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This Is Urban Wildlife Biology

Minks in TV graveyards, and other stories of Chicago’s hidden animals.

We are at the midpoint of our journey. Seth twists the key, turning the truck ignition off, and we step out and walk the few remaining…By Gavin Van Horn

We are at the midpoint of our journey. Seth twists the key, turning the truck ignition off, and we step out and walk the few remaining feet to Tong’s Tiki Hut. The aroma of cooked rice wafts toward us. We take our seats underneath yellowed mood lighting. Baskets of faded palm fronds and plastic gulls dangle from a ceiling covered in fishnet cordage. A brightly colored totem pole in the corner confronts us, three stacked heads summoning up monsters from otherworldly shores. The faces gaze, eyes wide, issuing a warning: this is not your island. My attention drifts toward a wall painted with a crystalline lagoon, encircled by a crescent of peach sand. A humming air conditioner creates a slight breeze.

We are not in Fiji. We are west of Chicago. We are on an adventure of sorts. How exotic is up for debate. But it cannot be denied that we are eating lunch under palm fronds and a large fish net.

Courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo Urban Wildlife Institute

My companion is Seth Magle, a wildlife ecologist at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute (UWI). Founded in 2008, UWI has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. Seth is the second director, not far removed from a doctorate that had him studying black-tailed prairie dog colonies in suburban Denver. When he took the position at the zoo, he quickly got to work on an innovative and long-term research project that aims to monitor and provide a comprehensive inventory of urban wildlife in Chicago. “We all live in an ecosystem; we just don’t know it,” Seth tells me as he scans the noodle entrées. “When it comes to urban areas,” he adds, scratching at his sand-colored beard, “people have an ecological blind spot.”

Seth and his colleagues are trying to eliminate that blind spot. The Urban Biodiversity Monitoring Project, which he leads, is the largest and most systematic attempt to collect information about urban wildlife in the world. The project relies on approximately 120 motion-triggered cameras along multiple transects that radiate outward in all directions from the city’s core. The cameras are mostly affixed to trees—beneath underpasses, in pocket parks, next to parking lots, or anywhere a good angle can be found to spy on a roaming city critter. Gathering these photographs enables Seth and his team to build predictive maps based on animals’ behaviors. I’ve seen some of the pictures: skunks, opossums, white-tailed deer, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, cottontail rabbits, beavers, even the occasional mink or flying squirrel.1 There is also the occasional two-legged critter. Despite durable casings and camera locks, Seth has lost a few cameras to these two-leggeds. The price of science.

We finish up at Tong’s and get back in the truck. I crack open a fortune cookie, ignoring the culinary inconsistency with Polynesian cuisine. “Travel is in your future.” Nailed it, I think, crunching the cookie between my teeth and looking out the passenger window. We get back on Roosevelt Road. I’m not sure why, but a quip by Henry David Thoreau arrives unbidden in my mind: “Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.” In Chicago, going east means eventually going into Lake Michigan. Today, we travel due west.

Golf courses are often treated as though they are sacred spaces. I wonder if the animals think of them that way.

Our task involves stopping at various points along the transect to download the images that the cameras have captured onto a laptop computer. Seth opens a camera box attached to a tree on an embankment below some Metra tracks. This is when he mentions that he sometimes feels like an exile. Not from his home country, but from his home discipline of wildlife ecology. He has friends in Tanzania, the Congo, Kenya, Australia. When they find one another at professional gatherings, he is often regaled with tales of close calls involving raging hippopotamuses or near-death experiences in malarial rain forests. Seth’s stories involve avoiding drug dealers on his way to fetch camera data in urban parks or finding a place to relieve himself near an interstate highway.

