I don’t remember how I first met her — did I catch a glimpse of her shimmying through a gap in the fence? — but I know that it was love at first sight, at least on my end. Part of my joy, I think, came from the fact that I never expected to see a rabbit within 10 feet of my kitchen window. At the time, I lived in a house on the corner of a small-town neighborhood street, and my backyard was relatively plain. No brush or trees shaded any part of the yard from the Oklahoma sun, trucks regularly revved past, and a number of kites and hawks threaded patterns in the sky above. Why would a rabbit visit a balding patch of fenced-in lawn rather than take cover in the murmuring field of tall grass nearby?
After that first sighting, years ago now, I searched for her within the movement of shadows at sunrise and sunset. Sure enough, she returned. I began learning her patterns: clover by the kitchen window until the sky painted itself into the color of morning, clover near the back corner of the lawn just before sunset, and occasionally, a nap near the fence post to escape the late afternoon heat. One morning while she was out, I eased the back door open and stepped in slow-motion, out onto the patio. Her ears perked up and swiveled, marking the source of the sound. She drew her feet close and twitched her nose. I took a seat on the concrete and, before long, she returned to eating.
As the summer months wore on, I sat with her often, and I also began buying carrots that I would throw in her direction. Timid at first, she crept closer and closer to me until I could feed her from an arms-length away. She would let me sit in the yard nearby while she rolled around in a sandy spot, her way of bathing, and when I returned from my morning runs, she would often sniff the air, stretch her body like a cat who’s just risen from a nap, and then hop in my direction. I named her Bugs.
After she disappeared that first fall, I didn’t fully expect to ever see her again, but Bugs returned for two summers. Sitting with her day after day, morning and night, encouraged me to engage with parts of the natural world I otherwise would have ignored. Over the course of our time together, I watched a pair of kites build a nest in a tree overhead, hoping that I’d never catch the sight of their shadow if they decided to swoop down one day. I studied the nuances in what I thought had been a plain lawn: purple flowers speckling the space in spring, dandelions during the height of summer, a flurry of minute insects hovering and crawling in the heat. I watched the sun melt down over powerlines and neighboring roofs, starlings and skeins of geese alternating overhead.
Over the years, my relationship with Bugs prompted me to think more critically about how I treated the natural world. I fed Bugs carrots daily and began videoing our encounters for Instagram, so that even strangers became invested. The second summer I knew her, she had a baby, and the two of them frequented my yard. There, Bugs taught her offspring to crouch low when the form of a hawk passed overhead, roll in the sand pit, and wriggle lightning-like through the slats in the fence. Though my intentions were borne from love and respect — and a desire to be close to another creature — was I harming Bugs by giving her food? Would she think other humans were safe or did she only know my scent? By inserting myself into her routine, was I disrupting an ecological web I had no right to be part of?
There are bigger questions that arise from those encounters, too. How have animals adapted to survive in a world increasingly overrun with humans? What kinds of relationships exist between humans and animals, and what well-intentioned actions from humans bring harm? The following essays address the oft-complicated connections between animals and humans, explore fascinating forms of adaptations that have sprung from living in increasingly inhospitable environments, and wonder about the future of us all.
1. Are Cities Making Animals Smarter? (Paul Bisceglio, August 16, 2018, The Atlantic)
Night after night, goldfish and koi began disappearing from an office pond protected by concrete walls. Worried, the landlord installed security cameras, only to find that the intruder was a surprising one: a fishing cat, better known for living in swamps than in the center of a bustling city.
In this fascinating read, Paul Bisceglio chronicles the work of Anya Ratnayaka, a conservationist who started tracking several fishing cats in the heart of Colombo, and wonders about how — and which — animals will successfully adapt to life as cities continue to infringe on natural habitats.
Mizuchi’s GPS-collar data had placed him not only in local ponds and canals, but also in the parking lot of a neon-lit movie theater and in the middle of a multilane traffic circle. His territory, which stretched about two square miles, was mostly covered with asphalt and packed with cars.
