Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Living with wildlife in cities II

Reflections on mice and work.

One night a few weeks ago I was sitting on my sofa when I looked up and saw two mice chasing each other and leaping around on the other side of the room. “Mice! Stop that!” I shouted. They were fighting for territory, but this was my territory. Two evenings later, the winner (or another mouse) could be heard scuffling around behind my bookshelf. I poked him with a stick, shone a light in his face, and talked to him loudly. “You do not live here,” I said, “I do. If necessary please restrict yourself to the tiled part of the apartment.” He looked up at me with his little face as if getting a message.

Let it be noted: I started with attempted interspecies communication, and an assumption of interspecies politeness. Things got more complicated from there:

1) Soon all my kitchen counters were covered in tiny mice feces every morning. I did not want to kill the mouse or mice, so I looked up “how to repel mice.” Surely, I thought, there must be ways of demarcating my territory, media for communicating with mice. Supposedly, mice hate the smell of various spices, peppermint, and avoid aluminum foil. I covered the border of the kitchen counter with aluminum foil, spices, and peppermint. I think this worked for about 24 hours.
2) I bought a bread box. I put everything away in the cabinets. I stored my cutting boards and trays vertically. I stopped leaving dirty dishes in the sink. I closed the stove lid every evening. I removed all the boxes I had been storing under the Ikea furniture. I cleaned the kitchen surfaces every evening and every morning, not only for sanitary reasons but in order to determine whether the mice were still present or not. I became more tidy than ever before.
3) I tried to figure out where the mice were coming from. I found numerous holes in the walls (my apartment seems to have originally been a storeroom or a workshop and thus not really finished inside and full of exposed pipes that mice can run up and down). I stuffed the holes in the wall with aluminum foil and taped them over. I closed the kitchen door every evening. I kept the window open all day when I was home in case the mice were trapped in the kitchen and wanted to leave (they could climb up the heater, up the anglepoise lamp, and jump up to the windowframe).
4) There is still at least one mouse. I put out a trap for him made from a box that will fall off the counter and dangle there when he goes in, but he has escaped twice and now avoids it. I recently saw him disappear into what seems to be an irregular fissure in the wall behind two pipes in an inaccessible corner. I think there is also a way into the rest of the house but I can’t find it, unless it’s the hole in the ceiling. I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t really care about him scampering loudly in the hallway or even waking me up by running across the bed at night, but I am unhappy about him defecating all over the kitchen.

Coexisting with mice requires relatively a lot of work, maintenance, and attention. The kind of housework and caring work that feminist multispecies anthropologists like to draw attention to, and which is also the kind of work that no one is paid to do and most people have to do in their spare time. This might all be a bit easier if my apartment, or my Ikea kitchen furniture, had been designed to be mouse-proof or mouse unfriendly. Rather, my kitchen seems to be designed to be a mouse playground. I should be a handyman or a do-it-yourselfer to deal with this better. I have actually never seen any research on the emotional, cognitive, physical and temporal resources necessary to coexist with animals. I would imagine that the more time people need to spend doing other work (for a salary or for subsistence), and the more stressed they are, the less willing they are to live with animals and the more willing they are to kill them.

A recent article on wild boar in Hong Kong gives a nice sense of the feeling of both affection for animals and offense when they don’t follow social rules: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/04/hong-kong-urban-dwelling-wild-boars/?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=facebook::cmp=editorial::add=fbt20190403animals-newwildboars::urid=&sf210299190=1&fbclid=IwAR3U6weqH4cwyXVvVl_PLet1_4KuaPZnjmaWIltI7yILkmmcvEGyRxHSWXM . It also makes a nice point when it describes how the city’s dedicated wild boar intervention team (one solution to no-one having time and energy to deal with animal problems themselves) is sometimes more effective when enlisting the help of individuals whom the boar know and trust from interacting with them frequently. Human-wildlife interactions can be personal, and some efficiency may be lost when they become purely institutional. As shown by the wild boar increase in Hong Kong, and in many other places, the fauna of cities is not stable, which means that new interaction challenges arise constantly. The Living With Mammals survey in the UK has seen some species increase and others decrease in house gardens over 15 years, which might be due to random population fluctations and changes in site occupancy (https://ptes.org/get-involved/surveys/garden/living-with-mammals/living-with-mammals-results/). More alarming, I think, is the finding that an increasing number of private gardens in the UK are being covered with gravel, indicating a declining interest in maintaining any sort of living creatures (even plants) at all in the vicinity of one’s home.

At the same time, as many species are increasingly forced out of the countryside by agricultural landscapes, they end up in cities trying to avoid humans. Interestingly, as carnivores move into urban spaces, they are also forced to interact more with one another than they are used to: https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/carnivores-coexist-in-cities/

A number of short videos on https://www.biophiliccities.org/ consider different issues of designing cities to allow animals and plants to live with us, rather than killing them or putting them in far-away spaces marked “nature.” Design, architecture and planning approaches are intriguing because they offer the possibility of outsourcing the thought, time and energy of coexistence to specialized people paid to do that work, while the rest of the world can just get on with their wage labour, housework and caring labour—which may end up being less stressful due to the presence of vegetation and bird song. It could institutionalize relations through structures and forms, while also allowing a discretionary personal component through use. So, maybe biophillic design supports the socioeconomic status quo… while also working for system change in terms of sustainability and resilience. As someone in one of the videos says, “If they love these systems they will take care of them… and maintain their homes, which is sustainability.” I worry that this love-based discourse, which is very common, is too idealistic and fails to account for the way work and time are structured and how this puts limits on what people have the patience, capacity and time to do.

Let’s end with Bobby Burns’ highly appropriate poem To a Mouse: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43816/to-a-mouse-56d222ab36e33

N.B. The pictures of small dead mammals are ones that died along a bike path in Denmark.

Mini reading list about work, time and related issues:
David Graeber. 2018. Bullshit jobs. Simon and Schuster
Avner Offer. 2005. The challenge of affluence. Oxford University Press.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein 7 August 2019

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