On Urban Wildlife

I’ve spent the last few years of my life exploring, writing about and photographing the city of Philadelphia. In this time I’ve become fascinated with my rare sightings of urban wildlife, the occasional glimpse of some form of fauna that doesn’t belong. Unlike the other, more common, attractive features of the city-the rivers, the skyline, the architecture of the street level- urban wildlife sightings are unpredictable, always different and often slightly frightening. Still, the near universal fascination in these sightings seems due not only to their rarity, but because they represent a symbolic aberration from what we expect of the cityscape.

Consider the most common forms of urban wildlife. We see these creatures every day and they take on the role of minor antagonists. Though their ability to do actually harm to us is limited, we still react to them with something between disinterest and fear. Some are perceived as harmless but decidedly mischievous, brown squirrels skittering over fences or tiny finches hopping down the sidewalk. When we do notice them, it is usually because we want to shoo them away from a coveted sandwich or muffin. The other most common forms of urban wildlife, rats and pigeons, are greeted with outright disgust. The black plague is long gone, but rats are still seen as beady eyed little disease vectors who want nothing more than to menace our kitchens with their dirty paws and worm like tails. Pigeons are just “sky rats” with red eyes that betray a level of aggression toward us that we’re sure we haven’t earned. These are treated with the greatest disdain, and certainly never interest because the city is their natural habitat. They represent no departure from the day to day of urban life. It is impossible to picture a sewer rat frolicking in an idyllic woodland. They are our rivals, ones that we suspect may be more suited to urban life than ourselves.

A second category of urban wildlife is the larger mammals, primarily possums and raccoons. They are defined primarily by their often eerie human like qualities- their tiny hands and the way they use them to grip, hold and, above all eat just as a human would. This is the quality that endears them to us, but also the quality that inspires profound disgust when they invade our homes. I recall looking into my trashcan one evening to find two possums resting there. They were laying together, arms wrapped around one another in an action that can only be described as cuddling. I was instantly filled with an irrational but powerful fear that they would attack me. Not because I was disturbing wild animals in their natural habitat, but because I had interrupted them in an intimate moment. The animal with human hands appeals to us only when they do not infringe on human spaces. A raccoon in the woods is Pocahontas’ loveable sidekick, a raccoon in your attic is a good reason to call animal control.

The urban wildlife that is greeted most warmly is that which has the least business being in the city. I remember a day in Rittenhouse Square Park when the presence of a large bird of prey managed to shatter the stand urban antisocial atmosphere. The Saturday afternoon denizens, joggers, smokers, well dressed young mothers pushing high tech strollers, marveled together at a massive, stately hawk that had taken up residence in a shade tree. The hawk, it seemed, had decided to relax with an afternoon snack, a tiny critter which it began to messily pull apart, shaking its head back and forth, sending bloodied chunks of fur flying. The scene was abjectly disgusting, but the crown reacted with ooohs and aaahs. This bloody display of nature documentary style predation was somehow less upsetting than a rat running across the subway platform.

The bird of prey in the park represented the fascinating apex of urban wildlife. An incursion of truly wild nature into a space that has been build an obsessively cultivated exclusively by and for humans. It is the “purity” of nature found in an environment that has been shaped by the worst excesses of industrial life, blighted by litter, pollution and urban decay. At the same time, it represents a primal, often violent kind of life that we at least attempt to eradicate in places that are completely governed by the conventions of civil life. Urban wildlife sightings are the vanguard of romanticism for the modern age. Romanticism can no longer take the form of venturing out into a vast unknown of untouched wilderness. Virtually all of America’s wild spaces have been touched and corralled, if not destroyed by the unstoppable tide of human development. These sightings represent a push back into modern land, with all the unfamiliar, underdog quality that entails. Beavers that make their homes under the neglected wooden porches of row homes, hawks that like have a relaxing al fresco meal in the park, squirrels that snack on whole slices of pizza are pioneers as much as the settlers and cowboys of the frontier were. In the 21st century our deep desire is for nature to conquer us.