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nature wars – in review

Back when a representative from Random House Publishing contacted me to ask if I was interested in a review copy of Nature Wars, by Jim Sterba, I warned her that such a book would not be terribly up my alley – I am not a hunter, I am not a farmer, I generally keep my interactions with wild animals to a bare minimum, and I generally find the American "conservation" movement to be at or near the far end of the pendulum swing.

But, hey, free book, so I sent her my information, and she sent me a copy. Every man has his price – mine is just really low.

To be honest, before receiving the book, I was a little… concerned over what kind of tack Mr. Sterba might take; for most of my life, my ears and eyes have been assaulted by environmentalists, conservationists, save-the-X-ists, tree-huggers, and what-have-you about the excesses, abuses, and evils we Americans have supposedly wrought upon the natural world. There is, of course, a grain of truth in those proclamations of doom and gloom (at least some of the time), but, as Mr. Sterba proceeded to point out through his book, things are better than we think… depending on how you look at it.

The book starts off rather slow with a somewhat lengthy explanation that there is functionally no such thing as an "old growth forest" on the east coast of the United States. To be sure, there are some that look that way, and there are even a few forests (mostly inland around the mountains) that have remained mostly untouched by man since whenever their first sprouting was, but between a massive deforestation effort started by the colonists and running through the beginning of the 20th century and yearly weather patterns beating up those forests, they often go through periods of destruction and renewal. But it is that rapacious logging – both to clear space for farms and to fuel America’s growing shelter and fuel needs – that we are most interested in today, and, specifically, how we have allowed most of that cleared land to revert back to its previous state.

Mr. Sterba argues, and quite well at that, that the overwhelming majority of east coast residents live in one of the largest forests in the world. No, seriously, think about it for a second – "greenways" are becoming popular in just about every city and town, people go out of their way to sculpt and decorate their yards with trees and shrubberies, we like our space so we live in suburbs with woods and trees all around us… We may not think about it, and we certainly are not doing it intentionally, but we are crafting the very environment that some animals not only appreciate, but thrive in.

And that is where the problem starts. A great number of native and imported American animals are "edge" occupiers – they like the borders of forests and fields, and the wide variety of cover, food, and shelter available there. Until the past century or so, those edges were insulated from cities and most of Americans by way of farms – every major town, city, and so forth was ringed by miles and miles of farms, with the notion of "wild animals" being way out past those farms into the wilderness beyond.

Look out your back windows; do you see any farms separating you from a strand of trees? More and more, that is just not happening, so the suburbs and outurbs and whatever else are becoming the "edge" that those wild animals – like deer, turkeys, skunks, beavers, etc. – so very much love to inhabit. And, predictably, more and more people are being forced into interacting with those wild animals they think of being over the river and through the woods, but, really, are showing up in their own back yards.

naturewarsOf course, I am grossly oversimplifying how this came to happen – Mr. Sterba has multiple chapters dedicated to how our conservation efforts were even more wildly successful than we might have ever realized, even to the point of "repopulating" animals into states where they never naturally lived before (like turkeys in Hawaii… seriously) – but that is why you should read the book.

One such chapter that really hit home with me was regarding feral cats. Felis catus is not a native species in North America (or South America, for that matter), but farmers in Europe, familiar with their skills at keeping vermin down, brought them over when they started colonizing our continent. For centuries, the cats lived out in the barn, knocking down the population of rats and mice and other things that annoyed farmers, while larger predators knocked down the population of cats (or the farmers themselves tended to keeping the resident cats’ population in check). Then, with the advent of kitty litter (at least, according to Mr. Sterba, but it sounds right to me), cats suddenly became "indoor pets", and things radically shifted.

And once food, toy, kitty litter, and supplement marketers realized things had shifted, those things shifted even more – pets became part of the family; you did not "buy" a pet, you "adopted" it; you did not "own" a pet, you were its "guardian"; and so forth. None of this is, in and of itself, strictly bad – I happen to like cats myself – but it started creating a massive shift in public perception of feral cats. The unfortunate truth is that those converted-to-wild, technically-invasive house cats are a horrific scourge on the ecosystem around them, killing upwards of hundreds of millions of songbirds, small rodents, and other such animals a year. The response in past days was to simply kill colonies of feral cats when they were found to be annoying, but given the radical shift in public perception of cats, that is no longer socially acceptable.

So organizations like the one we adopted Blue and Pixel from sprouted up, claiming that they could make a difference in the problem by finding the colonies, removing kittens that had not gone fully feral yet for adoption, and then spaying or neutering the more-adult animals, releasing them back into the wild from whence they came to live out their days and propagate no more. Superficially, that sounds like a nice, friendly, socially-acceptable solution to the problem, right? Well, once you look past the small problem that the relatively short life of a wild cat is filled with illness, malnutrition, and injury, you run into the small problem that these catch-neuter-release programs are only hitting maybe 1% of the feral cat population a year. If you know anything about the way cats reproduce (two litters a year, four or more kittens a litter), you know that is going to amount to… well, nothing at all.

But if you so much as whisper anything even approximately relating to killing those feral cats, even in the name of protecting the existing, native ecosystem, hordes of animal "rights" advocacy groups (which, really, are often nothing more than a few people powered by a lot of internet know-how) descend on your municipality and raise a political relations nightmare that you almost cannot believe; Mr. Sterba actually examines one such incident. And so the situation keeps spiraling out of control.

That is just one example, but similar things are happening with other species all over the country.

