Raccoons rummaging through your garbage cans, squirrels on the wires, coyotes searching for animals left outside after dark – they are not the urban scum of the animal world. According to author Peter S. Alagona, “The recent wildlife explosion in American cities is one of the greatest ecological success stories since the dawn of conservation, but it happened largely by accident.”
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In his fascinating book “The Accidental Ecosystem,” Alagona helps readers uncover the secret lives of nearby wildlife and details how certain species developed in urban areas. The book is full of startling revelations and historical tidbits.
Related: These works of art record and shelter urban wildlife
Urban areas are natural spaces
Why would animals want to live in big cities? Well, because they already did before humans got there. In fact, some of the same geographic features that have attracted humans to settle are also attractive to wildlife. For example, places with protected coastlines, clean fresh water, diverse habitats, and navigable rivers attract both man and beast.
“In the United States, major cities are disproportionately located on sites with high natural levels of biological diversity,” Alagona writes. In 2020, fourteen of the fifty largest American cities occupied areas of “very high” biological diversity, even though these areas represented less than 2% of the country’s territory. In addition to residents, these areas welcome travelers. At least 40 of the 50 largest US cities are located in North American flyways. For example, over 260 species of birds migrate through Manhattan. This pattern is also true in Europe.
However, urban wildlife has not always been a great area of study. Wildlife-minded people usually want to get out of town, not hang around seedy alleys watching rats and raccoons. But Alagona, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, was sensitive to the subject.
“For decades, most scientists and conservationists avoided urban areas and the creatures that inhabit them, focusing instead on rarer species in more remote areas,” he writes. “People who cared about wildlife saw cities as artificial, destructive and boring. There was little to learn from these places, and even less to save or cultivate within them. It is only recently that wildlife advocates have taken an interest in urban areas. It took them, like me, a long time to start looking. But when they finally did, like me too, they were amazed at what they found.
History of urban wildlife
Alagona takes readers on a journey through time. First, the United States was sparsely inhabited by Native Americans and the land was largely undeveloped. Then came the European settlers, who began to build cities and move wildlife with impressive numbers of domestic animals. In 1820, New York’s human population of 122,000 was dwarfed by 130,000 horses, 20,000 pigs and who knows how many cats, dogs, goats, geese, chickens and turkeys. Domestic animals dominated the streets, displacing wildlife. They ate a huge amount and expelled almost as many. The stench was unbearable. People lived in fear of rage.
It’s hard to believe these days, when city squirrels are constantly scurrying past cars and taking up residence in people’s attics, but New York’s first squirrel caused a stir. On July 4, 1856, an eastern gray squirrel escaped from a cage and rushed for freedom. New Yorkers craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the creature as it swooped down on the trees.
Over the years, as horses gave way to cars and goats became rare sights in cities, the balance shifted. Alagona describes the changing role of dogs as they transitioned from workers to pets. “From rootless tramps, symbols of moral decay and social disorder, dogs were transformed into icons of the nuclear family.” These days, many dogs sleep in bed with their humans. Outside, the trees are full of squirrels.
living with animals
Wild animals enjoy living among us due to our lavish lifestyles. And urban animals have street intelligence. Raccoons can open latches, locks, and zippers, and have even been known to survive after losing limbs or going blind. They thrive in cities. Alagona points out that urban raccoons are larger, have more offspring and live longer than their rural cousins.
But living next to wild animals can mean worse problems than trash cans. According to Alagona, about two-thirds of the 868 known zoonotic diseases can pass indirectly from animals to humans. And while bats don’t spread the biggest killers like heart disease or cancer, anyone who survived Covid might feel a little uneasy about the murky unknown of emerging zoonotic diseases.
A thought-provoking read
Animal lovers and anyone interested in the urban ecosystem will likely enjoy this book. Alagona looks at our nonhuman neighbors from so many different perspectives. The book’s illustrations are also fun, depicting scenes like a bull running amok in Brooklyn after escaping from a slaughterhouse and a whale crashing in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Alagona reminds readers that we are also part of the ecosystem. “Most of us now live not only among groups of people, but also within various multi-species communities,” he said in an interview. “It is our duty to do what we can to promote health, well-being and even joy in the ecosystems we inhabit, because it increases the happiness of individuals and because communities are more than the sum of their parts. We are all interconnected.
Images via Pexels