Every fall in the state of Maryland, where I live, hunters bearing rifles, shotguns, handguns, longbows, crossbows, and other sanctioned culling devices kill about 80,000 white-tailed deer. That “harvest” puts a significant dent in the average statewide deer population of 200,000-plus, but because a doe generally gives birth to twins or even triplets each year, deer are awfully good at replenishing their stock. And so deer can be seen ambling along suburban sidewalks in midday as if headed to Starbucks, or browsing peacefully and voraciously in one’s backyard on the tulips, hostas, lilies, and holly leaves, until one’s red-faced husband storms out of the house and chases the deer into a neighbor’s backyard, who then shoos the deer into yet another.
It would all be Keystone Cops comical except that deer can be dangerous. Their ticks can carry pathogens that cause Lyme disease, nerve cell disorders, and red blood cell depletion, and collisions between deer and motor vehicles in the United States account for thousands of human injuries and hundreds of human deaths annually, to say nothing of the damage done to the animals. Not long ago, on a busy road from the airport in a taxicab, my daughter and the driver watched in horror as a deer leapt in front of a large truck a couple of lanes over. The truck kept going; the deer did not.
The glut of white-tailed deer is our own creation. Not only have we extirpated from all but a few states the wolves, cougars, and other large predators that might otherwise have kept deer numbers in check. We have also transformed the landscape in ways that favor “edge” species like white-tailed deer, which thrive in disturbed habitats, raggedy woods, patchwork parks, and overgrown lots. So maybe we have forfeited the right to complain about the ravenous deer—or the squirrels, house sparrows, starlings, raccoons, seagulls, pigeons, and any of the other life forms we dislike in part for how well they’ve adapted to the overwhelmingly anthropocentric world we’ve given them.* Yet complain we do. Sure, we love nature, but only if it abides by our rules.
When Barry the legendary barred owl of Central Park died after colliding with a maintenance vehicle in August, New Yorkers were devastated. Everybody adored Barry, who had been living in the park for nearly a year, through the dismal depths of the pandemic, and who had so little fear of humans that park visitors could reliably find her on one of her usual perches and swoon over her shaggy magnificence. Some 250 mourners attended her memorial service.
In the Pacific Northwest, however, many people consider the barred owl to be an invasive menace, its expanded range a threat to the survival of its smaller and long-beleaguered cousin, the northern spotted owl. Seeking to stem the spotted owl’s precipitous decline, wildlife managers in California, Oregon, and Washington have taken to shooting, trapping, or otherwise “removing” barred owls from spotted owl territory. Needless to say, memorial services are not part of the barred owl eradication program.
In their new books, Mary Roach and Emma Marris both address the dilemma of unruly wildlife, of nature that refuses to cooperate with us even when our intentions are noble, when we think we have finally learned our lesson and now have this or that species’ best interests in mind. They ask what we owe nature, and how we might do a better job of coexisting with species that do not belong to us or exist for our pleasure and sustenance. Should we try to fix what we’ve broken, or just step back, stop futzing, and hope nature can fix itself? As might be guessed, there is no single answer, no one fix fits all.
“Two thousand species in two hundred countries regularly commit acts that put them at odds with humans,” Roach writes in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. “Each conflict needs a resolution unique to the setting, the species, the stakes, the stakeholders.” In keeping with her six previous books—among them Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War—Roach’s style is jaunty, meticulous, and droll: “It’s 5:00 a.m. The sky is still black, the Milky Way at maximum milk”; “The black bear is a ridiculously lovable species. There’s a reason kids have teddy bears, not teddy goats or teddy eels.” Marris’s tone in Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, by contrast, is sober, elegant, and philosophical, occasionally self-absorbed but always pressing forward to find the best possible solution, or the least tragic compromise, to a given contretemps.
It’s hard to overstate how profoundly Homo sapiens have manipulated the planet from pole to pole. A recent analysis concluded that just 3 percent of terrestrial ecosystems remain free of human activity—a few patches of the northern tundra, the deep Amazonian rainforest, the Congo basin. In the past fourteen years, the number of threatened species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature has more than doubled, from 16,306 in 2007 to 38,543 today (some of that attributable to a more than tripling of species assessed). We humans, together with our livestock and pets, now constitute an astounding 96 percent of all mammalian biomass on earth, leaving just 4 percent to account for the bonobos, kangaroos, elephants, suricates, great blue whales, ocelots, kinkajous, and the other 6,400 or so wild members of the modern mammalian guild. Seventy-five percent of extant bird biomass belongs to our chickens and other domesticated poultry.
