To develop the understanding that we share our natural and urban environments with wild animals and to begin to understand our responsibilities to these fellow inhabitants of the earth.


Your students may already be aware that there are wild animals in their yards at night, but do they understand that we share these spaces with them? This unit will introduce your students to the concept of “urban wildlife” and to some of the common nocturnal animals who might scavenge their yards in search of food and use their surroundings for shelter. In this unit:

  • Students will develop a greater understanding of ways they can share their environment with wild animals.
  • Students will learn more about the needs of urban wildlife and why these needs are different from the needs of the same kinds of animals living in the wild.
  • Students will gain empathy for these animals by realizing that they need many of the same basic things that animals need for survival.
  • Students will learn how to keep themselves, their domestic pets, and wild animals in their environment safe.

Click here to view California Standards Alignment.

Next: Lessons & Videos

Suggested Format

  • Watch the Mow Wow animated movie with the students.
  • Read the pdf Facts About Raccoons with your students.
  • Follow the movie with questions, discussion and activities.
  • Close the unit with a poem. (See Enrichment)

Let’s Begin!

Mow Wow Movie

Before beginning the movie, ask your students to write or draw what they see as they watch. Give your students sufficient time after they finish watching the movie to continue writing their stories or working on their illustrations. Then lead your class in a discussion of the movie. Have students share their illustrations and/or stories with the rest of the class.

Night Visitors in the Backyard (51 seconds)

This video can be projected through a classroom computer, or alternately, screen shots of the video can be printed for classroom use.

Watch Download Facts About Raccoons

Focus of the Discussion

Ask your students if they are aware that there are wild animals living in their yards at night. Elicit responses about what kinds of animals they have seen in their yards or neighborhoods or the kinds of animals they think might be prowling or foraging at night.

Discuss why it is important for us to share our spaces with these wild animals and protect them from unnatural harm. Discuss with them their understanding that animals and people are all part of the life system. Draw upon and emphasize the idea that animals add beauty and variety to the world and to the human experience.

Suggested discussion points and background information related to the movie appear in italics following each question.

Note: Glossary words appear in bold

Question 1.

Why do you think the cat is outside at night?

The cat could be a neighbor’s cat out for the night. She could also be a feral, or alley or community, cat who wanders around the neighborhood. Cats are nocturnal animals, active at night.

Question 2.

Is it a good idea for cats to go outside at night? Why or why not?

It is not a good idea for cats to be outside at night because in any environment, urban or otherwise, nighttime is dangerous for cats. Cats could be injured by cars or attacked by larger wildlife (raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions) or stray or wild dogs.

Question 3.

What do you think the raccoon doing in the garbage can?

The raccoon could be searching for, or foraging for, food for herself and her babies.

Question 4.

Why do wild animals search in dumpsters and garbage cans for food?

Wild animals know how to find the food they need to survive. If they lived in the woods, they would forage for their natural diet. Because people have urbanized (built homes, shopping centers, and freeways) in areas where animals used to live, the animals need to find new sources of food. Because people discard a large part of their uneaten food, wild animals living in and adapting to urban and suburban environments have learned that they can find edible leftovers in disposal containers (dumpsters and garbage cans). Human activities have contributed to significant changes in the habitats of wild animals. Living close to people has changed the ways wild animals find food.

Question 5.

What do wild animals need to be healthy?

All wild animals need food, water, and shelter to be healthy and survive. It is important for people to make sure that the environments that they are responsible for (such as their backyards) are safe places. People need to be aware that there might be animals living in the neighborhood foraging for food, and pesticides and fertilizers or other toxins could harm the animals. People should help wild animals be safe by protecting them from these toxic substances. It is important to remember that such toxic substances can also harm dogs, cats, and other pets, as well as people.

Question 6.

Is it necessary for you to have the same needs met so that you can be healthy and happy? Describe what keeps you healthy and what makes you happy. What do you do to you keep yourself healthy?

Yes, we have to have the same needs met to be healthy and happy. Discuss with the students what their families do to help keep them healthy and happy. Their families provide them with food and shelter and make sure that they do not come into contact with toxins or pesticides. Their families make sure that they are safe, and your students can help make sure that all the animals in their shared space are safe too.

