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'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.'

By Randy DotingaContributor / December 6, 2013

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of 'The Urban Bestiary,' says she wrote most of her book outdoors to put herself 'in the path of [her] subject matter.'


If you're not from Southern California, you might assume the only wild animals in our sunny environs are paparazzi.

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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.


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