FUZZ: Fatal encounters of animals with humans

In Fuzz, Mary Roach treats a serious subject with a light touch, intended to entertain.  Whether you are amused or horrified, Fuzz will inform you of the fatal consequences of animals threatening or inconveniencing humans.  In every case, choices made by humans are the cause of these interactions.  In most cases, animals pay for these encounters with their lives.  When animals are spared, adjustments in human behavior are needed.

Hungry Bears

Bears became a problem for us when we occupied their territory and intercepted their travel corridors with our own corridors.  Our relationship with bears became lethal when they learned that we are an easy source of food.  We created that association partly by feeding them in our National Parks for 60 years by making huge, open garbage dumps available to them.  That policy was abruptly abandoned in the 1960s when NPS made a commitment to “restoring natural processes.”  NPS mistakenly assumed bears would disappear into the forest quietly and without incident. Predictably, the bears took to raiding campsites and vehicles.  There were many grisly deaths of hikers and campers before NPS realized they had created a situation requiring active management.  Bear proof containers and trash bins were developed and requirements to use them were rigorously enforced.

Bears being fed by visitors at Yellowstone National Park

Dangerous encounters with bears in wild places are still common.  Relocating problem bears to distant, uninhabited locations is rarely successful.  Many quickly find their way back.  Those that stay are likely to engage in the same behavior and the pressure on them to do so is greater because they are in unfamiliar territory.  Bears are reluctantly killed only after they hurt people. 

Mary Roach visited Aspen, Colorado, where there are many bears and wealthy animal lovers as well as unlimited resources to prevent fatal conflicts between them.  Home owners who experience bear break-ins are coached about how to harden their homes against entry.  They are also encouraged to reconsider their landscaping preferences to avoid favorite foods of bears, such as plants that produce berries, fruit, and acorns.  The poor sods tasked with keeping the citizens of Aspen safe from wild animals were horrified when the city planted crabapple trees downtown.  Patrolling restaurants late at night to enforce requirements that they secure their garbage is another of their thankless tasks.

When birds get in the way

Farmers have been at war with birds for as long as humans have engaged in agriculture, some 10,000 years.  Crows, grackles, blackbirds, and starlings are often targets of efforts to eliminate them in agricultural areas.  Between 1939 and 1945 about 3.8 million crows in Oklahoma were killed by dynamiting their roosts.  A study of that effort found no evidence that either the population of crows or crop production was affected by that campaign because nature adjusts:  “Destroy a chunk of a population, now there’s more food for the ones who remain.  Through a variety of physiological responses—shorter gestation periods, larger broods, delayed implantation—a well-fed individual produces more offspring than one that’s struggling or just getting by.”  This balancing act is known to be true of many other species, such as coyotes and rodents.

Dynamiting rookeries has been abandoned, but the National Wildlife Research Center continues to search for effective methods to deter birds.  Many methods of scaring birds have been tried and found to be only temporarily frightening.  “It is easy to scare birds away, but much tougher to keep them away.”  Scarecrows are the traditional method used by farmers.  Research suggests that scarecrows may actually attract birds, because birds associate them with food, like the golden arches on the highway is a signal to pull off for a burger.   

When the twin towers collapsed on 9/11, there was a real world test of our ability to haze birds.  About 2,000 human corpses were scattered among the debris of the towers.  Within 3 days, the gulls arrived to scavenge in the debris.  Harmless explosions were used to scare the gulls.  When the gulls became accustomed to the explosions, those guarding the human remains resorted to shooting and killing the gulls. Twenty-three gulls were shot and their remains were hung in effigy over the debris pile as a warning to their brethren.


Gullls scavenging a garbage dump. Attribution

These experiences with hazing birds should be a lesson to those who plan to dump 1.5 tons of rodenticide on the Farallon Islands to kill mice. There are about 250,000 gulls living on the Farallon Islands and they are expected to eat poisoned mice, but the perpetrators of this deadly project want us to believe they can scare the gulls away from the islands before two poison drops about 21 days apart.  Given that mice are expected to survive for 21 days after being poisoned, and the poison is expected to be effective for over 100 days, how can we believe that hazing will be effective long enough to save the gulls?  Must we shoot gulls to save other gulls?  Is this the Hobson’s choice “restorationists” ask us to make?

