Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle

Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle

by Tristan Donovan


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We tend to think of cities as a realm apart, somehow separate from nature, but nothing could be further from the truth. In Feral Cities, Tristan Donovan digs
below the urban gloss to uncover the wild creatures that we share our streets and homes with, and profiles the brave and fascinating people who try to manage them. Along the way readers will meet the wall-eating snails that are invading Miami, the boars that roam Berlin, and the monkey gangs of Cape Town. From feral chickens and carpet-roaming bugs to coyotes hanging out in sandwich shops and birds crashing into skyscrapers, Feral Cities takes readers on a journey through streets and neighborhoods that are far more alive than we often realize, shows how animals are adjusting to urban living, and asks what messages the wildlife in our metropolises have for us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569760673
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 801,797
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Tristan Donovan is the author of two widely praised books, Replay: The History of Video Games and Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World. His journalism has appeared in many major newspapers, magazines, and websites. He has a degree in ecology.

Read an Excerpt

Feral Cities

Advantures with Animals in the Urban Jungle

By Tristan Donovan, Tom Homewood

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2015 Tristan Donovan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-103-8



On the Trail of Rattlesnakes in Phoenix

Bryan Hughes lives a double life.

Much of the time he is a mild-mannered web designer, tinkering with computer code and honing the look and feel of websites. But there's another Bryan, one his IT colleagues are only dimly aware of: Bryan, the rattlesnake catcher of Phoenix, Arizona. "I don't tell anybody in my tech life what I do with the snakes, really," Bryan tells me as we drive down Piestewa Freeway. "I'd rather not have people think I'm weird or something. There was a snake in the parking lot at work one day, so I went and caught it. All my coworkers' jaws were wide open. They had no idea. They thought I was going to die."

We've been driving the highways of Phoenix for a few hours now, circling the fast-growing city's patchwork of sprawling new developments and oven-hot Sonoran Desert, where columns of tall saguaro cacti reach into the sky like spindly fingers. From the back of Bryan's truck comes the sound of angry hissing from a rattlesnake that, thankfully, is securely stored in a bright red tub that was once a pool pellet container.

We're killing time, waiting for a call. We've been waiting all morning, hoping that someone, somewhere in this city of more than four million people is going to have a rattlesnake encounter. So far, all we've done is release one of Bryan's previous catches — a light brown-and- yellow southwestern speckled rattlesnake. It had slithered into someone's backyard to drink from the swimming pool. Now it gets to make a new home in a remote corner of one of the city's large desert parks.

As we head down the freeway, I ask Bryan what got him into rattlesnakes and to found Rattlesnake Solutions.

"Dinosaurs," he says, after a brief think. "That might have been the start.

"I really loved dinosaurs and bugs as a kid. When I was five, my grandma gave me a little 35mm camera. I got some ants and put them into all the spiderwebs in the yard and took pictures of them. They were the worst pictures, but I put them on a board and then got all the adults in the neighborhood together in grandma's living room and gave a talk about spiders. So I was kinda born to do this kind of stuff."

The young Bryan soon discovered that the problem with dinosaurs is that they're extinct. "So when I got done reading all the dinosaur books, I got started reading the reptile books and it was just fun. I'd go out and catch them a lot. I just haven't grown out of it, I guess. It's like people who have Lego when they're young and grow up to be architects — same kind of thing."

And being a snake catcher in Arizona is about as good as it gets for a reptile fan like Bryan. "I really love my job doing design, but I like doing this more. It perplexes my peers — they think I'm just doing pest control, like I'm going out spraying for termites or something. But there's lots of excitement, and I love the snakes. When I was a kid, I couldn't dream that I would have the entire city of Phoenix looking for snakes for me."

Trouble is, not many people like snakes, let alone rattlesnakes. In fact, they are hated.

Bryan tells me about the rattlesnake roundups of Texas, where people catch the reptiles by the thousands by pumping gasoline into snake burrows to force them out. "It's the most disgusting practice. They gather ten or twenty thousand of them and take them to a big festival under a tent, and people pay to come," he says. "If you're a kid you can pay five bucks and you can decapitate a rattlesnake or skin them alive — they hang them up by their head and rip their skin off. It's awful, and if it was any other animal there is no way it would be legal."

