September 2021

Mary Roach

Hot on the trail of nature’s outlaws
Interview by
Science writer Mary Roach shares some highlights from her worldwide travels to collect stories of marauding monkeys, bandit bears and other fuzzy fugitives.
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Wandering through Aspen, Colorado, at 3:30 a.m., Mary Roach turned into a dark alley and encountered a burly intruder: a full-grown black bear happily gorging himself on restaurant waste. Roach knew full well that the bear could be dangerous. She also knew that the bear shouldn’t grow accustomed to being close to humans because it could lead to bolder, more aggressive behavior in the future. Nonetheless, she pleaded with her companion from the National Wildlife Research Center, “Can we go just a little bit closer? Just a foot closer?”

As she chats by phone from her home in the Bay Area, Roach vividly recalls that impulse to forget everything she knew about responsible wildlife encounters. “None of that was in my head,” she says. “It was just, ‘I want to get closer.’ . . . People almost seem to have an inborn affinity for animals—particularly big, furry, kind of cute ones. People are drawn to them. They want to feed them. And there begins the problem.”

That Aspen garbage gangster is just one of a variety of furry fugitives Roach writes about in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, her fascinating and often hilarious investigation into what happens when creatures commit crimes ranging from murder and manslaughter to robbery, jaywalking, home invasion and trespassing. Ever since her 2003 debut, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Roach has been taking readers on a series of surprising explorations—from space travel to the afterlife. Like Susan Orlean, Roach has a knack for taking a deep, deep dive into unexpected and sometimes even mundane subjects (the alimentary canal, for instance, in Gulp) and unearthing a narrative feast of freaky fun facts and captivating characters.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Fuzz.

Roach started honing her keen observation skills early, as an elementary school student in Norwich, Vermont, where she and a friend sometimes ventured out at night to peek into people’s windows. (Decades later, her mother was absolutely horrified when Roach fessed up to these outings.) “We weren’t Peeping Toms, obviously,” she says. “We weren’t looking for naked women or men. We just liked to look in.”

And that, Roach says, is the curiosity factor that sparks her writing. “My motivating sentiment is ‘What’s going on in there? This is a world I don’t know. Maybe it’s interesting.’”

She also mentions another childhood adventure that may have signaled an early predilection for wildlife research. She and her friend called it “The Potted Meat Project,” in which the two pals would hang or bury potted meat sandwiches in the woods in Etna, New Hampshire, “playing naturalists. Then we’d go and take notes and look for tracks,” Roach says. When they returned, the food was gone and there were some tracks, but “we didn’t follow up. We were in fifth or sixth grade, and we had the attention span of a gnat.”

“My motivating sentiment is ‘What’s going on in there? This is a world I don’t know. Maybe it’s interesting.’”

Writing Fuzz involved much more follow-through as Roach trekked with man-eating leopards in the Indian Himalayas, investigated gull vandals at the Vatican the night before Easter Mass and tracked mountain lions in California. Thankfully, she finished these travels before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “It would have been a disaster,” she says, imagining what might have been. “Yes, you can talk to scientists on Zoom, but that doesn’t work for me. I need something I can tag along for and see as it unfolds. That’s so much more interesting for my readers, and for me, honestly. I really love that part of what I do: the research, and the being there.”

Because of this commitment, Roach encountered intense, unforgettable new worlds as she researched Fuzz. In northern India, she came within 100 yards of a leopard wearing a radio collar—but, much to her disappointment, she never saw the animal, who was on the other side of a river. “I would’ve loved to be in the classic National Geographic scenario, surrounded by these creatures, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” she says. In another part of India, she armed herself with bananas because she wanted to know “what it was like to be mugged by monkeys,” which is a widespread problem in many areas. “I was nervous,” she admits. “They’re not large animals, but they can get aggressive. I was standing with a bag of like six bananas, so I was asking for it.” The monkeys were speedy snatchers, as it turned out, so they left Roach unscathed.

Reading one of Roach’s books is always a breezy, informative treat, but a lot of behind-the-scenes effort goes into their creation, given Roach’s trademark immersive approach. The creation of this book, especially, involved hurdles from the start. In fact, Roach initially contemplated covering a completely different topic: natural disasters and the science of rescue, first aid, prevention and preparation. Eventually, however, she realized that she wouldn’t be allowed to tag along with first responders during those crucial early moments of a disaster. 

“Yes, you can talk to scientists on Zoom, but that doesn’t work for me. I need something I can tag along for and see as it unfolds.”

After that, Roach turned her attention to tiger penises. (Yep, you read that right.) She’s fascinated by forensics, whether humans or animals are involved, and an expert taught her how to tell counterfeit tiger penises from real ones, which are valued in some cultures for their supposed powers of virility. “I can fill you in if you want to know,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve got all of these bizarre photographs of dried mammal genitalia on my phone.” However, once again, she couldn’t further develop this subject because she couldn’t legally visit crime scenes, which often involved poachers.

Roach then had a eureka moment: “What if we turned it around, and the animals were the perpetrators rather than the victims?” Before long she was in Reno, Nevada, attending a five-day training session for wildlife officers tasked with investigating animal attacks. (She refers to these professionals in chapter one of Fuzz as “maul cops.”) Roach was gloriously in her element, hearing tales of bears discovered in the back seat of a car eating popcorn and a cougar wrongfully accused of murder. (The murderer was actually a human, armed with an ice pick, who years later bragged about the crime.) During one training session, Roach and the other participants headed out to examine simulated crime scenes in the woods so they could guess what had happened. As with any crime scene, DNA is often key, but with animal attacks, clues are often contaminated by scavenger animals who arrive after a death. Roach relished such forensic details, jotting down remarks like, “Bears are more bite bite bite bite. . . . It’s a big mess.”

“You spend three or four days with those people, and you get the sense that, my God, animals are attacking everyone all the time,” Roach says. “But . . . it’s actually super rare. Animal attacks just tend to get so much media attention when they happen. It eclipses anything else happening in the news, even human murders.”

“Whenever these animals are coming in contact with humans more frequently, it doesn’t go well for the animals.”

In addition to killer animals, Roach’s book includes one chapter on poisonous beans, as well as one on “danger trees”—falling trees or limbs that sometimes kill bystanders. When one such tree was being blown up for safety reasons in British Columbia, Canada, Roach got to be a “guest detonator.” “That was awesome,” she says. “I enjoy large explosions.”

With all of this deadly data, has writing Fuzz changed how Roach feels about outdoor adventures?

Roach explains that when she hikes in California, she sometimes sees signs warning of mountain lions and coyotes in the area. “My first reaction is that I’d love to encounter one,” she says. “I don’t have a fear of any of them. But at the same time, it saddens me, because whenever these animals are coming in contact with humans more frequently, it doesn’t go well for the animals.”

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By Mary Roach
ISBN 9781324036128

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