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A look at the wild animals who live on human turf in Florida's most densely populated county (w/video)

A trash bin acts as a feeding station, attracting vultures to this East Lake shopping center.
A trash bin acts as a feeding station, attracting vultures to this East Lake shopping center.
Published Jul. 2, 2015

As an amateur photographer, I like taking pictures of wild animals in nature: alligators in the swamp, eagles on the treetops. But about a year ago, I decided to do the opposite. I picked up my camera and started hunting for wild animals in areas we consider human turf.

Even though humans have paved over miles of natural habitat in the Tampa Bay area, I had started to notice how much wildlife can be found in our subdivisions, roadways and even shopping centers. Humans live in civilization, and wild animals live in nature, but we also overlap.

Once I started looking, I found wildlife in urban settings that were sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful and often downright sad.

While eating lunch near the Tampa Bay Times office in downtown St. Petersburg, I looked out a window and saw an egret that also was enjoying a meal. It was standing on a sidewalk, gulping down a lizard.

At a shopping center in East Lake, brown-and-white speckled birds called limpkins searched for snails in an unpleasant, algae-coated retention pond. Nearby, vultures and gulls feasted in a trash bin. And in the same complex, I found an ibis wading through another concrete-walled retention pond, surrounded by a wire fence. The fence had a sign that claimed it was a "conservation area."

Sometimes, I had to laugh — like the time I spotted an egret outside a hair salon in Safety Harbor, looking like it might have stopped by for a trim.

But on second thought, it wasn't so funny. The egret was so tame around humans, I suspect someone was feeding it. That's not a good idea, said Karen Parker, public information coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"We want to keep the wildlife wild," Parker said. For one thing, human food often is unhealthy for animals. Plus, feeding wild animals makes them overly dependent on people.

"Enjoy them, take pictures of them," she said. But don't give wild animals your Krispy Kreme.

Especially alligators. Because of safety concerns, alligators that get too close to humans will be removed.

While running a couple of times this year to Philippe Park in Safety Harbor, I saw a big gator literally feet from the road. It wasn't obviously bothering anyone, but I noticed it disappeared after a couple of sightings.

If there's a theme to what I saw through the lens, it's the way humans and wild animals go about their business, practically side by side, often without even noticing each other. The animals search for tasty treats, such as snails and grubs. The humans zip along in their cars. Sometimes, we glance at them; sometimes, they glance at us. And then we move on.