Don’t Blame PizzaRat: Why the Animal World Is Getting Nuttier
Author Mary Roach talks to The Daily Beast about all the mind-bending stuff she learned while writing her book “Fuzz,” about animals out of control.
A friend of mine recently admitted that she doesn’t like her fellow humans very much. Her true affection, she explained, was reserved for her pet dogs. That’s never been my style, but I can’t blame her—years of bartending in the French Quarter attending to throngs of sloshed tourists will leech the empathy out of anyone. Animals are often portrayed as cute and mischievous yet they’re not always as gentle and benevolent as they seem. Which begs the question spiritedly explored in Mary Roach’s new book Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law—what’s to be done when animals get out of control?
Fuzz will delight and instruct animal lovers, but it’s not intended to speak only to them. Roach keeps her whimsically sharp eye trained on the generally reasonable, sometimes odd, and occasionally hilarious ways that humans try to handle marauding animals of all shapes and sizes. Roach talks with experts “with titles unfamiliar to me: Human-Elephant Conflict Specialist, Bear Manager, Danger-Tree Faller-Blaster.” Spanning the globe from Canada, New Zealand, Italy, India, and across America, Roach taste-tests rat bait and gets willingly mugged by a macaque. She listens to Canadians chirpily demonstrate what a bear can do to a torn-up human dummy, even if bears only account for a small number of fatalities per year.
We follow the ever-humane Roach from the page’s safe distance as she investigates the sometimes convoluted ways that individuals and governments try to negotiate the borders of the natural world. Roach is unfailingly inquisitive and witty, a blessing for a subject that can easily veer toward scientific density. Her self-deprecation stands out from the more rugged nature of her various wilderness guides. I tremble to think how I would react if I randomly interacted with a lumbering brown bear, even if all it really cared about was the alluring aroma of leftover cooking grease. After hearing a mountain lion expert matter-of-factly compare getting a tranquilized cougar out of a tree to wrangling a drunk friend out of a taxi, she remarks that “I envy people able to read the natural world in this way. I move through the woods the way I flip through Chinese editions of my books, seeing shapes and patterns and having no clue what they might mean.”
While investigating the different ways that wild animals mess with human beings, Fuzz’s vigorous narrative includes some very amusing digressions. For example, we discover the delicate euphemisms used by professionals to avoid thinking too hard about killing (preferring terms like “putting down” or “managing”) pesky animals, how bears keep themselves fed and tidy during the long months of hibernation, how the CIA once tried to surreptitiously examine Nikita Khrushchev’s bowel movements, the dos and don’ts of selling used rodent guillotines on eBay (“for god’s sake clean the blade before you take the picture”), and the intricate varieties of fabulous footwear in the pope’s official wardrobe.
It’s not hard to see how often people create an idea of an animal’s personality that is usually based on their own self-image. Lacking human language, animals communicate in their own ways, which forces humans to engage with them on more elemental terms than they’re used to. At one point Roach comments that “wildlife biology has always been a kind of snooping.”
Us self-regarding homo sapiens would be wise to tread lightly on another wild creature’s territory. It’s very easy to assume that just because we built this massive, gleaming civilization (often on former animal habitats) that we must be the true and proper rulers of the earth. It isn’t necessarily so. We may assume that we run things just fine from our side of the fence; take one quick step over that border and you’ll find that you’re suddenly just another flightless biped, a nervous stranger in a strange land, naively encroaching on some wild creature’s home turf. Maybe reckoning with such a power imbalance will take us down a peg or two in our proud estimation and nudge us a little closer towards peaceful coexistence and ecological mutuality.
The Daily Beast talked to Roach via Zoom from her home in California to discuss such topics as counterfeit tiger penises, Werner Herzog, defensive vomiting, and sympathy for the pesky, humble rodent.
What made you want to write Fuzz? What was the original inspiration?
For me it’s usually a process of staggering around, hitting walls, and then sitting down and going, “OK, this is it.” It’s never really an epiphany. It takes me a long time; I just sort of stumble onto things, and I ask people questions. There’s a lab up in Oregon, it’s the National Forensics Wildlife Laboratory, so the combination of wildlife and forensics was interesting to me. A woman named Bonnie Yeats was fascinating: She wrote this eight-page guide for wildlife-enforcement people on how to tell the difference between real versus counterfeit tiger penis, which is sometimes used as a virility booster.