Question 7.

If you have a cat (or a dog), where do you keep him or her? Why should your cat or dog spend the night inside your house?

Domestic pets should sleep inside the house to avoid encounters with raccoons or other wild animals such as coyotes, bobcats, hawks, and owls. Although raccoons run from danger, they will fight if cornered. They have sharp claws and 40 teeth (including 4 sharp canines).

It is also not safe for pets to be outside at night because of traffic hazards. Many pets allowed out at night roam the neighborhood and don’t understand the dangers of stepping into roadways or crossing streets and roads traveled by cars and other vehicles. Some of these pets never make it back home.

Ask your students if they have ever seen a flier posted in their neighborhood asking about a lost pet. Discuss what might have happened to these pets. Answers can include: the pet was killed, the pet was injured, the pet never returned, the pet was picked up by Animal Control and was found at the shelter, the pet was returned to his people.

Note: This might be a good juncture to introduce Activity 10 that describes what could happen to pets lost outside as well as the reasons why animals are often abandoned. Students can complete the accompanying worksheet “Help a Lost Pet Find His Home.”

Click here to download the worksheet “Help a Lost Pet Find His Home.”

Question 8.

Do you have a dog? Does your dog sleep inside the house? Why should dogs sleep inside?

Just like cats, dogs should sleep inside the house. Dogs face the same dangers as cats. If a raccoon or other wild animal comes into the backyard looking for food, a dog will try to protect his family and may get into a fight with the wild animal. Likewise, larger dogs can attack smaller dogs, and strays could frighten pet dogs. Pet experts always advise us to keep dogs and cats indoors at night for their safety.

Dogs and cats spending time outside should get immunized for rabies. This is usually a requirement by law for dogs. Discussing how and why they were immunized will help your students understand the importance of protecting their pets with vaccinations. Ask students if they know of other communicable diseases for which their pets can be immunized. For example, students might mention parvovirus (in puppies and dogs).

In addition, wild animals who naturally live outside and pets who are allowed outside face dangers from automobiles and other vehicles. It is very important to be on the lookout for animals such as cats, squirrels, raccoons, and dogs who may run into the street.

Question 9.

Why would wild animals live in your yard?

Wild animals may have found pet food or discarded leftovers in your yard or patio. If they have learned that there is food in the yard, they will come back as often as every night.

They may have discovered that the yard or patio is a safe place to live. They have learned that they can go there to hide or keep their babies in trees, shrubs, or sheds where they are safe. Trees, shrubs, and sheds provide shelter from the elements and from larger animals.

Wild animals have always lived on the land. We are now sharing the land with them, so it is our responsibility to be cooperative residents and neighbors. Because the animals were here before we were, we should allow them to be safe from unnatural harm, as they were before we came into their homes.

Question 10.

What other wild animals and insects can live near people? What do these animals look like?

Note: Have handy Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World’s Wildlife or Peterson First Guide to Urban Wildlife, or choose from our list of suggested online references a link to a wild-animal Web site to show the class images of wild animals.

Some wild animals and insects living near people are:
canines (coyotes, foxes, stray dogs)
felines (cougars, pumas, lynxes, bobcats, feral cats)
insects (spiders, ants, beetles)
caterpillars, butterflies, and moths

Question 11.

If people build homes, shopping centers, and freeways where wild animals live, what happens to the animals? Where do they go?

The animals are displaced and have to find new places that will provide shelter and living space. Some animals cannot survive anywhere except in their natural environment. Others are able to adapt to urban and suburban environments, and these animals become urban wildlife. Every city and town needs natural surroundings so that the wild animals we live with have a safe place too.

Question 12.

What can you do to ensure that wild animals have safe places to live?

People can create wildlife sanctuaries in their own yards and provide wild animals and even insects with food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. Discuss with your students ways in which their communities can make sure that there is always some natural space left for the animals and that there is a limit to how much land to develop and how many stores, homes, office buildings, and roads can be built. Present the concept of “limits of growth”: people need space to live, but we should not take all the space for ourselves—animals need space too. We need to limit the amount of space we use

Note: Tell your students that sharing space with wild animals implies that at the same time we attend to our needs we also respect the animals. The reading produced by Palo Alto Humane Society “It’s a Small World After All. Living with Urban Wildlife” shows us ways in which we can keep our garden plants safe as well as respect, and most importantly, not harm the wild animals who visit us.

