Book Review: The Urban Bestiary

bestiary

Humans in our culture operate under a rather crazed delusion that we are not a part of nature. We fight nature. We defend nature. We pack up our tents and visit nature. I am as susceptible to this delusion as anyone else, but I do try to remember that I am a creature of nature, living in a vast human habitat which exists as part of a web with the entire ecosystem. Remembering that I am not apart from nature sometimes requires a little mental judo–and some well chosen bedside reading.

Thus my recent reading has included books like Being Animal and What the Robin Knows (reviewed here) and most recently The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the excellent Crow PlanetThe Urban Bestiary is an exploration of the intimate intersection of humans and other urban animals, such as coyotes and raccoons and opossums and squirrels.

In The Urban Bestiary, Haupt introduces us to our close neighbors, the animals which share our land, and sometimes even our homes. She gives us a naturalist’s overview of their behaviors, physiology and life cycles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and interviews with wildlife experts. The resulting animal portraits are as fresh and delicately drawn as watercolors.

The chapters cover:

Coyote • Mole • Raccoon • Opossum • Squirrel (and Rat) • Black Bear • Cougar • Birds  • Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon • Chickadee • Crow • Hawk and Owl • Chicken • Tree • Human

The truth is we think we know all we need to know about these animals–these pests which overturn our garbage cans, scare off the native birds, eat our cats or scare the bejeezus out of us on the porch late at night–but we don’t, not really. We see what we want to see and understand very little.

This book goes a long way toward filling in that knowledge gap. And with knowledge comes understanding–and maybe even peace. With some understanding, we can appreciate  for the bits of wildness our animal neighbors bring into our lives. Haupt is not saying we should romanticize them–and am I- but rather that we can see them with a naturalist’s eye, enjoy encounters for what they teach us, and using our knowledge of an animal’s behavior, mitigate the conflicts that arise when our needs clash with theirs.

If there is anything controversial to be found in such a lovely book, it will be in this idea, which runs like a thread through the chapters. Haupt shows how common “solutions” to our backyard clashes are short sighted, and don’t even work, and offers alternate suggestions and strategies.

You see, if we kill or relocate an animal from our yard, a new one will simply move in to fill that niche. It’s a losing game. (And trapping and relocating is no kindness at all, believe you me.) Unless we plan to embark on a mass eradication program on a bison-like scale, the solutions lie with us, and our own behavior and attitudes.

Most of this is commonsensical, and not scientifically controversial. It is basically the practice of IPM (integrated pest management).  We can bring in our cats and small dogs at night. We can seal up our attics and basements. We can stop leaving pet food and garbage outdoors. We can build sturdy chicken coops. Name your pest, and there’s something we can change about our environment to make it less attractive to them. As they say, the best offense is a good defense. Beyond that, we can accept occasional messes, losses or frights as part of what it means for us to be alive, to be animals interacting with other animals in the world.

I’m writing this with a particular passion right now, because recently someone in our neighborhood (not our near neighbors, but our general area) hired a company to set snares for coyotes, and a video of a coyote thus strangled surfaced on a local news blog. I don’t doubt that those neighbors were driven by fear, or grief, to hire this trapper, but the death was so cruel and ultimately so pointless and stupid, given the number of coyotes in the area, and the incontrovertible forces which are driving them here, it made me very sad.

To be clear, The Urban Bestiary is not an no-kill polemic. I’ve perhaps put too much emphasis on the aspects of the book which focus on management and co-existence. The great majority of the book is about the animals themselves. Imagine you had a friend who was a naturalist who could explain the mysteries of the familiar yet unfamiliar wildlife which flit and shuffle through your backyard over a nice cup of coffee.  Someone who could offer you an introduction to their world, and a chance to see your own world in a new light. This would be that book.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this book. I live in the country and do my best to coexist with nature, because I love it. When builders recently uncovered ants in an old window frame,and asked for some spray for them, I said – leave them alone, they will leave. They don’t want to be in the house. Now that you have disturbed their nest they will seek another. Attitudes towards wildlife disappoint me so much of the time.

    I am sorry the book doesn’t cover groundhogs. Some of these creatures have dug a den under my barn, and I would like them to move elsewhere because my hound dog loves nothing more than to kill them, and I don’t enjoy that activity at all.

  2. When coyotes attack children in east LA, I think it is time to consider the safety of the children and not the inherent right of a coyote to live in his land we have chosen to inhabit also.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/05/12/scientists-investigate-recent-coyote-attacks-on-children-in-california/

    With all due respect to Mrs.H and the Trish, being too tender-hearted can be detrimental to the safety of others. Even if coyotes did not drag off the one little girl, it could have. Parents turn their backs for seconds and things happen. I have left my children in the yard when they would have been too large to carry or drag off. But, a rabid coyote or even rabbit could be a problem. Of course, I have not seen a rabbit around here that did not run away. Even a small child in a fence could be exposed to rabies.

    Having rules to protect us and the animals is all good and fine until you have a neighbor like one of mine who puts out cat food for the “cute” raccoons. Obviously the raccoons like easy food and maybe have overpopulated the nearby woods. The assisted living home a block away does not or cannot control rats.

    If you respect nature and learn from it, you know that there are predators and prey. Animals kill animals. Yes, we are part of nature. We can be killed by some animals. We don’t turn our head and shrug our shoulders when a human is killed. Animals feel no remorse when they kill each other or one of us.

    Where in the US can we live that is not the home or was not the home of animals. It is all good and well to talk about keeping animals out of our homes and outbuildings, but some of them are relentless. Do you have squirrels? Rats, squirrels, and raccoons will make their own entrances. They will chew or rip of siding to gain entrance.

    If animals are killed, I believe it should not be a long death. Swift death from a human is better than a slow death from another animal.

    I am not trying to justify my trapping of raccoons and turning them over to be killed. I am not trying to justify electrocuting this rat that decided to live here.

    • ah, once again someone misunderstands the dialog. I am NOT too tenderhearted. I am very pragmatic HOWEVER I do take issue with people wishing to eliminate anything they do not want to live with.

      I have horses and dogs – I treat them as such. When my horses get out of line I correct them sharply, with physical action, as horses do to each other. I watch other women at my barn who let their horses walk all over them because they ARE too ‘tenderhearted’ to take the end of the lead rope and smack their horses on the shoulder. You get the horse’s attention this way – it may sting a bit, but you should see the way horses correct each other. You cannot afford to let a 1500 pound animal have the upper hand.

      so no, I am NOT too tenderhearted. and yes I am annoyed at being called so. I just see a profound lack of respect for nature in most people.

    • isnt a rat or raccoon or coyote or rabbit doing what you list above nature taking its course as well?
      or that only applies to animals vs animals?
      is it any inconvenience to a human should be swiftly eradicated….?

    • how about I go to the extra trouble to eliminate the den the groundhog has built, so it leaves, rather than taking the EASY way out and killing it?

  3. prb,
    Of course. You are absolutely correct. But, it is also nature taking its course for a human to protect its young, just like the bear protecting cubs. And, we protect to the point of overkill sometimes. There is no easy answer. Squirrels in this town cause many dollars of damage to homes here, but as of yet no one has suggested wholesale slaughter. Most of us grit our teeth and go on our way. Coyotes are at least across the street, most likely in my yard, too. However, I am not going to suggest killing them. There are no easy solutions to our nature vs the nature of wild animals. Maybe a die-off of humans?

    • PP – “maybe a die-off of of humans” – sadly that is probably coming it seems sooner than later and brought on by ourselves…
      thanks for the reply. :)

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