Mary Roach’s latest dive into the interesting and odd is Fuzz, in which she pesters experts and government officials in four different counties to ask all kinds of inappropriate questions about human-animal conflict. She talks to wildlife rangers who determine if people were killed by animals, other humans, or by accident. She attempts to get straight answers out of officials who really don’t want to talk about India’s monkey overpopulation problem. And she talks to lots and lots of biologists who study species they clearly enjoy, but that they are tasked with finding ways of eradicating. The result of this tension is that Fuzz might be the most melancholy of Roach’s books. Thankfully, it is packed with irrelevant facts, fun vocabulary, and plenty of silliness.
Humans have been locked in a struggle with many species since the first humanoids. We are killed by and kill in turn large predators like bears, mountain lions, and leopards. (All are covered in Fuzz.) We’ve also been fighting with species who steal our food and mess with our stuff, mostly by pooping on it. (Roach discusses several species of birds and rodents.) We’re not even safe from plants. Windthrown (a new word I learned from Roach) trees destroy our property and occasionally hurt us. Some plants can poison us. It’s a dangerous world out there. As Roach discovers, however, most of the things we do to avoid, mitigate, relocate, or eradicate the problems are pointless.
There’s a fact Roach deploys towards the end of Fuzz. Until the mid-nineteenth century or so, boys were employed as bird scarers. Twice a year, the boys would head out into the fields to scare the crap (literally, but accidentally) out of birds that would eat seed and ripe grain. Because they only did this semi-annually and because they were kids, the birds didn’t acclimate and the scaring worked a charm. All of the other methods used since then—explosives, poisons, and even lasers—stop working very quickly, if they even work at all. The real kicker of this is that birds don’t take that much. A rancher tells Roach in the last chapter that he estimates that the birds take about the same amount of cattle feed that he loses to the wind. These facts summarize Fuzz well. First, technology is no substitute for understanding animal and human behavior. Second, really understanding animals and the ecosystem would show us that it’s best if we left things alone. On the way to this lesson, Roach dives into monkey contraception, gene drive eradication plans, dynamiting treetops, lots of humane rodent traps and less humane poisons, and the US Navy futilely waging war on the gulls of Midway Island.
I learned so much from this book that I’ve been blurting out all kinds of trivia to everyone I’ve talked to in the last two days. The urge to drop trivia into every conversation will probably fade. (It usually does.) What’s going to stick with me is the knowledge that we need to learn to live with all of the other species on this planet. The critters are crafty and they’ve had a very long time to learn how to survive. Our energies would be better spent making peace with the rats and the gulls and getting into the habit of correctly using bear-proof garbage bins.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.