MARY ROACH has a knack for choosing subjects for her books that won’t have necessarily crossed your mind and convincing you that you must now know everything about them. She has covered the logistics of strapping cadavers into cars to use as human crash test dummies (Stiff), how studying what orgasms look like in the brain requires people to get busy in an MRI scanner (Bonk), pondered the literal ins and outs of what competitive eating does to your digestive tract (Gulp) and contemplated how astronauts poop in space (Packing for Mars, a rare deviation from her single word titles).
In her new book, Fuzz: When nature breaks the law, her subject is the unfortunately now familiar issue of human-wildlife conflict. But she hasn’t decided to switch gears and approach her subjects from a place of earnest lamentation, in this case about the perils of our encroachment on wild habitats. Instead, with her characteristic dry wit, she brings an intense fascination to the seldom discussed details and the at times absurd miscellany in the unexplored corners of unappreciated research.
The opening chapter finds her at a wildlife forensics conference, where she learns about what happens after a human is mauled by a wild animal. The focus of the Wildlife-Human Attack Response Training conference is mainly bears in the Pacific Northwest. We learn that very often the culprit is identified and killed, but occasionally the backwoods whodunnit turns up a surprise: a “gnawed on corpse” is no smoking gun. An opportunistic omnivore does occasionally stumble on a human already dead from other causes.
Each chapter explores a new type of conflict, from elephants that stomp their way across crops (and people) to albatrosses that get sucked into jet engines, leopards that attack people to deer that collide with aircraft (yes, you read that right).
Along the way you pick up plenty of helpful tips. The best makes of car if you plan to survive crashing into a moose? Saab or Volvo. The most cost-efficient way to keep birds from eating your harvest on a small farm? Humans regularly chasing them off.
As to whether you should stay still or fight back in a hostile bear encounter, it largely depends on what kind of bear it is, “black fight back, brown lie down” as the ditty goes. The trouble is, as Roach points out, some brown bears’ fur can be black, and some black bears look pretty brown.
“It’s impossible not to smirk, chortle and sometimes outright belly laugh as you read the many wry asides”
“A more reliable way to distinguish the two is by the length and curvature of their claws,” she says, before conceding that, “by the time you’re in a position to make that call, the knowledge will be of limited practical use.”
It is impossible not to smirk, chortle and sometimes outright belly laugh as you read her many wry asides and funny but fascinating footnotes.
A particular favourite for me has to do with the surprisingly persistent myth that birds will explode if they eat the rice tossed at weddings: “Some churches ban the practice anyway, not because it’s perilous for birds but because it’s perilous for guests, who could slip on the hard, round grains and fall and then fly off to a personal injury lawyer.”
She provides an ample supply of factoids to regale your friends with. Did you know that it is our “looming sensitivity” that helps us and other animals anticipate how fast something is coming at us, so we can get out of the way? (Or not, see the earlier mention of deer and aircraft.)
But the real trick Roach pulls off is to keep you laughing while at the same time making sure the earnest points come across. Among the many that stuck with me is that before the 1980s, wildlife and wilderness were conserved in the US to provide good hunting and fishing. It is only recently that “conservation” has been about protecting these areas and creatures for their own sake.
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