The Urban Bestiary grew out of an honest sense of mission: It is my passionate belief that daily connection with the natural world makes us healthier, more vibrant, more intelligent and even happier. It also makes us safer—the more we know about the animals that co-inhabit our urban neighborhoods, the more we can act in their presence with common sense. This book is a kind of literary instruction manual for living well in the urban wilds. When I look around and see the misunderstanding that underlies human conflicts with wild nature, The Urban Bestiary feels timely and urgent.
I grew up as a naturalist. Since childhood I have been an ardent student of the natural world, and birds in particular. In college and graduate school I studied ecophilosophy and environmental ethics alongside the then-emerging field of conservation biology. I always knew just what was in store for me: a sweet, cabin-esque home at the edge of a rural northwest woodland. Deer would forage at dawn, and coyotes would wander at night. My daughter would go to some hippie Waldorf school, and during the day I would care for my cow. I’d be a nature writer; I’d go barefoot.
When my husband took a job at a major global health NGO, it took awhile to sink in: I’d be living in the city for the foreseeable future. When it did sink in, I was desolate and fell into a period of deep melancholia. It was irony that pulled me out of it: One day I realized that I knew far more about lowland mountain gorillas, a species I may never see, than I did about the eastern gray squirrels outside my window, a species I’d relegated to a category of beasts beneath my notice: those that were too urban and too common, not wild enough to be of interest to a true naturalist. When I recognized that there was as much depth to be plumbed in urban creatures as those in the remote wild, my life changed. I discovered the continuity, the thread, between the creatures we see daily, and those in the farthest-flung of wild places. So the research that would eventually inform The Urban Bestiary became a kind of self-preservation—salvation, really, would not be too strong a word.
Part of my research for the Bestiary included a study of urban-wild perceptions. Emotion and misinformation about urban wildlife runs high, fueled in modern times by the unvetted social media, where potential harms from wildlife are hyped, fear is heightened, good natural history information is often missing, and the benefits of living alongside wild creatures are unmentioned.
I became more committed than ever to redressing this imbalance. In an homage to the medieval bestiary form, my modern bestiary mingles the many beautiful human ways of knowing. The creatures that live among us are explored not just through science and natural history, but also myth, memoir, story, philosophy. Through the activities of our own lives and homes, we are drawn into nature’s daily story, a story that is not always easy to navigate, and that in urban places includes a shaggy cast of characters: coyotes, hawks, raccoons, moles, rats, robins, chickens. Humans and even trees have their own chapters in this modern bestiary. Instead of emphasizing conflict, we are drawn into a sense of lively participation with the natural world, a recognition that we are part of a great conversation, an unfolding story in which humans and urban wildlife can flourish in safety and delight.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt has created and directed educational programs for Seattle Audubon, worked in raptor rehabilitation in Vermont, and is a seabird researcher for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the remote tropical Pacific. She is the author of Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds (winner of the 2002 Washington State Book Award). Her latest book, The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, is out now.