Feral Cities

We tend to think of cities as a realm apart, somehow separate from nature, but nothing could be further from the truth. In Feral Cities Tristan Donovan digs below the urban gloss to uncover the wildlife that we share our streets and homes with.


We tend to think of cities as a realm apart, somehow separate from nature, but nothing could be further from the truth. In Feral Cities Tristan Donovan digs below the urban gloss to uncover the wildlife that we share our streets and homes with.

Along the way readers will meet the wall-eating snails that are invading Miami, the wild boars that roam Berlin, and the monkey gangs of Cape Town. From carpet-hungry bugs to coyotes hanging out in sandwich shops, Feral Cities takes readers on a journey through streets that are far more alive than we often realize, shows how the animals are adjusting to urban living, and investigates how human attitudes and culture influence wildlife issues in urban areas.

It’s not really true that a baboon carjacked vehicles in Cape Town, South Africa. Yes, the big monkey liked to climb in, scaring people out of their cars and their wits. The baboon would rifle through the car for food, minding to check the glove box. But it didn’t drive off.

Tourists were easy marks, getting out to take pictures and leaving car doors open. The seasoned baboon just outran people to their cars. Word got around to lock car doors when getting out to look at roadside baboons, but the creature soon learned that cars making a beeping sound often have unlocked doors.

In Feral Cities, journalist Tristan Donovan explores the conflict zone of cities and wild animals, and he seems to have a good time doing it. Observers were stunned to find a fox living on the 72nd floor of the unfinished Shard skyscraper in London, dining on scraps of workers’ meals. Donovan says that this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. While there is about one fox per square mile in rural England, in cities it’s up to 14.

London’s wildlife pales in comparison to that of Jaipur, India. It hosts thousands of rhesus macaque monkeys, and they’re all thieves. Groups of monkeys raid fruit stands using a standard MO. One monkey distracts the tender. When the human gives chase, several others steal the goods. Monkeys are protected by the Hindu religion, so efforts to run them out of cities have been halfhearted. The result: The fraction of macaques in India that have had any contact with humans has increased from 15 percent in 1980 to 86 percent today.

Monkeys and other animals choose to live in cities for some of the same reasons we do — the dining is great. Bears, for instance, know that dumpsters contain cold pizza. But bears are drawn to more than pizza. For example, elk often show up in Banff, Canada, to calve their young in a safe neighborhood and eat up gardens. Before long, the neighborhood goes south: Grizzly bears show up to hunt the elk.

Some transplants are easily spotted, such as parakeets in Brooklyn or boars in Berlin. But leopards are practically invisible urban denizens in western India. There, a biologist fitted a tracking collar on an old leopard that had survived a fall down a well. Over three months, the big cat moved through a settlement, crossed busy roads and railroad tracks, chased dogs down streets and passed through an industrial park just outside Mumbai — without being reported by anyone.

Urban ecology is a new area of science that still harbors secrets (SN: 1/10/15, p. 18). Cities are “the least understood ecosystems on the planet,” Donovan says. “They are places where much of what we think we know about the natural world doesn’t apply.” 

– Science News, Nathan Seppa, Magazine issue: Vol. 187, No. 6, March 21, 2015

“Skyscrapers don’t typically come to mind when one thinks about ecology. But journalist Donovan (Fizz; Replay) has found that from Miami to Mumbai, the urban environment has significantly changed ecosystems and even animals’ DNA. Globe-trotting from one major city to the next, the author shadows bird collectors in Chicago and talks to Berlin residents about the local packs of wild boars. In each metropolis, he meets colorful characters who describe how their city has been impacted by—and impacts—the wildlife around them. And when Donovan says urban wildlife, he’s not talking about squirrels, he means javelinas running rampant through the city streets and baboons breaking into homes in South America. The fascinating part of this story, though, is what happens to the animals who have chosen to live in urban landscapes—changes in life expectancy, in reproductive rates, and even DNA, while they don’t do the things you would expect them to do, such as eat garbage. Donovan touches on the heat island effect and its ability to forecast the biological implications of global warming on flora and fauna—a fascinating topic by itself. VERDICT Surprising, entertaining, sometimes frightening, Donovan’s worldwide exploration of urban wildlife will be enjoyed by all types of readers including young adults, animal lovers, and those interested in ecology.”

— Library Journal, March 1, 2015

Journalist Donovan (Replay: The History of Video Games) spends time in the trenches with those who care for, monitor, and capture animals in this anecdotal and curiosity-sparking volume on changing urban environments and the fate of wild creatures in heavily populated areas, from Brooklyn to Berlin and Miami to Mumbai. He joins Annette Prince, director of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, early one morning as she finds birds “everywhere, crumpled or concussed on the sidewalks,” having crashed into panes of glass. Donovan also rides with officers in the Los Angeles Wildlife Program as they track coyotes in Griffith Park and the Hollywood Hills, where the animals have been living for over 30 years. Meanwhile, in the sprawl of Phoenix, he accompanies a “mild-mannered web designer” who moonlights as a rattlesnake catcher. As the author notes, people “move to the city and expect it to be free of bugs, snakes, carnivores, and just about everything else too. Even, it seems, when the land right next to our homes is untamed desert.” Donovan not only shows readers how territorial boundaries between humans and wild animals constantly shift, but also how such encounters with birds, coyotes, and snakes should come as no great surprise.

– Publishers Weekly

Exploration of the creatures that share our urban centers, including giant house-eating snails in Miami, leopards in Mumbai, wild pigs in Berlin and red foxes in London. Donovan, a British freelance journalist (Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, 2013, etc.) with a degree in ecology, chronicles his journeys with local experts in dozens of cities as they deal with the animals in their midst. In Phoenix, he accompanied a calm rattlesnake catcher responding to calls from alarmed householders. In Cape Town, South Africa, he learned about rogue baboons from the head of the University of Cape Town’s Baboon Research Unit. While Donovan’s outings were often with men and women coping with unwelcome intruders, such as black bears, grizzlies, lions, coyotes and rats, in Chicago, it was a different story. That city is on the Mississippi Flyway, and every year, thousands of migratory birds die from crashing into buildings. The author joined the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors as they patrolled the city’s streets, gathering up, counting, examining and cataloging the bodies of dead birds. Squeamish readers, be warned: Donovan features less charming wildlife in the later chapters, in which he examines some of the undesirable insects, such as cockroaches and bedbugs, that thrive in our cities. The author devotes a small portion of this entertaining jaunt through city wildlife to the serious question of conservation. We can use cities to supplement wider efforts at preserving biodiversity, but first we have to stop thinking of cities as barren, anti-nature zones. A clear demonstration that the world’s cities are full of nonhuman life, best read in small doses, say a chapter at a time on one’s daily commute to and from the city.

– Kirkus Reviews


– National Geographic

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Tristan Donovan

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