We also learn of something called the “fecal harness,” a contraption to collect animal waste — “a sort of feed bag in reverse.” Wildlife excrement furnishes huge amounts of information for inquiring naturalists, whose analysis has come a long way. In the bad old days, “if you wanted to know what a species was eating, you opened a few hundred stomachs,” Roach writes. A paper on screech owls from 1900, for example, lists the contents inside 255 owl innards. Reading about all that killing made her tired and sad, Roach writes, but she also found it “vaguely festive” thanks to the “Twelve Days of Christmas style” presentation: “91 stomachs contained mice … 100 stomachs contained insects,” and so on.
This is a mild example of some of the jokes that made me cringe — the ones that riffed off anecdotes of animals being killed. I think for Roach, it might be gallows humor, a way to lighten the moment for her own sake as well as the reader’s.
She’s clearly not callous. Take for instance another scene she could have milked for its comic value, but has chosen not to: She is hanging out with Stewart Breck, a wildlife biologist in Colorado who specializes in human-animal conflict for the National Wildlife Research Center (“the research arm of Wildlife Services, which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture,” Roach explains). She has learned that when there is edible trash, local bears are often attracted. Garbage eaters become used to humans, however, and bears that are familiar with people get in trouble. And trouble, often enough, means the bears are “lethally removed.” So, in Aspen, when Roach sees a snacking bear run up the steps of a “swank mini-mall,” she knows it’s not as funny as it looks: “Ordinarily, I would take delight in the optical non sequitur of a bear standing in front of a Louis Vuitton boutique. This poor goober with the burrata on its snout, innocent and utterly unaware of its likely fate, makes me want to cry.”
There is much conflict in managing wildlife conflict. As Roach points out, Breck walks an unenviable line. “There are old-schoolers at Wildlife Services who hate him for rocking the boat,” she says, “and there are animal welfare activists who hate him for not rocking it hard enough.” Roach characterizes the “services” as mainly provided to farmers and ranchers “who are having problems with wildlife cutting into their livelihood, and often they take the form of killing that wildlife.” Breck’s job is to research nonlethal alternatives.