Billed as a haven of international cuisine and umpteen miles of strip malls, Aurora is not typically known as a bastion of beasties.
But the region has tallied its fair share of unusual wildlife sightings in recent years, including a bear that made its way to East Arapahoe Road and South Havana Street, mountain lions near Southlands and even a rogue wallaby spotted roaming the city’s eastern flanks. The latter animal had gotten out of a local sanctuary and was never officially recaptured.
Other than a mountain lion in a southeast Aurora neighborhood, the reports of exotic sightings have slowed. That hasn’t slowed what people see as a veritable high-plains zoo of wildlife that’s learned to live among everyone in the metroplex.
“As far as uniqueness, I can’t really think of anything this year,” said Anthony Youngblood, manager of the city’s Animal Services Division that oversees the local animal shelter and team of animal control officers.
But that’s not to say Youngblood and his crew haven’t encountered some unusual critters over the years or that Aurorans aren’t seeing plenty of the usual suspects around their neighborhood.
Last week, an apparently dehydrated and lost iguana showed up in a yard near Sable Blvd. and Florida Ave. “He’s missing the end of his tail,” the resident wrote in a post on Nextdoor.
A later update notified the neighborhood Mr. Iguana had been returned home.
Aurora, an ever-expanding suburban sprawl on high prairie, is home to a menagerie of deer, antelope, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and hawks.
Both mule deer and white-tailed deer roam near Sand Creek, said Jason Clay, a regional spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The typical red foxes call this region home, along with swift foxes. These creatures are the size of a domestic house cat and cloaked in tannish-orange fur.
Kevin Crooks, director of the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence at Colorado State University, has studied carnivorous animals in urban environments in Colorado and California. He said coyotes, foxes and raccoons are all generalists.
They can adapt to living in a range of different habitats, including environments built by humans.
“These animals are subsidized by humans in urban areas through garbage, or gardens,” he said, so catching a glimpse of one wouldn’t be unusual. The city’s animal workers also regularly encounter what Youngblood called “semi-unique” reptiles, such as bearded dragons or pythons that end up at the local shelter one way or another.
Then there was the caiman alligator that ended up in a night drop at the shelter — a space people could leave abandoned, lost or otherwise unwanted animals any time of day — a couple years ago.
Youngblood said the shelter nixed the night drop program shortly after the gator wound up at the facility. He said undomesticated animals like skunks also wound up in the drop zone. Despite the array of usual and unusual wildlife, it’s less likely you’ll see a bizarre creature roaming Aurora that belongs in a circus or a zoo. Tight state regulation contained in the Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act also keep operations like those featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King” and their exotic creatures out of the Centennial State, according to Youngblood.
“It’s more your Ohios and Mississippis, places where no one’s really regulating anything, where you get the really weird stories,” he said. “Colorado is really good about regulating what’s going on.”
He recalled a former coworker who began his career in Michigan in the late 1980s and regularly encountered a toothless lion that had retired from a career in entertainment and patrolled a Detroit neighborhood. Such occurrences are effectively out of the question in Colorado, according to Youngblood.
“It’s not as much as a free-for-all here as it could be in other states,” he said.
Development Impacts, Climate change
Outside of the city shelter on East 32nd Avenue, rampant development throughout the region has made it harder and harder for animals often found in the foothills like bears, mountain lions and bobcats to find their way to the eastern edge of the metroplex.
“Especially now with how much building and development is going on, they have to go through a lot to get to even the most western part of Aurora,” Youngblood said.
His team of animal control officers haven’t responded to any large or unusual game sightings in the city in recent months. Those instances are typically handled by the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife.
But mountain lion sightings are still somewhat common even in the eastern stretches of the metro area, Clay told the Sentinel.
The state agency recorded reports of a mountain lion near Red-Tailed Hawk Park on Aug. 28 and other sightings in Parker in recent weeks.
At the same time, the manufactured environment of the Denver metroplex has made it a haven for all kinds of animals that didn’t used to live here, said Jack Murphy, director of Urban Wildlife Rescue in Denver.
That’s why smaller critters — your rabbits, snakes, raccoons and squirrels — run wild within city limits. They’ve taken advantage of the better food options created by human waste.
“We live in the high plains desert but we don’t act like it,” Murphy said. “We’ve created this big wetland we call metropolitan Denver. A lot of the animals didn’t used to live this far out into the prairie.”
