REVIEW: Fuzz by Mary Roach
Join “America’s funniest science writer” (Peter Carlson, Washington Post), Mary Roach, on an irresistible investigation into the unpredictable world where wildlife and humans meet.
What’s to be done about a jaywalking moose? A bear caught breaking and entering? A murderous tree? Three hundred years ago, animals that broke the law would be assigned legal representation and put on trial. These days, as New York Times best-selling author Mary Roach discovers, the answers are best found not in jurisprudence but in science: the curious science of human-wildlife conflict, a discipline at the crossroads of human behavior and wildlife biology.
Roach tags along with animal-attack forensics investigators, human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and “danger tree” faller blasters. Intrepid as ever, she travels from leopard-terrorized hamlets in the Indian Himalaya to St. Peter’s Square in the early hours before the pope arrives for Easter Mass, when vandal gulls swoop in to destroy the elaborate floral display. She taste-tests rat bait, learns how to install a vulture effigy, and gets mugged by a macaque.
Combining little-known forensic science and conservation genetics with a motley cast of laser scarecrows, langur impersonators, and trespassing squirrels, Roach reveals as much about humanity as about nature’s lawbreakers. When it comes to “problem” wildlife, she finds, humans are more often the problem—and the solution. Fascinating, witty, and humane, Fuzz offers hope for compassionate coexistence in our ever-expanding human habitat.
CW: Violence, death, animal extermination
“To spend a morning cutting sign is to marvel at the surreal variety of feet and dance steps in the animal kingdom.”
Roach tackles a topic that might at first seem odd but it turns out to be fascinating due to the breadth of her research and investigations plus the knowledge of the people she seeks out to interview. Be warned that much of what she discusses has no easy answers. In fact, many of the issues have been “problems” for eons and despite the hard work (for the cause of animals as well as the humans they must interact with) of most of the people she interviews, solutions are still being sought.
The book is not for the faint of heart. It starts with Roach attending a conference taught by Canadian wildlife experts trying to teach investigators how to differentiate between human deaths caused by other humans and those caused by animals. Explicit descriptions of what they look for are included. On one hand it is heartening that people are trying to be sure that if a person is determined to have been killed by (for instance) a bear or cougar the correct animal is caught and not just the next one to wander by. On the other hand, some of the forensics are emotionally difficult to read.
From there, Roach journeys to various places across the globe to look into areas of human and animal conflict. They are many and varied. And often can be traced back to our own behaviors. From restaurants not securing food waste that will entice bears into downtown Aspen, CO, to tourists who will bribe macaques with food to get their stolen iphones back (the tourists’ phones, that is), to loss of habitat forcing animals out of what was wilderness, to introducing invasive species to try and eliminate the previously introduced invasive species that are killing the native species – humans are the cause of much of it.
Past methods of dealing with “pests” have been horrific while at the same time generally yielding little to no tangible results. Agencies that are tasked with wildlife management and conservation are sometimes funded by hunting licenses. Towns that fret over potentially dangerous animals injuring people can blithely produce pamphlets suggesting to residents to plant the very types of trees that will lure these animals in. Majestic forests depend on stately old growth trees to get people to visit there but those visitors object to removing trees that might be rotting inside and thus prone to falling on the visitors.
There are people trying to find different ways to head off conflicts which usually result in animals losing. Sometimes this is done to protect the animals and sometimes figuring out ways to keep animals from damaging “people things” such as planes and cars might end up saving the animals, too. Other scientists are trying to find non-lethal or more humane ways to avoid “humans vs animals” or “predatory animals vs other animals” encounters.
Animal lovers, there is hope. Wildlife officials in India host educational seminars explaining ways to avoid being trampled by elephants or hunted by leopards. Two scientists have been working on a way to get deer to try other survival tactics besides “deer in the headlights” when a car is bearing down on them. Pope Francis has decreed that in Vatican City, biological pest control will be used in place of pesticides. Public perceptions of coexistence with wildlife appear to be (positively) shifting. At the end of the book are some resources that can be checked out that offer options other than death for ways to deal with critters you might not want in or around your house. Roach’s dry humor had me laughing a lot plus I learned some neat new Scrabble words like kerf and frass. But please pay attention to the content warnings as this might not be the book for you. B
I just finished THE PUMA YEARS by Laura Coleman about her time spent in the Bolivian jungle rescuing wild animals. As with RUFF, warnings are needed even though the book is so interesting and powerful.
Roach’s work has always intrigued me, even the unpleasant parts, but I’ve just never taken the dive. Too many books, yada yada yada. I need to rectify that because she clearly has much to teach me about so many subjects. Thanks for the review.
@Darlynne: I still have three of her older books to dive into at some point. “Packing for Mars” is not unpleasant and might be a place to start if you want to avoid a book with content warnings.
Roach is a very compelling writer – I may check this out!