2. Horseshoe Crabs Have Survived All of History – and Remind Us How We Could Too (Lenora Todaro, July 3, 2019, Catapult)
Lenora Todaro meditates on intersections between human life and the natural world in New York City in her monthly Sidewalk Naturalist column. In this riveting installment, Todaro writes about horseshoe crabs, who somehow continue their “450 million-year-old lineage” despite “ice ages and asteroids,” low survival rates, and currently, in New York City, harrowing encroachments by humans on already too-small hospitable environments.
So here is New York city water, not at its best: a swirling mass of plastic bottles, glass shards of airplane size liquor bottles, coffee cups, candy wrappers, plastic straws, abandoned IHOP sugar packets. To find horseshoe crabs, we had to peel aside the sewage to see if any creatures were stirring beneath, oblivious and perhaps impervious to the garbage.
3. The ‘Othering’ of Animals and Cultural Underdogs: Debut author Pajtim Statovci on Kosovo, migration and cats (Pajtim Statovci interviewed by Carolina Leavitt, April 27, 2017, Electric Lit)
Pajtim Statovci, author of the novel My Cat Yugoslavia, speaks with Caroline Leavitt about the othering of people and animals; ways animals are used as symbols in literature and life; and his attempts to undermine conventional means of representation in his work.
We place animals in different contexts, such as literary works, where they are anthropomorphized and interpreted through the human world, for example as symbols of human characteristics, even though we don’t have access to animal consciousness, and we certainly don’t know what it’s like to be an animal.
4. How rats became an inescapable part of city living (Emma Marris, April 2019, National Geographic)
With urban rat populations on the rise, Emma Marris visits several cities around the globe, meets with rat experts, and studies the history of the rodents to give a better understanding of their immense capacity for adaptability, as well as the ways they mirror the way we as humans live.
Some of the things we hate most about rats—their dirtiness, their fecundity, their undeniable grit and knack for survival—are qualities that could describe us as well. Their filth is really our own: In most places rats are thriving on our trash and our carelessly tossed leftovers.
5. The Man Who Made Animal Friends (Ian S. Port, September 21, 2015, Rolling Stone)
At The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) in South Carolina, visitors can pay to take pictures with lion, tiger, and liger cubs, and visit apes, elephants, and other animals during tours through the park. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the founder and director of T.I.G.E.R.S., views his establishment as a community where animals and people live in harmony. Others, like zoo experts, view his park as being harmful to animals.
All of T.I.G.E.R.S. staff members must complete an intensive apprenticeship. No formal education is required, but recruits must be single and childless. They cannot expect any time off for any reason. They must be within 20 pounds of their “perfect athletic weight or working to get there,” able to do push-ups, pull-ups, and run a 12-minute mile.
6. Animal magnetism (David P Barash, May 13, 2014, aeon)
Why are humans fascinated by animals? How do our interactions with animals change depending on the context in which we observe them? What do we see of ourselves in other species? David P Barash, in considering animals in zoos, in veterinarian offices, as pets, in the wild, and across time, hypothesizes a variety of reasons why we remain enthralled by other creatures.
We are living, breathing, perspiring, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, eating, defecating, urinating, copulating, child-rearing, and ultimately dying animals ourselves. It is plausible that deep in the human psyche there resides the simple yet profound recognition of a relationship between Us and Them.
7. Can Elephants Be Persons? (Sarah Kasbeer, Summer 2019, Dissent Magazine)
Does only harm come from anthropomorphizing animals, or can respect for other living beings stem from the inclination? Are zoos an ethical place for creatures to reside, or is it better we let them free, even while we destroy their natural homes? What makes a person a person instead of an animal, and where do we draw the boundary between the two?
Sarah Kasbeer considers these questions and more in this nuanced and vital essay, one that centers around the predicament of Happy, an elephant living alone at the Bronx Zoo.
It has long been said that to anthropomorphize—ascribe human characteristics to animals—while intuitive and enjoyable, is unscientific and misguided. But given the recent research into animal consciousness, what was once considered a cardinal sin of ethology has since returned to favor, so long as it’s implemented responsibly.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.