by Tristan Donovan
Chicago Review Press
814 North Franklin Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
256 pages, paperback. $16.95.
$16.95 (US $16.95) (CA $19.95)
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Among the species Tristan Donovan encounters in Feral Cities, at chapter length, among his “Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle” are rattlesnakes in Phoenix, feral chickens, snails, and pythons in Miami, starlings in Indianapolis, boars and raccoons in Berlin, coyotes in Chicago and Los Angeles, baboons and macaques in Cape Town and Delhi, leopards in Mumbai pumas in Los Angeles, parrots in Brooklyn, a variety of window-stunned migratory birds in downtown Chicago, more than 100 species of insect in each typical Raleigh home, the rats and mosquitoes lurking under London, cockroaches in New York City, and kit foxes in Bakersfield.
The presence of these animals in urban habitat is no accident. Each habitat that Donovan visits and writes about is representative of many others, where the same or similar species now make themselves at home among human dwellings, workplaces, noise, and traffic, often thriving to an extent rarely equaled in “natural” environments.
In Donovan’s concluding chapter he looks briefly at the concept of cities as conservatories for biodiversity, pointing out that many wild species already share our cities in greater density than they exist in any “natural” habitat. Cities are especially congenial to species who prefer edge habitat, like deer, or tree canopy, like squirrels, or hunt small rodents and scavenge, like coyotes. Shorebirds may find safe nesting sites on tar-and-gravel roofs; to a peregrine falcon, a high window ledge is as good as a cliff, or better.
Equally significantly––and Donovan passes lightly over this––cities are patchworks of “island” habitats where fragile species of limited habitat needs are sometimes better protected against competitors by boundaries of concrete and asphalt than by endangered species protection laws in more accessible locations.
At the same time, urban and suburban areas as a whole tend to be mixing pots for introduced species, where any animal or plant with the potential to survive and find a niche may find the opportunity. Ecological nativists sometimes wring their hands over factoids such as that the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego County have 135 and 81 endangered or threatened species, respectively, but each also has more than 1,800 native plants, a perhaps equal number of native animals (including insects), and––counting non-native species––probably has at least 10 times as much self-sustaining biodiversity as the arid chapparal that the first European settlers of these regions found circa 300 years ago.
Insight into the Vietnam War
Even those of us who have intensely studied urban wildlife for decades can learn a bit from some of Donovan’s many sources, and Donovan can be praised for drawing out nuggets of information and perspective from sources who by reputation tend to be reticent.
I have personally investigated and written about the urban adaptive behavior of almost every mammal, bird, and reptile species that Donovan writes about, often in the same places, usually years and in some cases decades earlier, but found quite a bit that was new to me in Donovan’s coverage of urban entomology, and enjoyed his updates, as well, on urban wildlife issues I have not had the opportunity to revisit recently.
Also new to me––and of potential interest to anyone who came of age during the Vietnam War––is Donovan’s discussion of French governor Paul Doumer’s misguided war on the rats of Hanoi in 1897-1902.
Along with that fiasco, Donovan reminds, “Doumer’s government encouraged the Vietnamese to get hooked on opium, even opening stores to peddle the drug so it could reap the profits from creating a nation of addicts. Doumer’s actions caused deep resentment among the people of Indochina and helped sow the seeds for the Vietnam War,” which among other catastrophic effects spread heroin abuse and abuse of other addictive drugs far and wide in the United States.
Feral Cities will be on my list of recommended reading for people interested in urban wildlife, along with Rat by Jonathan Burt, Rats by Robert Sullivan, Deerland by Al Cambronne, Maverick Cats by Ellen Perry Berkeley, and Nature Wars by Jim Sterba, among others.
Yet I also find Feral Cities deeply frustrating in lack of historical and ecological depth. Feral Cities, in structure, is a series of vignettes about urban wildlife here and now, all too rarely looking backward over the decades and centuries (as in the passages about Doumer) to recognize that the present paradigm is the product of both human and animal evolution.
Feral cats are only mentioned twice in Feral Cities, street dogs just once, and working horses, mules, and donkeys not at all.
These are critical omissions.
Working animals, livestock, dogs & cats
From the origin of human settlements until well into the 20th century, most urban habitats included abundant livestock. Livestock raised for slaughter, or to produce milk and eggs, were typically confined. Their fodder and droppings attracted rodents and birds. Working animals moved throughout each community, and between communities, creating trails of droppings which in turn led rodents and birds toward the food and fodder storage areas whose existence made urban dwelling possible.
Humans had already domesticated dogs long since, mostly by tolerating their presence as camp-following scavengers. The presence of abundant free-roaming street dogs kept most predators capable of eating livestock––or human children and the infirm––out of proto-cities. But even the smallest and quickest of dogs were relatively poor rodent and bird hunters, compared to cats, whose stealth and climbing ability made them ideally suited to guarding elevated grain bins.
Welcoming cats to human habitation actually made civilization possible, since without the combined efforts of dogs and cats, the net losses of grain to rodents and birds could easily have run in excess of 50%, as still occurs today when benighted villages in remote areas seek to prevent disease or ease hunger by poisoning or eating their dogs and cats.
But the presence of dogs and cats meant that most of the habitat niches for predators and scavengers were occupied.
Mid-20th century change
Only in the mid-20th century did this change. The advent of motor vehicles took working animals off the streets; the advent of refrigerator eliminated raising and slaughtering animals for meat, milk, and eggs in urban habitat; spay/neuter and a rapid rise in keeping dogs and cats indoors eradicated most of the dogs and cats who were formerly at large.
(Nearly 100% of the dogs and 90% of the cats in the U.S. since 1950, according to comparison of current data with the research done by National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull in 1947-1950.)
The confluence of these factors allowed species from deer to weasels, foxes to eagles, and hundreds of others to safely occupy urban habitat. Species such as macaques and raccoons, who were already present, became able to expand their range and abundance.
Bird species including starlings and sparrows, who for centuries had made their livings picking at horse droppings, abruptly declined, as did the vultures who once haunted the roosting places surrounding village abbotoirs. But practically every other critter capable of sharing a city with humans increased.
Understanding this transition is key to understanding the phenomena described by Feral Cities.