Animal Vegetable Criminal by Mary Roach review – when the natural world breaks the law

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy</span>
Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy

A few years ago my wife and I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of rustling: mice had broken into our flat. For a few days we tolerated the presence of our new roommates, admiring their lightning speed and their fabulous ability to find hidden chocolate. After a while, we tired of their presence, the sprinkled droppings, the gnawed wires. Reluctantly, I laid down some spring traps. After a night of pops and squeaks, I surveyed the scene: one had been caught by his snout, black eyes bulging and lifeless. It felt like an awful act of betrayal, one that was incommensurate to the offence of trespass.

Anyone who has considered the messy ethics of the mousetrap will appreciate Mary Roach’s Animal Vegetable Criminal, a provocative and engaging exploration of our evolving relationship with the rest of nature. At the heart of the book is the question of whether we can live alongside other creatures, from mice to elephants. Roach is fascinated by what happens when this relationship is strained: when animals and plants “break” human laws, that is vandalise, intrude, harass, trespass, jaywalk, maim and, in the case of elephants and leopards, kill. Roach pays great attention to these species, their habits, behaviour and beauty, but this is really a book about humans and our attempts to find an uneasy accord with the creatures that get in our way.

In centuries past, judges and lawyers prosecuted animals for all sorts of crimes: caterpillars were accused of pilfering and trespassing; a pig was tried for murder, complaints were brought against weevils. Of course, Roach acknowledges, we cannot speak of animals breaking human laws; animals just do what animals do and it is our own incursion into their space that creates conflict that Roach elegantly calls “the heavy footfall of humanity”. As one Indian forestry official notes of marauding elephants in West Bengal: “We are disturbing them.” The word “disturbed”, in all its senses, neatly captures the tragic state of many of the creatures in this book: elephants drunk on home brew, bears sated on restaurant food waste, and an emaciated puma that resorts to stalking humans because its digestive tract is blocked by a running shoe.

In the past, “criminal” species were simply destroyed and Roach describes in excruciating detail the bloody and hubristic campaigns to eliminate “pests” such as crows, blackbirds and coyotes. Not only were these initiatives morally dubious, but they also proved ineffective and expensive. Today, ecologists and government agencies have shifted to conflict resolution. Roach spends a great deal of time with experts who work on ingenious and sometimes disturbing technologies to deter “criminal” behaviour: lasers to repel vandalising herring gulls in the Vatican, special vehicle lights to scare deer away from roads, and, more controversially, genetic modification to create sterile populations of mice. Along the way, she peppers the text with entertaining, if sometimes disconcerting, revelations for homeowners and drivers. She cites one 2005 study that suggests it may be safer to drive straight into a deer rather than swerving or braking dramatically (safer for the driver, that is, not the deer).

Close-up of a House mouse (Mus musculus)
Alert intruder: a house mouse. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Getty Images

My favourite chapters leave the techno-utopian fixes and follow individuals who rely on traditional knowledge to prevent conflicts, such the tracker Justin Dellinger – an old-school naturalist who spends his days and nights in California’s forests, tracking and collaring pumas as part of the state’s Mountain Lion Project. He seems a figure plucked from another century, reading the runes of the forest, its hidden signs of scats, scrapes and tracks. To accompany him, Roach muses, “is to marvel at the surreal variety of feet and dance steps in the animal kingdom”; badgers leave tracks like Edward Scissorhands while deer “pronk” or “stot”, springing into the air and landing with all four feet at the same time.

Inevitably, Roach’s most emotive chapters deal with the life-or-death challenges posed by our contact with large mammals such as bears, elephants and leopards (though the lethality of “charismatic megafauna” pales in comparison with that of snakes, which claim 40,000 lives every year in India). She travels to the ski resort of Aspen, Colorado, where black bears are drawn to restaurant rubbish bins and homes by the promise of calorie-rich food waste, maple syrup, honey and even ice-cream. Her descriptions of Baloo-esque bear burglaries are hugely entertaining but are tempered by depressing outcomes; government agencies, terrified of litigation, will opt to kill a troublesome bear rather than risk reoffence. Roach clearly feels frustrated by what she sees. Aspen, she notes, is a gilded pocket of a rich country (where “flowers bloom in fall, and women’s hair goes ash-blond as they age”); the “bear problem” is really a human problem, and one that could be resolved by better compliance with waste regulations, enforcement and greater investment.

Aspen’s challenges pale in comparison with those of West Bengal, the Indian state where herds of hungry elephants, isolated in small pockets of forest, wander into villages in search of food, cotton fibre and even haaria, the local home brew (elephants like to drink alcohol, but lack the enzyme required to break it down). Here people have much more to lose than Aspen’s elites; a herd of elephants may trample crops and humans alike (according to Roach, elephants have killed 403 people in the state over the last five years). And yet they are loth to kill elephants because of their sacred status. “Why would you kill a god?” asks one local woman, whose own shop has just been raided by an elephant. Such attitudes form a refreshing contrast to the treatment of “troublesome” bears in Colorado, though Roach is clearly conflicted by the privileged status enjoyed by some species in India. “Depending on your species, religion, gender, and caste,” she writes, “India may be a better place to be an animal than it is to be a human.”

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The questions raised by this book are profound. What right do we have to block, translocate or destroy an animal or plant that gets in our way? How does one balance the interests of humans with those of a bear or monkey? How do we decide what is a pest and what is wildlife? And who gets to decide: local people, bureaucrats or conservationists? Wisely, Roach largely resists clearcut answers, allowing her interviewees the space to speak. Towards the end, she reflects that we’d do well to start small, and accept the creatures around us. This lofty principle is soon tested when a rat, a “squirrel without tail fluff”, shows up in her home and she decides to seal its point of entry, rather than destroy it. If a mouse visits me again, I may do the same.

• Edward Posnett is the author of Strange Harvests: Giving and Taking from the Natural World (Bodley Head/Viking). Animal Vegetable Criminal: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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