Asphalt and wildness

What was that just ahead, in that puddle?

Walking up the paved path, I looked hard, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. It had been raining hard for two days, and gusty. Anything light enough to be caught by the wind could have blown about and settled here. A couple of plastic bags, perhaps.

Photo by Ingrid Taylar

On a pond, I would have recognized the shapes and colors. Here, though, in just a few inches of water, at the intersection of heavily traveled asphalt footpaths on a university campus?

Ducks. A pair of mallards, heads tucked under wings.

I walked past, went thirty yards, then came back. A few feet away, I squatted down to look more closely. Noticing me, the ducks lifted their heads and quacked. As soon as I stood and moved off a few paces, they settled back into their afternoon nap.

Photo by Ingrid Taylar

Something about the scene felt strange.

In part, it was aesthetic prejudice, the same kind of distaste I feel when I hear of bears habituated to pawing their way through landfills. In my imagination, wild ducks paddle along river banks and dabble among cattails. They don’t belong in asphalt-bordered puddles.

But something else bothered me, too. The mallards were completely unconcerned by the proximity of humans. Like zoo animals, they seemed to have lost their wildness.

What do we mean, though, when we say that creatures are “wild?”

Do we mean that they are wary of humans? That they see us as potential predators? Or, if large and carnivorous, as potential prey? Might there be a better, less anthropocentric, measure?

Are creatures who spend their lives in environments of human artifice—and who become accustomed to us in the process—still “wild?”

Photo by Ingrid Taylar

I wonder whether animals can feel it when their wildness slips away. I wonder whether they sense, as some humans do, that it leaves in its wake a forgetfulness—about who we are and where we belong.

And I wonder if wildness is ever truly driven out of any of us, or if it merely slumbers.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Arthur says:

    Now this is definitely an interesting one, Tovar.

    I would hope that the animals are still wild, but there is a part of me that fears, as we humans do, that once they get accustomed to the “asphalt” some of their wildness disappears. Like you I wonder if it ever comes back, or if these particular animals have lost some of their wildness forever.

  2. Ingrid says:

    Tovar, thanks for the linkages. I have the same mixed feelings you describe. On one level, when I see wildlife and flora flourishing in an urban context . . . or taking over in (for example) the reclaimed patches of green we’ve managed here in the Bay Area . . . I feel a sense of satisfaction and hope. That maybe they will, indeed, survive, in spite of our best attempts to decimate the environment. I wish we could tear down more of our infrastructure to allow for increased patches of green between pavement squares.

    On the other hand, from a wildlife rehabber’s perspective (that would be mine), wildlife that is habituated as opposed to living “wild” (even within the confines of human structures) usually means death, often cruel death, for that animal. Obviously such animals are subject to human malice of unbelievable magnitude. Furthermore, if game animals are habituated and then venture out of their safe zone for a just a meter, they are subject to game regulations. It’s an injustice I’ve seen played out more than once.

    I think it’s probably clear that humans are at the crux of these issues, even when wild animals live among us. Opossums, raccoons, coyotes — even the Peregrine Falcons who nest on San Francisco’s PG&E building — can make do in an urban setting. And they can remain untamed and leery as long as people are educated enough to leave them be. But people don’t do that. In general, people don’t understand how to interact with wild animals in their midst, and that’s where the quandary of wildness versus tameness begins.

    From my perspective, the definition of “wild” would be un-habituated, regardless of context — coexisting with humans in their parallel universe. Although I’m willing to embrace other concepts of “wildness,” I don’t want to take up all of your comment space, so I’ll leave that as my baseline thought.

  3. Hi Tovar,
    Great post which started me grey matter moving. I’ll have to think more on this but for now my thoughts are local to my position. My last post spoke of attracting ‘wildlife’ to a suburban environment mainly for the purpose in increasing my harvest potential. Now am I encouraging wildlife to be less wild or am encouraging suburbia to be wilder? It’s a difficult and valid point but how do you define ‘wild’. The boundaries are certainly not as well set out as I’d naively thought. I like Ingrid’s thoughts on this and would hope that both of you will expand more on this subject. Many thanks for giving me something to really chew over.

