Wildlife's War Against Mankind

Commentary by Liza Field

I hope you’re expecting company during the holidays. And not just the beloved kinfolk.

I mean the rude and uncivilized. The freeloader sorts, who leave tracks in the yard, knock over trash cans and maul the poodle.

We’re not talking about Cousin Pete, but rather your wild neighbors — the deer and coyotes busily turning yards, towns and suburbs into war zones.

At least, that’s the take of former war correspondent, Jim Sterba, sending this news from the home front: Americans are now under siege by “wildlife.”

Sterba’s book, “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds,” emerged in late fall, at the height of deer hunting season.

The message? “It’s a war out there.” And nature is winning.

Bringing Down the Hood

Which “nature”?

Sterba lists a few species, like white-tailed deer, Canada geese, beavers and stray cats, as evidence of a “wildlife comeback miracle.”

These invaders, he notes, tip the trash, jump in front of cars and leave “your child’s soccer field carpeted with goose droppings.” Clearly, wildlife have become “too much of a good thing.”

This will be news to biologists. For decades, they’ve been warning us that wildlife — in the United States and elsewhere — are in fact undergoing a mass extinction.

Annually, thousands of entire species that flourished here for 65 million years are dying out within our brief generation. Why?

The sprawl of human activity — throughout land, air and sea — is eradicating the planetary homeland they evolved to inhabit.

Conversely, Sterba considers wildlife the invader, at least in U.S. neighborhoods.

This siege could be turned around, he figures, with some artillery fire. But “sentimental” types and “animal protectionists” don’t want ammo flying down the sidewalk or a deer slaughter in the schoolyard.

Their resistance only compounds the war, Sterba said — dividing humans into enemy camps of “Bambi saviors” vs. “suburban hero” hunters who could provide relief.

Turf Wars

Sterba has a sharp eye for conflict. He, in fact, revives the old conquistador perception of life as a war between man and nature — handily transposing this battle re-enactment to suburbia, where ordinary Americans can engage.

But engaging Americans may prove difficult. Few suburbanites even go outdoors today, except to climb in a car.

Our own species generally lives well-fortressed behind walls, eyes watching digital screens, no more stirred by wildlife than the gases of Jupiter.

Perhaps this explains why we are losing Sterba’s war.

Wildlife invades “our habitat,” Sterba said, because “ours is better than theirs.”

But where’s “theirs”? Indeed, where’s “ours”?

Drive through any suburban landscape and look for the living.

You might see a feral cat, a bored, incarcerated dog, a blue jay. Nobody else seems to live here.

After we humans turn vertical, music-filled, native habitat into flattened, life-shriven lawn, we ourselves go indoors and rarely inhabit that perfect, barren landscape.

Few other creatures can inhabit it, either.

If a lawn is wonderful wildlife habitat, where are the plentiful songbirds, newts, turtles, eagles, porcupines, river otters, diverse butterflies and dragonflies once common to our continent?

Where are the many voices of whippoorwills, owls, toads, frogs, woodpeckers, quail, warblers, pee-wees and wood-thrushes, common to Eastern states just 50 years ago?

Habitat for Humanity

A landscape of lawn and asphalt can’t support these native residents.

This habitat can’t even sustain humans. That’s why we truck in life-support supplies from thousands of miles away, as if indeed occupying some hostile enemy outpost.

The word habitat connotes life.

And life, biologists tell us, is not a war. Life evolved, rather, by cooperation — communities of myriad species that each benefited the whole.

Microbe to treetop, crawdad to hawk, wildflower to rain cloud: This cooperative neighborhood is what allowed humans, also, to flourish at this address in the universe.

Today, Sterba accurately perceives, neighborhood balance is out-of-whack.

So if shooting some deer can restore balance, let’s fire away.

But if our aim is to target the main problem, we should look down both ends of the barrel.

We humans are the species that has sprawled across every habitat on the planet. Maybe things would go better, therefore, if we acted like planetary neighbors, not hoodlums.

Efforts like National Wildlife Federation’s native habitat program offer guidelines to such civility, like ways to rehabilitate urban/suburban dead-zones back to life.

I've done it — turned useless flat lawn into diverse, canopied, fruiting, seed-filled, soil-rich, vertical woodland. It has not attracted deer.

It does house other beneficial, low-impact neighbors — owls, songbirds, turtles, toads, pollinators — who don’t pollute, steal, roar gassy engines or shoot. They treat the place with respect.

It is, after all, their home.

Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor’s School and Wytheville Community College. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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