This is to say that Seth represents a new subspecies of ecologist, and there isn’t much geographical precedent for his work. Since the beginning of the discipline, the textbook heroes who developed evolutionary theory and launched the field of ecology did so on the basis of their discoveries in foreign locales. As a 22-year-old who almost became a country parson but instead opted for exploring the mysteries of creation, Charles Darwin famously sailed to South America and then around the world on the HMS Beagle. Suggesting that these were formative experiences for Darwin would be a ridiculous understatement. The voyage was life changing, career defining, and it gave him all the materials he would need to formulate his most lasting postulates about “descent with modification.” On his journey around the world, Darwin collected and shipped back to London 5,436 animal skins, bones, and carcasses. These were the raw materials that, with the help of others, he would examine in the two decades leading up to the release of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

His contemporary and co-theorist of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, also spent time exploring South America’s natural history. Yet it was Wallace’s eight years in the Malay Archipelago that produced his scientific breakthroughs. His experiences and research on these islands, where clear patterns of speciation were evident to the discerning eye, brought him to conclusions very similar to Darwin’s regarding natural selection. The two scientists broke new scientific ground by venturing far from their home ground.

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After his epic adventure, Darwin turned his talents as a naturalist toward the English countryside, the earthworms in his garden, and the behaviors of dogs and beetles. But the precedent was set. If one wanted to advance scientific understandings of animal behavior, win the respect of one’s peers, and comprehend how “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved,” then one journeyed far from one’s backyard.

Stay where you are, especially if you work in an urban area, and you ironically run the risk of becoming an exile. This may explain why Seth was scolded by his own advisers during his doctoral exams. Out of the gate, he tells me, this was the first question he fielded: “Why should we waste our time studying weedy animals in cities when that time and money could be better spent working in real nature?”

Real nature, from this perspective, doesn’t have anything to do with urban areas. Cities are biological sacrifice zones, full of common species at best, invasive nuisance species at worst. The combative query let Seth know that legitimizing his work as worthy science would be an uphill battle.

We jump back into the truck, which smells of the rank concoction that Seth and his team use to lure roving animals within range of the cameras. He glances at the jar holding the scent attractant and smiles ruefully, “No matter how many times I clean the interior of this truck, the smell stays.” I compliment him on his brewmastery. We roll down the windows in unison.


Over the course of the day, Seth and I spotted a coyote trotting across a golf course near Columbus Park; visited a cemetery to pay our respects to the living beings who make use of the habitat it provides; and, at a city park, we played the roles of an ecological Moses and Aaron, parting a sea of Canada geese on our way to a pondside camera.

The time gaps between collecting memory cards affords a lot of time for conversation. This frequently leads to non-ecology-related topics of discussion. Seth is curious about my academic background in religious studies. I hesitate for a beat. Outside a classroom environment, people often conflate the study of religion with the practice of religion. I lean toward an animistic view of the world, but I walked away from institutional religion a while back. To avoid confusion, when someone casually asks what I got my degree in, I often respond with environmental studies. Close enough. And I did teach environmental studies for two years.

Seth expresses genuine interest, though, and we’ve got time for more than a hurried elevator pitch. “You study what nonhuman animals are doing. I suppose I’ve always been curious about what people are doing,” I say. “If possible, I’d also like to understand why they’re doing it. That’s one reason I studied religion, to try to comprehend the mysteries of what motivates people.” As Seth gives an understanding nod, it occurs to me that maybe I’m an exile, too. I got my degrees in the humanities. But I have always been interested in the more-than-human. Who do we think of as part of our moral community? Which nonhuman species do these communities include or exclude? I’ve come to appreciate that answers to these kinds of questions are shaped by our stories about how we got here, what our purpose is, and where we think we’re going.

Courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo Urban Wildlife Institute

“Our greatest cultural myths were built to provide answers, or at least provisional ones, about our place in this world as human beings,” I venture to Seth. I look out the open window at the parking lot of a Jewel-Osco store. “These stories impact how we treat the land. That’s one reason I’m interested in your work. Ecosystems and ethical systems inevitably overlap.”

