Monkey Thieves, Drunk Elephants — Mary Roach Reveals A Weird World Of Animal 'Crime'
Roach researched animal misbehaviors for her new book, Fuzz. Though animals are all but charged with crimes when they run afoul of human values, she learns, they often have the last laugh.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. When birds flock near airports and get sucked into jet engines or when deer run onto highways and cause car accidents or when bears wander into towns and campsites where food remains are plentiful, they cause problems for us. In all these cases, of course, the animals are just following their instincts. They fly. They run. They forage for food. They seek mates. But when they interfere with our way of life and break our rules, some humans, often people in ranger hats and uniforms or lab coats, have to try and figure out something to do about it.
Our guest, the science writer Mary Roach, has a new book about the many conflicts between humans and animals, including bears, elephants, monkeys, mice, and how different societies try and deal with them. Roach has a way of handling sometimes uncomfortable subjects with wisdom and wit. Among her six bestselling books are "Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers" and "Gulp: Adventures On The Alimentary Canal." That book about what happens in the human digestive system from top to bottom brought her to FRESH AIR in 2013. She's back to talk about her new book called "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law."
Mary Roach, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
MARY ROACH: Oh, thank you so much.
DAVIES: You know, anybody who's owned a cat is aware of this conflict between natural instincts and rules we try to impose. What got you interested in this question?
ROACH: Well, I wish I had a tidy origin story. But what happened was I was flailing around looking for a book topic, as happens every few years, and I got interested in the forensics of wildlife crime, not when the animals are the quote-unquote "criminals," but when the animals are the victims. So I was - I got interested in the forensics of animal trafficking, specifically a woman who published a guide for wildlife law enforcement on how to distinguish real versus fake tiger penis that is dried, which is sold medicinally. And I thought, that's kind of a bizarre expertise. And I spoke to her, and I kind of got interested in wildlife forensics. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to tag along on any open cases, and I always like to kind of be on the scene in my books. And so that was a dead end.
But as often happens, it morphed into a related topic, which I kind of turned it inside out. What if the animals were the perpetrators of these crimes? And I'm using crimes loosely. They're obviously just animals, as you said, following their instinct. But I got interested in this field, human wildlife conflict, which I had never heard of. And any time I hear about a pocket of science that I've never heard of before, I get kind of excited. And I think, maybe this is a book. And lo and behold, it became a book.
DAVIES: And you traveled many continents researching it (laughter). And I got to say...
ROACH: I did.
DAVIES: ...It is a fun read. You have a lovely touch with this stuff. You know, you begin by telling us of a case in the 17th century of some towns in Italy who undertook legal action against caterpillars that were munching on crops and gardens, actually issuing a summons for the caterpillars to show up and appear in court. This actually happened?
ROACH: This actually happened. This is from a - it's a 1906 book called "The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment Of Animals." And I initially thought - because it's so bizarre, I thought, is this an elaborate hoax? But it's very well-documented. And the individual who wrote it was a scholar and a linguist and has several appendices that have the legal documents in the various languages of origin, many of them Latin. And I realized it is real. It is for real. The caterpillars, needless to say, did not show up in court that day, but the magistrates or whoever was in charge went ahead with some legal proceedings and decided, well, there'll be - there will be alternate land set aside for the caterpillars. And, you know, that took some time to do. By that time, of course, the caterpillars had pupated, were no longer eating the crops. And everybody went away happy.
And - but the book is - it's fascinating because there were, you know, in the appendix, there'll be, like, an expense report filed by the bailiff who kept the pig in prison - the expenses of keeping the pig in prison, awaiting trial for killing a child. There was a trial. The pig was executed. Just kind of amazing, which led me to think, you know, OK, the legal system - probably not the best way to deal with these animal-human conflicts. Like, let's see what science might bring to bear.
DAVIES: Right. You know, it's - what's fascinating is that, you know, in the 17th century, there wasn't a lot of time to spare for frivolity, I think. What was the point of issuing a summons for caterpillars or...
DAVIES: ...Bringing a criminal charge against a pig?
ROACH: Well, in the case of the caterpillars - and a lot of the wildlife - I mean, the pig is - I think that's a little different because it's somebody's pig. So that's kind of a...
DAVIES: There's a property interest, yeah.
