In her latest book Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, Mary Roach approaches the topic of human-wildlife conflict with entertaining stories, scientific insight, and a healthy dose of wit and humor. There are plenty of animal stories in this episode, from marauding mountain lions to bothersome bears, from macaques who are jerks to gulls who are dicks, and of course that most meddlesome of all species – the human being. The phrase “going out clubbing” takes on a decidedly macabre meaning when the context is U.S. military attempts to control albatrosses living their lives near an air base. And find out if a scenario seemingly cribbed from an unaired Breaking Bad script portends the collapse of civilization. Hiding amidst all the stories and fun are big implications for ecosystems, biodiversity conservation, and human society. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Rob Dietz  

Hey, this is Rob. Welcome to Crazy Town. I hope you are enjoying our bonus interviews. If you are, please subscribe, rate, and share with your friends. I am really happy to share an interview with you today that I did with Mary Roach, so stay tuned for that.

Rob Dietz  

Mary Roach is the author of The New York Times best sellers Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Gulp, Grunt, and Packing for Mars. Her latest book is Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, which we’re going to discuss in some depth. She’s written a bunch of other stuff and won a bunch of awards. But that’s not nearly as important as her two amazing qualities as a writer. She explains under-examined scientific topics in understandable and delightful language. And she’s funny as hell. Mary and I have not met previously, but I feel like I would love to go traveling on one of her adventures of inquiry and laugh along with her at the thing she finds. Mary, welcome to Crazy Town.

Mary Roach  

Thanks, Rob.

Rob Dietz  

Well, first things first, we’re gonna get into your book Fuzz in a little bit. But in the intro, I named your other books, like Stiff and Bonk. And I just had to know, why did you break with tradition and use three words instead of one when you titled your book Packing for Mars?

Mary Roach  

Because we just flat out failed to come up with a good one-word title for that book. But we tried so hard — we being me, my agent, my editor, anybody I know, people I met on the street. I mean, it was like one word that sums up the physical and psychological weirdness of living in space, like what would be that word that people would be like? “Orbit?” Like, it’s not a book about rocket science. That’s the human side of it. So we just couldn’t do it. So yeah, that’s why.

Rob Dietz  

As someone who’s tried to title books in the past, I can understand the supreme difficulty and appreciate how hard that is.

Mary Roach  

Yeah, this book, I actually I had it titled, Animal, Vegetable, Criminal. That was the title, a lovely play on animal, vegetable, mineral, but we changed it pretty far along in the process because Mark Bittman, The New York Times food writer, put out a book called Animal, Vegetable, Junk, a history of food, which, yeah, anyway, because of that, we switched the title.

Rob Dietz  

That’s tough. Well, we’re gonna turn back to writing and some of the process there, because I’m always interested in that, later in this interview. But let’s turn now to Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, which is about conflicts between people and other species. And I want to start with something I’ve come to see: people as masters of unintended consequences. And this is especially true of what we’ve done in introducing species to habitats where they don’t belong. That’s a topic that we covered here in Crazy Town in our episode 57 of this season, and we shared some — well, I’m using air quotes now — “fun examples” of kudzu and starlings, even hippos. And we mentioned the example in New Zealand that you discuss in detail, which was the introduction of a few rabbits. And then the subsequent introduction of stoats, which are weasels, to control the rabbit explosion. And then the decimation of yellow-eyed penguins and kakapos and keas and kiwi and other native birds. So my question is, do you think we humans are meddlers, will always be meddlers, and we’re, we’re too ecologically ignorant to know what we’re doing? Or is there some hope for us to stop messing things up so much?

Mary Roach  

I think it’s part ignorance, but I think it’s also this kind of unfortunate optimism that everything will be just fine. Oh, I guess there’s a little bit of arrogance involved in thinking that you understand that ecosystem well enough to introduce a stranger and that will all be okay. I mean, I think, you know, the New Zealand story begins in the 1800s. And you could kind of give them a little bit of a pass for things not having been as well studied. Or people just in general, being a little more naive. But I think there is this sense of like… I think of having considered all the possible developments that might result. But as I’ve — somebody I quote in the book, whose name I’m forgetting now — someone pointed out it’s the unknown unknowns that end up derailing you, that you just didn’t you know. Like, oh well, we never thought about the fact that, oh, this species is nocturnal. And this is diurnal, so they’re never even going to shake hands. You know, you bring in one to destroy the other. And, you know, I’m thinking of mongoose in Hawaii, which were brought in to deal with the rats in the cane fields, which isn’t something I covered in the book. But as you know, it’s just an example of everything seemed okay on paper, and then it’s like, doh! Somebody didn’t think about that fairly basic fact.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah. It’s amazing because Jason, my cohost, was pointing out in our episode that they wanted to bring hippos into the bayous of Louisiana. And part of the reason was to eat the water hyacinth, which was another introduced species, because it was, you know, a beautiful flowering plant, but it was clogging up all the waterways. The trouble is that hippos don’t eat water hyacinth. So it was really… Thankfully, it didn’t happen. We did not end up with hippos in the bayou. But close.

