By Mary Roach
W. W. Norton & Co, 2021
Review by JoeAnn Hart
“Like a deer in the headlights,” we say about someone who freezes in the face of impending doom. Why is that? Why don’t deer jump out of the way when they see us coming in our speeding metal machines? Mary Roach will tell you. She is one of the best and funniest science writers around, and her most recent book, Fuzz, When Nature Breaks the Law, is about the often brutal interface where human culture meets wildlife, whether it’s deer in the road or geese on the golf course. In other words, this is a book about how the legal system does or does not regulate “nuisance” animals, a wildly unsuccessful enterprise. Even those fiberglass predators, such as coyotes and horned owls, meant to spook creatures, might actually attract them, because they signal that good food is nearby. From cougars accused of murders they did not commit, to the ineffectiveness of hazing bears, “specialists in human-wildlife conflict are starting to move their focus from animal biology and behavior over to human behavior.” As always, when it comes to nature, we’re the problem.
Mary Roach is an entertaining writer, and a great journalist, meticulously tracking down experts on animal control around the world and reading dozens of extensive studies to try to find hard data, which is often elusive. (Roach includes a bibliography for those who want to read more on any the subjects in the book, or to double-check her sources) For instance, Roach talked to a wildlife control officer in California who did not believe mountain lion interactions were rising, just doorbell cameras, which film the animals as they saunter down residential streets at night. Fun fact: Mountain lion, cougar, puma, panther, and catamounts are all regional names for the same species. Roach is an enthusiastic discoverer of facts, which makes it exciting to go along with her on her journey. (Her new favorite word and mine: kronism, the eating of one’s offspring.) I was shocked but not surprised to find out that an oral contraceptive used on rats began its life as an industrial plasticizer, until it was found to be an endocrine disrupter. And yet we wonder why fertility rates are declining world wide? We need to get plastics out of the environment before we’re all terminally disrupted, humans and wildlife alike.
But I digress, which is the best part of any Roach book, watching how her research leads her down one rabbit hole and up another. Take defensive vomiting. If a gull is sufficiently nervous it will vomit, not to get lighter and fly, not to repulse, but to distract a potential predator with alternative food. They are also very skilled at aiming their feces at predators or researchers, hitting not just faces, but mouths. Speaking of feces, after poring through a stack of studies, trying to verify the common claim that a Canada Goose produces two to three pounds of slick green poo a day, Roach found a scientist who actually went out and measured the output, which was only a third of a pound. While we are on the subject of Canada Geese (and it is a subject dear to my heart since my first novel, Addled, features them) who knew there was a humane age cutoff for addling? To addle an egg is to make it infertile by shaking it. To do so humanely you place the egg in water, and if it floats, it means it still has more air than gosling, and can be shook without remorse. This all comes in the chapter about the seagull problem at the Vatican, where Roach discusses the moral issues of animal control with a monk. Her reach extends even beyond animals. Wildlife includes trees as well, and yes, there are plenty of tree-related human deaths, from falling durian fruit to deadwood crashing on campers. She finds, as with any interaction with nature, the removal of “danger trees” to protect national park visitors is as controversial as wolves.
And what about those deer in the headlights? The answer is complicated, involving vision, predatory defenses, and evolution, so you’ll have to read Fuzz for the full story. But I’ll leave you with this fun fact from that chapter: Detergents that have added an optical brightening agent make cloths luminous to deer. “Joke’s on you, hunter who washed his camo pants in Cheer.”
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s. Her collection of short fiction, Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023.