  4. Eric Nuse says:

    Your post reminded me of something I read in, “The Original Vermonters, Native Inhabitants, Past and Present”, by Haviland and Power. The authors describe how Abenaki would only hunt 1/3 of their territory and stay out of the rest to allow game populations to grow, have a reserve of animals in case of famine, and to let the animals become less wary so they were easier to hunt. Obviously they were not interested in fair chase hunting, food was the point, but you could argue these animals were in what we now call wilderness – the opposite end of the scale from the suburban critters you describe. I’ve also heard guys who like to track deer on snow say that they have much better luck in the big woods of Maine than in VT because the deer are less wary.
    Food for thought…

  5. Tovar says:

    Arthur: Yes, I do wonder what getting accustomed to asphalt does to us, too.

    Ingrid: Thanks for use of the fine photos and for your thoughts here. In his book The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder points out that we often define “wild” negatively, by what it’s not: tame, domesticated, or perhaps—as you put it—habituated. As a more positive definition, he suggests that “wild” creatures are “free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.” Which raises the question of what a “natural system” is.

    Our ideas about “wild” and “domestic” animals are, of course, culturally specific. Not all peoples in all times have held such ideas. And the categories we use are interesting to consider. For domesticated animals who act “wild,” we use the word “feral.” Do we have a comparable word for “wild” animals who seem to be semi-tame?

    John: I’m glad you found it thought-provoking. Your question about “attracting wildlife” and what the effects are—on animals and on suburbia—is a good one!

    Eric: Yes, interesting! That reminds me of things I’ve read about grouse in more remote areas (and times) being extraordinarily approachable. Such animals are at the other end of the “habituated” spectrum, I guess: so unhabituated that they aren’t certain whether humans are dangerous or not. In a sense, we could say that they haven’t put us in a definite category.

  6. Ingrid says:

    Tovar said, “As a more positive definition, [Snyder] suggests that “wild” creatures are “free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.” Which raises the question of what a “natural system” is.”

    That is an excellent question. I like the idea of free agency as a measure of wildness. But what constitutes “natural” . . . I don’t know. I think it’s an ambiguous designation anymore, simply because so little is left untouched by (to use your words) human artifice.

    I realize some of the questions you pose in your post are rhetorical — as in, we can’t know how animals feel about this particular state of being. Unless an animal is imprinted from a young age, from what I’ve seen, I do believe many wild animals retain an individual wildness irrespective of their surroundings. Captivity, even temporarily, for rehab, will kill some animals or traumatize others emotionally to the point of inhibiting their rehabilitation. Crows, for instance, animals who live constantly in our midst, are extremely sensitive to captivity for recovery in spite of their familiarity with humans. They are so highly intelligent and sensitive, great care must be taken to minimize contact and trauma. Crows may also be smart enough to know that they are, in fact, in danger from many humans and have thus placed us squarely in the box of “predator.”

    Perhaps your last comment to Eric, about an animal’s confusion over humans as predator or innocuous, might be the best measure. Or let’s say, it might be the most “fair” measure of wildness. If an animal does not fear us and approaches us, ostensibly because of previous interaction or feeding by other humans, it may be a “wild” animal, in that it’s not domesticated. But it’s become self-destructive hybrid of sorts — wild enough to be a “free agent” and yet too tame to have proper instincts to protect itself from us.

    I think that’s why I revert to the term “habituated.” In some wildlife facilities (I can’t speak for all although I believe it to be mostly true), a habituated animal simply cannot be released. It ceased to be wild when it stopped fearing us. In this context “wild” means an animal who can fend for him or herself in her natural system, to borrow Snyder’s concept — whether that setting is bona fide wilderness or a mixed-use urban/park setting. Part of that defense is understanding its predators. And when it stops seeing us as predators in areas where humans do, indeed, harm that particular species of animal, it has lost its most important element of wildness — not an aesthetic one, but a base-level survival one.

