When Nature Breaks the Law

by Mary Roach
Fuzz by Mary Roach book cover
Find it on Bookshop


Another fun and informative read from Mary Roach, this time about animals that don’t follow human rules, and “break the law” (Fuzz, get it?). If you live in North America, you’re probably familiar with raccoons and bears getting into trash, or seagulls stealing food, but did you know that albatrosses are a nuisance for military operations at Midway? Or that monkeys are a real danger to tourists in Asia?

Be prepared to be taken around the world looking at these troublemakers, and the tactics humans use to handle them.

Two thousand species in two hundred countries regularly commit acts that put them at odds with humans. Each conflict needs a resolution unique to the setting, the species, the stakes, the stakeholders.

Main Points

Familiar Fuzz

Feeding wild animals, as we know, is the quickest path to conflict.

Mary Roach starts with wildlife encounters that hit a little to close to (her) home. In North America, bear attacks aren’t common, but they do happen occasionally, and food is usually the motivation. In fact, 90% of black bears that injure people are accustomed to the presence of humans and are just looking for food. Hungry bears cause a lot of damage. Handling them can be difficult and complicated, because of the number of entities that need to be involved: wildlife control (the fuzz fuzz), waste management companies, and lawmakers.

(Although bears are not predators, it is good to note: the worst thing you can do when a predatory animal is attacking you is to turn and run. Running triggers a hunting instinct, which may not end until they make a kill. This is good advice for animals like cougars or tigers if you somehow managed to encounter one of those outside its enclosure.)

Foreign Fuzz

From bears, Roach moves on through elephants (“It mostly boils down to staying calm and giving the animals space”), leopards, monkeys (“India’s top agricultural pests also happen to be sacred animals”), cougars, deer, and “terror beans”.

Even trees can be dangerous to humans. We can controll the fall of a healthy tree. A rotting tree, however, will fall whichever way it wishes, posing a danger to those trying to remove it.

I’m not sure why big (controlled) explosions cause humans such glee. We seem to be drawn to extremes: huge, tall, loud. It’s the pull of awe. It’s one reason we care about whales and not sprat, why people hug trees and step on clover.

I think my favorite section was about the U.S. military trying to prevent bird strikes with aircraft. Something about the infinite defense budget not being sufficient to scare away some “gooney birds” just tickles me.

When I first heard about “defensive vomiting,” I figured it was a way to become lighter and better able to take wing and flee. Nope. Nor is it done to repulse the predator. Au contraire, it’s more likely, said gull expert Julie Ellis, “a way to distract a potential predator with some alternative food.” Animals are different from us.


We journeyed out in the world for some fun examples of animals interacting with human society, but ended at home again, with the rat. Rather than killing one found intruding into her house, Roach simply filled the hole he was using to get in, and they resumed their peaceful coexistence.

We are all part of nature, wildlife and us. We need to learn to coexist. Sometimes, we need to control animals to keep ourselves safe, but sometimes, we just need to give them space and let them be. Maybe after reading Fuzz, you’ll reconsider your relationship with the world of wildlife.

Want to read more? Find Fuzz here: Bookshop

The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂

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You might also like my notes on:

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Craft of Science Writing edited by Siri Carpenter