Click here to download the reading “It’s a Small World After All. Living with Urban Wildlife.”

Question 13.

Should you feed wild animals? Why not?

Wild animals should never be fed directly by people. They are not pets. In addition, human food might not be good—nutritious—for that animal.

Question 14.

Should you try to go near wild animals? Why not?

Since wild animals are not pets and could become aggressive, they should be observed from afar. Animals in the wild are often vulnerable to dangers created by humans. Share with your students that there are some legal protections for animals. For example, it is against federal law to harm a songbird. All wild birds (except sparrows, starlings, and pigeons) are protected by laws prohibiting people from catching or hurting these birds.

Question 15.

What should you do if you see an injured wild animal? Has your pet ever been hurt? What did you do to help your pet?

Advise your students that their parents can call animal control officers, wildlife rehabilitators or specialists, or other animal rescue organizations. These are the groups and people who know how to take care of wild animals and help them if they are sick or injured. They will come to pick the injured animal up very carefully and transport the animal to a facility to be treated.

If a pet is injured, call the veterinarian. Review with your students that veterinarians are doctors who treat animals. Your students should know that they must always tell an adult if they see an injured or sick animal and that they must never try to help the animal by themselves. Even an injured or sick pet could resist being touched.

Question 16.

In your community, who helps wild animals if they are sick or injured?

Possible replies include animal control officers, wildlife specialists, humane societies, and veterinarians.

Question 17.

Ask your students to identify the animal control agency responsible for their community and, if appropriate, explain where that agency fits within the state, county, or local government. Ask them to make a list of the services the animal control agency offers.

Answers will vary, according to the services offered by each local animal control agency. Examples of services include: adoption, low-cost vaccinations, low-cost spay and neutering, microchip implants, pickup of stray animals found on the street, emergency treatment of stray animals, and educational visits.

Note: This is an excellent social science and civics assignment that complements classroom discussions of city, county, and state governments’ organization, functions, and responsibilities.

Next: Enrichment


  • These activities further reinforce the main lessons.

Throughout the ages, cats have been a frequent theme in poetry. Their grace and beauty and, sometimes, the curious characteristics very peculiar to cats have never ceased to inspire poets. T.S. Elliot wrote “The Song of the Jellicles” in 1937, when cats freely roamed the streets and before people began working toward reducing the number of street, or community, or feral, cats through humane measures such as Trap-Neuter-Return.

Your students might enjoy listening to “The Song of the Jellicles,” or parts of this poem, about cats who come out at night, and some of your older students and more advanced readers might want to read the poem on their own. After you read the poem aloud and answer your students’ questions about some of the language in the poem, ask your students to write or talk about their reactions and their feelings. You may also ask your students to discuss what they have learned about cats and their habits from the poem and why it is better for cats to have safe indoor homes and to be kept indoors, especially at night.

The Song of the Jellicles

Jellicle Cats come out tonight,
Jellicle Cats come one come all:
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright—
Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats are rather small;
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.
Jellicle Cats have cheerful faces,
Jellicle Cats have bright black eyes;
They like to practise their airs and graces
And wait for the Jellicle Moon to rise.

Jellicle Cats develop slowly,
Jellicle Cats are not too big;
Jellicle Cats are roly-poly,
They know how to dance a gavotte and a jig.
Until the Jellicle Moon appears
They make their toilette and take their repose:
Jellicles wash behind their ears,
Jellicles dry between their toes.

Jellicle Cats are white and black,
Jellicle Cats are of moderate size;
Jellicles jump like a jumping-jack,
Jellicle Cats have moonlit eyes.
They’re quiet enough in the morning hours,
They’re quiet enough in the afternoon,
Reserving their terpsichorean powers
To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats (as I said) are small;
If it happens to be a stormy night
They will practise a caper or two in the hall.
If it happens the sun is shining bright
You would say they had nothing to do at all:
They are resting and saving themselves to be right
For the Jellicle Moon and the Jellicle Ball.

