|Dr. T.H. Culhane lived at the Los Angeles Eco-Village while attending graduate school at UCLA and worked with colleagues there to create one of the first urban permaculture experiments in a dense built environment in a low income neighborhood. Culhane's entire apartment was off the grid for 3 years, had its own home built composting toilet and recycled much of its greywater. The eco-village itself had nutritious gardens instead of lawns and kept earthworms, rabbits and chickens, using a chicken tractor for weeding and pest control. It was frequently visited by opposums and racoons and many species of birds, lizards and amphibians. The buildings themselves sit along what was once a riparian streambed that Chumash Indians used as prime hunting ground. Currently the Eco-Village is working with the Bresee Center which has partially restored the stream.|
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Looking Toward Zootopia
By T.H. Culhane, Ph.D.
Walking with a throng of students toward the engineering department at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the morning, as we pass a construction site, we are confronted by two imposingly large buck deer with impressive antlers who have decided to nonchalantly cross the street with us. It is hard to say where they came from, or where they are going – the city is ringed by mountains but we are nowhere near a so-called “natural” area; still the residents of this campus environment don’t seem alarmed. They take it in stride, as if it is a perfectly natural occurrence to share the road with large wild mammals on the way to class. During the evening, as we drop a local friend off in her residential area, mere minutes from the city center, we pass an entire family of deer methodically walking along the sidewalk in search of tasty flower plantings lining people’s driveways. Our friend, noting our surprise, comments, “we’re so used to such urban wildlife here that we have almost stopped noticing. A lot of people figure, “it used to belong to them anyway, before our subdivisions encroached on their territory, so we might as well learn to live together.”
In a progressive area like Boulder, where people come from all over the world to study environmental science, it would almost seem as though a “zootopia” where humans and wildlife coexist peacefully within an urban landscape is possible. Our friend’s son tells us they routinely host raccoons, possums, skunks and other ostensibly wild critters in their backyards – occasionally they will even see a puma mountain lion or even a bear pass through. The animals don’t seem to mind the presence of human beings when they aren’t harassed and if anything they seem to find the gardens and garbage cans of human residents an easy and reliable food supply, perhaps even more convenient than foraging in the wild. And many creatures seem to appreciate our built environment for the easy shelter it provides against temperature extremes and inclement weather, to say nothing of the prodigious amounts of heat our buildings pump out.
This is not only true for the native wildlife that urbanization is normally displacing. Exotics also seem to find immigration to the city appealing. In the city of Chicago, when I was a child in the 1960s, a flock of tropical green parrots escaped from captivity near lake Michigan and started breeding in the trees near my apartment in Hyde Park Boulevard . Taking advantage of the famous “heat island effect” of cities, the parrots survived the harsh winters by nesting in large ducts releasing waste heat from the subway system. In the spring they ventured back out to the trees in the parks by the lake. During a recent summer I went back to one of the parks I used to see them in as a child and sure enough they and their descendents were there, screeching and squawking from their nests as though they were in a tropical rainforest.
That non-human animals would find cities habitable should come as no surprise; regardless of how well adapted they are to whatever piece of “nature” surrounds them , most organisms prefer to be sheltered from weather extremes and from the elements and prefer to have food, water and nesting materials around them in abundance. Human beings have pooled these resources in our own urban and suburban habitats, and other animals and plants recognize this. If there is a compatibility problem between cities and wildlife, it is usually because we humans resent the presence of non-humans and deliberately try to exclude or exterminate them. But we have to rethink this strategy in the 21st century.
The rapid rate of biodiversity loss is arguably the most pressing issue facing humanity today. While we can probably engineer our way out of most of our resource bottlenecks and health crises given time and political will, Wilson and McArthur’s theories of island geography and our understanding of genetic drift and inbreeding depression suggest that many of the earth’s animal and plant species are at such critically low population densities that they can almost be considered “living fossils”. The mantra “extinction is forever” has a haunting finality to it and while the history of planet Earth shows that even without human pressure on natural ecosystems, climate change and habitat modification over time will make species extinctions inevitable, what differs today from previous “natural” extinction events is the rate of species disappearance, with gene loss and ecosystem degradation occurring at such a rapid pace that co-evolutionary systems can no longer operate adaptively. It isn’t just specifics groups of organisms following the dinosaurs into oblivion, it is the unraveling of entire ecologies. The result is what Harvard professor E.O. Wilson has called our entry into the “Eremozoic Era” – the great “age of loneliness”.
Although most of the habitat destruction leading to extinctions can be credited to the agriculture and forestry industries, the built environment itself, due to the exponential expansion of urbanization, is often considered a major antagonist to the preservation of biodiverse ecologies. There is no question that urban demand for resources has always been a primary driver of the landscape transformations threatening natural ecologies (the city-countryside relationship, with rising urban populations requiring a substantial “ecological footprint” to maintain themselves, is well understood) but in recent years urban sprawl itself has a emerged as a major force in habitat loss.
