There are two things you should know about UK-based archaeologist Terry O'Connor: one, he's currently studying deadstock (the study of the remains of livestock in human settlements, if I'm understanding it correctly) and two, he has a wry sense of humour.
The evidence to support both claims can be found on his faculty listing at the University of York:
I'm interviewing O'Connor because he's just published his latest book, entitled Animals as Neighbors: The Past and Present of Commensal Animals, with Michigan State University Press. (It's a part of their series The Animal Turn, which also includes the title Animals as Domesticates.)
I'm interviewing O'Connor because I've become more and more aware of urban animals over the past few years, from the geese that stupidly nest in flower planters and parking lots, to the impudent squirrel that lives in my attic, to the deer that lazily roam the urban forests I frequent.
And because he's interested in the difference between wild and domestic, which the territory I inhabit in my nature writing.
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What do you want people to know about Animals as Neighbours?
I want people to know that the book is an integration of past and present, that it seeks to explain and understand a particular form of relationship between our species and others through an investigation of the archaeological record and present-day ecology. Although the book is somewhat academic – it has endnote sources and a lengthy bibliography – the style is intended to be accessible to any general reader.
What was your goal for this book?
My none-too-hidden agenda was to make people more aware that the everyday animals around us are not just a passive part of ‘our’ environment. They have their lives and objectives, and we are a part of their environment, a part that they can utilize and manipulate to their advantage. And good luck to them.
Do you see it as part of your obligation as a scientist to write for non-specialist audiences? Or was Animals as Neighbours a way for you to braid together all the strands of your research over the years?
A little of both. I certainly do see it as an obligation to write for non-specialist audiences, in part so that the complexity and excitement of academic research is shared with the wider community, and in part because we are all non-specialists in most things. I may be regarded as a specialist in my particular research area, but I read a lot of ‘popular science’ in order to keep up with other research fields that are beyond my narrow comfort zone. And Animals as Neighbors was a book that needed writing. Over the last decade, I became more and more aware of a lack of investigation of those animals that move between the wild and the domestic realms, and it looked as if no-one else was going to get around to writing the book!
Is there a difference between rural and urban commensal populations? (As opposed to commensal versus wild populations...)
Nice question. To the animals themselves, what matters are the niche and the opportunities, and if those conditions arise in, say, a rural barn as against an urban backyard shed, then most rats will not discriminate. Rural populations miss out on the heat-island effect of cities, and they are likely to be more isolated, and so less likely to be re-stocked by new incomers. Some commensal populations also gain from the exclusion of predators, and that benefit may be more marked in towns.
I ask because recently took a short road trip through rural and semi-rural land here on the Canadian prairies and couldn't believe the numbers of roadkilled foxes, skunks, badgers, and raccoons. (The land to either side of the highway was almost exclusively farmland, either pasture or fields with grain/canola, etc, and had windbreak stands of trees and a few islands of aspen parkland.) How can those populations survive such massive culls? Or does it mostly look worse than it is?
Yes, I drive to work along semi-rural roads, and the death-toll of rabbits, especially, seems to be unsupportable. Yet there are more (live) rabbits every year, so clearly it is sustainable. Traffic may simply be replacing predation by other species that are less abundant now than in the past, or are locally excluded along roadsides or on heavily-managed farmland. In the UK, estimates indicate around 30,000 red foxes living in towns, and cars are by far their major predator. But those populations persist, indeed increase, because the availability of food and the absence of any other major predator allows large clutches of young to be raised. It’s a trade-off.
My favourite snippet from the conclusion is this: "Scrupulously clean, tidy, safe towns and cities that we share with few or no other animals apart from our pets would not be healthy places to live."
I come from a household that hates grass and is more likely to leave leaves on the ground than rake them, but even so, this sounds counter-intuitive to me. And it'll sound counter-intuitive to municipal governments, who like to levy fines when boulevards aren't mowed, for instance.
How do you think this idea (or cluster of ideas) can be communicated to the public?
I think the challenge is not so much to persuade the public as to persuade those who work in the public’s name. The topic of re-connecting children with ‘nature’ is being discussed in the UK right now, and the skepticism and opposition comes in part from journalists and commentators who see this as another bit of propaganda from tree-hugging, bunny-loving, knit-your-own-muesli socio-economic failures, and in part from municipal managers who wrongly equate tidy with efficient. Parents of young children are much more receptive to the idea that outdoors is good, that children need to appreciate wild animals and plants for the sake of their futures and ours. So I think the strategy is entryism, by encouraging the well-disposed public to talk to their friends and to put pressure on local councils and planners, who may not listen to writers and academics, but who will listen to voters.
Is there a reason deer are excluded from Animals as Neighbours? In North America, they're reaching very high densities in city and country alike. Local authorities have even resorted to allowing hunting within city limits to try to control the population.
I thought about deer, and appreciate that a case for their inclusion could have been made. In the end, though, I felt that deer living in urban parks and green spaces are essentially living as rural deer, showing little adaptation to their urban environment. That makes them less interesting from the point of view that I was trying to get across in the book. But maybe in the second edition!
What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
I am currently re-reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s delightful Gifts of the Crow, a book that combines highly technical neuroanatomy with fascinating lab work and anecdote to show what complex and smart birds the crow family are. As for writing, I am just getting underway a synthesis of thirty years of work on excavated animal bones from the city of York, investigating livestock husbandry, human foodways and the urban ecology over 2,000 years. That could take a while.