ROACH: Yes. That pig is property. But wild animals are the province of the state. So the way that the author explained it was that this was a way for these magistrates, these leaders to say, we are so powerful that we control even nature. We can resolve these problems because we have ultimate dominion over nature and over you, the population, and we will step in and be all-powerful. And that was his interpretation. Whether or not that's the answer, I don't know. But that was what made a certain amount of sense because otherwise it kind of makes no sense (laughter).
DAVIES: Right - planting the flag in this battle.
You spent time with people who investigate cases of where hikers or campers might have been attacked - fatally attacked by animals. What sort of things did you learn to look at? I mean, what did you want to find in the bodies?
ROACH: It was a seminar - a training seminar for, you know, people who work for wildlife agencies or - which have different names up in Canada. A lot of these folks were Canadian because there are so many bears up there. So it was a five-day training course for people in wildlife agencies mostly. And there are a lot of fascinating similarities with a crime scene where a human has killed another human. In other words, the scene of the crime, if you will, is taped off. The officers come in. They secure the scene. They're gathering evidence, putting the little evidence flags down. They have to do it very carefully 'cause there may be a bear or a cougar in the region because these animals tend to cache their victim and hang around and come back and feed again. So they come in very carefully and well-armed.
But they're gathering evidence. And the first thing that they're having to figure out is - and this is not something that cops on CSI would do. The first thing they need to figure out is, what species killed this person? Was it a human? Was it a cougar? Was it a wolf? Was it a bear? And so we learned all the kind of hallmark telltale signs of a bear attack versus a cougar attack. And they kill very differently and for different reasons.
So we learned all of that, and then you move on to actually identifying the individual. And this was amazing to me because, you know, you have a suspect. In other words, if you trapped an animal on the scene, say a bear, you would do - you, if you were the predator attack specialist, would look at the DNA of the animal versus the DNA of the victim, and you'd be establishing a link. And if the link wasn't there, the suspect is released. So some of these bears - there was a case up in Canada where two bears were trapped, and they were not the right bear, and they were let go. So it is - it has these fascinating overlaps with the human jurisprudence system.
DAVIES: Yeah. And this is fascinating because, you know, we're not going to hire the bear a lawyer and go to court. I mean, what is the point of - well, what do you do when you have positively identified that, yes, this bear attacked a person?
ROACH: Well, the bear - a bear - in this country and in Canada, a bear that attacks and kills a person is destroyed. But the point is to not destroy the wrong bear, to not just shoot - like, oh, yeah, we saw one on the scene, and we shot at it and killed it. There was one case that my group - we broke down into teams, and my team had a situation - and these were based on real cases - where a woman called 'cause her fiance had disappeared. Someone from the sheriff's department came out and saw a wolf, assumed that it was the wolf that had attacked the guy and shot the wolf. And it turned out it wasn't the wolf, it wasn't a wolf at all. It was a bear.
DAVIES: So there's - it's important to get the right creature...
DAVIES: ...And, I guess, the point being a bear that attacks once - a human once is going to attack again, and one that hasn't attacked a human may not. So...
ROACH: Yeah. There's no reason to - we don't want - we being the public in general - doesn't want an animal destroyed - especially a bear - doesn't want a bear destroyed for no reason. So there - and that's lovely. And I didn't necessarily expect that all that work goes toward finding the right creature, making sure that you're not destroying an animal without any evidence that that animal committed the crime - quote, unquote, "crime."
DAVIES: So give us one of the distinguishing characteristics of the wound of, say, a bear attack as opposed to a cougar attack on a body.
ROACH: Bears tend to do what they do when they fight amongst themselves, which is they go for the face. The face is lightly furred, so they kind of go teeth to teeth when they fight with each other. And horribly, that is kind of where they go first when they are attacking a person. So there are a lot of wounds to the face and to the upper body. And there's also - because of the - you know, a cougar is a killing machine. It is a predator. And it kills for its living, unlike a bear. Bears are omnivores. They're eating nuts and berries and insects and other things. So they're not - their teeth aren't equipped for that kind of quick killing bite, which is what a cougar does. It leaps from behind often, does a killing bite to the neck, kind of severs the spinal cord - very effective, very clean kill - versus a bear, which is - bear victims, it's a messy scenario. A lot of kind of bite, bite, bite, kind of - you know, they've got molars for grinding and chewing. They don't - they're - it's messy, Dave.