Seth takes this in. “Yeah, I can see that,” he responds. As an urban ecologist, Seth must account for human behavior in his everyday work. “People come up to me all the time while I’m checking camera traps, wondering what I’m doing. When they find out I study urban wildlife, they almost always have an animal story of their own to share.” These stories run the gamut, from concern and care to annoyance and disgust. He does his best to listen to these tales, and then shed some light on why animals are in the city, lessen people’s anxiety if he can, even share in the wonder and excitement of others when that’s possible. Seth’s work involves gathering data, like we are doing today, but his goal is to make the city a better place for all kinds of species, humans included.

As he segues into a story of his own about a crazed raccoon and a pizza box, I begin to feel a deeper kinship with him and his work. In some ways, we are coming at the same goal from different angles, both of us searching for ways to promote living alongside other animals with care and respect—him with a set of data points about urban wildlife, me with a set of stories about them.

We are interrupted by a brief stop at a golf course to check a camera near one of the greens. Golf courses provide great opportunities for urban wildlife: open space, vegetation for food and shelter, water sources, and infrequent human presence. Compared to other landscapes in urban areas, golf courses are often treated as though they are sacred spaces. I wonder if the animals think of them that way.

What stories do we tell that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us?

When we return to the truck, our conversation goes a little deeper down the rabbit hole, touching on nature-venerating religions such as pantheism, animism, and neo-paganism. Seth has a bit of an insider’s view of this topic. He had a Wiccan girlfriend in college. Solstices and equinoxes were like Valentine’s Day and Earth Day rolled into one.

I begin to wonder why I never dated a Wiccan, but not wanting to lose the thread of our conversation, I steer back toward the topic of how science and religion might overlap. “I think a lot of scientists are more religious than they publicly claim,” I say, “even if they aren’t theists.” I mention the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, who mused, “If a miracle is a phenomenon we cannot understand, then all species are something of a miracle.” Then Seth and I talk about his own field of conservation biology, with luminaries like Michael Soulé, who frankly admits that his work is “infused with morality,” and Reed Noss, who calls the discipline a “normative, value-laden science” driven by the belief that “biodiversity is good and ought to be preserved.”2

Seth swings the wheel to the right and we turn into a near-empty parking lot. “A lot of scientists might not put it this way,” I admit, reaching for my backpack on the floorboards, “but evolution is one of the greatest stories in the modern world. Aldo Leopold referred to the self-organizing complexity of evolutionary processes as an ‘odyssey’—an epic journey of the universe.”

Seth shuts the engine off, and we walk toward the back corner of the lot. I’m not quite sure how—maybe all the talk about pantheism and odysseys or maybe we were both just nerdy enough to allow it to happen—but our conversation turns to a discussion of George R. R. Martin’s bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series (the source material for the HBO program Game of Thrones). Seth’s usual poker face transforms, replaced by a broad smile. He lights up while offering a theory about the parentage of Jon Snow, a key character in the books. He makes a strong case for a Targaryen father (a lineage associated with fire-breathing dragons) and a Stark mother (people of the icy northlands, where always “winter is coming”). We carry on about the finer details of the theory, impressed and surprised by the depth of our mutual fandom. There’s a lot of time to kill when you’re checking camera traps.

We arrive at one of the most unusual sites we visit this day, a sliver of woods between a seemingly abandoned warehouse (All-Foam Industries Inc.) and a narrow channelized creek. A few steps off of the pavement, we brush aside the branches of a shrub thicket and emerge in a gap. “The TV graveyard,” Seth announces, sweeping his arm to his right like a museum docent. Strewn over the ground is the busted plastic and metal shrapnel of several old televisions, most of them face down as if ashamed of their demise. It’s a weird scene. The tube screens soldered to gray casings suggest a mid-1980s date range for the dump, a Reagan-era midden for some future archaeologist to scratch her head over.

A train with blue boxcars screeches by on the opposite side of the creek. Tree swallows skim across the water. Seth follows my gaze. “We actually get a lot of mink photographs from this site,” he says, throwing a thumb back toward the camera.

I raise my eyebrows. “Really?”

