'The Urban Bestiary' author Lyanda Lynn Haupt looks at the animals who inhabit our cities
Much urban wildlife is misunderstood, says Lyanda Haupt, including possums. 'We see them at their worst at the side of the road or when they're cornered and scared of us.'
If you're not from Southern California, you might assume the only wild animals in our sunny environs are paparazzi.
Tell that to the coyotes, possums, and pigeons that inhabit the streets here in San Diego. Not to mention rats, squirrels, and dog-spraying skunks. (Pro tip: Don't holler in surprise and run away when you see a skunk. Never mind how I know this.)
Few of these creatures are popular. We worry that coyotes will carry off our chihuahuas, that squirrels carry disease, that nefarious crows are plotting to gather on our front lawns like in "The Birds." Okay, that's probably just me, but you get the idea.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a Seattle-area writer, says there's plenty to appreciate about the animals that inhabit cities from coast to coast and beyond. She chronicles their lives in her fascinating new book The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild.
In an interview, Haupt talked about misunderstood urban animals, the conflicts between our domesticated pets and wild critters, and the character of the coyote.
Q: Why do you think so many people fail to understand the wild world that lurks outside our doorsteps in cities?
A: One of the reasons is that we think we live a city, that it's not nature. We don't expect wildlife beyond the usual crows and pigeons, and we're not looking for it.
They're also not all that easy to see. There are birds, but if you don't have binoculars, you may not see them up in the trees. As far as mammals go, other than squirrels, they're wary and nocturnal.
If they see us coming, they're not going to let us see them. They're hiding around the edges. It's like the illustrations in a children's book when a character walks by the woods and these little eyes peer out.
But if you're still and put yourself in their path, more emerges.
Q: Do you think people are more afraid of wild animals in the city than they should be?
A: One of the reasons this book is important is because wild animals are so misunderstood. There's all this hype about harms and fears, and there's very little information to counter it.
The more we know about the wild animals among us, the more we can coexist in safety with them.
Q: You live in the very urban city of West Seattle, but you found plenty of wildlife in your own backyard. How did that happen?
A: We decided to sleep outside in one of the family experiments we undertook. It was unexpectedly crazy out there with animals running around all night long like raccoons and possums. We even heard owls.
Q: You worked outside, too. What did you see?
A: I decided to write most of the book outside, as it made sense to put myself in the path of my subject matter.
I'd be writing a chapter about coyotes and look in my yard and see the earth was moving – a molehill bubbling up.
Another time when I was writing about moles, I looked up out to see turkey vultures rising in the warm air. I might see them once a year when this one group moved through while migrating. Within 20 seconds, they lifted and drifted so far away that if I hadn't looked up, I wouldn't have seen them.
Q: Is there a urban animal that's most misunderstood?
A: Most urban animals are misunderstood. In my research, what surprised me more than just about anything was people's opinions about possums.
People strongly dislike them. I think it's largely because they of the way they look: They have a lot of teeth, and look myopic. We see them at their worst at the side of the road or when they're cornered and scared of us. They're worried that we'll kill them and start making ferocious sounds.
But in fact they're very smart, gentle, and placid. I don't think everybody has to like possums, but maybe there's time for a pause in how we think about them.
Q: What about squirrels?
A: People either hate them or love them. I've read wildlife surveys that say they're the most hated and annoying urban animals and the most loved.
Q: Squirrels are unusual because they're can be so unafraid of humans. I remember visiting a park next to the state capitol building in Boston when a squirrel ran up to a friend and me. I'm extremely tall and my friend isn't. But the squirrel chose to run up to her!
What's behind their fearlessness?
State capitals and the nation's capital have the biggest, baddest squirrel populations in the country. We joke that they have government-subsidized lunches.
The feeding of squirrels is what makes them aggressive, and it's what leads to trouble.
Q: On to birds. Is there any reason to think of pigeons as anything but flying rats?
A: They're not my favorite bird, but there are a lot of nice things about them. They're very calming and they are gentle, although sometimes when they're arguing among themselves for food, we'll see them fighting. And they're smarter than we think.
Q: Is there any unredeemable urban animal?
A: The animal that will be forever unredeemable is the rat. But it's not for any good reason. They've been officially determined not pose a health hazard, although you do have to clean up after them.
There's no really good reason that rats should be unredeemable. They're smart and sociable, they're friendly, they're interactive and fun to watch. They play and they're altruistic; they'll release another rat they don't even know even when there's no reward, just to help.
If you're ever caught in a small box with a lock on it, you can hope there's a female rat around.
But we can't get past those scaly, hairless tails that they sort of drag along behind them.
Q: What about the conflicts between our pet dogs and cats and the wild animals in our cities?
A: It's a conflict we've introduced.
It's a weird tangle in the urban wilderness. We have native wild animals like crows and coyotes and introduced mammals like rats. All these native and introduced animals are mixed together with humans and our domesticated pets.
The difficulty with pets runs in different directions. Our dogs and cats can really open our eyes to animal consciousness. They can be kind of a bridge. If our dog can be smart, what about this coyote? It allows us to think of the consciousness and intelligence of individual animals.
But the harms from domestic animals to wild animals far outweigh the opposite. Cats kill millions of birds, dogs kill thousands of possums. The harms from domestic animals are huge.
As far as coyotes are killing our cats or chihuahuas, that's a real possibility. But that's where our responsibility comes in as co-inhabitants in these wild neighborhoods.
Q: What about coyotes? Why is there such a mystique surrounding them, especially in the Southwest?
A: There's a mystique across cultures.
I think it's because they're so scrappy and so intelligent. They're so adaptable to any situation. They're beautiful, and they're up to wonderful things and they're up to no good.
We have everything the way we want it and the coyote comes through and messes it up – our sheep yard or our urban environment. They're this perfect trickster figure.
Q: What's up with the trickster motif?
A: Tricksters are not necessarily sneaky. In literature, tricksters live in this self-made amoral world that's neither good or bad.
A modern trickster is Bugs Bunny. He'll get the best of you, yet you love Bugs Bunny.
The classic trickster in literature is the one who turns out preconceived societal notions on their head.
We know that bears and cougars can't live in cities. It's not safe for them or us. But a coyote might be small and smart enough to slip in under the edges and widen our perception of what cities can be.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.