Yet while the city as currently conceived poses a threat to wildlife we are also seeing the emergence of a new paradigm in urban form as wildlife itself seeks to reclaim its place in landscapes that we modify. If anything, the agricultural lands and mining lands that feed the city their resources may be the most hostile places for wild and animals and plants to try to coexist. Thousands of hectares of herbicide and pesticide laden monocropping are completely hostile to robust food-chains and complex ecologies, and are for the most part devoid of trees which are among the few organisms in terrestrial ecosystems that can provide the multidimensionality that permits overlapping and non-competitive niche spaces conducive to biodiversity. But, as a Mayan friend pointed out when flying from his rainforest research station in Guatemala to Los Angeles, “I looked out the window of the airplane as I crossed the United States, and all I could see was the yellow and brown of farmlands until we flew over your cities. Then I noticed the green. Besides the few patches of wilderness parks and forest plantations, your cities are some of the last places where there is a lot of visible tree cover. “ From a migratory bird’s perspective, cities and their suburbs are havens not only of diverse vegetation, woody and herbaceous, but water features as well. They appear as islands in a sea of cropland uniformity and barren-ness.
Some animals have taken well to the presence of resources and shelter in the cities. Richard Hoath at the American University of Cairo noted that the Egyptian weasel, Mustela subpalmata, which used to occupy a much larger part of the Nile Valley, was in serious decline in agricultural areas, but that in Egypt’s major city of 20 million people, this normally nocturnal species “can be seen in the day” though it is “most frequently encountered at night dashing across streets and disappearing beneath a parked car.” The idea that the ubiquitous presence of parked cars might be seen by some animals as a defense shelter against predation may strike one as odd, but most animals don’t have an automatic aversion to “artificial” environments and look at the world through fairly utilitarian rather than symbolic eyes.
This does not imply that human beings can simply build anthropocentric habitats and hope that other species will adapt; our structures and plantings can have a profound effect on “natural” and “artificial” selection processes. A case in point is the current displacement in England of native red squirrels by “invasive” North American Grey Squirrels. The former, now on the IUCN red list, is susceptible to a parapox virus that the latter carries but doesn’t get, and is also dependent on pine forests and pine cones which are also in decline in urban areas. Red squirrels also can’t easily digest acorns. The grey, on the other hand, does well in oak dominated areas and on the kind of broad-leafed trees that dominate many residential and parkland plantings. So it is no wonder that one is ubiquitous and the other rare.
One way to ensure a more favorable mix of squirrel species (and other wildlife) is simply for planners, architects and gardeners to use the landscape palette to attract and retain specific wildlife rather than merely conform to popular horticultural trends. In fact, the National Wildlife Federation’s “Backyard Wildlife Program” encourages urban and suburban residents to “Turn Your Yard Into a Haven for Wildlife!” They give certificates to people who do exactly that, saying, “By providing food, water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young, your garden can join the nearly 150,000 Certified Wildlife Habitat™ sites across the country.”
We might consider that if much of our planet’s wildlife is doing poorly in human habitat it may simply be because of paucity in the predominant palette of vegetation, which tends to be so very poor in diversity that it favors only a very small number of organisms, particularly those few that co-evolved with the particular plants our unimaginative gardens over-emphasize. Landscape architects, lacking training in ecological sciences, tend to view plants as mere ornamental decorations, forgetting that ecologies depend on intricate symbiotic and commensal relationships that took millions of years to develop.
When much of the smaller wildlife disappears from human modified habitats it usually has much less to do with these non-human’s fear of human “encroachment” or even direct conflict with people, but more with a drastic reduction in the supporting vegetation and associated food chains.
As in the adage “for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the battle was lost” a cascade of unfortunate ecological events can occur when a single type of vegetation is removed that once hosted a wide range of interdependent microbes, fungi, insects, arthropods and vertebrates . In subtropical and tropical areas, urban plantings tend to favor the “Mediterranean Zone 5” vegetation, and thus these degraded habitats select for those organisms that co-evolved in that region, often with devastating consequences on native wildlife. Some studies have shown that vacant lots, left to grow over with weeds, contain a much higher biodiversity than urban parks where manicured trees and lawns are unable to support more than a very few species of wildlife. From this perspective we should be “naturalizing” our parks with a wide range of habitat types (such as Prospect Park in Brooklyn is seeking to do) to attract and maintain as many different animal/plant assemblages as possible. Right now our parks are the furthest thing from being modern arks.
