The Current

Unruly beasts and how to police them: Author examines the world of animal crime

Whether it’s gulls committing vandalism at St. Peter’s Basilica, or bears being blamed for breaking and entering, it’s easy to see humans aren’t the only creatures capable of committing crimes.

Mary Roach found out how laser scarecrows and other scientific solutions can help stop fuzzy fugitives

A dove is attacked by a black crow.
A dove which was freed by children with Pope Francis during his Angelus prayer, is attacked by a black crow in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

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Originally published on Sept. 18, 2022

Whether it's gulls committing vandalism at St. Peter's Basilica, or bears being blamed for breaking and entering, it's easy to see humans aren't the only creatures capable of disregarding the law.

And as author Mary Roach discovered, guilty vermin can't pay fines or serve jail time, so sometimes finding a solution needs a bit of creativity, and a little science. 

"I want people to come away with an understanding of, first of all, that science matters and that good science matters," said Roach. 

"If we want to get out of some of the problems we ourselves have created, we need to respect science and support it."

Roach takes a deep dive into fuzzy fugitives in her new book Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. It explores the science of human and wildlife conflict, examining the annoying but also dangerous habits of our furry friends.

Roach says all sorts of animals commit all sorts of crimes, and in some cases it takes more than a prayer to get rid of them. 

She discovered that gulls give the Vatican a lot of grief, for example, especially ahead of Easter Mass. 

Author Mary Roach's latest book is called Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.

"There's a huge and very elaborate floral display, and a couple of years ago, for no apparent reason, this group of gulls came in and just knocked things over and pulled things around. Roses were strewn everywhere," said Roach.

In another instance in 2014, birds attacked a peace dove, shortly after the dove was released by the Pope Francis. 

"So they were trying to prevent this crime of vandalism from happening again. And thus myself and the laser scarecrow spent some time together."

The so-called laser scarecrow is actually a laser box that emits a green beam. To gulls, this beam looks like a solid object, akin to a lightsaber. And the gulls, not being strong in the Force, stay away.

How to stop a dumpster-diving bear

While sometimes it takes a light show to prevent critter crime, some situations call for a heavier hand — or a garbage can lid. 

For her book, Roach visited Aspen, Colorado, where residents and business owners risk a fine if their garbage containers and dumpsters aren't equipped with bear-resistant locks 

But as Roach found out, it doesn't always work. There are many vacation rentals in Aspen, that owners may leave unattended for a while, or be occupied by tourists unfamiliar with the bear-proofing methods. 

The solution is to make sure the rules are followed, which is what led Roach to two women who are community resource officers in the neighbouring Snowmass Village's police department.

Sean Reddy had a black bear climb through his bedroom window into his home outside Fort McMurray on Oct. 4 at around 8 p.m. (Submitted by Sean Reddy)

"They are pretty hardcore. They will get inside a dumpster and figure out, OK, there's four people using this dumpster. I'm going to see who put this garbage [here]. I'm going to open up this bag and I'm going to look at the mail. I'm going to figure out who threw this bag in there," said Roach. 

Once the two women figure out who the culprits are, they will find them and ticket them, in hopes of solving the problem.

Bad bears can be a problem in Canada too. Sean Reddy in Northern Alberta had a bear enter his family's home, that took some work to coax out.

C.S.I. for animals

Roach also spoke to the people tasked with figuring out whether an animal was responsible for a disturbance, rather than a human. The Wildlife Human Attack Response Training program in British Columbia teaches crime scene forensics, but for animal attacks. 

"There have been cases in which an animal was assumed to have killed a person when in fact it was a person," said Roach.

"The opposite also has been true where a person has been accused of a killing when it was in fact an animal."

'Police line do not cross' yellow tape.
Sometimes it takes an investigation to correctly condemn a guilty animal. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Roach says that's important, because you don't want to destroy an animal that has done nothing wrong. This can be done, like in a human trial, by looking at the crime scene and the DNA evidence. 

And even if an animal is found to be responsible, Roach says that at the heart of it, many times, humans are still to blame. 

"We are expanding our range at the same time. Some animals are expanding theirs," said Roach.

 "For example, building ski resorts in the mountains, this is prime bear territory and we're moving in, and then we complain when the bears break into people's houses and cabins."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Kate Cornick. 

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