Rattlesnakes, he tells me, don't deserve their bad reputation. They are social animals that give birth to live young. They even have friends. "They will prefer to sit next to a particular snake and not another one. If you put them all in a room they will always find each other to hang out, and they can recognize siblings, that kind of stuff. They're mothers, not just things crawling around, pooping out eggs at random."

And although they are — of course — venomous, rattlesnakes use their poison defensively. When people get bitten, says Bryan, it's usually because they were trying to be macho. "They're often people who say 'I grew up on a ranch,' people who hold the snakes up by the head and take selfies or say they are protecting their kid by whacking a rattlesnake with a spade, but that's dangerous.

"People build up these imaginary threats because in a city the biggest threat is your favorite coffee shop running out of doughnuts. I try to tell them to walk away and have a mutual respect for their foe. That works well because that gives them a good story to tell their buddies at the bar." Teenage girls are the worst, he adds. They encourage their boyfriends to do stupid things because they want rattlesnakes killed.

Rattlesnakes do seem to make people go a bit crazy. Bryan tells me of the time a rattlesnake was seen on the grounds of a school in Mesa. "The janitor pulled out a handgun and shot it. They were all freaking out about the snake, but what about the janitor with the gun? Does anyone care?" Another time the cops called Bryan after an iguana, probably an escaped or released pet, was found in downtown Phoenix. "It was kind of funny. There were these three cops there, one of them has a gun drawn, and there's this baby iguana up on a mailbox, hissing," he says. "It jumped off the mailbox and this cop ran like a little girl, like tippy-toe running away. I caught it and found a sanctuary for it."

Just then, Bryan's cell phone rings. I listen in, my fingers crossed for a rattlesnake.

"Is it rattling?" asks Bryan. A pause. "OK. I'll be there very soon. Just keep an eye on it." He hangs up, turns to me and says: "We've got a rattlesnake."

Bryan punches the zip code into his GPS and hits the accelerator. It feels like we're in the Batmobile and the searchlight has just been switched on.

* * *

The journey that took me to Phoenix began more than five thousand miles away, back home in the United Kingdom. For months British newspapers had been filled with strange tales about London's red foxes.

There was the sleeping IT worker who turned over in bed to cuddle his girlfriend, only to find a fox that had gotten in through the cat flap and snuggled up to him. Another man found himself having a standoff with one of the reddish-brown creatures over a stick of garlic bread. After trying, unsuccessfully, to frighten the fox by waving the stick at it, the man threw the bread at the animal, which promptly grabbed it and left. Then there was Romeo, the fox found on the seventy-second floor of the Shard, the UK's tallest skyscraper. The tower was still being built at the time, but the fox had climbed up the stairs and managed to survive by eating scraps of food left behind by construction workers.

Some stories were worrying rather than cute. In south London a couple fought with a fox in their living room after it entered their home and attacked their cat. In Hackney, a fox entered a Victorian terrace home and mauled two nine-month-old babies.

Almost everyone I knew in London had a fox story, from the fox that goes begging for food at summer BBQs in Clapham to the group living next to a gas reservoir that use my friend's garden as their toilet. The stories got me thinking about my time studying ecology at university in the 1990s. Neither the course nor the academic journals had much time for the city, which seemed to be regarded as a nonhabitat, devoid of wildlife. As a Londoner, that always seemed wrong to me. Sure, much of the British capital is a landscape of road, brick, and concrete, but the city of my childhood certainly wasn't lifeless.

In the local park there were gray squirrels edging out the last of the native red squirrels. Then there were the pigeons that sometimes joined me and other passengers for a ride on the London Underground. Not to mention the sooty mice scurrying between the tracks, whose disappearance always told you when a train was coming.

Then there were the flying ants that would swarm from improbable nests in the concrete and brick of the housing estate I grew up on. They would emerge in such numbers that you couldn't go outside without getting hapless ants in your hair or, if you were really unlucky, your mouth.

