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What Happens When Nature Breaks The Law? Mary Roach Tells You In New Book 'Fuzz'


We all know that nature can be unpredictable, fascinating, sometimes just plain strange. But what happens when wildlife breaks the law? That's what author Mary Roach explores in her new book, "Fuzz." It deals with the often bemusing, sometimes grisly world of animal, plant and human encounters. There are foul-tempered elephants, undeterred seagulls and bears who just won't stop eating out of restaurant dumpsters no matter what the city's health code says. Mary Roach, Welcome to the program.

MARY ROACH: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, your books delve into the science of subjects people haven't really thought too deeply about - cadavers, ghosts, the digestive tract. What led you to delve into wildlife?

ROACH: Well, I was flailing around in my usual way, looking for a new book idea. I often write about the human body, but I've kind of used that up. There's only so many pieces of it and - that are kind of Roach-able. So got interested in the forensics of wildlife crime, not when the animals are the perpetrators, but when the animals are, you know, endangered species that are being sold. And the forensics is fascinating. I was up at this lab in Ashland, Ore., where this woman has a hair library - you know, like, five different types of hair from each species, so she can identify, you know, contraband that comes across the border. I got interested in that. She's also the author of a paper on how to tell real versus counterfeit tiger penis, which is sold illegally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds like a very useful skill to be able to uncover.

ROACH: I can now tell the difference, can tell you if it's real or fake.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We know who to come - we will come to you for that.

ROACH: Exactly. So while I was up there, I was, like, you know, doing my kind of poking around thing and spoke to the director of the lab, who said, sorry, honey, you cannot tag along with investigators on an open case legally. Go home. So on my way back to the drawing board, I thought, well, what if you turned it inside out? What if we look at when wildlife are the perpetrators and people are the quote, unquote, "victims?" And that led me to a science that I had never heard of, human-wildlife conflict. There are conferences, there are textbooks. There are people who spend their whole lives researching and studying human-wildlife conflict and how to prevent it or solve these conflicts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you, you know, end up confronting some of these animals - bears in Aspen. And you also go to India, where you were actually mugged by a monkey. I must say, I was also mugged by a monkey - Barbary apes in Gibraltar, and it was unpleasant.


ROACH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I felt great sympathy for you.

ROACH: Yeah. I have to admit I was kind of asking for it. I went up a trail where I knew there were macaques, and I was carrying a plastic bag full of bananas. And they were very slick. I'm walking down the trail, and there's no one around and I see this little head pop up. And that's a macaque. And it steps into the trail, and we're kind of facing down, staring into each other's eyes, trying to suss each other out and see what's going to happen. And while I'm distracted by that monkey, another one just darts out and grabs the bag. So it seemed as though they were actually working as a team. They're pretty slick.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, one of the things that becomes evident in your book is that a lot of our efforts as humans to control or redirect animal behavior is just not working. Weldon Robinson, who you call a czar of nuanced wildlife offing, said this after a long career trying to reduce animal populations - quote, "mother nature adjusts." Why did that resonate with you?

ROACH: What he was referring to is sometimes called compensatory reproduction. So if you start to lower the numbers of a population, now the remaining animals have more food. They're doing better. They're thriving. So mother nature kind of goes, you know, things are seeming to be pretty good for you. Let's crank out some more babies because it seems like they're all going to survive. When you try to approach the problem with just let's exterminate part of the population, it bounces back in ways that I hadn't realized. I wasn't aware of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you do cover an aspect of wildlife that hasn't adjusted to human intervention - flight initiation distance. And anyone who's, I think, ever driven fast on the highway and come upon a deer that doesn't move will be interested in this. Please explain.

ROACH: Sure, yeah. Flight initiation distance - OK, this is, how close can I get to an animal before it takes off? Animals that are prey to other animals have evolved a really good sort of cognitive sense of, like, how close can the predator get before I need to take off? And they factor in, how quickly is the predator coming at me? And they do that by seeing, OK, it's getting bigger and bigger as it approaches - but not if the predator has an engine. So if it's something coming at you at 60 miles an hour, they haven't had time to evolve to update the processors to realize, OK, I really need to get out of the way fast. So we see a lot of roadkill.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Again, what is so interesting is that you meet the people who are actually tasked sometimes with, you know, solving these very specific problems. And there is a team of researchers...

ROACH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Who are trying to reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions, and they actually may have found a solution.

ROACH: Yeah, this was fascinating. At night, when there's a vehicle on the road and you see it in the distance, all you see is the headlights. Deer tend to stand there and go, what are those two lights? Those are - what are they - boom. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Thank you for re-enacting that.

ROACH: (Laughter) Sure.


ROACH: So this researcher, Travis DeVault, who works for the National - or did at the time, the National Wildlife Research Center - he had this thought - he and colleagues there had this idea - well, what if we - if we put a light bar - put it on the grill of the truck, and it's facing the car, so it's illuminating the grill? Now an animal, if it looks up and sees this thing coming at it at night, it can see, oh, I need to get out of the way, this is a fast-moving predator.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess after all these experiences and this research into the complex humans have with nature, do you think, I guess, we're finally ready to shift towards coexistence?

ROACH: I think that we are moving in that direction. People have come to see wildlife as having intrinsic value. You know, they're not just varmints. USDA, which has a branch that deals with animals when they're bothering ranchers and farmers - they have recently made hires in 12 states for nonlethal specialists. You know, a long way to go, but that's happening. And there is this movement toward coexistence or trying to prevent these conflicts before they happen and - rather than just coming in and killing the animal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Any behavior changes for you now that you've had this very deep immersion into the world of animal-human conflict?

ROACH: Yes. When it comes to the things that we've so readily called pests, I have developed a different attitude toward them in that I will try to practice exclusion - that is, figure out, why are they nesting there? Or how are they getting in? And make them move on rather than calling the person who's going to trap them and do who knows what with them and much to my husband's chagrin because we had a roof rat run across the deck while I was working on this book. And initially I was like, oh, my God, it's a rat. We've got to get a trap. A trap is humane. It's a quick kill. It'll be OK. And I thought, listen to you, little miss coexistence. Stop that, you know? I'm like - I told my husband, I - we're going to practice exclusion. He's like, you've got one week to figure this out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've got one week to figure out where this rat is going.

ROACH: (Laughter) But by golly, we did. And I'd see that little guy every night doing his thing. And I'm like, I'm glad I didn't put a trap out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mary Roach - her new book is "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law." May I say, you are as delightful to interview as you are on the page.

ROACH: Oh heck, Lulu, I love you.


ROACH: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ditto. Thank you so much.

ROACH: Thank you so much. Ditto. Jinx.


MAROON 5: (Singing) Just like animals, animals - like animals. Maybe you think that you can hide. I can smell your scent for miles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.