Why Humans and Wild Animals Just Can’t Get Along
In ‘Fuzz,’ science journalist Mary Roach travels around the world to examine people’s troubled attempts to coexist with wildlife
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In July, Alaska’s Nome Nugget newspaper reported what might be called a bizarre case of aggravated stalking, battery, and attempted murder. At a mining camp about 40 miles from Nome, the crew of a passing U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescued a man who claimed he was being terrorized by a grizzly bear. After flipping the white-bearded miner and his ATV into a creek, the bear had chased the man to his nearby cabin, then attempted to claw its way inside over the next several days. “I don’t know why it was so aggressive,” the man said. “Maybe it had cubs nearby.”
To be sure, while the animal may have been attempting to kill the man, it was not trying to murder him, at least not according to the legal definition of the word. (In fact, the bear may not have existed at all. A group of Alaskan miners called shenanigans on the man’s story after it went viral.) And even though bears have been known to stalk people, no court would arraign a grizzly for, to borrow from an old Chris Rock joke, going grizzly. No modern court would, anyway.
As science journalist Mary Roach explains in her fascinating new book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, animals throughout “the Middle Ages and the centuries just beyond” were hauled before judges and magistrates in Europe to answer for any manner of crimes against humanity, including theft, trespassing and, yes, murder. This quirky footnote in our history with other species set Roach off on a two-year investigation into how human-animal conflicts are resolved around the world. “The book is far from comprehensive,” she admits in the introduction. “Two thousand species in two hundred countries regularly commit acts that put them at odds with humans.”
Roach has long excelled at this kind of rabbit-hole journalism, taking offbeat, immersive dives into the unexplored depths of otherwise well-charted subjects (sex, death, and war, among them). She is an enthusiastic and serious reporter who harbors a boundless sense of wonder and a weakness for a good poop joke, of which Fuzz has many. That the word curious appears in the subtitles of four of her six previous books, all of them bestsellers, is not just a matter of branding. The adjective suits her clever, open-minded work, which has also appeared in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and even the medical journal Clinical Anatomy. In 2019, Outside featured Roach’s 2011 article “The Weird, Wild Business of Shrunken Heads” on the magazine’s list of “The Weirdest Stories We’ve Ever Told.” It lives up to the billing.
While Roach’s sense of the absurd remains sharp throughout her new book, Fuzz can be a sobering read. In one example after another, the writer shows how “wildlife management” has become something of an oxymoron in a world where the nuisance animals aren’t always the ones that move around on all fours.
In an early chapter, Roach shadows Stewart Breck, a biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado, through the predawn streets of Aspen as he keeps an eye out for bears and the unlocked dumpsters and trash cans the animals have come to raid. More unsecured garbage means more scavenging bears, and the greater the number of bears patrolling downtown alleyways the greater the chance that this problem will, as Roach reports happened to one restaurant manager, quite literally bite people in the butt.
With wild animals and humans increasingly finding themselves living on top of one another, researchers such as Breck have become locked in what Roach describes as an “unwinnable” game. “There are more bears, more wolves and coyotes,” she writes, “and ever more humans moving into their ranges.” Animals that attack people are almost always put down, and Roach acutely conveys the toll this takes on the people forced to mete out the punishments.
This is not, of course, a uniquely American problem. Roach’s reporting takes her to India, where wild elephants kill roughly 500 people a year and leopard attacks are not infrequent; to New Zealand, where residents battle a host of invasive species (stoats, feral cats, possums); and to Vatican City, where the pope and his neighbors attempt to live peaceably among a hell-raising menagerie of herring gulls, green parrots, and rats. Efforts to govern such crises are rarely successful and often controversial.
Our planet has gotten so crowded and our relationship with nature so complicated that it seems we can’t even get out of the way of trees. In Canada, Roach rides along with foresters tasked with preventing what she jokingly calls “arboreal manslaughter”—the falling of dead and dying trees on people’s heads. In a recent 12-year period in the United States, Roach writes, “trees toppled by strong winds caused the deaths of nearly four hundred people.” Even in this matter, solutions can be drastic. The tallest and oldest “danger trees” are brought down by explosives.
As Roach’s reporting deepens, so does her frustration with humanity’s reliance on lethal answers to problems we have largely created. In Colorado, she learns that warming temperatures lead to shortened hibernations among black bears, which lead to more opportunities for the animals to break into cars and homes in search of food. Because of human-induced climate change, we are turning sleeping bears into nuisance bears.
Roach is not prone to despair, however. After traveling the globe and compiling a grim catalog of killings, felonious or not, the author ends Fuzz on a hopeful note. She imagines a future when people respond to wildlife conflicts with “something far short of the conscience-free rush to annihilation that characterized previous decades and centuries. If people are able to step outside the anger, they may find that more humane approaches are also more effective.” These include wildlife-proofing homes through cruelty-free strategies (e.g., patching gaps and crevices), practicing on-site release instead of relocation, and respecting the role of individual species in balanced ecosystems. It is time, this searching and large-hearted book argues, that we own up to our crimes and go straight.