She put together this enormous “hair library” and just that concept of a hair library was very appealing to me. What exactly is that? I thought that might be the piece of a book, and I had to figure out what’s the overarching project to put around it. So I imagined myself in a scene with some investigator doing some kind of sting operation in China where they’re making counterfeit tiger penis, carving little barbs into deer penis or horse penis—they usually use those because they’re bigger and easier to get. When I got there, I talked to the person who ran the lab and they said you can’t go along with anyone on any open case because it’s illegal, so go home.
So eventually, after more stumbling around and hitting walls, I came across the idea of the wildlife as “perpetrators” and the people as “victims”—scare quotes very much intended. They’re not really criminals, animals. And part of it was finding a book from 1906 called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, which was a very dense read but instrumental in turning my thinking around as animals as perpetrators of crimes. At the wildlife lab, animals are the victims, so it led me in a particular direction. So I stumbled onto the science of human/wildlife conflict. I didn’t even know that that existed.
I like to stumble onto a distinct little world of science that is completely new to me, and I know that world will have its own particular characters and scenes and jargon. And animals are interesting to me. It wasn’t out of any longstanding passion for wildlife or for animals. That’s how it happened, through meandering, which is pretty usual for me.
You’re not a particularly huge animal person, right? You’re not one of those people with 15 different pets?
No, I mean I like animals a lot, but in the same way that everybody likes animals. It’s not like I’m taking in wounded squirrels or volunteering at an animal shelter or anything.
Do you tend to approach your subjects as someone who is trying to see it through the lens of a scientist or as someone who wants to be a storyteller?
A little bit of both. When I think about a book, I generally pick these huge topics so I can cherry-pick which parts are going to be the most fun for the reader. Also, more fun for me to report and write. It’s almost like doing a documentary and figuring out where you’re going to go, what’s going to make the most compelling scene and character and conversations. So I start emailing and pestering people about what they’re going to be up to in the next year.
If it’s not going to be an interesting narrative, I’m not going to put it in the book. I didn’t have any ongoing research that had anything to do with coyotes, Canada geese, and wolves, which would have been three obvious things to do. If you want to have a comprehensive and mature sense of human/animal conflict, you can’t leave those out. Those are animals who are in the news a lot, but I don’t have a way into it that’s unique. I don’t just want to write about the issues, because then it’s like a news story, or a different kind of book.
My book Gulp goes from the mouth to the asshole, follows along the tube of the stomach, and I didn’t even mention the liver. I barely even talk about nutrition, or digestion. I’m like, has an animal ever escaped from a stomach? Is it possible for mealworms to escape from the stomach, which took me to Jonah and the Whale. And a news story about a whale actually escaping from a whale’s stomach. People think it’s a book about nutrition or digestion and I’m like, oh God, no, that would be boring. I would never do that to my readers! It’s very much about finding a narrative first, that’s kind of a scaffold, then I’m hanging the science and the information up. And I think people do enjoy learning about stuff.
What was the weirdest animal situation you found yourself in while you were working on this book?
It would have to be the elephant scenario. When I was a kid, my favorite animal was the elephant. When you’re a kid, you just have to pick a favorite animal and so I went with elephants, I don’t really know why. We’re all raised with Babar and Dumbo and National Geographic, so when I found out that elephants in India kill five hundred people a year, that kind of blew my mind.
When I got to India I was with this researcher, and when we were in this area where there were a lot of elephants, so I saw plenty of warning signs. It was dusk, which is about the time when elephants really start getting active, and I immediately wanted to go down to where there is a sign—it’s hilarious, I still have a picture of it somewhere—that said: “Elephant Crossing Zone, Your Hobby May Mean Your Death!”
What does that mean!?
I think they meant to warn people about the dangers of photography, but they didn’t specify! The people I was with were like, are you nuts? We’re coming with you. You can’t go down there alone. So it just seemed so surreal. But if you compare five hundred elephants killing people a year in India, compared to the fact bears kill about three people in this country every year, there’s no comparison.
When you’re in India and one of the people you’re with talks about the monkeys, the macaques, and he’s convinced that they know exactly what they’re doing when they mess with humans. I’ve never been one to assume that animals have that much of a unique consciousness. But I’ve definitely spent some time around certain animals and got a sense that they really have distinct personalities. I’m curious if all your time dealing with attacking animals changed your thinking about them that much.
You can always come up with an explanation; Dipanjan Naha, a researcher with the wildlife institute of India, always said they’re happier when they harass you. His wife felt like it’s more of a behavior that’s being rewarded—they steal your cellphone because they know you’ll give them fruit—and he’s just like, Shweta, no! They turned the flowerpot upside down, they smashed it up, and there’s no reason. They do it just to annoy me!