DAVIES: Some ugly fake crime scenes you've witnessed, I guess?
ROACH: They had these soft mannequins that they had recreated wounds from actual attacks up in Canada and some in the U.S. So they had them laid out on tables. And this was - the conference was held, oddly enough, in a casino outside Reno. You know, it kind of rotates year by year. So it was kind of a surreal setting. There was a bingo game going on in the next conference room.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Mary Roach. She's a science writer. Her latest book is "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law." We'll be back to talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with science writer Mary Roach. She has a new book about conflicts between people and animals and some plants. It's called "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law."
So apart from identifying individual bears or cougars that may have harmed a human, there's this general problem of bears encroaching in upon civilization, which is, of course, I guess, really, a reflection of civilization encroaching upon bears' habitats. But you visited Aspen, Colo., I think it was, where - and talked to people on - who have to try and prevent bears from coming into towns and raiding garbage cans. It was remarkable how resourceful bears could be and discriminating in their pillaging of homes and garages, wasn't it?
ROACH: It was. It was. There was - one of the women who investigates these things and tries to prevent them - she's actually at the resort Snowmass. She said that the bears of Pitkin County, they prefer the premium ice cream brands. They will not touch Western Family ice cream, which is, I guess, the budget brand there (laughter) - just something she'd noticed. They are discriminating. And they - the wildlife control, the parks and wildlife guy that I was traveling around with on - there was a bear break-in. And we went to the house. And he was talking about how the bears will - first of all, French door handles, the building code forbids those because it's so easy for a bear to just push down and push in. Anybody with a paw can do that. So those, you're not supposed to use those, even a hollow doorknob because the bears can crush - get a grip with their teeth, crush it and turn it.
And then, obviously, automatically opening doors are a problem. There are bears that walk into ski resorts and hotels (laughter) just through the automatic door - makes it very easy. So they're very, very resourceful, and sometimes very delicate in their depredations. He said - this officer told me that they'll sometimes see, you know, a bear has reached in, taken out a carton of eggs and set it aside. There was one case where a bear unwrapped a Hershey's kiss and ate it. This is hard for me to believe, but this guy would know - that they'll pull a door off its frame. But instead of knocking it - you know, throwing it over the deck, they'll just lean it against the wall next to the frame of the door (laughter). So sometimes they're quite - yeah, they're quite resourceful, but also sometimes quite surprisingly delicate in their - you know, they'll come into a house on the lower floor, go upstairs, through the living room, to the kitchen, not knock anything over - just go straight to the fridge, open it up, take out what they want and then go.
DAVIES: Wow. That's sounds so civilized.
ROACH: It does (laughter). It does.
DAVIES: Are people less traumatized by bears that seem to know how to go for food as opposed to be - you know, be aggressive and ready to attack?
ROACH: Yes. And they're also more tolerant and less likely to call it in, like, to call in the break-in because they're - they'll say - they'll just look around and go, my God, you know, he broke in here, but he didn't even break anything. So they just - rather than call - report it to parks and wildlife, they will just let it go. And that's nice because if you do call in and report a bear breaking in and it's - you know, it's getting that close to people, that bear - the end point of that is usually that the bear will be destroyed, and people know that. So people in this area, a lot of them, just - they don't call in these bear incidents because they don't want the bear destroyed.
DAVIES: Well, do these bears who who make a habit of finding food, do they end up also attacking people sometimes?
ROACH: Well, not - none of them that's been on - it - there was one one death in Colorado. I think this year was the first time in 10 years, I think, that someone had been killed by a bear in Colorado. Usually what happens, it's similar to when a human breaks into a house and somebody is home. Then suddenly you've got a defensive burglar and an angry resident. And sometimes there's dog. If a dog in the house gets involved, the bear and the dog go at it, the human tries to intervene. And then you have something called attack redirection sometimes, where the bear might just turn on the person. And so that's a possibility. It's quite rare.
