The New Frontier of Urban Wildlife

A look at the challenges of co-habitating with urban wildlife as more of the wild becomes confined to the city limits.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Lyanda Lynn Haupt has created and directed educational programs for Seattle Audubon, worked in raptor rehabilitation in Vermont, and is a seabird researcher for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the remote tropical Pacific. She is the author of Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds (winner of the 2002 Washington State Book Award). Her writing has appeared in Image, Open Spaces, Wild Earth, Conservation Biology Journal, Birdwatcher's Digest, and the Prairie Naturalist. She is also the winner of the 2010 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award.

Photo by Tom Furtwangler

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In The Urban Bestiary (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) acclaimed nature writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt journeys into the heart of the everyday wild, where humans live in closer proximity with nature than ever before. In this excerpt, Haupt calls for a greater understanding of the urban wildlife that surrounds our city homes, and how their natural habitats affect ours.

Urban Wildlife

It sounds like an urban myth, but it isn’t. One day a lost coyote wandered into downtown Seattle. It was promptly discovered by a group of crows, who hate coyotes for their habit of preying on crow fledglings. The crows began to chase and dive-bomb the coyote, who, increasingly confused and disoriented, attempted to escape his tormentors by scampering, no one quite knows how, through the front doors of the Federal Building. From there, things got even worse for the young coyote, who had never been indoors and, horribly frightened, began running blindly about, slamming his thin, gangly body into the glass walls until he spotted the refuge of an open elevator and quickly slipped in. The doors closed, and the coyote was caught inside. Not knowing what to do, the building officials rang the police and the local wildlife officers, but help was delayed because no one would believe that there really was a coyote stuck in the downtown Federal Building elevator. Nearly three hours later, state fish and wildlife officers managed to trap the coyote — who was found to be a healthy male, probably just eight months old — and then relocated him unharmed to a suburban forested area.

Of course, no one was able to see the coyote inside the elevator. At first, I imagined him relieved. No people, no crows, a chance to draw a breath. But it is much more likely that his terror only increased in a cramped space with no exit, no glimpse of sky or earth.

So many of us are seeking gracious, creative ways of inhabiting our urban homes in this time of ecological upheaval. We want to respect the wild animals that make their homes alongside us and help them to flourish. But what does this really mean? The downtown-coyote incident, and so many others like it, unleash a tangle of questions that force us to revisit the depth, complexity, and necessity of these interrelationships, questions that are deeply relevant to all of us, whether we keep urban chickens and a garden, or live in a tiny, rented studio apartment: What is that coyote doing here, out of its forest? Whose “home” is this? Where does the wild end and the city begin? And what difference does it make to us as humans living our everyday lives?

As human habitations cut more deeply and rampantly into open space, wild animals are left with smaller, more fragmented areas in which to live, eat, and breed. The rural buffer that once separated cities from wilderness in the past is disappearing as small farms are overrun by big agriculture and urban sprawl. The tidy divisions once labeled, respectively, urban, rural, and wild are breaking down as animals that once lived well beyond urban edges are now turning up in city neighborhoods with some regularity, and human-wild encounters of all kinds are increasingly frequent, startling, and confusing. Some of these animals have long coexisted with humans, and we simply see them more often now because there are more of us living in close quarters: many songbirds, hawks, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and opossums. But a few of these animals are unsettlingly wild: Coyotes. Even bears and cougars. Seeing them, we have conflicting thoughts rush through our heads. We can almost glimpse the fresh mountain streams, the images of bright, clean wilderness these creatures signify within our psyches. We want to run toward them. We want to run the other way. We notify the media. We protect our cats and shield our children. We hope that they thrive. We wish they would leave. “It’s the city, they don’t belong,” some suggest, and argue for eradication. “They were here first,” others say generously, but far, far too simplistically. And when they do leave, we crane our necks for the last glimpse of fur, tail, paw.

The practice of assembling written bestiaries — compendiums of animal lore and knowledge — began in medieval times. They were often lavishly illustrated volumes, lettered by monastics on vellum, edged with hand-mixed colors and gilt. The medieval bestiaries were wonderful in that they blended the best of medieval science — what was believed to be factually true about each animal — with unreservedly fanciful descriptions. These were not meant to be fantastical, and they were based on a combination of observation, conjecture, and pure imagination. All of this was presented as equally objective, with no teasing out of the observed, the assumed, and the conjured. This is in line with a broader reluctance in the highly superstitious medieval culture to distinguish the real from the fabulous in daily life. In The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, historian Ian Mortimer writes, “At times it seems that medieval people pride themselves on the quantity of their knowledge, not its quality or correctness.” While there were scientists and rationalists, Mortimer suggests that you “will find their writings even more outlandish than the prophecies.” All of these medieval tendencies are recapitulated in the extant bestiaries, and in them we also glimpse the ray of light that Mortimer finds in such scientific murkiness: “It is from the same belief that anything is possible that the greatest discoveries are made.”

Perhaps the most famous and beautiful extant bestiary is the gilt-edged Aberdeen Bestiary, penned in the twelfth century. The Aberdeen Bestiary spent much of its circuitous history in ecclesial or monastic settings, but we know that for a time it resided with the English royal family. The manuscript entered the library at Westminster under Henry VIII, and it bears his royal shelf mark. It is unclear how the book came into royal keeping, but Aberdeen history of arts professor Jane Geddes suggests that it was likely “plucked” during the dissolution of a monastery’s assets. We don’t know whether Henry himself had any personal interest in the volume, though some members of the royal family were captivated by the subject of wild creatures. That the book was thoroughly studied and not just an objet d’art like many of our own coffee-table volumes is revealed in the well-thumbed corners of the vellum pages. In the early seventeenth century, when the Scottish king James VI became King James of England, the Bestiary passed from the royal collection to Marischal College in Aberdeen, and it is housed today in the Aberdeen University Library.

