Building with Big Cats in Mind

Most of us like animals. Maybe not spiders or rats (those poor guys get a bad rap), but adorable bobcats or soaring eagles? Something in these creatures captivates us in an often-unconscious way. This intrigue comes from our biophilia, or ‘love of life,’ which refers to the innate tendency of humans to be drawn to other life forms. Not only do we feel an affinity toward other species, but because we evolved in tandem with nature, we need them for our physical and mental well-being. In fact, studies show that greenspace can improve mental health, particularly through stress reduction, stimulating physical activity and facilitating social cohesion.1

Despite its positive effects, we rarely plan nature into our urban lives. In fact, as human societies build and develop, we seem to plan other creatures out, sometimes pushing them to the very edge of extinction. During a recent stint on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, I witnessed how human land consumption suffocates Sumatran tigers. Plantations producing  palm oil, which is used in everything from shampoo to ice cream, have exploded across the island. This burning of tiger habitat, along with unorganized expansion of human populations and poaching of wild animals, has left us with less than 400 Sumatran tigers total. As top predators, these tigers uphold delicate ecosystems that provide people with many life necessities. Plus, as my friend from West Sumatra explained, tigers represent an important grandmother-like figure for certain Sumatran cultures. Losing Sumatran tigers is not just bad for tigers; it is bad for people, too.

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Land devastation in Sumatra. Photo Credit: Lucrecia Aguilar. 

We see the negative impacts of pushing predators out of our lives in the United States as well. Pumas (also known as mountain lions or cougars) used to roam across the Eastern US, happily munching on deer and maintaining balanced ecosystems. However, as we developed most of the land in this half of the country, pumas were forced to retreat to a few strongholds in the west. Naturally, deer populations went berserk with their newfound independence and started breeding like rabbits. This imbalance not only created hordes of angry gardeners, but the increase in deer numbers also costs human lives. The heartbreaking damages caused by deer-vehicle collisions now make deer the most dangerous large mammal in North America. If we brought pumas back, they could eat enough of these ungulates to prevent about 155 human deaths and $2.13 billion in costs every 30 years.2

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Singapore’s Supertrees. Photo Credit: Lucrecia Aguilar. 

We can change how we develop to integrate nature. In fact, as we face a rapidly changing climate and the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, we will have to. Examples of biophilic development and planning already exist. In Singapore, steel Supertrees create vertical gardens covered by over 162,900 plants and include canopies filled with environmentally sustainable functions (such as solar cells).3 Spotted hyenas and people coexist in the Ethiopian city of Harar, where hyenas actually help keep the city clean by eating meat waste. The Living Building Challenge, a sustainability certification program and design framework for our built environment, urges planners to create places that imitate nature’s clean and beautiful functioning. It even includes a biophilic environment imperative to “nurture the innate human/nature connection.”4

As we continue to build our cities and develop our societies, let us remember to plan for the well-being of humans and all other beings. We often think there exists some hard line between humanity and nature, and that each must fit into its own box for sophistication’s sake. But humans are animals; we are part of nature. Let us make it our duty to plan healthy and functional living spaces for all living things . It is not just the logical thing to do; it is the moral thing to do.

About the Author: Lucrecia Kaye Aguilar is a wildlife conservationist studying big cats and human-wildlife coexistence. Passionate about wildlife since childhood, Lucrecia completed her Bachelor of Science in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Rice University before receiving the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to explore big cat conservation around the world. She works to help prevent the extinction of big cat species and the detrimental effects of wildlife declines on people. Currently, Lucrecia is with cheetahs, leopards, and lions in southern Africa. You can find here on Instagram, Twitter, and on her blog

Featured Image: A male lion with his cubs in Botswana. Photo Credit: Lucrecia Aguilar.  

1. Vries, S. D., Dillen, S. M., Groenewegen, P. P., & Spreeuwenberg, P. (2013). Streetscape greenery and health: Stress, social cohesion and physical activity as mediators. Social Science & Medicine, 94, 26-33. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.06.030

2. Gilbert, S. L., Sivy, K. J., Pozzanghera, C. B., Dubour, A., Overduijn, K., Smith, M. M., . . . Prugh, L. R. (2016). Socioeconomic Benefits of Large Carnivore Recolonization Through Reduced Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions. Conservation Letters, 10(4), 431-439. doi:10.1111/conl.12280

3. Supertree Grove: Facts & figures. (n.d.). Retrieved November 13, 2018, from

4. Health & Happiness Petal Intent: Living Building Challenge. (2018, April 20). Retrieved November 13, 2018, from