As I raced to get my children out the door to their respective activities so I could get to work on time one morning last week, my son plunked himself down on the stairs and started flipping through a book I'd recently brought home.
Seeing your preschooler sitting with a book is a thrilling sight for any parent so I let him have an extra minute to glance at the animal pictures displayed on every page. "Oh look, a whale."
"What's that animal, mommy?"
That's a manatee, dear. Now, get your shoes on. We need to go.
Like all children, my kids love all things animals (and dinosaurs). The book that captured my son's attention was Nicholas Read's City Critters: Wildlife in the Urban Jungle (Orca Books, $19.95). Read, who wrote about animals and the environment for the Vancouver Sun and now teaches at Langara College, spent a year and a half researching and writing City Critters, talking to scientists and experts across North America about all the animals and creatures we share our urban, suburban and exurban space with. (An exurb, as I discovered, is a suburb beyond a suburb.) Our relationship is improving, but it can always get better.
He wrote it because "urban wildlife is a fact of life now and I wanted to know more about it." It's also a poorly understood phenomenon.
To his amazement-and mine-Read did not find any books on the topic. Books may not exist, but there are plenty of news stories-from deer becoming a regular sight in cities such as Victoria to bears breaking into houses on the North Shore and coyotes showing up on the streets of Manhattan. Read's book is timely and even includes the widely reported incident of a bear making an appearance in downtown Vancouver last summer after hitching a ride in a garbage truck. Just last week, the Vancouver Sun ran a story about raccoons attacking a jogger in Lakewood, Wash. after her dog had chased several up a tree. In the article, an area resident mentions how the raccoons regularly hang out in a local park and that "a couple of us in the neighbourhood feed them."
Read, like most of us, can only sigh when hearing that.
"I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, meaning that I try to understand that the reason they feed raccoons is that they like animals. But how often do you need to be told that it's a bad idea? Because it is. It's a really bad idea-for humans and raccoons."
Why? Not only does it make them dependent on humans, it gives them a false sense of how much food there is, which means they'll have more babies.
In the book, Read includes information about familiar wildlife (raccoons, skunks, coyotes) and often overlooked urban critters (rats, birds, turtles, butterflies, bees).
Read, who also wrote The Sea Wolves and The Salmon Bears with Ian McAllister, knows plenty about wildlife, but even he was surprised to discover how plentiful alligators are in Florida. "I love animals, and I love the fact that they're around, even in cities. But I'm not sure how comfortable I'd be living in the company of a million and more alligators." Especially if they show up in your swimming pool.
If you're ever in Florida, an Everglades tour is a must. The sight of dozens of alligators along a car-free road in a park (where you could walk or bike-egads!) is singed into my memory.
I love animals, sometimes more than people, but I get scared when I see our neighbours Mr. or Mrs. Raccoon or the Skunks come to say hello when I'm sitting in my yard catching the afternoon sun. Let's make a deal, furry friends. I play outside in the day while you sleep and you play outside in the night while I sleep.
In the book, Read notes that until about 20 years ago you could let your cat out at night and not worry about it becoming a coyote's dinner. Not anymore. So what happened? "That's a good question and I'm not sure there's an answer to it. At least not yet. There's an organization in Chicago called the Urban Wildlife Institute that is conducting the first really comprehensive study of urban wildlife in North America and I bet that's a question they'd love to be able to answer one day," says Read, who's donating his royalties to animal charities.
With the book, which is geared for kids and would be a great addition to school classrooms, Read wants people to accept that urban wildlife is here to stay and to learn to live with it. "Perhaps even more important, I'd like people to remember that what little wilderness is left in the world is home, first and foremost, to wild animals. It always drives me crazy to read or hear about people complaining about feeling threatened by animals in the wild and then wanting to do something about it. Well, folks, that's why they call it the wilderness. It's not a theme park where everything behaves according to Disney. It's the wilderness."