At the same time, changing patterns of land use complicate the picture of nature in retreat. With ever more people migrating to cities, and the consolidation of America’s agricultural patchwork into centralized megafarms, a lot of abandoned land is reverting to a scrubbier, woodsier state. That green creep, combined with protective legislation like the Endangered Species Act, has invited some parts of nature to come back and try again, though often haphazardly and human preferences be damned.
In Fuzz, Roach crisscrosses the globe to find instructive, narratively appealing examples of nature behaving badly, and she follows the people who play sheriff to the nonhuman outlaws. Take the case of the black bears of North America, whose populations were decimated as a matter of policy for much of the twentieth century. Thanks to conservation efforts over the past thirty years, their numbers have rebounded sharply in many places, to the point where in Aspen, Colorado, they are as common as white-tailed deer in suburban Maryland. But there are some differences: for all their plush-toy cuteness and their relative gentleness compared to grizzlies, black bears are equipped with large canines and claws and will occasionally attack people when cornered. Moreover, they are much better than deer at tearing open trash cans and breaking into cars and houses as they rummage for food.
Roach accompanies Stewart Breck, a biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center, on scouting expeditions through downtown Aspen, searching for obvious “bear attractants” and violations of municipal codes designed to deter scavenging bears. They find fancy restaurants with unsecured dumpsters out back, trash bags torn open and food scraps spilling everywhere. One night they watch a full-grown black bear amble down an alley “in that unhurried, endearingly pigeon-toed way” and stop at a choice heap of leftover Italian food. Then the bear sees them:
It clacks its jaws, an indication that it’s uneasy. For here are two staring humans, one with some good height to him, at a time when humans are rarely about. On the other hand: kitchen scraps from Campo de Fiori! The bear considers the situation a moment longer, then lowers its head to eat.
After all, it’s autumn, hibernation time is approaching, and the bear must double or triple its food intake by eating as much as 20,000 calories a day.
City code requires that food waste be deposited in “bear-proof” containers, but such dumpsters are expensive and the bears keep breaking them, and because they are often used by multiple restaurants, nobody wants to take responsibility for the repairs. Enforcement is lax and fines are rarely levied. “I’ve got to live in this town too,” a city police officer explains. “And I’d like to go out to a restaurant and eat.” How can he do that if he keeps hitting the owners with thousand-dollar tickets?
The aesthetic expectations of Aspen’s ultra-wealthy citizens add yet more bear attractants. The streets must be beautiful—and nothing is lovelier in springtime than an extravaganza of pink crabapple blossoms. So years ago, against the advice of wildlife managers, the city lined its pedestrian walkways with crabapple trees. The result? Each year, Roach writes, the blossoms give way to a profusion of “bite-sized apples,” which the bears of Aspen gather around, often in broad daylight, to “mouth straight off the branch, like cartoon emperors with their clusters of grapes.” Gleeful human onlookers ignore official warnings and sidle in to take selfies.
In addition, because many Aspen homeowners are away for months at a time, their vacant houses invite repeat bear break-ins. Some bears become a little too acclimated to people and their well-appointed property, and settle down in the backyard. Then what happens? Homeowners call the city and ask that something be done. The squatter bear must not be harmed, of course—just moved somewhere else. But here is a dirty secret of wildlife management: tracking studies have shown that translocation rarely works. Black bears, rattlesnakes, groundhogs, skunks, no matter: the great majority of restationed animals either find their way back to their home turf, or die or disappear. Translocation, Roach and most wildlife biologists conclude, “is a better tool for managing the public than it is for managing bears.”