  7. Ingrid says:

    btw: I realize my above comment doesn’t address the idea of leaving behind an anthropocentric view of wildness. I also realized as I responded to your response, that the questions you posed were difficult for me to answer . . . not that you asked anyone to definitively answer anything. I know they’re also tossed out to the ether as part of a philosophical tangent.

    Here’s what I think, though. As long as we choose to interact with animals in certain ways, based on whether they are domestic or wild, an anthropocentric consensus of wildness might be important. And it might (or does) open up a huge realm of ethical considerations once we make distinctions between, say, a wild deer or or a semi-tame one (to use your term). I can’t plead anything but strong bias on that particular point, since some of the most unfortunate things I’ve seen happen to “wild” animals occur in this nebulous zone of semi-tame. I actually wish there was a separate designation for animals we’ve ‘damaged’ in this way.

  8. Jacob L'Etoile says:

    I don’t think it makes sense to question an animal’s wildness. I think what is more important is how suited a particular animal is to it’s specific environment. A skunk is perfectly happy in an urban environment, a wolverine is not so suited, and would consequently fare poorly. I suspect that animals for the most part don’t wonder if they belong around asphalt they are only concerned with their hunger, are they in danger of being eaten and can they find a mate. I bet the duck was fully content with it’s environment, if not it would be trying to find somewhere else to live. I base my thinking on my falconry. Most falls I catch a young hawk that is living on it’s own. Their odds may not be good for the up coming winter but when I take them from the wild they are perfectly suited to being there. They are frightened of me and totally wild by any definition. I then tame and train them. The wild hawk is now totally comfortable with me and does not worry about me harming it, or taking it’s food. In fact it learns that the hunting is usually better with me. Then after one or a couple seasons I return the hawk to the ‘wild’ to fend for itself, which they usually do quite well. Is this bird any less ‘wild’ than when it came to me. I promise you you could not tell the difference between it and a hawk that had never been in captivity. Was it less wild when I had it? I don’t think so. I think it was comfortable and suited to it’s environment in both situations. I think wild and not wild are human cultural constructs and while they may be useful when thinking about our place in the world, they become less useful when looking at other species that share our world.


  9. Ingrid says:

    Jake said, “I don’t think it makes sense to question an animal’s wildness.”

    Actually, Jake, I think it does make sense. Although Tovar’s post has a different context for him than it does for me, I think the questions he poses are germane to our interaction with other species — precisely because “wildness” often determines our methodologies and our ethics toward those animals. Again, I’m not trying to put this particular issue into Tovar’s words, that’s just my own perspective as it arose from reading his post. His ruminations are philosophically his own.

    I’m a wildlife photographer and also a volunteer at a wildlife hospital. There are incredibly strict rules when it comes to working with wildlife in medical contexts, for the express reason of keeping a sense of “wildness” in those animals susceptible to imprinting and habituation. You’re right that this danger varies from species to species. A habituated songbird would not present nearly the threat to itself or to humans as a mountain lion similarly tamed. There are degrees. And there are rigid ethical guidelines photographers are “supposed” to follow, as well — and photogs are regularly chastised when they violate them (like baiting wild animals in with food).

    Because wild animals are subject to human interference like hunting and trapping, technological intrusions like automobiles, extermination procedures across the board — I do think understanding some context for “wild” is important in the interest of fairness to the wild animals. Turning a “wild” animal into a “tame” animal has repercussions for that animal and sometimes for the humans who interact with that animal. So, sure, as you say they are “human cultural constructs,” but I think they’re useful beyond contemplating our place in the world. They are useful in context of sustainable and humane interaction with the species around us. For that reason, I think Tovar’s questions are perfectly relevant and important.

  10. Tovar says:

    Ingrid: Snyder has a lot of interesting things to say about the question of wildness in that book. Curiously, though, he mostly uses “natural” to mean “the physical universe and all its properties,” explicitly including not only asphalt but toxic waste. That left me a bit puzzled by his reference to “natural systems” in defining wildness. In my use of “natural,” I include animals and humans, but not toxic waste or asphalt.