It's not - I mean, bears tend to be - you know, they're crimes of opportunity. There's food. The bear is trying to get to the food. And if you get in the way, for example, if you have food in your tent and a bear breaks into the tent and you sit up and scream and, you know, that things can happen in that scenario. So yes, that's, you know, sometimes that happens, but it's surprisingly rare given the number of calls. I mean, there were - the time I visited Aspen between the time when the bears came out of hibernation and spring through to the end of the summer, when I was there, 421 calls about bears damaging, property breaking and stuff like that. But nobody had been killed.
DAVIES: But local law enforcement and wildlife authorities, they want to do something about that. This is not a good thing to have bears routinely moving through town. And, you know, there are laws about bear-proof garbage receptacles, but people, restaurants violate them all the time. What are the authorities that you spoke to - what are they trying to do about this?
ROACH: Yeah. It seems like it'd be pretty simple and straightforward. You get bear-resistant containers, so the bears are not likely to come into town and go after food because they can't get. It seems pretty straightforward. But the problem is that sometimes you'll have one dumpster with several restaurants sharing it, huge numbers of staff coming in, dropping bags in. They're in a hurry. They're not necessarily remembering or caring to shut the container, the dumpster. So a lot of times they're left unlocked. A lot of times they're damaged and not fixed. I was in an alley late at night, 3 in the morning in Aspen, behind a bunch of restaurants. And there were broken containers.
There was a - we came across two bears having a lovely meal of, you know, sustainable Skuna Bay salmon and other things from one of the restaurants. And even, you know, down the alley away, there was one of those big grease deposits where people empty the cooking grease. And the researcher that I was with said he'd seen, you know, bear prints and grease leading away from that. Like, they're just using it as a drinking fountain because a bear, you know, bear's looking - especially before hibernation - for a concentrated source of calories. So they're like, this is great. It's less work than wandering around looking for, you know, berries and acorns.
So - but the problem also is enforcement. Like, you - how many - all these restaurants or in a condo development, multiple people sharing the same garbage container. When you issue the fine, the ticket - who does it go to? And how do they - how do you know, you know, how - so they can say, you know, it wasn't me. How do you know? Right? I always close that thing. So that's a problem - enforcement. Also the, you know, it's a small police department. They don't really have a lot of personnel. So - to be patrolling takes time. And so it's just not as simple.
Then vacation. But also, these are - a lot of these are vacation rentals. So people coming in for a weekend, they don't know. They don't understand the scenario with bears or that you're putting the bear in danger of being destroyed by leaving your garbage out and, you know, attracting the bears. So that's a problem also.
DAVIES: So if authorities have trouble controlling human behavior, the trash is going to be out there. They obviously focus sometimes on the bears. What can they do or is there anything they can do to discourage the bears from coming in? Or do they capture them and relocate them? What do they do?
ROACH: You can try to translocate the bear. I mean, you can relocate. Just sort of put it back in the nearest wilderness. Or you can move it farther afield. The thing is that bears are very good at finding their way back. I think the record is 142 miles finding their way back to their home terrain. So they're very good at that. And the other issue is that when you translocate a bear to a different wilderness area and it - you, being an agency, and that bear ends up in the community closest to that wilderness area and it starts doing the same thing, breaking into trash and homes, now you, the agency, that put the bear there are legally responsible. And so there have been - and there have been lawsuits. And that's one discouraging factor.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Mary Roach. She's a popular science writer. Her latest book is "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law." We'll talk more in a moment. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Mary Roach, a science writer who's written six bestselling books. Her latest deals with conflicts between humans and animals, such as bears, cougars, elephants, monkeys, deer and others - and a few plants. The book is called "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The law."
You went to India, where elephants can be a problem. Hundreds of people a year in India are killed by elephants. I mean, I guess this is, as is so often the case, caused in part by elephant habitat being restricted, as - you know, as human civilization advances. Is there a typical way that people are killed by elephants?
ROACH: Yes, there is. Like you said, their land is being encroached upon. And India is a very populous country. And there have been military bases and roads and communities of refugees. And that part of India where the elephants roam, the elephant corridor, has become kind of broken up. And so these elephants sometimes get stuck. They call them pocketed elephants, which is a term - I love to picture an elephant in a pocket (laughter).
DAVIES: Yeah, in a pocket. Yes.
