A few miles from National Geographic's headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., coyotes roam. But they weren't here a few decades ago.
These wily denizens of the plains have so successfully spread across the country that they've been spotted hanging out on the roof of a New York City bar and bedding down at Chicago's Soldier Field Stadium.
Thanks to several factors—the food cornucopia that is suburbia, climate change expanding species' ranges, and less hunting, to name a few—wildlife is going increasingly urban worldwide. (Get facts on suburban wildlife, too.)
And that means people in cities are grappling with how to live with their wildlife neighbors, whether it's dealing with parrots in Brooklyn or monkeys in Cape Town.
In his new book, Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle, author Tristan Donovan takes us along with scientists, government officials, wildlife wranglers, and others in their quest to learn—and live with—the new kids on the block. National Geographic caught up with Donovan recently to get more background on his book.
You’re an ecologist by training—is that how you got interested in urban wildlife?
I never did anything with the degree—until now. What got me thinking about it again were media reports of foxes turning up in people's houses in London. I grew up in London, and it didn’t seem like there were that many foxes around when I was kid. It had reached a new height. That made me wonder: What's going on, and is this happening everywhere?
You write about a wide range of animals, from boars in Berlin to cockroaches in New York City. How did you narrow down what creatures to highlight?
I wanted to get a really big range—it would have been easy to do rats, pigeons, and foxes and leave it at that [chuckles]. But the more I looked into it, the more I found: the mountain lion living on the edge of Los Angeles, the thousands of feral chickens running around Miami, and so on. I also thought including urban bugs would be interesting because there are bugs in everyone’s homes, and I wanted to look at what are they doing too. (Learn more about wildlife in your backyard on Nat Geo Wild's Urban Jungle.)
The journalistic approach is unique—how did you decide to shadow people in their experiences with urban wildlife?
People are a big part of the urban-wildlife story, so seeing animals firsthand with animal control officers and researchers seemed a good way to bring the subject to life. Also I wanted to break away from the usual literary approach to nature writing and give readers something that was entertaining as well as informative.
What were some of your most memorable experiences in writing the book?
The snakes. Obviously I’ve seen snakes in zoos, but we don’t have many snakes in the U.K. The first time I saw a wild snake was tracking a boa constrictor in Miami for the book. I had this moment of, "This doesn’t bother me in the glass cage, but what about a wild one slithering around?" The snake came out from under our feet too, but it wasn’t as scary as I imagined it might be. (Also see "Python 'Nightmare': New Giant Species Invading Florida.")
What urban animal was most impressive to you?
Hearing about the leopards in Mumbai was amazing. I spoke to a researcher who studied leopard activity in Indian cities for that chapter. I had assumed leopards wouldn't go anywhere near cities since they're quite secretive and Indian cities are so busy. The most surprising thing is that people very rarely encounter them. I also liked the coyotes—they're so resilient and adaptable, you can't help but be impressed. In Chicago, for example, they have learned to cross busy roads safely and find places to den unnoticed even in the busiest areas.
Has writing the book changed your outlook on the world?
Absolutely. Now when I walk around cities I notice the wildlife, I notice what the birds are doing. I'm a lot more aware of the wildlife around me now. Before I rarely noticed it. (See "Watch Raccoons Escape Trash Can—Are Urban Animals Getting Smarter?")
What else do you think our readers should know about the animals among us?
That wildlife is in the city, and quite a lot of it too, and most of the time they don't cause problems. We should appreciate it more—it's fantastic our cities are not dead and lifeless.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.