“The camera got stolen a while back, but I replaced it anyway because the site is just too cool.” A flicker of excitement passes across his features, and I understand more fully why he goes to the trouble of doing all this data collection in odd pockets of the city. It is cool.

He sometimes feels like an exile. Not from his home country, but from his home discipline of wildlife ecology.

When Seth walks off to check the replacement camera, I pay my respects to the TV graveyard, a site that holds rare urban animals like mink, their pliant bodies woven through living currents of water near the shredded circuits of defunct televisions. The city receives, never quite absorbing, the remains of our technological profligacy—story boxes, decaying into soil while a deeper story persists in the nearby creek.

The train clanks by, and my mind again flashes to Thoreau, who watched a train cut by Walden Pond on its way to Concord, underscoring the rapidity with which the 19th-century landscape was changing. After discussing how much labor goes into building a railroad that provides questionable gains, Thoreau concludes, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us.”3 He witnessed the birth of the modern American city in his lifetime. He watched as farm labor shifted to factories, as intercontinental transportation by steamboat and railroad became a reality, and as the speed of interpersonal communication increased without building healthy communities. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” he writes in Walden. “They are but improved means to an unimproved end. ... We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. ... As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.”4 I look down at my iPhone. No new messages. I look at the creek.

What stories do we tell that prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us? With each memory card gathered, each image cataloged, Seth is gathering the materials with which to tell a new story about the city. I have a hunch that people such as his Ph.D. adviser will eventually come around and that Seth’s sense of exile won’t last much longer. I can see the outlines of this new story—one that reveals the degree of entanglement between our urban lives and the lives of other animals in this odyssey of evolution.

The animals of the city go about their business, mostly unnoticed. As do Seth and I on this day. It may not be Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle or Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, not the glories of discovery associated with finding species new to science in exotic tropical locales. But Seth and his colleagues at UWI are piecing together an ecological puzzle, research that will illuminate how we might achieve a more thoughtful coexistence in the city. Another generation of urban field ecologists is coming up behind him, preparing to explore these almost-forgotten wilds. This work, at present, may not confer the bragging rights of field studies conducted in the Galapagos, but a hungry urban ecologist can always count on Tong’s Tiki Hut.


Gavin Van Horn is the director of cultures of conservation at the Center for Humans and Nature, a nonprofit organization that focuses on and promotes conservation ethics. He is coeditor of City Creatures and Wildness and writes and edits the City Creatures blog.

Reprinted with permission from The Way of Coyote by Gavin Van Horn, © 2018 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.


Footnotes

1. The cameras provide monstrous amounts of data, too much for any one person or even a sizable staff to sift through. To meet demand, Seth and his team have partnered with the Adler Planetarium to engage citizens in identifying animals captured in the photographs. I’m told it’s an addictive activity. Available at the Chicago Wildlife Watch website.

2. Wilson, E.O. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth Norton, New York, NY (2006); Soulé, M.E., Estes, J.A., Miller, B., & Honnold, D.L. Strongly interacting species: Conservation policy, management, and ethics. BioScience 55, 168-176 (2005).; and Noss, R.F. Is there a special conservation biology? Ecography 22, 113–122 (1999). For an expanded analysis of the ways in which scientists express forms of naturalistic spirituality, see Taylor, B. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future University of California Press, Berkeley, CA (2010).

3. Thoreau, H.D. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, Cramer, J.S. (Ed.) annotated edition. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT (2004).

4. There may be a coyote-related reason—buried deep in my subconscious—for why Thoreau popped into my head on my trip with Seth. When I was tracking down sources, I found a reference to Thoreau in one of my favorite Ed Abbey essays, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau.” Abbey, who deeply admires Thoreau yet playfully scoffs at his high-minded and sometimes puritanical goals, offers a load of vivid descriptors to describe him, including “the arrogant, insolent village crank,” “a crusty character,” “an unpeeled man,” “a man with bark on him,” and a compliment to Thoreau’s thumbing his nose at conventional New England townie lifestyles: “Our suburban coyote.”


Lead image courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo Urban Wildlife Institute.

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