ROACH: They're pocketed elephants. So they're kind of trapped in this patch of land. And elephants, they're social animals. They move around in groups. And they eat a lot of food. They're very big animals. So they start running out of food, and they tend to look to farmers' fields. So imagine you're a villager. And you've put the crops in. They're starting to be ready to harvest. And this group of elephants comes in and, first of all, tramples a lot of it and also starts to eat your bounty there. That's an upsetting thing. It often happens at night.
So you've got people from the village running out, maybe with fire on a stick, you know, or loud noises, just trying to scare them off in a way that's quite chaotic. And so you have elephants freaked out and panicked. And you have people running around and screaming in the dark. And as my mother liked to say, somebody is going to get hurt. And that is how that happens frequently. The elephant - you know, elephants are not preying on people. They're not stalking them and killing them. But they're large. And you just need to get knocked over or stepped on, and you can be killed. So that is often the way it goes down.
DAVIES: Right. Right. It's not a trivial thing for a farmer to lose a third of his crop to elephants. So it's understandable that they would react in an aggressive way. It's interesting that many of these deaths are by accident. And you write that there is a gruesome way to distinguish people who've been killed accidentally by an elephant from those who might have been killed intentionally.
ROACH: Yes. This was - one of the elephant response team leaders said - because they come in and do a kind of a forensics similar to what we were talking about earlier with American wildlife. They will look at the victim. And he said if an elephant has the intent of killing someone, it will be in pieces. I mean, the way an elephant feeds, you know, it'll wrap its, you know, sort of trunk around a branch and sort of pull off the leaves. It's a natural behavior to kind of grab something and pull. So apparently that happens.
DAVIES: Literally pull a person apart? Right.
ROACH: There's a list of five or six different ways. That was - that one kind of stayed with me. But, I mean, they may stomp on someone. Or - I mean, there's other ways that they can do it. But that is sort of unique to the elephant.
DAVIES: Yeah. It's interesting that you write that inebriation is a problem with farmers who may try and run elephants off, but also with the elephants themselves.
ROACH: Yeah. Elephants like to drink. This is something else that surprised me about elephants. They particularly go after - there's a homebrew, kind of a fermented drink called haaria - H-A-A-R-I-A. And elephants enjoy that very much. And it's quite fragrant. So they can smell it inside a home. So people will try to bring it inside, you know, thinking - to keep it safe from the elephants, which is a very bad idea because an elephant can very easily take down the wall of the structure to get at this fermented drink. And elephants, when they get drunk, they're, for the most part, not a mean drunk. But sometimes if it's a male elephant in musth, which is kind of a period of hormonal tumult, you don't want to be around a drunk male elephant in musth because they can be very aggressive. Otherwise, they tend to kind of wander off and wrap their trunk around themselves, one study reported, and just, you know, sleep it off.
DAVIES: When they're drunk? Wow.
ROACH: When they're drunk, yeah.
DAVIES: Some of the most colorful stories in this book involve - this is also in India. The rhesus macaque monkeys - am I saying this properly? - these cute, plentiful monkeys, I mean, really plentiful in some parts of India. What kind of problems do they create?
ROACH: Well, they're very mischievous. And they will grab things from people. They kind of (laughter) do this amazing maneuver where they will stick up and grab your sunglasses or your cellphone. As far as I know, monkeys, they are not using the cellphone. They are holding it hostage, basically. And people know that if you approach, then, with a piece of fruit or a treat of some kind, the monkey will take that fruit and hand you back your sunglasses or your cellphone or your keys, whatever you had in your hand. So they're quite slick, these monkeys. There's been...
DAVIES: The monkey rackets. Wow.
ROACH: Yeah, I know. So there was kind of a bizarre epidemic of people falling to their deaths from balconies because macaques. And they're usually in a group, a troupe. They come down from the roof. And they jump onto a balcony. The person is startled or tries to keep them from getting into the house, the apartment, you know, through the window. Either they lose their footing and fall or the monkeys push them. It's kind of unclear. But multiple - there are something like five deaths of people falling off of balconies because monkeys had jumped down onto the balcony in an effort to get into the apartment and ransack it for food. So they're not just pesky, they're actually, in some cases, killing. But they are a little unnerving. I was mugged by a macaque while I was there, and it is a little unnerving. I mean, I...
DAVIES: You were mugged by a macaque? How did this happen?