Elsewhere in Fuzz Roach writes about religious customs that can factor into human–wildlife clashes. She travels to India, where these days cities like Delhi and Agra are essentially giant monkey bars, with troops of wild langurs and rhesus macaques swinging from fire escapes to balconies, invading restaurants and offices, snatching food from people’s hands, and biting or slapping those who fight back. Yet because monkeys are considered sacred—the earthly representatives of the Hindu god Hanuman—authorities are loath to intervene. Officials have a hard time finding people willing to trap troublesome monkeys, let alone kill them, and even non-Hindus avoid monkey work for fear of social stigma. Reverence drives people to feed monkeys, especially at temples, which only ramps up their aggression and guarantees future shakedowns for food. Some in India hold out hope for a technological solution—an injectable contraceptive or birth control pill that could be easily administered to monkeys—but the obstacles to that plan are formidable.
“Tell me,” R.B.S. Tyagi, Delhi’s head veterinarian, says to Roach with earnest desperation. “What is your solution to handle this situation in India?” She tries to think of what might appease his “vexatious monkey-loving, monkey-hating public” but has nothing practical to offer, though she finds some satisfaction in the thought that many of those most afflicted by the “monkey menace” belong to the upper classes. “Urban monkeys prefer parks with trees and other landscaped spaces—the habitats of the well-to-do,” she writes. Monkeys have turned up in the halls of parliament, and when an exclusive health club that counted Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a member opened a new swimming pool, neighborhood monkeys were among the first to dive in.
Some of today’s most wrenching conservation dilemmas are the fruit of yesterday’s conservation blunders. On the island nation of New Zealand, for example, millennia of geographic isolation gave rise to an exceptional avifauna of kiwis, kakapos, keas, yellow-eyed penguins, blue ducks, blue penguins, and other flightless or laid-back birds. But in 1863, Roach writes, homesick European settlers released half a dozen rabbits into the Otago countryside on New Zealand’s South Island, for the pleasure of “sportsmen and naturalists.” Facing no natural predators in their new setting, the founding rabbits followed classic “rabbit arithmetic,” which says that two rabbits left unchecked will in three years spawn a staggering nine million descendants.
By 1881 the South Island was overrun by bunnies—pastures destroyed, sheep farmers driven bankrupt. What to do? Call in a posse of rabbit predators, of course. New Zealand officials imported from Europe nearly eight thousand ferrets and stoats (otherwise known as short-tailed weasels), which are among the world’s most efficient carnivores. The government also unleashed into the countryside domestic cats, most of them feral, some stolen from pet owners. As might have been predicted but somehow wasn’t, neither the mustelids nor the felids stopped at eating rabbits; they also preyed on native wildlife: penguin eggs, kiwi chicks, rare reptiles. Invasive brushtail possums joined in the bloodletting. “The march to genocide began,” Roach writes. “As of 2019, 79 percent of New Zealand’s land-dwelling vertebrate species were classified as either threatened with, or at risk of, extinction.”
Desperate to protect native biodiversity, the New Zealand government in 2012 launched “Predator Free 2050,” a national campaign to rid the country of its alien hunters—specifically rats, stoats, and possums—but to do it humanely: with traps that kill instantly by punching a piston into a stoat’s brain, for example, and with better poisons than the usual warfarin, an anticoagulant that causes an animal to effectively suffocate on its own blood.
Instead of such poisons, New Zealand’s predators are served up “aerial drops” of bait infused with sodium fluoroacetate, also known as 1080. During a trip to Christchurch, Roach meets with Bruce Warburton, a scientist dedicated to designing humane traps and drafting animal welfare standards. He tells her that 1080’s “effects—on possums, specifically—fall midpoint on the humaneness spectrum. ‘They get nauseous in the last few hours, but it’s not too bad.’” Roach is surprised that there isn’t more public resistance to its use:
A large 1080 operation may blanket 80,000 hectares (close to 200,000 acres)…. At about five possums per hectare, that’s 400,000 dead possums. And who knows how many dead stoats and rats. Plus all the deer and the occasional endangered bird.
But Warburton tells her that “no one blinks an eye.” Indeed, whipped up by anti–invasive species campaigns, much of the public seems unconcerned about have-a-heart niceties. National park gift shops sell gag chocolates shaped like invasive-animal roadkill, and a popular children’s book depicts stoats as evil Grinches, uglifying a sleek and beautiful animal for the sake of moral simplicity.
