People V. Animals

Mary Roach sinks her teeth into human-wildlife conflict in new book

Mary Roach tears into another weird but essential subject in her latest pop science book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (released September 14). The author of Stiff, Grunt and Packing for Mars brings her investigative chops and dry humor to the wild world of human-animal conflict; she spent two years with wildlife experts, primate researchers and conservation geneticists from Canada to the Himalayas, to study animal misbehavior–and find out if there’s any hope for a truce with our four-legged neighbors.

The irrepressible science writer taste-tests rat bait, gets mugged by a macaque, and sorts through scat in a fascinating investigation of the hows, wheres and whys of “animal criminality.” From Indian monkeys stealing cellphones to bears raiding Aspen homes for ice cream, Roach probes the strange mechanics of what she calls “wildlife nimbyism”: how trash disposal, climate change, the politics of land and wildlife management, and cultural attitudes lead to clashes with nature.

Fuzz

Fuzz, like all her books, is a story about a curious writer with no agenda getting her claws into a juicy issue. Roach has no formal background in biology or science journalism, but she’s built a solid career as the enthusiastic noob digging for the meaty parts that soft-heeled urbanites and novices can digest. 

At an animal attack seminar in Arizona, she serves up the macabre forensics with a poker face: since a bear’s jaws are too small to crush a human skull outright, she learns, their teeth usually just scrape off the bone and create peeling, scalping injuries. She probes mutilated mannequins and sorts through the simulated “stomach contents” of an attack predator in darkly wacky scenes reminiscent of Stiff.

Reporting on a thorny, obscure issue without sounding like a pedantic scold is a skill; leave it to Roach, then, to unpack its often-grim science with the same arid wit that made Spook and Gulp crackle. “A more reliable way to distinguish [brown and black bears] is by the length and curvature of their claws. But by the time you’re in a position to make that call, the knowledge will be of limited practical use.”

Roach peppers Fuzz with bonkers animal anecdotes to lighten its heavier truths, and she’s an expert at hiding the pill in the hot dog: there’s excommunicated bears, drunk elephants, monkeys on birth control, angry townsfolk delivering writs of eviction to rat burrows, bed-stealing leopards, and pigs prosecuted for murder. She could have lifted many of its best lines from a Wes Anderson script: “She veered off suddenly into a story about a macaque that got inside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and took to pulling IV needles out of patients’ arms and sucking the glucose like a child with a straw in a pop bottle.”

Roach’s curiosity is the main driver of the book, almost a character itself, like this passage where she practices her wildlife tracking skills in the city: “…a young man passed by in a reek of Axe body spray. I let him turn the corner and disappear from view, then waited a few minutes. By zig-zagging hound dog style I was able to track him to his next destination: a cheesesteak place on the next block.”

But all the hair-raising forensics and absurd stories underpin a sober analysis of the human factors at play, like religious tolerance of marauding animals, American traditions of subjugating nature in service of prosperity, cultural values about feeding wildlife, and lack of  infrastructure like hospitals and indoor toilets to minimize lethal attacks in underserved countries. Commodity, god, nuisance or threat: how people view animals, she says, can make all the difference when they cross paths.

Despite the often-fraught overlap between nature and society, Roach sees a light at the end of the tunnel. She’s optimistic that people can learn to live peacefully with their furry counterparts, citing new initiatives seeking non-lethal solutions to wildlife conflict and innovations like front-lit car grills to minimize roadkill. In spite of human intervention, she says, nature will always find a way. “People have come to see wildlife as having intrinsic value,” she told NPR. “You know they’re not just varmints…there is this movement toward coexisting or trying to prevent these conflicts before they happen, rather than just coming in and killing the animal.”

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Rachel Llewellyn

Rachel Llewellyn is a saucy media mercenary who's worked at Curve Magazine and Girlfriends Magazine in San Francisco, and ghost-edited two noir novels. She's also translated academic material, written corporate website content, taught adult school, and produced morning television news. Rachel lives in Bakersfield, California, where she hikes with her dog and pushes paper in the government sector.

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