There is a lot of concern about the introduction of “non-native” and “invasive” species into wild habitats; we often neglect to consider that our urban plantings are almost all made up of an “easy to grow and maintain” assemblage of trees, shrubs, ferns, flowers and grasses that were selected from around the world based purely on their market and aesthetic values. They usually require heavy maintenance and inordinate inputs of fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides to stay alive. There has also been severe landscape modification to establish fast growing timber and firewood producing mono-crops of trees which now make up the major species over vast areas; the preponderance of Eucalyptus trees all over the world, trees which originally come from Australia, but which are now are the dominant life form in parks and highway, street and residential plantings in regions as diverse as Iraq, California, Rwanda and Spain, offer very little in the way of food or shelter to non-Australian wildlife. Curiously, nobody has taken seriously our proposals to allow Koalas, which are endangered in Australia, and exclusively eat Eucalyptus leaves, to freely breed in city parks outside Australia (even the Los Angeles Zoo, which is filled with and surrounded by Eucalyptus forests, still gives their few Koala’s contraceptives to keep them from breeding and employs human laborers to cut Eucalyptus branches to feed the rare marsupials). Similarly, despite Panda Bears, which eat only bamboo and are on the verge of extinction in China where their bamboo forests are being cut down for agriculture and urbanization , we don’t see initiatives to give them a chance to breed in other regions of the world where bamboo serves as one of the chief ornamental plantings. We decry their disappearance in the “wild” without considering that the plants they depend on for survival actually exist all over the world thanks to urbanization.
Usually when there are struggles between humans and non-humans in the built environment they involve society’s intolerance of these larger animals rather than their intolerance of us. Creatures such as mice and rats, squirrels and sparrows, ducks and ubiquitous pigeons, even raccoons , skunks, badgers and coyotes have found ways to co-exist and even thrive in our cities. But so-called “charismatic megafauna” – the pandas and koalas that serve as the poster children of the conservation movement, the “lions and tigers and bears – oh my!” sung about on the yellow brick road to the Wizard’s paradise of Oz, the elephants which populate Paris in the children’s book “Babar”, the chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas which end up taking over the world in “Planet of the Apes” and all the civilized , well-dressed talking animals of the Disney cartoons – these are the creatures most endangered through our rampant urbanization of planet Earth.
In fantasy we hold out to our children the elusive hope of living in harmony with some of the animals whose size approaches or exceeds ours, but our general fear of possibly dangerous or conflictual encounters with most of the “undomesticated” creatures of the Earth keeps most of them out of designated “human habitat”.
Frequent trips that I make to pet stores around the world reveal a growing affection for smaller “exotic” or “un-domesticated animals” as part of the accepted species assemblage living with us in urban settings (I owned two iguanas, several quail, rabbits and hares, guinea pigs, cockatiels and parakeets when I lived in Los Angeles), but only rarely do I meet people, like Birute Galdikas, who lives with scores of orangutans and gibbons in her home in Indonesia, or Daphne Sheldrick, who runs and orphanage for elephants near Nairobi, or the couple that kept two wolves as watch-dogs in the avant garde video store they owned in the Los Feliz neighborhood, or the nature-show television host in the Hollywood hills who showed me the large alligator he kept in his swimming pool, or legendary Hollywood Musical Producer George Sidney who told me about keeping an elephant for years in his back yard in Beverly Hills. People who are pushing the envelope of cohabitation by substituting llamas and yearlings and ostriches and emus for the usual house trained dog,and cat, or backyard cow or chicken, are fare too rare at this time of incipient mass extinctions.
The recent police slaughter of a menagerie of 49 “exotic animals” (among them endangered Bengal Tigers) set free in a suburban neighborhood by a private owner in Ohio, killed because law enforcement personnel were too afraid of them to think rationally or didn’t know how to dart, net and re-capture animals that were doubtless more frightened than they, shows that society doesn’t consider large animals worthy of caring attention when they transgress certain boundaries. It seems we’d rather let them follow the dinosaurs into oblivion that rethink the human-nature relationship.
Yet almost every city boasts a rather large collection of charismatic megafauna, and has for hundreds of years. A well run Zoo is considered one of the hallmarks of a great city. Most city planners, in fact, consider a city incomplete if it doesn’t have a zoological park (sometimes several) where families can introduce their children to the other animals with which we co-evolved. The larger and least domesticated creatures are the biggest draw.
And where cities couldn’t afford to house these animals, circuses filled the gap, and served and still serve the vital function of carting big charismatic megafauna from town to town so humans detached from “nature” could contemplate their relationship with these other large residents of our common spaceship earth. Both institutions also offer the chance for co-evolutionary relationships to continue to occur, challenging both humans and non-humans to reconceive their relationships.
