The Role of Women and Pet Owners

The lack of female perspectives in shaping public policy on wildlife means women's voices go unheard on issues like hunting, trapping and lethal methods to manage wildlife

Wildlife policy traditionally has focused on two groups of stakeholders: farmers who want to keep pests and predators from hurting their crops and livestock, and game enthusiasts who seek ample populations for hunting and fishing. Now that more and more wild animals have moved into our backyards, those with far more varied perspectives want a say in how conflicts and conservation are handled.

Public opinion gatherers, however, continue to disregard a significant number of stakeholders—namely women, says Jennifer Jackman, an associate professor of political science at Salem State University in Massachusetts who holds a master’s in animals and public policy from Cummings School. Most polling about these issues relies on published telephone numbers to gather feedback—roughly 70 percent of which are listed under a man’s name, she says.

The lack of a female voice hurts public policy because “gender is one of the most significant factors when it comes to attitudes on wildlife issues,” Jackman says. Research shows that women are far more likely than men to oppose hunting, trapping and lethal methods to manage wildlife, she says. Women also favored animal-protection measures more than men in 11 state ballot initiatives, including ones that banned dove hunting in Michigan (2006), cockfighting in Oklahoma (2002) and body-gripping traps in Massachusetts (1996).

To gather more balanced data for her own research, Jackman used voter lists—typically 53 percent of registered voters are women—when she surveyed attitudes about coyotes on Cape Cod in 2005 and 2012. She chose Cape Cod for her research because it was one of the last areas in the Northeast to be colonized by coyotes and because human-coyote interactions frequently occur in this fragmented, semi-urban habitat.

Coyotes Not So Ugly

Both surveys sought to assess public support, fears and other attitudes about Cape coyotes. The surveys included questions about pet ownership and care.

“Both the 2005 and 2012 surveys found a significant gender gap on policy issues, with women far less likely to support policy using lethal interventions,” says Jackman. “But overall, in both men and women, there was a growth in acceptance and tolerance of coyotes over the seven-year period.”

Results from both surveys also revealed a statistically significant “pet gap” in attitudes. Although harm to pets was the biggest source of complaints related to coyotes, pet owners were still more supportive and less fearful of coyotes—and more opposed to lethal interventions—than those without pets, she says.

Owners’ perceptions of their pets may offer clues about how human behavior contributes to the escalation or resolution of conflicts with coyotes. Jessica Bridgers, who received her master’s in animals and public policy from Cummings School in February, analyzed interviews with 73 survey respondents to explore that notion as part of her coursework.

Her research, which was supported by a grant from the Elizabeth A. Lawrence Endowed Fund, found that owners who view their pets as “wild”—describing a dog as “cunning” or cats as “little tigers,” for example—are more likely to let their animals outside unattended.

“These owners believe their pets have the right to be interacting with wildlife and the natural environment,” Bridgers says. Other owners don’t view their pets as having a rightful place in the natural world. “As a result,” she notes, “they’re more likely to keep pets separate from nature, either indoors, fenced in or on a leash.”

Given that pets are the biggest source of conflicts with coyotes in urbanized areas, Jackman and Bridgers believe data like theirs can help local officials develop better solutions to manage the wild animals. “As we craft policies to address nuisance wildlife in the suburbs,” Jackman says, “it’s important to know if people are changing their own behaviors.”

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