A bear gets into garbage. An elephant tramps through a town. An albatross interferes with a Naval Air Station. Animals go about doing their thing with no regard for how it impacts the environment, or more specifically, human environments. And humans have to respond.
In Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, Mary Roach explores the intersection of Nature with human life. Not simply the problem of deer being killed on busy roads, but also dying trees that can sometimes topple onto unwary hikers. In fact, there are such a lot of intersections out there that some agencies have gone in search of experts to address the unexpected problems. After all, how do you deal with macaques who like to mug people in exchange for food? Or what should the Vatican do when gulls vandalize the flowers before an Easter service?
Roach has written many books on quirky subjects, such as the various uses for human cadavers, the science of sex, and a journey through the alimentary canal. In Fuzz, she takes us on another curious exploration of the unexpected. I kept finding myself saying, “Who could imagine ...?” It wasn’t necessarily that animals or plants can be treated as a serious nuisance, even a deadly one, but rather that humans will resort to creative and at times downright peculiar solutions to the problems.
One of the more inventive solutions was the Robird, a hawk-shaped drone designed to scare off flocks of birds. It flaps its wings and soars on thermals, like a real hawk. Check out the clip for a demonstration:
It’s certainly a testament to human creativity. But other solutions are a bit more unusual, such as dropping poisoned mice embryos via parachutes to quell an infestation of tree snakes. It’s not that the endeavor was unsuccessful; it was simply too time-consuming to attach parachutes to each morsel.
Roach exhibits abundant curiosity in her exploration and often tempers the gritty details with her trademark dry sense of humor:
“I understand the desire of those whose job sometimes requires them to kill an animal to avoid that verb. Kill has a taint of murder. The sheer number of euphemisms suggests a long-running struggle to find something right. I collected them for a while: cull, take, dispatch, remove, lethally remove. As a word person, I balk at euthanize, which implies the relief of suffering, and harvest, which makes animals sound like corn. I heard one person say “use lethal force on,” which seems better suited to SWAT operations and Gary Busey movies.”
It’s a difficult job that Roach has in any of her books. She is writing about some squeamish topics. In Fuzz, she is addressing the destruction of animals and plants, which raises questions of ethics and rights. Do humans always take precedence? Must we respond with lethal force? Are there other ways to solve the problems that don’t create their own set of problems? When you’re getting into birth control for monkeys and gene modification in mice, have you gone too far?
I’m a big fan of Roach’s work and always come away with a greater appreciation for the variety of skills that people have. Who knew that researchers had created such a thing as RISUG (reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance)? But also, I sometimes quailed at the tendency to treat any nature-related problem as an assault on human rights.
Maybe this is why Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies. It raises some of the ethical questions when humans try to create an artificial environment to maintain control over animals. To quote Dr Ellie Sattler: “You never had control, that’s the illusion!”