But the headline-grabbing foxes with their distinctive bushy tails seemed new. City foxes were rare sights in my childhood, yet today they are everyday sights in most British cities. Their presence seems like a direct challenge to the very idea that cities are "our" space. People talk of cities as sterile, barren places somehow divorced from nature — places that wipe out the wild as they grow, gobbling up the land like asphalt-skinned monsters. And yet here were foxes, brazen foxes, wandering through the streets of one of the world's biggest cities, climbing skyscrapers, entering homes, and digging dens under garden sheds.

It made me wonder if we had it wrong. Maybe our cities are more wild and alive than we think. And if they are, what about the animals that live there? Are they thriving or dying in the concrete jungle? Why are some animals victims of urban expansion while others are urban survivors who seem as at home on the streets as we are? This book began as a search for answers to these questions about what lives among us, whether that be London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, or Nairobi. But it soon became clear it couldn't stop there.

Cities are possibly the most exciting, most surprising, and least understood ecosystems on the planet. They are places where much of what we think we know about the natural world doesn't apply. Places where our own love-hate relationship with wild animals flings open the door for the unexpected. Places that may even be changing the animals within it, just as the shift from country to city changed us.

The red foxes of London seemed like a good place to start looking for answers to these questions and, as it turned out, the city fox has a long history.

The first urban fox was spotted in 1930s London. The British capital was expanding fast, rolling out suburbs in every direction, swallowing villages, farms, and entire towns as it went. By the end of the 1930s, London was four times the size it was ten years earlier. And it was in this period of rapid expansion that the city fox emerged.

The foxes didn't so much move to the city as have the city built around them. Within a few short years they found themselves marooned in a new world of semi-detached houses, freshly laid roads, and fenced back gardens. By the 1940s foxes were common enough in south London for the government to attempt to eradicate them by hiring hunters to chase them through the leafy new suburbs. It didn't work.

Forty years on, London's foxes were still outsmarting the urban hunters, and when the British public turned against the idea of wearing fox fur, the city hunts fizzled out. By then having urban foxes was not just a British phenomenon. Red foxes could be found in cities across the world, from Zürich and Melbourne to Toronto and Hakodate in northern Japan.

Central to their success was their adaptability. "They can tolerate a wide range of environments. They are very adaptable," ecologist Dawn Scott tells me when we meet at her office in the University of Brighton. Dawn has been tracking foxes in the English seaside city to learn more about their urban lives. "They are renowned for being cunning and they've got such a variety of diet — they can survive off everything — and that makes them a good urban exploiter."

One thing cities aren't short of is food. From garbage bags filled with leftovers to roadkill and compost heaps, cities offer a varied menu for hungry foxes. Dawn's GPS-tagged foxes even go for dinner on Brighton's pebble beach. "They pootle around the seafront, and if there are any places where they deal with fish they go and scavenge there," she says. "I've also had people reporting them on Brighton Pier, eating ice cream or whatever else has been dropped by people that day."

Plenty of people feed them too, some by hand, and this helps explains why urban foxes are now comfortable enough with us to not worry about being seen and will venture into homes or hassle Londoners for their garlic bread. "We have records of people encouraging them into their kitchens and houses, and that can lead to foxes exploring other houses," says Dawn. "If you hand feed a fox, then it associates hands with food. And because they explore with their mouths and tend to snap and grab because they are opportunistic animals, they tend to go in, grab something, and peg it off.

"If you combine hand feeding and grabbing with running off, there could be an instance where a fox goes up and gives someone's hand a test with its mouth that could be perceived as an attack."

The bountiful supply of food also makes the life of the city fox noticeably different from those living in rural areas. Like us, foxes live in denser populations in cities than in the countryside. In rural England there's roughly one fox per square mile, but cities cram in as many as fourteen into the same space.

The size of their territory shrinks too. "We've had some very, very small home ranges in Brighton, and we think one of the things that affects the size of their range is human feeding," says Dawn. "So if you have a suburb where you have got two or three people who are feeding foxes, that means the home range isn't very big as they only need to go and visit those two or three gardens. But in the next suburb, if nobody is feeding them, the range will be bigger."

The city does have dangers, though. Dogs are a problem, so foxes often avoid yards with pet dogs on the loose. Roads are a big killer, but the ever-adaptable fox has devised a solution for that. "We found that foxes delay crossing the main busy roads until the middle of the night and are more likely to cross at two or three o'clock in the morning," says Dawn.

