by Mary Hrovat
Last weekend, a bat got into my house somehow. I first heard it in the small hours of Friday night as it scratched around somewhere near the furnace flue. I didn’t know if it was an animal settling into a new home in my attic, or if perhaps it was going out periodically to get food and bringing it back to feed babies in an established nest. All became clear very late the next night, when the bat managed to get out of the enclosure around the flue and then exit the closet where the furnace is. After some drama that I need not recount here, it flew out the front door, and I stopped gibbering on my front walk and went back inside.
The thing is, I don’t dislike bats. I enjoy seeing them in the evening sky. I worry about white-nose syndrome. I want there to be bats in the world, and now that I’ve had time to calm down, I’m glad the bat in my house got safely away. I can see that the experience was more stressful and life-threatening for the bat than for me. But I don’t really want bats anywhere near my house.
I was upset in large part simply because wild animals don’t belong in the house, period. But after a conversation with a friend about the bat situation at my house, I began to think about the fact that my love for and appreciation of nature is selective. I know that humans are having an appalling effect on the lives of other animals, and there’s no possible justification for our destructiveness. Yet, although I’m grateful for the presence of a fair amount of the urban wildlife around me, I wish some of it weren’t there. On some level, I’m not sure I’d mind if it were gone.
I keep a lookout for the fox that lives near a friend’s neighborhood, for example, because I’m happy to see it, but there are times I’ve wished the skunks would all just go somewhere else. When I’m out after dark, I have to be alert to avoid surprising them, and I think one of these days my luck might run out.
I suspect everyone draws the line somewhat differently between animals that represent wildness in a positive way and animals that represent wild nature as intrusive or threatening. I’m particularly fond of birds, and I enjoy their presence in my leafy neighborhood and in other parts of the city. I like to identify types of birds I’m not familiar with. My love for them hasn’t really been tested; I don’t grow any cherries that they might steal, for example, and except for the occasional woodpecker who pecks on the furnace flue in the spring, they’re an entirely positive presence in my world. (And even that’s a little amusing, as long as the bird doesn’t break anything. I’m pretty sure it’s always a he, and that he’s showing off by making a louder racket than any of the other males.)
In the winter, large flocks of crows visit my city. I enjoy watching and listening to their raucous socializing just before the sun sets. The Cornell Crow FAQ says that before they roost for the night, they gather and “spend a lot of time calling, chasing, and fighting.” I think of it as crow happy hour, and I love to see the river of birds departing happy hour at sunset to fly to their roosting place. However, they do leave a slippery and probably unsanitary mess on the sidewalks below them. I spend so much time watching them in the evening that I’m surprised I haven’t been splatted upon. The city and the university have tried to shoo them away using pre-recorded raptor calls, and I understand why. But something would be missing from my winters if the crows were driven away entirely from campus and downtown.
I’m more amenable to having snakes nearby than I suppose most people are, in part because my younger son keeps snakes and lizards, and I’ve spent at least a little time around them. Also, most snakes are not going to bother me as long as I leave them alone. There’s self-interest at work here, too; I think having snakes in my yard might keep the rodent population down. I’d also welcome hawks or other raptors. Chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits have all interfered with various efforts to garden, and I wouldn’t mind seeing far fewer of them.
Far and away the biggest nuisance, though, is deer. A friend counted 16 of them while he was walking to work on the university campus on a recent morning. I see them fairly frequently when I’m out walking. One day this summer, I saw a deer not two feet from my living room window, in broad daylight; it was in the act of tearing leaves off the hostas, and it had a mouthful when I shooed it away. (When they show up in my yard, my response is to run out and wave my arms and yell until they leave. This time all I needed to do was open the window and yell.)
We have a deer problem in part because the city has expanded considerably, driving deer and other animals out of areas where they used to live. In addition, we’ve removed the large predators that used to keep the deer population in check. I’m somewhat impatient with arguments for humane solutions to the deer problem (i.e., solutions that don’t involve any of them dying), in part because there’s nothing particularly humane about letting them reproduce and survive until they’ve destroyed a significant portion of the vegetation in the county and become subject to starvation or disease.
Some people think deer are cute, or beautiful, or that fawns are sweet. Once when I was hiking in Madera Canyon in southeastern Arizona with one of my sons, someone going the other way on the trail hailed us in great yet hushed excitement, telling us that there was a deer ahead, and if we approached quietly, we might get to see it. We thanked him, but I kept my views to myself, and I had no interest whatsoever in seeing it. Even in a wild place where I was the visitor in their world, I couldn’t get past my view of deer as disease vectors and destroyers of gardens, pests in part because they’re so numerous.
People probably agree about other animals on the “pest” end of the scale. No one (or at least no homeowner) seems to have a kind word for moles. Before I had a yard, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but now that I’ve had moles for several years, I agree that they are a trial. The yard is so lumpy that wheeling the trash cans to the curb can be a pain. I decry what humans are doing to the planet and how we’re taking habitat away from animals, but I’d get rid of the moles in my yard if I could. Last year I tried vibrating mole spikes, which supposedly drive them away without hurting them, with no noticeable result. Luckily for the moles, I don’t have whatever it would take to poison them myself, or the means to hire someone else to do it.
We care about animals because they appeal to us in some way, as birds do for many, or because they’re useful (eating something that needs to be eaten, or pollinating our gardens), or because they’re threatened and we’d like to save them. I sometimes think that ideally, we should care about them because they have a right to be here. That’s harder when they’re forced into proximity with us, or when they live on our refuse (mice, cockroaches, rats). It’s also true that in nature, animals sometimes die. That in no way excuses the terribly destructive effect that humans have on other living things, but it does complicate the question of what to do about animals like deer, which in some sense need a predator to reduce their numbers.
I can’t draw any conclusions about the place of wildlife in cities. On a larger scale, I think that E. O. Wilson may have the right idea when he proposes that we protect half of the land and half of the sea from further human impact so that ecosystems can recover. One thing I like about Wilson’s approach is that it would set aside land and ocean for animals regardless of how appealing or useful we find them, or what kind of use or inspiration we might find in the land itself. Another very broad guideline that gets a little closer to the interaction of humans and wildlife in cities is that we should favor high-density urban development, in part to reduce our footprint overall and in part to provide larger spaces for wildlife as opposed to a patchwork of small fragments.
When the wildlife removal specialist came to figure out where the bat got in, I asked him if it would help to have a bat house in the yard. I’d long thought about putting up a bat box, as a general gesture of goodwill toward bats, and with an eye toward their mosquito consumption. Now I wondered if having alternate accommodations might keep the bats out of the house.
But he said no. Bat houses attract bats, and if the bat house is full, they’ll look nearby for other lodging. Before I could say anything about mosquitos, he added that he doesn’t know why everyone thinks that bats will clear their yards of mosquitos. Bats do eat mosquitos, but the ones around here, at least, prefer larger and more substantial prey like moths and beetles.
So I asked him to bat-proof the house, which I hope will save both me and the bats from further wear and tear. I won’t put up a shelter for them in my yard. I’ll still enjoy seeing them in the evening sky, but the pleasure will not be unalloyed.
You can see more of my work at maryhrovat.com.