And especially with monkeys, it’s hard not to get the sense that they’re laughing at you all the time. I was talking to these gull researchers, and they said that because all gulls look alike to us, we tend to think they’re all alike, but they’re completely different. Some of them just stay out in the ocean and eat shellfish, there are some that eat hot dogs off the ground, and some like to attack other birds and kill them and eat them. They’ve each got their own personalities.
Have you seen Werner Herzog’s movie Grizzly Man?
Oh yes, I love his work.
There’s an interesting moment in the film where Herzog does a voiceover in his heavy German voice and he says that Timothy Treadwell (who left everything to go live with these wild bears, to his eventual regret) saw the bear as a friend, a savior, but Herzog sees only “the overwhelming indifference of nature.” (There’s a hilarious interview on the set of Fitzcarraldo where Herzog is stewing about the “obscenity of the jungle” and how everywhere he looks he sees nothing but “fornication and asphyxiation”). That says something about how people think about animals, how they imagine their relationship with them. It’s not like animals can talk to you, but it’s only natural to start feeling connected to them somehow. Did researching this change your opinion at all?
It seems to me that there’s two camps, and there’s some people in the middle who are more reasonable, but ultimately there’s two camps. I’m thinking specifically about bears, and people who see them as kind of bumbling and lovable and teddy bear-like. These are the kind of people who go up to bears in downtown Aspen, Colorado with a selfie stick and stand next to the bear and take a selfie of themselves with it without any sense that this could end really messily.
And there are those people who just want to pet them and be very close to them. And I understand that, because when you see them, they are utterly lovable, and you don’t get the sense that they could just walk over and rip your face off. But they can.
And then there are the people who are just terrified that bears will stalk you and tear you to bits out of spite, just for the hell of it, because they’re like predator monsters, which is also not accurate. And that probably comes from cultural references, like with me and the elephants—I just could not see an elephant as a danger to me. I’m like, “What’s the matter, you guys are pussies! I’m going down to the elephant crossing zone.”
It’s just an elephant, it’s big, it’s just gonna walk by, it’s no big deal. They come in packs of eight, and you can get stepped on, and then you’re dead. I think it was just really hard for me to change my view of them. And I think Timothy Treadwell was one of those folks who saw that kind of thing in bears and plus he had probably tens of thousands of moments where nothing much happened. And this is especially true for people who live in bear country. Bears are kind of like big raccoons. They’re trying to get some food, they’re smart, they’re kind of cute. But they’re very food-focused, above all else.
It’s interesting how we choose to view a certain animal, it’s hard to change that. I think that animals like rodents particularly suffer from that, particularly rats. I mean, you will never get anybody to care about a rat. I feel like some rodents and birds, partly because we call them pests, it’s very easy to just pick up the phone and call someone to make them go away. We don’t really think of them as animals, we tend to think of them as irritants. Personally, I started feeling bad for them—if anything changed in the course of this book, I started to feel more sympathetic towards rodents.
For instance, the fact that anybody still uses glue traps, that people still make glue traps, is crazy—there are plenty of ways to kill a rat that are way less cruel. There are all kinds of reasons why people hate them; there’s the plague, viruses, there’s all kinds of reasons why people have those feelings. I felt like being an advocate for the little guys who don’t have anybody looking out for them.
The kinds of things people know about animals gets very random. We’re all familiar with images in movies and whatever, but what do I actually know about them as creatures? What was something you learned about a particular animal that you had no idea that that was the real way they worked?
Well, I found out about something called “defensive vomiting.” I had heard about it in vultures, and gulls do it too. It’s something they do when they feel threatened by a predator, which is they throw up at the predator. And I assumed, because they’re birds, that they do it because they want to be lighter in order to fly off and escape. Then I thought that’s not it, they’re doing it to disgust their attacker, to throw them off and repulse them with a fetid, stinking mass. But in fact, they do it to provide an alternate meal. Like, here’s something for you to eat instead of me! And I’ve partially digested a meal for you, I’ve done a service for you, here you go. Eat this instead!
You’d think most animals would have the instinct to fight or flight, but instead these birds offer their attackers a treat.
It’s fight, flight, or vomit. It’s like if someone tried to steal your iPhone and you wanted to keep it, so instead you said here, have my diamond necklace instead. And I imagine that that’s the theory as to why they do it; you can’t ask the gull why it defensively vomits.
