A Field Guide to Rough Beasts

Jon Foro on April 11, 2018
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Remember that time the great horned owl swept down from the darkness, collecting your Boston terrier in its fearsome talons before disappearing back into the night? Or how about when the pack of urban coyotes unexpectedly joined you for your after-work run, yipping and laughing just out of sight as you sprinted home to shelter? This world is wilder than you think, with critters lurking everywhere around us, most often unseen. And that's just the way we like it.

But not always. Sometimes, a black widow spider does lurk on the underside of the toilet seat, raccoons are coming through the cat door, or belligerent geese lord over the putting greens. There are always mites, everywhere. What do you do then? Rachel Levin's Look Big offers survival tips for encounters with 50 creatures on the scale from man-eating to merely irritating. Inspired by her own surprise confrontation with a moose, Levin's book is a lighthearted field guide for getting along with the untamed among us. Because the mites aren't going anywhere. 

Here are three selections from Look Big that will leave you better informed about our environment (both inside and out), if not more comfortable.


BED BUGS
Also known as: Nightriders.

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FOUND Tucked into mattresses and more, especially in summer.

SIZE An apple seed or a lentil, little but visible.

Bed bug is a misnomer. They're not just found in beds. In motel rooms, apartments, and multimillion-dollar homes, yes—but also in theater seats, taxis, the spines of popular library books.

And they're on the rise everywhere, according to a recent "Bugs Without Borders" survey. Manhattan hotels alone have seen a 44 percent year-over-year increase in bed-bug complaints. Once they hitch a ride into your house on luggage or clothes, it's nearly impossible to get the bloodsuckers to leave. That's what they do, by the way; they suck your blood—and you don't even feel it. They just leave itchy welts and then squirrel away to digest, have sex, and lay eggs until they crawl back for more. It's an all-consuming battle that has driven people to insomnia, PTSD, and divorce.

WHAT TO DO
Put pest control on speed dial and then ransack like a detective searching for evidence, emptying dressers, nightstands, and closets. Bed bugs hide behind headboards and mirrors, on carpets and couches. Scour every crevice and then declutter like you're Kondo on cold brew, and just keep vacuuming. Swap your wooden bed for steel. They can't climb metal or bathtubs. (Go ahead: get in and curl up.) Wash and dry everything on high heat, seal the rest of your stuff in Ziploc Big Bags (for up to a year according to the EPA), and toss whatever you can. This is no time for nostalgia.

Trained dogs can find the bed bugs if you can't ("Sherlock Hounds," as one company calls them). The PackTite Closet Bed Bug Heater System sounds like it helps, but $800 for a product that promises to roast bedbugs right off your shoes? Maybe just buy a new pair.

Bed bugs can live eighteen months without feeding. Sure, you could move out for a bit, but they'll still be there when you get back. Of those people bitten by bed bugs, 70 percent react to the bites; 30 percent don't. You might not even know you have them. It's not your fault. Having bed bugs in your home has nothing to do with its cleanliness. Cockroaches, however...


RATS
Also known as: Brown rats, street rats, sewer rats, Norway rats (though they originated in Asia).

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FOUND Rummaging through garbage, sewers, and (hopefully) outside restaurants everywhere, except famously "rat-free" Alberta, Canada.

SIZE A sweet potato with a tail (but not as tasty).

SOUNDS Chattering, hissing, squeaking, shrieking.

Scientists need rats. The rest of us, though, do not. And yet we're overrun. They say there's about one rat per person in the United States. That's a lot of freaking rats.

And it's getting worse. In Chicago and Boston and Manhattan, reports of rats have spiked every year since 2012. Complaints in NYC were up almost 40 percent in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the year prior. They spread dozens of diseases, like hepatitis C and salmonella; they occasionally bite babies; and rats even contribute to depression, according to a recent study. They also eat their own poop, but that's neither here nor there. The question is: What can we do about them? It's a problem people have been trying to figure out since the fourteenth century. (Bubonic plague ring a bell?)

Mayor De Blasio recently put a whopping $32 million toward defeating rats in New York City, including deploying more than 7,000 supposedly rat-proof garbage bins around the city and packing burrows with EPA-approved Rat Ice (dry ice that suffocates the rats with carbon dioxide). Sounds... fun.

Do not try this at home. Skip the traditional rat poison, too. It's bad for the environment, other animals, and people, and it just pushes rats into the far depths of your house to die and rot, leaving a stench almost grosser than the rat itself.

WHAT TO DO
Basically, you want to starve the suckers. Take away their water source (rats need to drink ten times their body weight in water a day), fix plumbing leaks, and empty buckets of old rainwater.

Do not leave food lying around. It's too tempting. Shut them out of your house and seal off any and all entry points. Take the trash out first thing in the morning, in secure bins. Don't just leave plastic bags on the curb (ahem, Manhattan); that's basically saying, "Come on in!" And, please, for so many reasons, pick up your dog's poop. (Yeah, rats eat dog poop, too.)

You could try setting snap traps with peanut butter or bacon grease or burger meat, but do you really want to deal with the aftermath? When it comes to rats, you'd be wise to leave it to the professionals.

But real rat relief may be on the way, thanks to a new technology called ContraPest: contraception for rats! Brilliant. Sustainable. Humane. It's been tested by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority and Housing Authority and pest control pros coast to coast. An over-the-counter pill for you? Perhaps eventually.


WHALES
Also known as: Moby-Dick.

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SIZE Humpbacks are sixty feet long and weigh forty tons; blue whales are three times longer than a double-decker bus.

Whale watching is a $2 billion industry, as big as the whales themselves, and getting bigger.

The trips are typically safe—apart from that, uh, recent sinking incident off Vancouver Island. They're also a cattle call: dozens of people packed on a three-hour tour, suppressing nausea, sipping Heinekens, and shuffling side-to-side, cameras pointed at the sea, waiting for a sighting, a spouting, a breach.

Lately, though, people are looking for a more intimate whale experience, without the crowds and cruise ships, says Kate Spencer, captain of the six-person Fast Raft in Monterey Bay. She knows what she's doing. You—tooling around the open ocean on an inflatable Costco kayak intended for ponds—do not.

"Kayaking used to be a niche thing," she says. Now they're available to buy or rent anywhere—by anyone. Spencer recently saw a humpback that breached and toppled a tandem kayak with one flip of its fifteen-foot tail. She also regularly sees paddlers playing National Geographic with their smartphones. "People forget those images are taken by wildlife photographers with telephoto lenses," says Spencer. "If you're getting a pic that close, you're too close."

Paddle boarders, especially, she says, stupidly seek out whales—and then narrowly miss their tails. "We're just waiting for someone to seriously get hurt. Everyone wants an intimate encounter with a whale," says Spencer. "If you really want acknowledgment from an animal, get a dog."

Killer whales may kill walruses, penguins, and other whales—but they don't kill people (well, except for that time at Sea World).

WHAT TO DO

Never startle a whale. Move slowly. Stay at least 100 yards away.

"Always let them come to you," adds British Columbia–based whale expert Brandon Harvey. "Never approach first." It's called harassment, and it's illegal.

If a whale is coming too close, start drumming on the side of your kayak, says Spencer. Otherwise the whale may not hear you. It may see you, but think you're a sea lion. (Whales likely don't see color.) Link up kayaks to look larger. You'll still look like an ant to a whale, but whatever. Whales have bad moods and prickly personalities, like people. "But they aren't going to eat you," says Spencer. They might charge, though. Imagine a forty-ton truck on the loose underwater.


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