Saturday, March 20

The managed chaos of a Zoöpolis

Black-tailed Prairie Dog. Flickr: blucolt
I drop quotes from A Pattern Language often on this blog. There's one section that seemed especially outlandish to me when I first read it: #74 Animals. The architect Christopher Alexander inverts our notion of the zoo and of pet ownership and recommends we integrate wild and domesticated animals alike into the heart of the city, allowing them to roam along connected greenways or in private fenced pastures. He notes that everyday contact with "animals in their animalness" enriches our lives, especially children.
"Examples of ecologically useful animals in a city: horses, ponies, donkeys - for local transportation and sport. Pigs - to recycle garbage and for meat. Ducks and chickens - as a source of eggs and for meat. Cows - for milk. Goats - milk. Bees - honey and pollination of fruit trees. Birds - to maintain insect balance."
Another professor at UC Berkeley, Jennifer Wolch, uses the term Zoöpolis to describe the "reintegration of people with animals and nature." In a recent article in the Journal of Urbanism, she describes efforts being made in the exurban planned development of Harmony, Florida to do just that. According to their website, it was "consciously designed to offer a peaceful balance with animals and nature." Wolch's ultimate goal is to raise the stature of animals in the eyes of humans, and she believes that everyday exposure to other species will naturally lead to a stronger ethical commitment to protect them.

Whether or not we want to completely collapse the boundaries between human and non-human habitat, the fact still remains that animals currently do share cities with us, and we may be able to expand our tolerance - in certain strategic ways - for sharing this space more amenably. The only other options are expensive relocation or unpopular extermination. Much attention has been paid to the loss of animal habitat due to the encroachment of suburbanization, but it's also worth considering those that have stuck around and adapted to us.

Animal control and protection is something that all cities have to grapple with. My personal favorite is this single sentence lifted from a Columbia, South Carolina ordinance.
"It shall be unlawful for any person to kill, maim or otherwise annoy with firearms, air rifles or slingshots, or in any other manner, the squirrels and birds within the limits of the city or within the limits of any park or playground owned by the city, or to disturb the nests of such birds and squirrels; provided that any owner, authorized agent, lessee or tenant of real estate in the city frequented by squirrels in number sufficient to create a nuisance on or cause damage to any property thereon may apply to the police department for a permit and may be authorized by the police department to trap squirrels on such premises and dispose of the squirrels, provided that the disposal of such squirrels is accomplished in a humane and sanitary manner and that the disposal of the squirrels is not accomplished by the use of firearms, air rifles, slingshots or poison"
The Smithsonian magazine tells the story of the "street-smart prairie dogs" of Denver. The black-tail prairie dog has been depleted in population throughout the western states, but researchers are finding that some colonies have actually been adapting fairly well to urban conditions. Surveys of residents show an almost even split between those who want to protect them and those that want them dead. They apparently can't decide whether they are lovable, cuddly creatures or pests that burrow through their yards. If we can be assured that there is no significant threat of disease, it seems reasonable to me that humans could adjust our own landscaping preferences a little to make room. But what do I know.

As far as urban domesticated animals go, chickens have certainly been in the forefront of the movement. Friends of ours have a flock in the city that's just about ready to lay eggs. They somehow ended up
An eclectic, but not entirely unusual, street scene in Cuba. Source unknown.
with a rooster by accident, which are too noisy for cities, but fortunately their warranty allows them to exchange him for a hen. The two-year-old neighbor spends hours in the coop, chasing the hens around and attempting to hug them. Soon our friends will have their daily protein taken care of, right from their backyard.

Exploring Cuba the other day on Google Earth, I came across a number of interesting uses of donkeys, mules, and horses throughout the streets of Havana. Without easy access to oil or parts for automobiles, Cubans have been forced to improvise in their transportation. In the year 2000, there were 16,000 registered public transportation operators using animals. Many cities in the United States have horse-drawn carriages as a novelty experience, but this is an everyday reality for Cubans.

About a hundred U.S. cities have a mounted police unit, but many are just now falling victim to budget cuts. Boston ended their mounted police program last year, prompting one citizen activist to lament,

"Except for police dogs, they are the last working animals in this country who are around people who aren't around animals because they are in the city."

Is this something that has value in its own right?

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