T.S. Elliot

Animals Among Us: Living with Suburban Wildlife, by Fran Hodgkins is a classic study about people and wild animals and how they can best share their common space. Margery Facklam writes: “Hodgkins tells how suburbs have taken over over animal habitats, but even more important, she describes ways in which people and animals can share the same territory.”

You can read the following selection about coyotes aloud to your students. Older students and more advanced readers might enjoy reading the selection on their own. When you (or your students) have finished reading the selection and you have answered their questions, ask your students what they have learned about coyotes living in an urban or suburban environment—at what time of day or night they forage, in which places they forage, and the kinds of food they eat. Ask them what kinds of humane measures they think people can take to make it less inviting for coyotes to visit their yards and other parts of their town.

The Coyote

From Animals Among Us: Living with Suburban Wildlife
by Fran Hodgkins

The coyote and his mate are the newest arrivals to this area, and the smaller creatures—foxes, cats, opposums, and others—quickly learned to give them a wide berth. Although in the wilderness he’d be vulnerable to larger predators like wolves and cougars, in this suburban wilderness he’s the top dog.

The coyote strides through the yard and by the compost heap. He pauses to sniff and notes the vixen’s passing, but he doesn’t pursue her. Easier prey, such as a mouse or a squirrel, or even a bowl of dog food left on a porch, is more on his mind today.

The coyote walks around the front of the house and climbs the steps to the porch. He sniffs around, but there is no food here. He trots back down the steps and up the street. Over the course of his patrol, the coyote will cover the entire town. The traffic along this road doesn’t disturb him, and the few drivers who pass take no notice of him—as they whiz by, they think he’s just another dog.

The coyote turns left and trots down an embankment into the playground next to the elementary school. From past experience, he knows this is a good spot to find misplaced lunches. His nose is sharp and leads him to a brown paper bag. He quickly rips through the bag and the plasticwrap and devours the baloney and cheese sandwich inside. For good measure, he eats the package of cookies too. The noon bell rings at the school; someone inside will soon discover his lunch is missing.

Licking his lips, the coyote trots away from the school, across the playground and up onto the eighth fairway of the country club’s golf course. The smell of grapes hangs heavily in the air, although there aren’t any vines for miles. The country club sprays the grape smell as a goose repellent. It works: the geese stay on the high school playing field and avoid the golf course.

The coyote isn’t bothered by the grape odor, though, and keeps moving. He checks along all the edges of the fairways, snapping at mice and chipmunks. Today they’re all too quick for him, but he isn’t trying too hard, either; after all, he’s already had a sandwich, and the day is just beginning.

A familiar scent reaches his nose and he trots faster. His mate appears over the top of the hill where the putting green is. She’s caught a couple of voles in the rough, but is still hungry.

Click here to download the reading “Facts About Animals.”

Click here to download the worksheet “Help a Lost Pet Find His Home.”

  • 1. Create an urban wildlife scene in papier mache. Your younger students can create raccoons, opossums, cats, bats, squirrels, trees, bushes, and so on, and place them in a backyard scene. Designate a place in the classroom to reserve as your wildlife sanctuary and include the animals in their natural environment.
  • 2. Have your younger students create raccoon masks and play foraging games outside. This would be a good idea for a PE activity or a field trip to a wooded area. Your students can collect nuts or berries and pretend to be raccoons. Remind them that they are foragers!
  • 3. Create a veterinary story play. Divide the class into groups of four and have each group brainstorm a story about an injured animal. Ask the students to write, dictate, or draw their ideas for their story plays. Each student in the group should have a role to play in the story, including the hurt animal, narrator, animal control officer, veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator, child, or parent. Have the students present their plays to the whole class on subsequent days.
  • 4. Have your students create a science journal. Suggest to your students that they go outside with their families or their parents for several afternoons and nights in a row, with their family—students should always be accompanied by at least one adult. Tell the students to take a flashlight and describe in journal entries, one for each afternoon and nightly excursion, what they see. Did they see any animals? Any insects? Which ones? Where did they find each animal? What was the animal doing? Did they see the same kinds of animals or different kinds of animals on each excursion?
  • 5. Take a trip to the library with your students or ask them to do research on the Internet to learn more about some of the animals they saw during their afternoon and nightly walks. You can divide your class into several groups and assign a different animal to each group. Ask each group to report to the class what they have learned about their assigned animal. Suggest that the groups describe the animal (size and what it looks like) as well as classify the animal as diurnal or nocturnal and discuss the animal’s habitat and food intake.

