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Fowl doers of foul deeds?

Cover of Fuzz: When Nature Breaks t
A review of Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach

I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’d like to have Mary Roach in our high school science classes. Her ‘can-you-believe-this’ odd factoid interjections would likely liven up most classrooms while making those facts that teacher presents stick all the better. Roach has taken her trademark humorous approach with bodies (Stiff, Gulp and Bonk), space travel (Packing for Mars) and whatever category ghosts land in (Spook) and now turns her attention to the cuddly world of animal mischief with Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. No, it’s not the laws of nature the animal kingdom is in conflict with; it’s human law these beastly criminals have run afoul, and well, that’s where things get fuzzy. And it’s primo territory for Roach, who gleefully takes aim at the questions we dare not ask or may not have thought to ask. As usual, Fuzz is what readers have come to expect from Roach: an entertaining read with serious science under all the ‘did-you-know’ nuggets of trivia. 

Roach is thorough in her investigations. She intrepidly troops off to India to discover what to do with marauding macaques, elephants that are literally in rooms and leopards that may or may not be on man eating sprees. She dives into the science behind how much cat scat can tell wildlife rangers about cat populations—or not. She stakes out St. Peter’s Square to witness what the Vatican is doing about seagull hoodlums who wantonly destroy Easter flowers. (Roach could not get Pope Francis—apparently a bird lover—on the record regarding efforts to quell the flower/gull flap.)  And while it doesn’t appear that she flew to the Midway Islands to investigate the albatross ‘problem’ that spawned the Navy’s so-called Second Battle of Midway, it’s probably just as well—the Midways firmly remain in the albatrosses’ grasp. Closer to home, she follows up on just why deer are so prone to car strikes and what might be done to avoid them. Roach’s research is not limited to the quadruped or winged variety. Her chapter on the problems of deadly beans is a little underwhelming, but Roach redeems herself with an explosive take on danger trees. (Falling trees, usually aided by gusty winds, kill more people per year than most wildlife.)

But while the animals may be at the center of the story, Roach’s concern is really people, both for good and ill. There are those who are trying to understand why animals do what exactly it is they do (especially frustrating for the seagull scientists, presumably). While she has an eye for the absurd—and much about the jobs of the people does appear to be absurd on first glance—she makes it clear that all are at least dedicated to their jobs, even when most of the problems are not with the animals but problem people. Not surprisingly, Roach notes, most of the problem animals weren’t problems until humans pushed into their habitats. Why do particular species get labeled pests and undesirable when another may be just as harmful but deemed off-limits to culling? And why should one species in particular—homo sapiens—be making such decisions? Maybe, as Roach warily eyes the rat living in her backyard, there is enough space for all of us.

Long time readers of Roach will find plenty to like in Fuzz; newcomers may be put off at first by the tangent-chasing and occasional lack of seriousness (although those footnotes are much of the fun). But there is never a shortage of dire or serious nature books; Roach is for the rest of us. Fuzz is recommended for the general science reader, readers looking for a good laugh and anyone who asks on a regular basis ‘I wonder why…’ Campers, particularly those in bear and cougar country, may wish to pack something else for their fireside reading. 

Oct 6, 2021