    That’s interesting about how sensitive crows (and, I imagine, many other creatures) are to captivity.

    I, too, tend to equate wildness with avoidance of humans. What I find intriguing about Eric’s example—and the example of grouse I mentioned—is that these are cases where less contact with humans equals less avoidance of humans.

    Jake: Thanks for stopping by. That’s true—skunks (or rats, pigeons, etc) do a lot better in urban settings than wolverines. And the skunk or duck may be “fully content,” as you say.

    What you say about released hawks is interesting. You say they “usually do quite well” at fending for themselves. Do they sometimes not do so well? I wonder if different animals vary in their ability to successfully crisscross that boundary between freedom and captivity, just as they vary in their adaptability to urban and suburban environments. I imagine so.

  11. Eric Nuse says:

    On the other end of the scale of habituated wildlife are large predators that have long inefficient hunting seasons. According to the eminent wildlife professor Val Geist this teaches critters like bears and mountain lions that people and dogs are dangerous and they should stay away. Short efficient seasons end up killing lots of animals, but does not educate the survivors, thus the number of conflicts does not decline very much. A good example is the removal of problem bears in national parks where no hunting is allowed. A study in Banff national park showed a lower population of grizzly bears with more problems than the hunted population in Alaska. My experience with black bears here in Vermont fits with Geist’s findings. We allow a long hounding season, have a high population and you are lucky to see a bear.
    It may seem counter intuitive, but hunting can make good neighbors just like fences can, to poorly paraphrase Robert Frost.

  12. Bill Koury says:

    Hi Tovar,

    I think being “wild” doesn’t necessarily preclude an animal from associating with people.

    As you are aware, mammals, birds and fish are opportunists.

    An experience I had (and some others may also have had) occurred to me on several occasions over a few years.

    That would be while fly fishing on a northern NH pond, I had a loon (certainly not domesticated) hang around my canoe while I fished. When I hooked a trout, it would dive underwater and grab my trout and take off on a hard swim. The end results varied. Occasionally it would lose the fish to me, but the poor trout would be in no condition to release back to the water – but good enough for me to keep and eat! One time I caught a large 4 pound Brook Trout and netted it before the loon could intercept it. It saw the action and waited for me to release it. I held it in the net in the water on the opposite side of the canoe and waited. The loon swam off. Being as quiet as possible, I released the lively fish out of view (I thought) of the loon. Next thing I saw was the huge trout in the loon’s beak – being squished to soften up for swallowing. Try as it may, that loon couldn’t swallow a fish that size, nor could it break it up. I watched as the loon simply spit it out and let it sink to the bottom!

    Now, it’s illegal to harass a loon, so I couldn’t do much but make faces at it! This was a situation I encountered three years in a row on the same pond!

    So this loon, and perhaps its progeny, had learned how, with complete safety, to get a meal from a human that held a fishing rod. I’m sure the loon was rooting for me to hook a big one! Since they are protected, they have come to be less fearful of people. They may take the opportunity for an easy meal, or temporary shelter, yet they continue to forage, breed, and migrate completely in a “wild” state.

  13. Tovar says:

    Eric: I hadn’t thought about the behavioral effects of different types of hunting seasons (short/efficient vs. long/inefficient), on large predators like cougars and large omnivores like black bears. Do you know how much bear-hounding is done in Vermont? I know people do it, but I’ve never actually crossed paths with a bear hunter in the woods. My impression has been that the many of the bears killed here are shot by hunters who are out for deer, since the seasons overlap.

    From what I’ve heard, the bear population does seem to be doing well in Vermont. Late last summer, at dawn one morning, Cath and I had the pleasure of watching a mother and her three—count ’em, three!—cubs snacking from the old apple trees in our yard.