Roach admits that when she came to New Zealand, she was “ready to support whatever it took to prevent the extinction of yellow-eyed penguins” and other native species. Now she’s not sure: “It’s hard to feel peaceful about the killing of some species in order to preserve others.”
In Wild Souls, Emma Marris (an American, like Roach) also visits New Zealand and notices “symptoms of the national obsession with killing introduced species.” She finds conservationists who share her qualms about the scale of animal slaughter and suffering needed to get to “Predator Free.” “It’s the ends justify the means in extreme,” the ecologist Wayne Linklater tells her. “How can we foster a caring relationship with nature among future generations if our tools are suffering?” Moreover, as Linklater and his colleague Jamie Steer argued in a 2018 paper in the journal Conservation Letters, the fixation on predator control diverts attention away from the ongoing bulldozing and draining of New Zealand’s forests, grasslands, and wetlands for human use. Why so much emphasis on preserving native wildlife and so little on saving native ecosystems?
Other conservationists recognize the difficulty of maintaining in perpetuity indigenous animals that are incapable of self-defense. You may be able to eradicate one set of alien predators, but others are sure to slip in on the backs of global trade and tourism. Some argue for focusing on species that have a fighting chance and letting the hothouse-orchid types go, as nature has done repeatedly and unsentimentally over four billion years of life on earth: 99 percent of all species that have arisen are now extinct.
The ecologist Chris Thomas compares two New Zealand swamphens. One arrived on the island 2.5 million years ago and evolved into the large, flightless takahe, which is helpless against predatory mammals. The other, smaller swamphen, the pukeko, showed up just five hundred to a thousand years ago and has conveniently retained the power to fly from danger. As Thomas sees it, “The takahe represents New Zealand’s past, and the pukeko its future.”
Marris questions many of the assumptions we make about nature, naturalness, wilderness, species, genetic purity. She asks, What do we mean when we talk about species conservation? Do we care about the individual animals, the real flesh-and-fur beings, or do we pledge eternal fealty to the preservation of a species—which is an abstraction, an intellectual construct with an ever-shifting definition? “Conservation biology has, from its beginnings, always explicitly stated that its concern is with populations, not individuals,” she writes. “As a conservationist, I had long been comfortable with the suffering of individual animals in ‘the wild.’”
But what does it mean to preserve a species? Does it mean we must protect the genetic integrity of the treasured species at all costs, even preventing its members from mating outside the tribe when we can and destroying any bastard hybrids when we can’t? As the climate warms, for example, grizzly bears are moving north and polar bears are moving inland. The two species are genetically similar, Marris points out, and as they increasingly encounter each other, they’re able and willing to interbreed, creating fertile “pizzly” offspring. Should the encroaching grizzly bears be shot, “even though they are ‘climate refugees,’” she wonders, lest they forever muddy the polar bear line? “Does it matter if the hybrids are less or more evolutionarily fit than their parents?”
The same quandary applies to recent encounters between barred owls and spotted owls. The two birds are closely related enough to generate fertile offspring, and those hybrid owls, Marris writes, “might arguably be better adapted to the current state of the Pacific Northwest.” Spotted owls are picky eaters, need old-growth forest, and are shy and unaggressive. Barred owls eat a wider range of food, make do with scraggly woods, and defend their territory aggressively. “I’m willing to accept old growth forests filled with ‘sparred owls,’” Marris says, “because it’s better than no owls at all.”
Ultimately, it seems, the best approach to salvaging nature will be a piecemeal affair, a mix of doing and not doing, the political and personal. It will involve steps like legislation to combat climate change, building codes that cut down on bird-strike deaths, and mandated highway fencing and culverts to sharply reduce roadkill. We can forswear meat consumption and gas-powered leaf blowers for their Yeti-sized carbon footprints, and glue traps for the slow, cruel way they kill mice.
“Make room for others,” Marris writes. “Be compassionate; be humble; admit you don’t know everything.” And maybe cut a deal with the nature you know. Today, you chase the deer from your yard and the mobbing sparrows from your feeder. Tomorrow, you shrug, put on some tick repellent, and let them all stay.