I enjoyed the set piece at the Vatican in Rome where the seagulls kept swooping in to attack the ceremonial arrangements for the Pope. It’s like setting up for a high school basketball game or something, figuring out how many chairs to put out, and how to officially deal with all the gull poop.
They had a problem with gulls vandalizing the display. You can tell from that chapter that I was more interested in the inner workings of the Vatican than the gulls. I’d never been there, and it’s so compellingly weird to me because it’s an entire nation crammed into a space which is the size of a mall parking lot. It’s just so weird that it exists, and I wanted any excuse to try to get into the Vatican. The process of getting in was funny, because I don’t have the usual press credentials, so I’m writing to the Secretary General of the Vatican, which at the time was like writing to Trump to see if you can come into the country.
Getting this formal letter back, that took a couple of months. Someone put me in touch with a reporter who was involved in the Catholic News Service for the special projects, which is usually about filming movies, but not books. There was no person to go to for books, so I kept getting passed back and forth bureaucratically so that process was as interesting to me as the whole gull debacle.
I love the digression on the pope’s very specific selection of footwear. There’s an actual guy who is in charge of deciding exactly what kinds of footwear the pope is supposed to wear. It’s one of those things where it’s like if you think of the Vatican as its own subculture, it’s a country of its own with its own customs. The idea of a guy saying “the pope would not be caught dead in those shoes,” the pope as a clotheshorse is just hilarious.
And the fact that Pope Benedict was named “accessorizer of the year” by Esquire magazine. And I really wanted to find out what kind of rodent control company the pope uses. It was just this hilariously long and specific Italian phrase.
I did get curious about how the bureaucracy of these places works. When animals attack it’s not like they’re citizens, right? It’s got to be a different standard. Who’s really in charge of them becomes kind of an interesting question.
Bureaucracy is something that always cracks me up. I have a soft spot for extreme bureaucracy because you see how ridiculous it is. I also love corporate public relations; I love the way they talk to you and what they try to do to you. The bureaucracy in India is infamous, and so I could have just called the guy on the phone, but I really wanted to go to the South Delhi Municipal Court, which is just this giant 18-floor, three-building infrastructure. The elevators take half an hour to show up. There’s a button on the desk that the guy presses to get their assistant to come in.
The monkeys in New Delhi fall within the purview of the veterinary department of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, I think there’s three different municipal corporations in all. So there’s technically one guy and it’s his problem. If you go and talk to him about it, he will tell you: they are wild animals, this is the purview of the forest department.
Then you contact the other guy. Even though it’s been determined that they are his problem, he doesn’t think they are, so when you call the forest department, he will say those animals are no longer wild, they’re in a city, therefore they are not my problem. They’re both trying not to deal with this problem, and you can’t really blame them because it’s a very vexing problem.
Yeah, I mean if my dog or something bites someone that doesn’t mean I’m going to jail.
I mean, there’s legal action, because dogs and cats are considered property. And so the law is involved because of people being injured by someone else’s property. With wild animals they’re not property, so they’re managed by these state agencies like Fish & Wildlife or Fish & Game, but once they get into the city they’re suddenly in this grey zone. It is interesting to see people try to figure out how to manage it and whose problem it is, because nobody wants to deal with it.
You talk about the farmer in the last chapter who has compassion for the rodents who come in and mess with his farm. You express a lot of admiration for his compassion.
I loved Roger. He’s basically big Ag. He has a feedlot so people who raise cattle for beef or milk or whatever they ship them to him to be raised on a certain diet, for whatever they’re going to be raised for. And he’s got these mountains of food. You look at them and think he must have thousands of rodents.
I had assumptions about the way he would react to this, but he was so mellow about it all. Roger’s telling me that he’s got all this stuff coming in multiple ton lots, so if the mice eat 50 pounds of it, I’m not sure I’m going to notice. The wind blows away as much, so it’s not really a big deal. Roger has foxes and cats that eat the mice. He was practicing coexistence and biocontrol, which are buzzwords for organic farming. Without using those specific terms that’s what he’s been doing. It gave me hope.
There are some people out there who chalk it up to the price of doing business. It’s like if you own a department store there’s going to be shoplifting, you can’t account for everything—you don’t shoot the shoplifters, you just try to outsmart them. Or you figure you’ve just got to build that into my finances because that’s just going to happen.
I wanted to end the book on Roger because I wanted to end the book on a hopeful place, and also maybe as a message to people to be more like Roger and try to make the world a little more of a hopeful place. Yeah, there are squirrels digging in your garden, but you don’t need to trap them and to kill them, there are other things you can do.