Much of the new development on the city’s eastern plains has scared up previously quiet colonies of creatures like rattlesnakes, Youngblood pointed out. He said the poisonous reptiles have periodically popped up on the grounds around the Sky Vista Middle School on the outskirts of the city.
Maintenance crews at the school usually call two or three times a year to report snakes in the area, Youngblood said, although they’ve grown accustomed to dealing with the animals.
“Those maintenance men have learned to just kind of push them back into the open field,” he said.
According to Clay, reptiles like rattlesnakes have either gone dormant or will go dormant soon because of winter’s approach.
Even with the typical sightings of snakes and weird rodents, Youngblood couldn’t recall the last time a rattlesnake bite was reported in the city.
Murphy said you’re still pretty safe from bears and mountain lions even when camping in the Rockies’ big game territory.
Youngblood did point to local outbreaks ofdisease among typically non-poisonous creatures in recent years, including a bout of tularemia — a disease causing nasty skin lesions — in a colony of southeast Aurora rabbits years ago. There’s also the occasional rounds of bubonic plague among area prairie dogs.
He said the diseases have not transferred to any Aurora residents in recent memory.
“Fly strikes can give tularemia to rabbits, which can produce sores on the animals, which could transfer to humans if they were to, say, consume the animal’s meat,” he said. “Not that any southeast Aurora people are eating rabbits, but if you did it could cause sores on you as well.”
Wildlife officials implore residents not to feed creatures or get too close. Some conflicts with humans are inevitable in Aurora, a city approaching 400,000 residents.
When it happens, it’s Murphy’s job to help.
He’s spent the last three decades managing animal-human conflicts at the Rescue, where he helps residents across the region manage animal problems in a humane way.
He charges money to take house calls, but he will walk people through how to handle getting an animal out of their house or off their property over the phone for free.
Some city residents still have the misconception that animals only belong in the mountains, he said.
“This is where they used to live,” he said.
Extreme weather, droughts and fires driven by climate change are also changing how animals live and move in the region.
And amid reports of devastating bird die-offs in New Mexico and other parts of the western U.S., Parks and Wildlife has received some reports of dead birds littering the ground.
The agency’s wildlife health lab in Fort Collins has tabulated western wood pewees, bluebirds and warblers all in poor condition, suggesting starvation and exposure. Travis Duncan, another spokesperson for CPW, said experts agree the freakish, summer snowstorm blanketing the region in September is to blame.
“The consensus is that the early cold snap in September caused many birds to migrate before they were ready. All of the bird carcasses we received appeared to have died within the week following the early September snowstorm,” Duncan said in an email.
Canny animals also flee from wildfires, which are scarring more and more acres of Colorado during more intense fire seasons.
But Duncan said it’s hard to know how critters in the Aurora region will be impacted by a warmer and drier climate.
At CSU’s Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, Crooks works to minimize conflict between humans and predators.
“We found with some of these carnivores, their ability to persist depends on humans’ ability to tolerate them,” he said.
Crooks recommends keeping pets indoors, staying a respectful distance away from any animals you encounter and limiting the accessibility to food sources on your property — such as gardens or trash cans — for a better relationship with the critters in your neighborhood.
Far from the metro area, the center is also providing information about wolves during the Proposition 114 campaign. If voters approve the ballot measure next month, state wildlife experts would help reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope. The center isn’t taking a position on the issue, but staff thought there was a need for nonpartisan, scientific information about wolves. So many people have misconceptions about them, Crooks said.
That’s a recurring theme in his job.
“A lot of wildlife management is really more about people than it is about wildlife,” he said.
Even if animals roaming the high prairie aren’t regularly putting Aurorans at risk, the critters themselves often get the short end of the stick when encountering people.
Clay said it’s common for elk to be hit by cars in the Aurora region — an encounter dangerous for everyone involved. The agency offers roadkill permits for residents to legally collect animal carcasses and use their meat.
Parks and Wildlife staff said residents should call the Denver office if they see a deer or pronghorn stuck in a fence, or another “legitimate” concern. That phone number is 303-291-7227.
For the usual issues involving squirrels, raccoons, woodpeckers and the like, residents should call a private pest control business, Duncan said.
— Sentinel Staff Writers Quincy Snowdon, Carina Julig, Grant Stringer and Kara Mason