Something else is alive
Robert Hanks · Squirrels on crack and other urban animals
The news of a fox attacking nine-month-old twins less than a mile away has caused much excitement in Hackney. The fox is assumed to have entered the house through a patio door left open on a warm Saturday night, then wandered up the stairs and into the bedroom where the babies, Lola and Isabella Koupparis, were asleep. Afterwards, three foxes were trapped in the family’s garden and killed.
Local feeling has been appalled, but also thrilled – perhaps rather more of the latter than decency would dictate, given that the children’s injuries turned out to be far more serious than initial reports suggested (Isabella spent several days in intensive care, and a week on remains in hospital). In part, this is the ordinary frisson of having been in the vicinity of, but not directly affected by, calamity; but it seems to me that the real thrill has come from a revelation of nature, red in tooth &c., on our doorstep, from seeing it proved that, as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, 'Life finds a way.'
City dwellers are, on the whole, rather fond of our foxes (I exclude the minority who keep chickens; and we’ve most of us been put off temporarily when our nights have been interrupted by the yowls of vulpine coitus). Seeing one when I am out on my bicycle at night, I always stop. There are reports of increasing boldness, which the attack on the twins seems to confirm, but I’ve yet to meet one that doesn’t run away. They are rarely bigger than a cat, and usually much less well fed, tails like chewed string. But now and then I’ve seen a splendid dog-fox high-stepping it down the middle of the road, with alert gaze and a proper, full brush.
In The Unofficial Countryside – an exploration of the flora and fauna of, mainly, West London, first published in 1973 and now reprinted in a handsome paperback edition by Little Toller Books – Richard Mabey calls the persistence of wildlife among seemingly barren landscapes of asphalt and concrete 'amazingly cheering': yes. The occasions when the wild intrudes on our lives are often unforgettable: the adder that turned up in our neighbours' compost heap, the marsh harrier we once saw circling over De Beauvoir Town, the moment in London Fields several autumns ago when a woodcock, invisible among the leaves, exploded from under my feet.
Part of this is a pleasure in our own irrelevance – this underlies the appeal Alan Weisman’s thought-experiment The World without Us (2007), which imagines the effects of humanity vanishing from the earth, trees and animals bursting through then erasing the fabric of our cities. Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs: that, and being able to say, look, we didn’t break it after all. Then there’s the pleasure John Berger writes about in his essay 'Why Look at Animals?' (1977), 'a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species' (Ted Hughes, 'The Thought Fox': 'Something else is alive...').
And there’s a kind of technical pleasure in seeing how nature adapts and shapes itself to the world we’ve created. Foxes, jays, magpies and rats scavenge and thrive; rock doves and starlings nest and peregrines hunt around the cliffs we’ve built. Then there are the squirrels: in my youth grey squirrels were timid animals, sticking to the trees and the parks; even ten years ago it was mildly uncommon to see one cross a road or raid a dustbin. Now they are everywhere, indifferent to cars and walls, and unlike the foxes I’ve met they don’t flinch before a human gaze. Rumours persist of squirrels crazed after digging up stashes of crack but it is more likely that they are just evolving into larger, more aggressive animals, spurred on by a diet rich in our discarded protein. I watch one squatting on a bin, food clutched in its little hands, glaring back at me, and it hardly feels like nature at all.