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City Critters: Wildlife in the Urban Jungle

By Nicholas Read

Review By Jennifer Bonnell

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 198-99

This beautifully illustrated volume introduces readers young and old to the diversity of wild animals that share urban environments with us. Through entertaining anecdotes and compelling and often humorous narrative, Nicholas Read explains where these animals live, how they have adapted to life in the city, and how we can better coexist with them. 

The book’s scope is unexpectedly broad, ranging from more familiar urban birds and mammals to chapters on marine mammals, fish and aquatic species, and reptiles and insects. Anecdotes and illustrations are drawn from cities big and small from across North America. Readers learn about the specialized habitats upon which these animals depend, such as the salt marshes and intertidal areas that are now present only in fragments in some cities.

But this is not simply a celebratory catalogue of animals in the city. Read takes care to document the challenges that occur with coexistence, including threats to pets and children, concerns about disease transfer between animals and humans, and the hazards of exotic pet ownership. He backs up his stories with solid scientific evidence.

Read’s account also shows how the presence of urban wildlife in North American cities has changed over time. While North American urban centres have always been home to rats and to a selection of birds and other species, the growing presence of animals we typically associate with wilderness — coyotes, white-tailed deer, and in some places, bears, cougars, and moose — is a relatively new phenomenon. Even in the oceans, the notion of an “urban whale” is becoming more common, given the pervasiveness of urban waterways that feed coastal cities like Vancouver. Other animals that were once commonly seen in cities, such as songbirds, have declined precipitously in recent years due to global changes such as habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change (59).

In the reasons behind these changes lies Read’s main message: rapid habitat loss is threatening wild animals around the world. The way we live in North America — “in big houses on big lots with big roads to serve them”(5) — has eradicated habitat for some wild animals and forced others into smaller and smaller portions of undeveloped land.

Many animals’ survival, Read argues, is contingent upon their ability to thrive in proximity to people. Adaptation to new conditions and tolerance for a variety of food sources are shared by the most successful urban wildlife — the raccoons, skunks, house sparrows, and squirrels we are so familiar with.

The book will find ready audiences among younger children, teens, and adults alike. A great resource for urban families seeking to learn more about the animals around them, City Critters also provides an excellent foundation for classroom studies in biology, geography, and environment. Key words are bolded throughout the text and defined in a companion glossary. Colour illustrations on every spread are carefully chosen and well-integrated with the text. Sidebars focus on quirky animal facts, such as “What makes skunk spray smell so bad?”(22). Insets on “Amazing animal adaptations” feature fascinating local anecdotes, such as the story of a colony of massive six gill sharks breeding below the Seattle aquarium, in depths twenty times shallower than their typical breeding habitat (48).

Finally, the book offers some useful solutions for bettering human and animal relationships in cities. Simple rules, such as “Don’t Feed the Bears,” apply in cities, too. Other admonishments, from keeping cats indoors to improving garden habitats for wildlife, are delivered with a refreshing dose of humour.

Most refreshing in this book is the absence of the “save the animals” rhetoric so prevalent in children’s books and television programs, where characters are celebrated for “rescuing” individual animals, often in exotic places. Here the emphasis is squarely on habitat. Read captivates readers with stories about the animals outside their doorsteps and the ways they can better work to give them the space they need.

City Critters: Wildlife in the Urban Jungle
By Nicholas Read
Victoria: Orca Book Publishers, 2012. 144 pp, $19.95 paper