Mary Roach  

Yeah, yeah, from the stoat’s perspective, you know, they shipped them over from Europe, with the idea being that they’ll kill the rabbits. Well did it not occur to you that the stoats wouldn’t arrive, kind of look around, and go, “Yeah, there’s some rabbit meat there. But you know what? These birds that don’t run away, who don’t fly away when you run after them, that just sit there and have delicious eggs? How about that? Let’s eat those.” You know, that was kind of kind of amazing. But who knows?

Rob Dietz  

Well, even the first instance of thinking, well, “I want to have some rabbits, because it’ll remind me of my home in Europe.” Like, did you ever think that that might not go the way you planned? Just you know, because there aren’t rabbits here? And they breed like rabbits!

Mary Roach  

What are they known for? They’re known for multiplying like rabbits. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. It’s tragic when you think about it, because now New Zealand is in a place where they’re losing all their indigenous fauna, and they’re looking at eradicating stoats, possums, and rats. Yeah. And that’s a tremendous job. And that’s a lot of poison being dropped on forests there. It’s a lot of… And to think that you can get them all, you know, you leave two rats, and pretty soon you’re gonna have 20,000 rats, you know. It’s a pretty tough predicament.

Rob Dietz  

Well, you talk about the poisoning, I want to turn to that, where in the book, you discuss attempts by the US military to remove, relocate, to eradicate — whatever it is — take care of albatrosses on Midway Atoll, after World War II. And it kind of reminded me of that saying, you know, if your only tool is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. Well, if, if your only tool is a bomb, then every bird starts to look like some kind of military target, like a Nazi weapons factory or something like that. I was wondering if you could discuss the range of conflict management efforts from ones that make no sense, or that are these huge military operations, down to ones maybe that are pretty reasonable.

Mary Roach  

Well, I should first say that the concern was bird strike. In other words, very large — the albatross is a very large and very heavy bird. And the concern was that planes taking off, because Midway was a halfway point from here to Asia, and there were lots of planes taking off and the concern was that you suck one into the engine, you know, there’d be a bird strike that would take down a plane and people would be killed. So that was a legitimate concern, when one would, you know, sort of wish they had thought about that before they set up the base there. It is today still a breeding colony for a number of different seabirds, including the Laysan albatross. And there are huge numbers of them nesting there on the sand all around the runways. So the military did what the military does best. Well, first they tried, you know, loud noises, and the military has an amazing repertoire of loud noises: bazookas and mortars. And they tried noxious fumes. They burned rubber tires, and the albatross is an unflappable bird. The albatrosses, they would just kind of sit there on their nests like, “Well, that’s curious and loud, but we’re not going anywhere.” So whatever they did to try to dissuade them, they didn’t. They weren’t shooting them at that point, they were trying to just scare them away, and that did not work. Then they turned to hand to hand combat, which was the most jarringly godawful part of this story, where they just turned a bunch of sailors out with clubs to just hit them over the head. And again, the albatross would just sort of sit there because they don’t have that kind of predator on Midway Island, and they just sort of would look at people walking over with the clubs and get clubbed and a tremendous number — I don’t have it off the top of my head, because I haven’t looked at the book in a while — but thousands of birds were killed that way. And the thing is it really, in terms of the number of bird strikes and the overall population the following season, did nothing, did not solve the problem, caused a lot of emotional turmoil for some of the men who had been told to do that. And then the folks at Midway eventually turned to some scientists, Hubert and Mable Frings were brought in, some biologists, and they tried to figure out… Their intentions were good. And the way that they went about it was, “Let’s try to learn about the albatross, let’s try to figure out what might be something that would encourage them to leave.” And they tried everything, including moving toward them with large squares of colored cloth. Because apparently, someone had observed that the women’s laundry flapping on the line scared the birds. So the Fringses were like, “You could get 10 men a day moving through the colony with large squares of colored cloth. And you know, the powers that be at the officer’s club are like, “Get out of here!”

Rob Dietz  

That’s a way better job than going out and clubbing them.