But Zoos and Circuses both evolved from Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions affirming man’s “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”. And they owe their physical and psychological profiles to ideas based on “Bentham’s Panopticon”: factories, schools, hospitals, insane asylums and poor houses. Wild animals have been forced to stand-in for “criminals”, the insane”, “the feared feminine” and “the despised other” and for forces that fill people with anxiety and confusion. So neither of these institutions has been able to solve the conundrum of how we can evolve a society that permits the harmonious coexistence of “all creatures great and small”.
There are models for successful coexistence of large domestic animals in the urban context. Every time I go to visit my friends in the informal “garbage recycling” community of Cairo’s Zabaleen people I marvel at the presence of pigs living on the ground floor of apartment buildings, cows residing in second floor bedrooms, goats, sheep and donkeys walking up and down the staircases, and ducks, chickens and rabbits populating the roof, each providing a vital urban ecology function and helping these poorest of the poor eke a living out of the refuse of the rest of the city. The urban pigs transform the organic waste of Cairo’s millions into valuable meat, hide, bone and fertilizer (and in some cases biogas) while the urban goats and sheep and cows transform marginal vegetation along the roadside and railroad tracks into milk and cheese. We see this pattern in many marginalized communities around the world – I’ve even been to the homes of Mexican immigrants in American cities who kept livestock in homes and grew nopal cactus, corn, chayote and other agricultural plants instead of front lawns because they felt the grass and other ornamental plants that dominate our cities were a “waste of space”; one student of mine even kept a bull in the back yard in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Urban Eco-Village where I lived for three years tended their permaculture garden with a “chicken tractor”.
Meanwhile, in Indian and Indonesian cities we’ve marveled as not only “sacred cows” walk the streets, but domesticated elephants, whose large size, intelligence and strong trunks enable them to do a lot of important construction work. We’ve seen sacred Hanuman monkeys (Grey langurs) and other primates leap from urban porches to telephone poles and tightrope walk the high tension wires to the next apartment complex where people put out offerings of food to these furry relatives of ours, treating them little different than we treat squirrels in the West (with the caveat that they do protect their homes with barred windows to prevent these curious cousins from stealing or breaking things.) By understanding the needs and specific behavioral ecologies of many “not-quite domesticated” animals humans find they can develop fairly close relationships with them, relationships that could one day lead to co-evolutionary relationships that can border on symbiosis rather than predation or parasitism.
In fact, in the late 1800’s, the Australian Acclimatization society championed the idea that all animals and plants should be brought into “domestication” so that they and their human partners could enjoy the mutual benefits each might confer on the other. At that time there was a sense among many that dogs and cats and farm animals were merely “early adopters” in an world where animals “chose domestication” as much as we chose them to be domesticated, and where , as humans fulfill their biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”, we get closer and closer to fulfilling the biblical prophecy in Isaiah: 6 where “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”
Nowadays, in permacultural and “industrial ecology” and “urban ecology” circles, we are beginning to popularize a similar idea of harmony among humans and non-humans, learning to see the mutualistic functional relationships we can create if we start valuing the “ecosystem services” and “environmental services” that non-humans contribute to our urban well being. From “Effective Microbe” Bukashi compost, biogas, and fermented foodstuff techniques, that honor the role of “probiotic” micro-organisms in maintaining our health and that of our soils, to the use of Zebra mussels, snails and a “schmutzdecke” assemblage of aquatic organisms to create living machines to purify our water, to cities employing ungulates to keep highway and power line strips free from weeds and putting endangered manatees to work clearing navigable waterways from water hyacinth and other river and canal choking aquatic plants, we see more and more places recognizing the contribution animals can make to make cities more livable for both us and them.
The city isn’t the problem, our mentality is. From a bird’s eye view, and from that of many other animals and plants, the city hasn’t really taken any land away from nature, in fact it has merely raised it up, and in so doing it has created even more dimensions for niche space and livable habitat. The Caixa Forum Museum in Madrid, for example, sports a 24 meter high vertical garden along its south facing wall that hosts a prodigious number of insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds, fed by a gravity led stream of rain water.
Where the pre-urban landscape in Madrid once offered only the ecological footprint defined by the two dimensional area of what is now the roof of this building, now it offers many times the surface area in three dimensions for living beings. And this would be true of all our buildings, if only we would learn to see them that way, and invite our non-human relatives to work with us instead of fighting so hard against them.
Because of the complex surfaces it provides, the myriad opportunities for shelter and the pooling of water and food and resources and energy that characterize the urban environment, the city may very well turn out to be the best place to build our arks to save what is left of biodiversity.
If we learn to see the environments we have built and occupy through the eyes of other organisms that don’t divide the world into facile categories like “Civilization” and “Nature” we might be able to help the non-human passengers with whom we share planet Earth to survive. And we might be able to call this kind of new urban form “Zootopia”. I, for one, am looking forward to it.