The interesting thing of Nature Wars, though, is that Mr. Sterba offers no quick fix, probably because there is not one. In fact, his conclusion chapter is shockingly short, primarily because that conclusion is interlaced all throughout all of the previous chapters – we, as Americans, have allowed ourselves to become too insulated from the "wild", outside world, and no longer understand the normal, natural balance. The only way to fix that, in his eyes, is to get back out there and get back into the world outside our computers, televisions, and smartphones.

In the end, I am not sure I would quantify Nature Wars as a "fun" read (that descriptor needs something written more along the lines of MHI), but it was an impressively informative read, and I learned a great deal about those wild animals scurrying across my back yard than I knew before. I would recommend you read it and then pass it on to your family and friends if only because then we might start making a dent in all of the seemingly-incessant news stories of "[insert wild animal here] had to be put down due to attacking people"…

(Note: To that end, my copy of Nature Wars will be up for grabs in the impending Honored American Veterans Afield fundraiser I will be running in the near future.)

(Obligatory FTC Notice: This book was provided to me by Random House Publishing expressly for the purposes of writing a review about it. A positive review was not guaranteed, and I have, when a book deserved it, written negative reviews here. The above post is my honest opinion about this book, and anyone who would claim otherwise is respectfully invited to bugger off.)

14 comments to nature wars – in review

  • Matt in FL

    My apartment complex has feral cats all over. They spray my front door regularly. My neighbor tosses his leftover bones (steak, chicken, whatever) out to them. I’ve asked him to stop, but he persists. I have a CO2 pellet pistol that I have used to run them off (900 fps; I usually didn’t shoot at them, just around them). However, they’ve gotten out of control, and I have since discovered that a suppressed SIG Mosquito shooting subsonic .22LR (or better, .22 Short) is quieter than that CO2 pistol.

  • I recall the constant bitching about songbird decline when i lived in the uk, it was all blamed on anything that was popular at the time. A guy i worked with mentioned the idea of how many cats are let out in the morning when folks go to work. I believe it.

  • @ Matt in FL: Unfortunately, if someone is actively feeding them – intentionally or not – the only real solution to the problem is a little more… drastic. Certainly will not fault you for not pursing that method, but unless you can get the complex manager to sit on the resident… yeah, cats like free food.

    @ dave w: The estimates for birds killed by feral cats run somewhere in the 100,000,000 a year order of magnitude here in the States; I can only imagine how bad it is in once-Great Britain with its higher population density.

  • Rob Crawford

    While not the east coast, there are some photos of Cincinnati’s “skyline” around 1870 that are stunningly bare of trees. Most striking is the hill called Mt. Adams; there are two or three trees. A similar photo taken today would show Mt. Adams covered in trees, the bank of the river covered in trees, and trees poking up here and there around the skyscrapers.

    I’ve also seen photos of Serpent Mound back when a group of concerned Bostonians bought the land it’s on from the farmer who owned it — first decade of the 1900s. Bare. Today, there are trees all over the place. It’s the same all over southern Ohio; as we shifted from burning wood to burning coal and oil for heat, the trees sprang back.

    When I was a teenager, we started to see birds of prey over the farm. Then geese showed up — that was an hour outside of Cincinnati. Now, I live right outside the beltway around Cincinnati, and geese are a traffic hazard, we’re starting to see coyotes, and out where I used to live there are occasional sightings of bears.

    Yeah, we’ve screwed up a few places. We’ve also done BRILLIANTLY at cleaning our act up generally.

  • Oh, no question about that, but one of the point Mr. Sterba makes is that in the process of cleaning up our act, we went from one end of the pendulum swing to the other, including “repopulating” animals in places they never lived to begin with. I think what he is trying to say is that we never really learned from our mistakes, we just keep making similar ones, just in different directions.

    Or something like that :).

  • Rob Crawford

    Oh, yeah. But some of that’s the nature of humanity.

  • No disagreement there :).

  • I am a major grade cat person, but I will not allow a colony of feral cats to get started around here. If I see the signs of a colony starting, I will hunt them out no matter how distasteful it is. If you’ve never seen what happens around a feral colony, you just don’t know how destructive they are.

  • Thankfully, I have never actually witnessed a feral cat colony, but given the disasters my once-ferals can create in, oh, minutes, I can imagine.

  • Predation is nature’s way of keeping populations in check, that’s why we’re here in part and we are among the Predator Clan of Killers. But what kind of incredible lack of Liberal/Progressive irony allows a horde of animal “rights” advocates to descend upon a community in force of arms, while paying absolutely no attention to the Planned Parenthood building next door.
    We had feral cats around here once and I had to “take care” of them, and it was kinda sad but the absolute neural-level ferocity and real lizard-brain hate they displayed held zero connection to “Cats” as I knew them, so it wasn’t too hard…

  • My interactions with feral cats have been blissfully limited, but, yeah, I cannot see any “wild” animal behaving like our fluffs and surviving in the wild. As such, tending to a colony would be troubling, but not… that troubling.

    And, yeah, we have been progressively breeding and forcing the predator out of humans, which unfortunately allows those individuals who are predators – criminals, in short – free reign. That really needs to end.

  • [...] speakers, those muffs will protect your hearing but still let you hear range commands. You can read my review of Nature Wars here, but it is definitely worth your [...]

  • Ted N

    We’ve got feral cats all over MFO North Camp, thanks to the open dumpsters everywhere. I can’t recall seeing a single rodent anywhere near the living areas, just desert rabbits in the open remote areas(the obstacle course that we never use, the antenna farm nobody walks through, and the open field on the way to our hangar, etc.) and I also haven’t seen a songbird in the last 6 months, just big nasty Egyptian crows. Ugly, annoying, stupid sounding birds.

  • Sounds like a good opportunity for some small-arms practice… Unfortunately, that would be decidedly non-PC, which would never fly in the modern military environment.