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.
Of 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"…
(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.)