Disease is another problem, and infections can be devastating for dense populations of urban foxes. In spring 1994, Bristol's foxes experienced a major outbreak of mange, the disease caused by the same skin-burrowing mite that gives people scabies. When untreated it can cause itching so severe that animals have chewed off their own tails. Mange spread fast in Bristol, taking fox after fox. When the disease finally fizzled out two years later, more than 95 percent of the city's foxes were dead. Yet, bad as the outbreak was, it also demonstrated the resilience of the red fox. Today, fox numbers in Bristol are back to the levels seen before mange struck.

Foxes, it seems, are as at home in cities as in the countryside, capable of altering their behavior to fit in with the demands of urban living. But, I wondered, are these charismatic scavengers one-offs or just one of the most visible examples of how wildlife is adjusting to life in cities across the world?

And that's how I ended up five thousand miles away from home in Phoenix, looking for urban rattlesnakes.

* * *

Fifteen minutes after Bryan got the call, we arrive at the entrance to a gated community in Scottsdale. The homes are huge, done out in a Pueblo Revival style with sandy stucco walls topped with curved terracotta roof tiles. Next to the homes lies a patch of undeveloped desert dotted with spiky green bushes and tall cacti.

"It's probably going to be a western diamondback — it's the most common snake here," says Bryan as we turn into the driveway of the house with the rattlesnake.

A woman is waiting for us. "It's in there," she says, pointing at the garage. Bryan opens the back of the truck and gets out an empty red bucket and his snake hook — a long metal stick with a smooth U-shaped hook at one end.

We enter the garage. In one corner is a coiled-up dusty gray rattlesnake with its head raised and ready to strike. Diamond-shaped patches of darker gray run along its back, and its underside is a patternless egg white. Its tail points upward and is rattling manically.

At the opposite corner of the vast garage are a young man and a terrified-looking woman with frizzy hair and a high-pitched voice. She's brandishing a garden rake as if she expects the snake to fly across the garage at any moment. You could probably fit a bus in the space between her and the snake.

Bryan glances at the snake. "It's a western diamondback," he says.

"Wow! Look at the face. He's angry," says the woman with the frizzy hair.

"He thinks you're predators and are about to eat him alive," explains Bryan as he flips the lid off the bucket.

He moves in, snake hook at the ready. The diamondback rattles even faster.

"Oh, crap! Oh my goodness!" squeals the woman. "He is so big! Oh my God!"

Bryan stretches his arm out and twists the hook so it slips underneath the snake's body. He carefully lifts the snake into the air and gently tips it into the bucket before slapping on the lid. We've been here less than ninety seconds.

"That's awesome!" says the man.

The high-pitched woman looks stunned. "That's it?" she asks.

"That's it," confirms Bryan.


Excerpted from Feral Cities by Tristan Donovan, Tom Homewood. Copyright © 2015 Tristan Donovan. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Hot Tub Snakes: On the Trail of Rattlesnakes in Phoenix 1

2 Voodoo Chickens: Miami's Chicken, Snail, and Snake Invasions 17

3 The Great Sparrow Mystery: Fighting Starlings in Indianapolis and Saving Sparrows 37

4 Street Hunters: Living with Boars and Raccoons in Berlin 55

5 Romancing Coyotes: Looking for Coyotes in Chicago and Los Angeles 71

6 Thieves in the Temple: Monkey Trouble in Cape Town and Delhi 97

7 The Lion of Hollywood: Tracking Leopards in Mumbai and L.A.'s Cougar 111

8 Singing a Different Song: Hanging Out with the Parrots of Brooklyn 131

9 The Chicago Bird Massacre: Saving Migratory Birds in Downtown Chicago 149

10 Suburbia Crawling: Bug Hunting in Raleigh Homes 161

11 Tunnels of the Bloodsuckers: The Rats and Mosquitoes Lurking Under London 181

12 West Side Roaches: NYC Cockroach Investigations and Bakersfield Kit Foxes 197

Ackowledgments 217

References 219

Index 233

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