Rebecca Norris Webb/Radius Books
A deer seen through a kitchen window; photograph by Rebecca Norris Webb from her new book My Dakota, an elegy to her brother and her home state of South Dakota. It is published by Radius Books.

Glancing out the kitchen window one sunny afternoon not long ago, I was startled to see two beautiful red foxes copulating in the garden. It was not the unabashed sexual display that was remarkable. Mating must be routine exercise out there, judging by the frequency with which brand-new rabbits can be seen eating the lawn, but foxes are another matter. This is an in-town garden at a well-trafficked intersection two blocks from the county courthouse, definitely not a fox-friendly location. A single fox doing nothing at all on this turf would be a newsworthy sight; two foxes engaged in propagating the species would seem to border on the unthinkable.

Jim Sterba, on the other hand, believes it entirely thinkable. His Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds argues persuasively that events like this foxes-in-the-garden sighting are evidence that humans are losing some kind of property rights struggle with creatures of the wild. He cites an extensive history of resolute and sometimes blatantly hostile real-estate invasion by beavers, Canada geese, wild turkeys, and white-tailed deer, all of which were once assumed to be picturesque and even lovable denizens of the dark and safely remote forest. In-town appearances by coyotes and bears are now commonplace in communities across the country, and trespassers in my own garden, aside from the foxes, have included groundhogs, possums, skunks, feral cats, and one blue heron that ate all the koi with which we thought to beautify the fish pond.

Just today, as this is written, the local newspaper has arrived with a front-page headline declaring, “Vultures Take Over Leesburg Neighborhood.” Some 250 of these valuable but socially insufferable birds, it states, have “taken over” a residential area—“stripping bark off trees, eating rubber off roofs, cars, hot tub, pool, and boat covers and destroying grills.”

In the past fifty years or less, all these woodland creatures seem to have discovered that life among the humans can be just as comfortable as it is in the forest, and the eating perhaps even easier. The woods have no garbage cans and dumpsters filled with discarded food, no lovingly tended tomato plants, no ready-to-pluck dahlias and nasturtiums, no tasty, newly planted shrubs.

Best of all from the animal viewpoint, humans are no longer the same dangerous predators who once pushed the beaver close to extinction and reduced the entire North American white-tailed deer population to a trifling 500,000 scarcely a century ago. Sterba believes that this human withdrawal from combative relations with woodland animals is one of the major causes of their proliferation: man as killer has undergone a softening change.

This kinder,…

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