The Aberdeen Bestiary’s entry for beavers exhibits the classic medieval bestiary components of observation, imagination, and allegory. The beaver is accurately described as possessing a tail that is flat like a fish’s and fur that is soft like an otter’s; it was prized for its testicles, which were said to contain a medically potent liquid that could cure headache, fever, and “hysteria” (this liquid would have been castoreum, located in a small glandular sac at the base of the tail on both male and female beavers). It is noted, impossibly, that to keep from being killed by a hunter, a beaver would castrate itself and toss its testicles in the hunter’s path, and if it encountered another hunter, it would lift its tail to demonstrate its useless, testicle-less condition. Morality-laden allegory is woven throughout the Bestiary. Here, like the beaver, men should castrate their vices and toss them away to avoid the devil. Elsewhere, the jay is “the most talkative species of bird and makes an irritating noise.” Just as we try to close our ears to such chatter, so should we avoid the “empty prattle of philosophers or the harmful wordiness of heretics.” Less often, an animal’s behavior is held up as a model of virtue rather than vice, as with the dove, who rests near flowing water so that it can spot the reflection of an overhead hawk and flee to safety, just as we should study scripture to “avoid the plotting devil.” With more dovelike qualities, we, too, might “assume the wings of contemplation and fly to heaven.” But it’s not all moralizing. There are hundreds of sweet, earthen moments in the Bestiary, evidence of quiet and humble observation:The ant has also learned to watch out for periods of fine weather. For if it sees that its supplies of corn are becoming wet, soaked by the rain, it carefully tests the air for signs of a mild spell, then it opens up its stores, and carries its supplies on its shoulders from its vaults underground out into the open, so that the corn can dry in the unbroken sunshine

We may chuckle over the misguidedness of beaver-testicle tales, but despite the scientific strides that have brought us to the current moment, our own cultural/zoological mythology is fraught with misinformation every bit as false as the beaver-castration story. Nature books, television shows, and conservation organizations educate us about the remote wild and endangered species. Certainly knowledge about all earthen creatures is wonderful and essential, but very often we know a great deal more about the Chinese giant panda or the lowland mountain gorilla than we do about the most common of local creatures, say the eastern gray squirrels in our backyards.

It is time for a new bestiary, one that engages our desire to understand the creatures surrounding our urban homes, helps us locate ourselves in nature, and suggests a response to this knowledge that will benefit both ourselves and the more-than-human world. We were born for this knowing, for a quick, innate sensitivity to other animals. We are evolutionarily formed to be attuned to the presence and habits of animals. Studies show that we register the movement of biological things more rapidly than we do those of mechanical things. If two entities about the same size, say a Mini Cooper and a bison, are positioned at the same distance in our peripheral vision and both of them suddenly and simultaneously move a foot forward, our precognitive nervous systems will more quickly recognize the movement of the bison. (Naturalist and entomologist E. O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to refer to the innate human affinity for the natural and biological dimensions of earthly life. Thinking to borrow the notion to speak to our particular bond with animals for the purposes of this project, I invoked the Google Oracle to see whether anyone had thought of it already: I naively typed zoophilia into the search bar. Mistake. I was immediately directed to dozens of sites featuring man‑on‑sheep sex acts.)

Why a new bestiary? There is much available on the interwebs. Everything you need to know about how to identify urban animals and keep them out of your house is a click away. But a bestiary is another matter altogether — entering a bestiary, we cross the threshold into a world in which our imaginations, our art, our bodies, our science, our mythology, all have an exuberant place. Mythology in particular is underrepresented in our modern ways of knowing; it has become suspect, synonymous with the primitive, the irrational, the unscientific, or simply the untrue. But myths have always given our meaning-seeking species a way to find the thread of pattern, significance, and timelessness underlying our chaotic and unpredictable daily lives. 

Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth that “mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings.” Myth invites us to decouple our modern conflation of truth and fact. Armstrong considers it “a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human beings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities.” In this bestiary, as in its medieval precursors, mythology is among the many lovely paths toward human knowing: science, natural history, personal observation, everyday storytelling.

In a recent New York Times article, Jane Brody wrote about the increasing frequency of human-wild encounters from the standpoint of possible threats to humans. While the sighting of coyotes and other beasts might thrill, she writes, these animals can “wreak havoc on human health and safety.” Like much of the media’s coverage of wildlife, this article focuses on pathology and the possibility of disaster. Brody cites coyote-child encounters, raccoons ransacking homes they enter through pet doors, and the potential slipperiness of goose excrement. She outlines ways to protect our bodies, our health, and our property from the impacts of wild run-ins. Everything she writes is true. But I want to reframe the issue. While limiting conflict is absolutely essential for coexistence with wildlife (and a good part of The Urban Bestiary will address this very thing), it is time to evolve from the basic stance that “wild animals can hurt us, and we need to fear and contain them,” to the more expansive idea that we exist as a community of beings — a creative, enlivening, and complex recognition. Care is required, but fear is almost always misguided and undermining. It is time to redress our knowledge imbalance regarding common wildlife, where potential harms are hyped, fear is heightened, good natural history information is missing, and the benefits of living alongside wild creatures are unmentioned. If there is a moral to the modern bestiary, it is this: The more we understand the wild animals that share our home places, the better we can coexist in safety, wisdom, conviviality, and delight.

Excerpted from THE URBAN BESTIARY: Encountering the Everyday Wild Copyright © 2013 by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company.