Note: A good starting point for basic information about the animals they might have seen is the Mow Wow Animals reading “Facts About Animals,” which describes a variety of animals around the world. You may want to print a copy as classroom reference material.

Click here to download the reading “Facts About Animals.”

  • 6. Ask your students to describe their backyards. If your students live in apartments, they can describe the garden in front or in back of their apartment building or a yard at the home of a friend or relative. Which animals and insects live in that backyard? Which animals or insects eat other animals or other insects? Which animals or insects do they eat? Ask your students to make a list of those animals and insects and the ways in which they are useful in that habitat.
  • 7. Turn the backyard or schoolyard into a wildlife sanctuary. Doing something as simple as installing bird feeders and birdbaths can provide food and water for birds. Planter boxes with flowers can attract and provide food for butterflies. A wildlife sanctuary needs to have a place for wild animals to get food, water, and shelter, and a place to raise their young. Some people hesitate to create wildlife sanctuaries near their homes because they don’t want to attract unwanted guests. The truth is that these wild animals live side by side with us anyway, so we should help them be safe and healthy. It’s fun too. Nature author Fran Hodgkins (Animals Among Us: Living with Suburban Wildlife, page 108) has said, “We’re part of nature, and we are a very special part of it because we can choose to help our fellow species in ways they can’t even imagine.” Ask your students if they have ever done anything special to help a wild animal.
  • 8. Have your students research a list of five to ten community or national agencies that are responsible for the well being of urban wildlife (there are many listed on the Web). Your students can look in the phone book, do research online, and visit local agencies with their parents. Ask your students to turn in a list of the agencies, along with each agency’s mission statement to share with the class, or the whole school. The goal is to make your students aware of agencies that offer programs and help for the urban wildlife with which we share our communities.

    An example of a mission statement is this one from Palo Alto Humane Society: The mission of the Palo Alto Humane Society is to alleviate the suffering of animals, increase public sensitivity to animal issues, and elevate the status of animals in our society through innovative programs in intervention, education, and advocacy.

    You can ask your students to compare the mission statements—what do they have in common and in which ways are they different? Point out that the mission and programs of each agency may vary according to the needs of each community.

  • 9. If we injure a wild animal (as in a car accident), it is our responsibility to get the animal help. Ask your students to do research about which agencies in their community are responsible for helping injured or sick animals. This research can be done as a homework assignment, with the students calling or meeting with a representative of an agency (animal control, humane society/SPCA) and conducting an interview. Interview questions can include: Who do I need to call if I see an animal hurt in the street? Who do I call if there is a wild animal acting strangely in my backyard? What kinds of programs do you have for kids to help wild animals? What can we do at school to help wild animals and make our community aware of urban wildlife and humane ways to coexist with that urban wildlife?
  • 10. Invite a representative from the local animal control agency or wildlife agency to visit your classroom, or alternatively, plan a class trip to that agency. If the agency has a Web site, ask your students to visit that site to do research about the agency. Then have your students work in small groups to make a list of the questions they will ask during the visit. Have the groups report to the entire class, and based on the questions they have identified, make up a final list of questions to be asked during the visit.
  • 11. Ask your students if they have ever lost a pet. Why was the pet lost? What happened to this pet? Was he found? What would your students do if they found a pet wandering in the streets? Why are some pets abandoned? What happens to these pets?

Note: Students can use the worksheet “Help a Lost Pet Find His Home” to help them answer these questions. You may want to follow up with the exercise on this worksheet.

Click here to download the worksheet “Help a Lost Pet Find His Home.”

