“Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law” by Mary Roach, 2021, W.W. Norton & Co., 308 pages, $26.95
The paw prints were enormous.
That was your first thought when you saw them on the ground. Someone in the neighborhood just got a new dog the size of a horse. Is it close to Halloween? Or is there a Sasquatch in the neighborhood? Or maybe, as in the new book “Fuzz” by Mary Roach, you share the block with something that could eat you.
Murder, theft, assault and destruction of property. It happens all the time between us and nature. But as Roach discovered, there’s a reason it’s called wildlife: Toothed-and-clawed scofflaws don’t always get caught, and they rarely see jail time.
So, what kind of criminals are we looking at here, your honor?
Take bears, for example. Roach attended WHART classes in British Columbia, where mutilated mannequins help officials learn how to distinguish bear bites from wolf bites from scavenger nibbles. In Aspen, she learned bears are good at gently breaking into houses to find food, but they’re not the only guilty parties: We humans are partially culpable in the bears’ snack-pilfering habits.
Elephants, as she learned, aren’t the long-lashed, big-eared snugglers from the movies. In India, they can be destructive to crops and vengeful to people, especially if they have grudges or are in musth, a periodic condition where a rise in reproductive hormones make bull elephants aggressive. In that case, elephants have been seen stepping on villagers and tearing them limb from limb — although because people there consider pachyderms as deities, the killers are rarely, if ever, treated negatively for their actions.
That’s not quite the case with leopards in the Middle Himalaya, where the animals have killed hundreds of people through the years by seizing them from behind. Incredibly, it’s not until the third attack that anything’s done to stop the “cat-astrophe.”
In India, macaque monkeys live to “harass people.” Cougars can attack you (but they rarely do.) Trees can become a “danger.” Deer, dromedaries, all dangerous.
Even mice can kill, but yeah, there’s a “tr-app” for that.
You can’t pet a bison. No selfies with a bear or moose. Leopard territory is off limits. Please don’t feed the animals, so what can you do? You can laugh and learn by reading “Fuzz.”
Make no mistake, though: Although Roach has a sneak-up-on-you sense of humor that will make you snort, what she shares with readers is serious stuff. As proof, she offers tales of animals doing things that humans would be arrested for doing and, like humans, this stuff can be bloody. It can be stomach-churning.
It can be fascinating because Roach takes readers around the world with experts who know, sometimes first hand, about the real habits of these creatures that seem so familiar. Reading it, you’ll see why elephant handlers are paid more, that “ridiculously lovable” attackers and furry light-fingered extortionists exist, that camels can act like criminals and that, sometimes, nothing’s more apt than the word “jailbird.”
If you’re someone who loves to read aloud passages of your current obsession, “Fuzz” is your book. Clear your throat, prepare those around you; and don’t wait to get your paws on it.