The Accidental Ecosystem

Peter S. Alagona / University of California Press / 296 pages

When we encounter a raccoon, deer, bat, fox, or some other wild animal in our neighborhood, we’re often pleasantly surprised—but not as amazed, perhaps, as our recent urban forebears might have been. It wasn’t that long ago that sizable cities were virtually barren of wildlife. As environmental historian Peter Alagona notes in The Accidental Ecosystem: People and Wildlife in American Cities, an escaped eastern gray squirrel that dashed across Broadway in New York City in 1856 caused quite a stir because Manhattan did not even have a population of wild squirrels at the time. Today, no one would bat an eye at a squirrel in an American megalopolis.

The Accidental Ecosystem offers myriad examples of wildlife seeking refuge and resources in urban environments. From the mountain lion in LA’s Griffith Park who was famously photographed beneath the Hollywood sign to the sea lions in Seattle’s Ballard Locks who were unjustly blamed for declining steelhead populations, Alagona explores what drives various wild species to risk venturing into the proverbial concrete jungle and other areas shaped and occupied by humans. 

Black bears, coyotes, and other large charismatic animals figure prominently in The Accidental Ecosystem, but Alagona gives equal footing to the animals we see nearly every day, including many bird species. Birds, in fact, aptly illustrate the unique dangers of urban living: Millions perish each year in collisions with building windows.

The Accidental Ecosystem examines both the remarkable adaptability of wildlife and our society’s evolving ethics around conservation and coexistence. Alagona rightly questions the “management” practices of yore, which in some cases persist to this day (e.g., the government’s widespread use of lethal control to eradicate perceived nuisance animals). On the other hand, he seems to regard hunting as a sustainable form of conservation, with little analysis of animal welfare and moral considerations, or the negative impacts hunting has had on various species. Nevertheless, the book is a vivid reminder that cities are not distinct from nature; they are ecosystems in their own right, replete with animals that are learning to live near us, against all odds.

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