  • 12. Ask your students if they are aware that in most communities there many homeless cats living on the streets. Where do they see homeless cats? At what time of day do they notice the cats? Tell the students that homeless cats are all around us—in backyards, in parks, on the grounds of companies, behind restaurants, and any other place where cats feel safe and have access to a source of food—and there are an estimated 70 million homeless cats in the United States. These cats are called “community cats” because they do not have a home. Most community cats are either abandoned pets or the offspring (kittens and older cats) of those abandoned pets. The second and later generations of cats having no contact with humans are no longer tame; they are feral. Stress that kittens younger than three months old can be tamed to become people’s pets. Recently abandoned cats, as well, will usually continue to be tame and can be rehomed. Ask your students to do research about groups (rescue groups in their own community and on a national level groups such as Alley Cat Allies) that work toward helping these cats. Tell them to investigate “trap, neuter, return,” or TNR, as a solution to the problem of homeless feral cats and to explain how TNR works. Ask why the N in TNR—neuter (or spay)—is such an important part of TNR.
  • 13. Invite a representative from a local cat rescue organization to visit your classroom to talk about the work of the group. Before the visit, ask the students to search for the organization’s Web site to learn more about its work and in small groups compile a list of questions for the speaker. Have the groups report to the entire class, and based on the questions they have identified, make up a final list of questions to be asked during the visit.

Note: It’s a good idea for students to be aware of TNR and how it works before the scheduled class visit.

Next: Glossary & Resources

Mow Wow Glossary

Click here for an enrichment sheet in which students can practice using glossary words in original sentences.

  • aggressive – showing readiness to attack, such as an aggressive dog.

  • cub – a young meat-eating mammal (such as a raccoon, bear, fox, or lion).

  • develop – to make more available or usable such as develop land.

  • diurnal – active during the day.

  • environment – the whole complex of factors (such as soil, climate, and living things) that influence the form and the ability to survive of a plant or animal or ecological community; surroundings.

  • feral – having escaped from domestication and become wild.

  • fertilizer – a substance (such as manure or a chemical) used to make soil produce larger or more plant life.

  • forage – to make a search, especially for food.

  • habitat – the place or type of place where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives or grows; the local environment in which an organism lives.

  • hibernate – to sleep or rest for long periods of time, usually in the winter.

  • immunize – to give a vaccination to prevent a specific disease (such as rabies).

  • injured – hurt; wounded.

  • kit, kittens – baby raccoon, baby raccoons; kittens are also baby cats or the babies of any of the large wild cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, and so on; baby foxes are called kits.

  • mammal – any of a class of warm-blooded vertebrates that include human beings and all other animals that nourish their young with milk produced by mammary glands and have the skin usually more or less covered with hair.

  • nocturnal – active during the night.

  • pesticide – a poison or toxin that is used to kill insects.

  • protection – a person or a thing that protects, that is, covers or shields someone or something from something else that would destroy or injure.

  • rabies – a disease of the nervous system of mammals that is caused by a virus usually passed on by the bite of an animal already infected with it; rabies is always deadly if untreated; rabies can make animals act strangely and hurt others, usually by biting.

  • toxin – a poisonous substance that could make animals and people very sick.

  • urbanize – to cause to have an urban appearance; to build urban (city and town) structures such as homes, shopping centers, and freeways.

  • veterinarian – a doctor who treats animals.

Click here for an enrichment sheet in which students can practice using glossary words in original sentences.

Suggested Online Resources

Suggested Books

  • Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World’s Wildlife, Smithsonian Institution, DK Books

  • Animals Among Us: Living with Suburban Wildlife, Fran Hodgkins

    Note: This book is excellent to read aloud for younger students. Older, more advanced readers will enjoy reading the book on their own.

  • Peterson First Guide to Urban Wildlife, Sarah Landry

  • The City Kid’s Field Guide, Ethan Herberman

  • Oh Rats! The Story of Rats and People, Albert Marrin

  • Kids’ Easy-to-Create Wildlife Habitats: For Small Spaces in City-Suburbs-Countryside, Emily Stetson, J. Susan Cole Stone

  • The War in Your Backyard: Life in an Ecosystem, Louise Spilsbury, Richard Spilsbury

  • Yard Monsters, Invisible Creatures Lurking in Your Backyard, Karen M. Leet

  • Fairminded Fran and the three small black Community Cats, Linda Elder

    Note: The books listed above are not available in Spanish.

Next: Unit 3 – Pets and Working Animals