Human attitudes toward animals

Humans are ambivalent about wild animals.  We have an abstract sympathy for animals that can quickly dissolve when animals get in our way or we feel threatened by them.  Our sympathy is universal, but is often influenced by cultural attitudes.  India is a place where we can observe this conflict between our sympathies and our physical need for food and safety.

Hindu deity Krishna and his cow companion. Attribution

Hinduism is the predominate religion in India and respect for animals is a central theme in Hindu life.  Many of the gods in the Hindu pantheon are animals.  Ganesh, the elephant god, symbolizes wisdom, understanding, and an astute intellect.  Hanuman, the monkey god, is a central character in the Hindu epic Ramayana.  Cows are sacred in India and roam freely through suburban neighborhoods where poor people share the food they have with revered cows.  The line between humans and animals is obscured by the Hindu belief in reincarnation.  The cow wandering in the neighborhood could be your departed uncle returned to Earth in the exalted status of a sacred cow.  He must have had good karma!

As we should expect, many Indians make every effort to spare the lives of animals, even when they are destructive.  Elephants must travel long distances to find the great quantities of vegetation they eat and their corridors are often obstructed by human activities.  Elephants often resort to eating and trampling crop fields of poor farmers, who quite rightly are outraged by their loss.  Indian officials who are responsible for the lives of the elephants are deeply committed to protecting people and elephants. They try to create refuges for the elephants to minimize their raids on agricultural crops.  With a growing population and diminishing wild land, this is a challenging task. 

Monkeys are difficult to control partly because they are very intelligent.  In a national park with many naïve visitors, monkeys have learned to pilfer valuable objects from tourists, such as glasses and phones, and then barter with the tourists for food that is equally valuable to the monkey. 

Attempts to prevent deadly tiger attacks are particularly sad because they are often fatal for both humans and tigers.  Tigers are stealthy hunters at night and even in daylight.  School children walking to school are attractive prey for tigers as well as women who must walk into the forest alone at night to relieve themselves where there are no available latrines.  Animal rangers try to mitigate for these encounters by building latrines and urging children to walk to school in groups. 

When a tiger kills, human sympathy is stretched beyond its capacity to tolerate loss.  Angry mobs sometimes kill the first tiger they encounter after such incidents.  Rangers counsel patience while they hunt for the culprit and confirm its guilt with a DNA test.  Rangers are willing to kill a tiger that has been confirmed as a killer.

The need for tolerance

Mary Roach manages to give us a happy ending by visiting a feed lot where beef and dairy operations send their cattle to be raised.  The grain elevator where animal feed is stored is swarming with mice, but the fellow who runs the feed lot just shrugs them off:  “In the grand scheme of things, the wind probably blows away more than the mice eat.  You know, so I’m not sure that’s a huge problem.”  He has barn cats to keep mice out of his vehicles where they can chew up wiring. Other than that, he doesn’t see much point in pursuing the mice. 

Mary Roach sees hope in this encounter:  “To me, he represents a possible future where people may be frustrated by wild animals that get up in your business but they’re living with them.  In that possible future, people’s reaction to the damage brought about by wildlife is something akin to acceptance.” 

A timely reminder

I publish this article today as a reminder that on Thursday, December 16, 2021, the California Coastal Commission will consider the approval of the project on the Farallon Islands that will aerial dump 1.5 tons of rodenticide on the marine sanctuary to eradicate mice.  If you are ready to accept the existence of mice where they have lived in peace with hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals for nearly 200 years, please consider writing a public comment or making an oral comment at the hearing.  Here’s how to do it.

Send written comments to the Commission here:  EORFC@coastal.ca.gov. The deadline to send a written comment is 5 pm, Friday, December 10, 2021.  You can also submit a request to speak on agenda item 11b at the meeting HERE.   The deadline to request to speak is 5 pm, Wednesday, December 15, 2021. 

All quotes are from Fuzz by Mary Roach (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021)