Are animals jerks? Many seem hellbent on being as big a nuisance as possible. They steal our crops. They break into our homes. They crash into our cars. Occasionally, they try to eat us, and sometimes they succeed.
In her new book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, Mary Roach, author of Stiff, Gulp, Bonk, and other works of science-based nonfiction, reports on the many ways in which fauna — and flora — intersect with humanity with annoying, dangerous, and even tragic results for both parties. That’s a fascinating subject on its own, but Roach has the kind of wiseacre attitude that brings an extra dollop of enjoyability to the endeavor.
Roach begins Fuzz with a discussion of deadly encounters — when human and animal meet and only the animal walks away, be it bear, cougar, panther, or elephant.
Her explorations into the many ways human-wildlife conflicts play out takes her to various spots around the world. She attends a five-day course in British Columbia to learn all about how to survive a grizzly attack. Answer: If one of your companions is being attacked and you have a gun, “run right up to that animal, plant the barrel and shoot upward.” Good luck!
In India, she attends an elephant safety awareness camp, where she is surprised by her host’s stories of pachyderm-based mayhem. “I grew up with Babar and National Geographic,” she writes. “Elephants were gentle and slow moving. They wore spats and bright green suits. They were never something to fear.” But they are, especially when the males are in an elevated hormonal state known as “musth.” Then, one suffering from “hyperirritability” might step on your head, with predictable results. Or a hungry one might knock down a wall of your house while you’re sleeping. In North America she follows up with cougars, bears, and panthers, predators who can also be human-killers under certain circumstances. Roach devotes individual chapters to each of their habits.
In two especially interesting chapters, “When the Wood Comes Down” and “The Terror Beans,” Roach surveys the dangers of dying trees and poisonous seeds. She spends time in Vancouver Island’s MacMillian Provincial Park with a “certified danger tree assessor,” who, at least twice a year, roams the forest in search of decrepit trees that might fall over and kill someone. (In a footnote, Roach remarks, “The term ‘danger tree’ is itself somewhat hilarious. It’s like ‘danger mittens.’” Some of Roach’s best material can be found in her footnotes.)
As for plant-based toxins such as ricin and abrin, they sound absolutely terrifying, until you realize how much effort it takes to extract a sample large enough to cause anything more tragic than diarrhea.
The second half of the book moves away from focusing on specific species and addresses cases of a more moderate seriousness that raise tough ethical issues. Roach discusses the case of the trespassing seagulls that attacked the flower arrangements of the Pope’s Easter Mass. She test-drives various high-tech solutions designed to scare birds away. She debates the ethics and effectiveness of euthanasia for rats, rabbits, and stoats, and “pest” control more broadly. (Sticky traps for rodents, we learn, are unnecessarily cruel.)
By the end of the book, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that it is humankind that should change its behavior. Roach suggests a shift in which we offer more patience and empathy to our animal brethren as we find safe ways to protect them. In the afterword, she lists resources that aim to prevent problems — before they need to be resolved.
What comes across most clearly is nature’s resilience. Humankind has pushed many species to the brink of extinction and beyond, yet many creatures great and small fight the good fight. It’s hard not to root for the albatrosses of Midway Island as they confound every plan devised by their opponents, from stinky mothballs to machine-gun fire.
Fuzz is an amusing book, full of witty observations and droll comments. Roach keeps the style balanced, acknowledging the seriousness of some parts of the material. The book recounts the deaths of actual people and lots of animals — they are more than mere punchlines — and Roach pays them the respect they deserve.
“Almost without exception,” Roach writes, “the wildlife in these pages are simply animals doing what animals do: feeding, shitting, setting up home, defending their young.” It’s good to keep that in mind when dealing with unwelcome representatives of Mother Nature.
Just don’t let them eat you.