ROACH: I was kind of asking for it. I walked up this trail where I knew there were a lot of macaques. And I walked up holding a bag of bananas. I just wanted to see what would happen. I was curious, you know? Nothing happened for a while. And I'm walking along. And suddenly, this little head pops up from behind a boulder. And I was like, there he is, uh, oh - kind of like the bandits waiting for the stagecoach. So this head sort of pops up. And this monkey steps into my path. And I stop. And I'm like, OK, this is it. But then, meanwhile, there's been one behind me on the other side, runs - darts out into the trail and grabs the bag and takes off. And I don't know if they were a team, like, I'll distract her and you grab the bananas. I don't know if that's what was going on or whether they were competing bandits. But anyway, I got mugged.
DAVIES: You were relieved quickly of the bananas you had brought. (Laughter) I was. I was. Yeah. Yeah. You know, one of the interesting things about this is that these are in cities and villages where these monkeys roam in bands and go to find food. And they're probably more likely to be in places where affluent people live because there's more vegetation and trees around their apartments, right?
DAVIES: What are some of the things that more affluent people do to deal with this issue?
ROACH: They will hire what's called a monkey walla, who is somebody who has a langur. A langur is a bigger, burlier monkey that is kind of scary for macaques. So they will sometimes hire a langur guy who just patrols with a langur. But this is actually illegal now because it's against the Wildlife Protection Act. It's not fair to the langurs.
DAVIES: I want to just set the picture here. This is a langur on a leash, right?
DAVIES: Right. So it's kind of like you have your muscle.
DAVIES: And you have somebody who's walking around with a langur on a leash. And does it do the trick? I mean...
ROACH: It is quite effective. But now they have to do it surreptitiously. And the woman that I spoke to, who's a - she's an attorney there who works in the area of trying to get the city to do something about monkeys - she lives in an affluent community. And she said she goes to the same club where Prime Minister Modi goes, and the monkeys are getting in the swimming pool. She said they've been in the halls of Parliament. They come into the courts. (Laughter) They come - and they're all over.
DAVIES: Tell the story about the hospital, them coming into the hospital and pulling out the IVs. This is amazing.
ROACH: This attorney told me a story of a macaque that would go into the All India Medical Institute, I believe it was called, and run into rooms and pull out the IV if somebody was getting, you know, glucose - a glucose drip - and suck on the needle like it was a popsicle sort of (laughter). This was kind of an amazing stunt for a monkey. They're inventive. But the - going back to what I wanted to mention, it's illegal to use now the langurs. But some affluent people will do it illegally. But they'll also - you can hire somebody to go around and have the langur just urinate on the home, like the smell of urine. And there was this great quote. I think it was in the Times - in The New York Times - the guy saying, I have 65 langurs urinating on prominent homes.
DAVIES: So it's a business. You're the langur pee guy.
DAVIES: Oh, wow.
ROACH: ...Exactly. The city itself, New Delhi, trained some men to impersonate langurs, not in a costume, although some media said that they were in a costume. They were very adept at doing the calls of langurs, which would scare the macaques away. So they would wander through these affluent neighborhoods making macaque calls. So there's been a lot of interesting and creative efforts.
DAVIES: Yeah, kind of strikes me as a thing that's not going to make a permanent difference - right? - if you can (unintelligible)...
DAVIES: ...Giving a screaming langur call around you, it's OK for a while. But eventually, the monkeys sense the all clear and come back, right?
ROACH: Yeah. They call your bluff pretty fast.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with science writer Mary Roach. Her new book is "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL WELTLINGER'S "GHOSTS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with science writer Mary Roach. She has a new book about conflicts between humans and animals and some plants and how humans are trying to deal with them. The name of the book is "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law."
We have a lot of issues with birds. (Unintelligible) there are a lot of birds. There are birds that, you know, feed on crops and, you know, farm food and all that. And it's fascinating that you write that in the past, there have been cases of people using military hardware to actually try and deal with this problem. There was some years in Australia where emus were a problem for farmers, and they actually got the military to come out and use machine guns on them. How did that work?
