animals every year and rehabilitates them. We are a non-profit organization that depends on donations and volunteers to continue our day to day operations and efforts. If you would like to make a donation to our organization please contact us. Our wildlife center is always in need of wild bird seed, pigeon and dove seed, unscented laundry soap, bleach, paper towels, toilet paper, canned cat and dog food. Call us at (510) 797-9449 if you want to bring any of these items to our wildlife center. New volunteer orientation classes begin in March. Email us at for information on how to become a volunteer.

Angela M. Hartman is the Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator and Wildlife Care Supervisor at the Ohlone Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

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