    Bill: Thanks for stopping by and for the loon story. Your point certainly helps make the case for defining “wild” in less anthropocentric terms. Maybe the “free agent” aspect is more relevant? (More generally, I think this relates to a whole host of problems we create by imagining ourselves as separate from nature.)

  14. Eric Nuse says:

    In the Northeast Kingdom and the Green Mountains bear hounding is pretty common. The training season starts June 1 and hunting Sept 1. The houndsmen don’t shoot many bears (the average is about 60/yr out of 300 total), they are very sensitive about appearing to over kill. They usually only kill mature males. As a result of the long training and hunting season most bear are nocturnal and wary. The exception is during poor berry and mast years. This lack of food drives them down to the valleys and conflicts with farmers and people. These are the years early bear hunters (not using dogs) kill a pretty high number. Deer hunters take more on years when their are good beech nuts and apples, as the bear hibernate late and are still moving during the beginning of deer rifle season.
    Places like MA and CO that have outlawed hounding have seen significant increases in bear/human conflicts.

  15. Josh says:

    Grab one, and see how tame it is.

    As a park interpreter, I used to warn people of the injured animals that washed ashore. One day, after telling a woman that a ranger would be along to collect the emaciated, juvenile cormorant at the pier, I saw her walking toward my visitor center, a bird under her arm, and blood dripping from her nose and cheek.

    I told her, “a half-inch to the left, and it would have taken out your eye. That’s what it was aiming for.”

    It isn’t the animals that have lost their wildness, it is us. We have lost it, and then, in our conceit and egotism, we turn our tamed eyes upon the World and pretend that, because it uses us and knows us as tame and therefore doesn’t fear us, it is impoverished.

    We are impoverished. Bears have always looted others’ trash – whether people’s, the ocean’s, or other predators. Other animals that regularly appear in human settlements have always done so, which is why they wound up, oftentimes, domesticated – turkeys, geese and mallards are prime examples. Some critters take to human settlement better because they are edge animals – whitetail, raccoons, opossums. It is their nature to tolerate people because that’s where and how they earn their livings.

    It is interesting to me, too, but I see it as us being tame, not them.

    • Tovar says:

      Good points, Josh. I don’t know how much wildness those ducks (or other creatures in similar scenes) have lost. But they definitely aren’t “tame.”

      I agree that it’s important to attend to our own domestication—our own losing-touch with wildness.

      When I wrote this post, I considered including some thoughts on how we seem to want to “un-wild” all kinds of creatures and how we seem surprised when they don’t behave the way we expect (and want) them to. Your cormorant-carrier is a good example. Thinking of recent events in the news, Shamu comes to mind as well.

  16. Ingrid says:

    Oh man, I could really rant on this topic. Josh, I’m sure, has seen more than his share. Working with wildlife myself, I’m just stunned how people perceive wild animals. The perception extreme ranges from outright nuisance/pest/fearful monster which brings untoward cruelty toward that animal — to the polar opposite of “cute! my pet!” as Josh suggests. In addition to injured animals, we get confiscated animals: the mountain lion raised in a two-car garage, or the bird fed jello all of its young life and euthanized because it has no bone density.

    One new thing I’m seeing, different from when I was young and growing up with some measure of boundary on us v. wild animals, is the number of people who think they “own” wildlife, especially children who aren’t being corrected by their parents. Most of my visits to public parks involve decisions about whether or not to interfere in certain scenarios, where children are grabbing, trying to catch and otherwise harassing either wild or habituated birds and animals. Incidents usually involve mallards, like the one you saw, Tovar, precisely because they’ve become familiar and don’t always know to run.

    I’ve actually been physically assaulted for stepping in. (One example was working the Cosco Busan spill here in the Bay Area, where a belligerent parent came lunging and swinging because I stopped children from throwing large rocks at stranded, oiled aquatic birds.)

    I’ve joked with my friends that I’ll probably go down, saving a duck. I’ve sort of accepted that destiny and hope there’s a place in the duck afterlife for one habituated human — if, in fact, that does happen. 🙂

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