ROACH: Yeah. I like this story because the emus won. There was a group of farmers in Western Australia - I think 1932 - who were dealing with large mobs of emus that would come in and feast on their grain, their wheat. And they contacted the military and first asked, can we borrow some machine guns? And the military said, no (laughter), you cannot borrow our machine guns. However, we will send General Meredith and his men, and they will take care of the problem. So General Meredith shows up with a coterie of machine gunners who set themselves up, waited for the emus to come. Emus were very good at not ever really getting within range. They also seemed to be able to withstand the bullets. I think they weren't withstanding them, but it seemed to General Meredith that these birds were invincible. He was actually quite awed by their ability to withstand this onslaught of bullets. I think the men were just not very good aims. But in the end, General Meredith withdrew with his machine gunners, and the problem continued for the farmers. The emus - basically, the emus won.
DAVIES: You know, there is this problem with birds around airports getting into, you know, flight paths of takeoff and landing. And you discovered that there's a national Wildlife Strike Database, which tracks how often birds of various kinds encounter aircraft and the outcomes. What did you find there?
ROACH: Well, it tends to be, as you might expect, the big birds that are - well, I should - I take that back. It's either the big birds or the birds that travel in big flocks, which are kind of like avian krill. I mean, it's like a big flock, and you're heading into it. You're going to ingest some birds. Hopefully that will not be a problem. I mean, the jet engines are tested. Like, birds are introduced, shall we say, into the engine to make sure that it can withstand a certain amount of bird. So it tends to be pelicans, vultures, hawks, the big ones, you know, the - Canada geese there was the key was Canada geese that were involved in Sully Sullenberger's historic flight. And it is not going to be a chickadee (laughter).
DAVIES: Well, I just noticed that. I mean, this is sort of the depth of the data here - 27 documented cases of chickadee strikes by aircraft, none causing damage. So that was something.
DAVIES: What's the latest thinking about what to do about this? I mean, birds are there. They fly.
ROACH: Well, birds, I mean, there's ways to - you can keep them out of the area. You know, there's ways to - one of the problems is that airports are often out on the fringes of an urban area, kind of in wetlands. So it's it's good territory for birds.
DAVIES: You know, the book ends on a really refreshing note. You were writing about how rodents can be problems for farmers because they get into their barns and corrals and eat food for livestock and whatever. And you visit a guy named Roger (ph) who's a fairly big rancher, right? He raises cattle both for dairy and beef. Tell us about his experience with his mice.
ROACH: Well, sure. Yeah, Roger ran a feedlot out in Colorado, feedlot being people shipped their cattle to him, and he raises the cattle according to what they'll be used for - meat or milk or breeding more cattle. So he has massive amounts of grain and corn and things that mice also like to eat. And so I imagined that Roger would be an interesting person to talk to about his attitude toward these rodents and what he does. I ended up there because Roger's feedlot is where the National Wildlife Research Center goes when they need wild mice for any research projects. So - yeah.
And Roger was not at all what I anticipated. You know, I pointed to these mounds of - I don't know if it was barley or hops or, you know, mouse-attracting substances, major piles of them. And I said, you just must have this plague of mice. I mean, how much do you - how do you deal with that? And he said, well, this stuff comes in 15-ton lots. And if a mouse eats 5 pounds of it, I'm not even going to notice. The wind probably blows away more than that. So it's not really an issue. No, he was just very - and there were birds sort of flying around also overhead. And I said, do you do anything about the birds? And he said, well, it's seasonal. It's - you can hire people to shoot at them and scare them, but they just come back anyway. So it's not - it's just not that big a deal.
And I guess I just love that, you know, he - and he also said, I've got - we've got owls, barn owls. We've got cats. So that, you know, takes care of some of the problem. Foxes come and eat the mice. So it's all OK. He was just very laid back about it. And he had the kind of attitude where basically he was, you know, practicing a, you know, a natural form of pest control with his cats and his foxes and his barn owls. But he was, you know, he's big ag. You know, he's a guy who raises cattle for large, you know, like Cargill and some of these large operations. And the fact that he was willing to coexist with the mice - and there were quite a few mice. You'd go into the machine room there and you'd see them scurrying along the walls. Just the fact that he had that willingness to coexist.
DAVIES: Well, Mary Roach, thanks so much for speaking with us again.
ROACH: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much.
DAVIES: Mary Roach is a science writer. Her latest book is "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law." Coming Up, Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new recording from saxophonist Joel Frahm. This is FRESH AIR.
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