Review of Animal Vegetable Criminal by Mary Roach – when the natural world breaks the law | Science and nature books
A A few years ago, my wife and I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rustling: mice had burst into our apartment. For a few days, we tolerated the presence of our new roommates, admiring their blazing speed and fabulous ability to find hidden chocolate. After a while, we get tired of their presence, the droppings watered, the threads eaten away. Reluctantly, I set spring traps. After a night of crackling and squeaking, I walked around the scene: one of them had been grabbed by his muzzle, his black eyes bulging and lifeless. It sounded like a terrible act of treason, out of all proportion to the trespass offense.
Anyone who has thought about the messy mousetrap ethic will appreciate Mary Roach’s Animal Vegetable Criminal, a provocative and engaging exploration of our evolving relationship with the rest of nature. At the heart of the book is the question of whether we can live alongside other creatures, from mice to elephants. Roach is fascinated by what happens when this relationship is strained: when animals and plants ‘break’ human laws, that is, vandalize, interfere, harass, encroach, cross, maim and, in in the case of elephants and leopards, kill. The roach pays great attention to these species, their habits, behavior, and beauty, but it truly is a book about humans and our attempts to strike a difficult chord with the creatures that get in our way.
In centuries past, judges and lawyers prosecuted animals for all kinds of crimes: caterpillars were accused of theft and trespassing; a pig has been tried for murder, complaints have been made against weevils. Of course, Roach agrees, we can’t talk about animals breaking human laws; animals only do what animals do and it is our own foray into their space that creates a conflict that Roach elegantly calls “the heavy passage of humanity.” As an Indian forestry officer noted for marauding elephants in West Bengal: “We are disturbing them”. The word ‘deranged’, in all its senses, perfectly captures the tragic state of many of the creatures in this book: elephants drunk on homemade beer, bears sated with restaurant food scraps, and an emaciated cougar that resorts to stalking. humans because their digestive tract is blocked by a running shoe.
In the past, “criminal” species were simply destroyed, and Roach describes in excruciating detail the bloody and proud campaigns to eliminate “pests” such as crows, blackbirds and coyotes. Not only were these initiatives morally questionable, they also proved ineffective and costly. Today, environmentalists and government agencies have turned to conflict resolution. Roach spends a lot of time with experts working on ingenious and sometimes disturbing technologies to deter “criminal” behavior: lasers to repel vandalized herring gulls in the Vatican, special vehicle fires to scare deer off the roads and, more controversial, genetic way. modification to create sterile populations of mice. Along the way, she sprinkles the text with entertaining, if sometimes disconcerting, revelations for owners and drivers. She cites a 2005 study which suggests that it may be safer to drive straight into a deer rather than swerve or brake dramatically (safer for the driver, i.e. not for the driver). stag).
My favorite chapters leave techno-utopian solutions and follow individuals who rely on traditional knowledge to prevent conflict, like tracker Justin Dellinger – an old-school naturalist who spends his days and nights in the forests of California. , tracking down and tying pumas as part of the state’s Mountain Lion Project. He looks like a character torn from another century, reading the runes of the forest, its hidden signs of excrement, scratches and traces. To accompany her, Roach thinks, “is to marvel at the surreal variety of feet and dance steps of the animal kingdom”; badgers leave traces like Edward Scissorhands while deer “pronk” or “stot”, soaring in the air and landing with all four feet at the same time.
Inevitably, Roach’s most moving chapters deal with the life and death challenges posed by our contact with large mammals such as bears, elephants and leopards (although the lethality of the “charismatic megafauna” pales in comparison to that of snakes, which kill 40,000 each year in India). She goes to the ski resort of Aspen, Colo., Where black bears are drawn to restaurant and home trash cans for the promise of high-calorie food scraps, maple syrup, honey, and even of ice cream. His descriptions of Baloo bear robberies are extremely entertaining but are tempered by depressing results; government agencies, terrified of litigation, will choose to kill a troublesome bear rather than risk the repeat. Roach clearly feels frustrated with what she sees. Aspen, she notes, is a golden pocket of a wealthy country (where “flowers bloom in fall and women’s hair turns ash blonde as they age”); the “bear problem” is really a human problem, and one that could be solved by better compliance with waste regulations, their enforcement and greater investment.
Aspen’s challenges are pale in comparison to those in West Bengal, the Indian state where herds of starving elephants, isolated in small pockets of forest, roam the villages in search of food, cotton lint and same haaria, local house beer (elephants like to drink alcohol, but lack the enzyme to break it down). The people here have much more to lose than the elites of Aspen; a herd of elephants can trample crops and humans (according to Roach, elephants have killed 403 people in the state in the past five years). And yet, they are loath to kill elephants because of their sacred status. “Why would you want to kill a god?” Asks a local woman, whose shop has just been attacked by an elephant. Such attitudes form a refreshing contrast to the treatment of “boring” bears in Colorado, though Roach clearly conflicts with the privileged status some species enjoy in India. “Depending on your species, your religion, your gender and your caste,” she writes, “India may be a better place to be an animal than to be a human.”
The questions raised by this book are profound. What right do we have the right to block, move or destroy an animal or plant that bothers us? How to reconcile the interests of humans with those of a bear or a monkey? How do we decide what a pest and what wildlife is? And who decides: the local population, the bureaucrats or the environmentalists? Wisely, Roach largely resists straightforward answers, giving his interviewees space to speak. Towards the end, she thinks to herself that we would do well to start small and accept the creatures around us. This noble principle is soon put to the test when a rat, a “squirrel without a fluffy tail”, shows up at her house and decides to seal her point of entry rather than destroy it. If a mouse visits me again, I can do the same.