Mary Roach  

Yes, that’s true. Yes, that’s true. That’s true. They tried, basically tripping them, they strung wires up at, you know, about a foot high over the nesting area to just annoy the hell out of them. That didn’t work. They tried moving the eggs to a neighboring island, but the albatross is very good at figuring out where things are. And also, they would just come back, you know, they actually flew them to neighboring islands 1000s of miles off, and they would come back. They have a very good homing device in their heads, and they would come right back to the same nesting spot. So basically, everything they tried, failed. And in the end, the base was closed. And now it’s just the National Wildlife Service has a preserve there and they’re trying to restore the habitat. They also tried to do things like if we take out this dune, it’ll destroy the updraft that they need to get airborne, and it didn’t. So they tried really hard. It was years — they spent years on this, and they could not get those birds to budge.

Rob Dietz  

It’s kind of gratifying to know, okay, the US military maybe won World War II, but couldn’t beat the albatrosses.

Mary Roach  

Yes, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, that’s why they called it the second battle for Midway Island.

Rob Dietz  

Well, that’s albatrosses being albatrosses. You point out some other animals being themselves, but exhibiting what we would see from the human perspective as pretty damn annoying behavior, like macaques, which is a kind of monkey, knocking over potted plants, bears breaking into houses and helping themselves to the leftovers. You’ve got gulls, swooping in and expertly aiming their droppings to land in people’s faces. I mean, you even ask whether gulls are actually dicks at heart. In your experience, though, some of your attention is directed at people as well. So in your experience, I’m wondering who has worse manners, the species or some of the human bureaucrats on the scene who are charged with dealing with them?

Mary Roach  

I don’t think animals have manners, and how great is it that they don’t have to worry about manners? It’s like, “I want that. It’s food and I will take it. There it is. It’s for me, isn’t it? There?” So I don’t I don’t know that they’ve got manners, but it’s hard. You’re always looking for an evolutionary reason for what they’re doing. And sometimes you just don’t find it, like the gulls that you mentioned. The gulls, I covered them because I read about how at the Vatican on Easter Sunday, the Pope does an outdoor mass in St. Peter’s Square. And there’s a tremendous floral display that it takes the better part of a day to set up on the altar and on the steps below the altar. And a couple of years ago, a bunch of gulls came in at five in the morning after everything had been set up. And just before the crowds were led in, four or five in the morning, just started throwing things around, pulling the cut roses out of their vases, knocking over the 1000s of daffodil pots, and just ruining the day for the guy who oversaw the floral decorations. And, you know, people sort of looked at that like, well, maybe they were hungry. Well, the daffodil is actually poisonous. You don’t want to be eating that. They weren’t eating anything. They were just sort of pulling things apart. And somebody else said, Well, maybe they were looking for grubs. But basically the pots were just knocked over, and it just wasn’t entirely clear. Someone else said, Oh, they have a territorial behavior where they pull up grass. Gulls will pull up grass. On a nesting colony, they’ll do that as a way of showing that this is their turf. But that didn’t seem right, because there wasn’t any grass, and they weren’t really uprooting anything. So one was left to conclude that they’re just dicks. It just , I don’t know, “This looks fun. Let’s just throw these things around.” I guess I’m guessing, you know, really. It was sort of, “Well, this is new. Let’s see if we can eat it. It was probably that kind of thing.” Although the exuberance with which they upturned the pots and threw the roses about was quite impressive. So yeah, they are a little dickish.

Rob Dietz  

I wonder if they’re having a little you know, “Okay, Pope and people of the Vatican, you’ve had your time. We’re gonna start taking back over. This is just a little sign to you all to watch your backs.”

Mary Roach  

Perhaps, perhaps it was. It was a warning. Good political statement? Yeah, yeah. And the same with macaques. You know, I spent time with wildlife conflict, researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India. And we traveled around for more than a week and one of the species in question was macaques. And there was a couple that both worked at the Wildlife Institute of India, and I got them. They were talking about macaques, and he was saying how they have them near where they live in Dehradun, and he described a macaque coming up the back stairs, getting in, coming into the kitchen, picking up the induction cooker, and throwing it on the floor. And he’s like, “There was no reason for that animal to do that. He could have taken some food and left, but he didn’t, he felt the need to do that. Because they are happy when they harass you. They are.” And his wife is trying to be all scientific. She’s like, “No, no, they’ve probably been rewarded for some kind of behavior.” And then no, he’s like, “No, they live to harass you. Definitely they do.”

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, I can imagine if you’re dealing with that kind of thing. Often, it’s just, it’s impossible not to see it that way. But I imagine it from the macaque’s point of view how disturbing people are to them.

Mary Roach  

Oh, of course. Yeah. I mean, the things that people… I mean, they were in New Delhi. They had a slingshot brigade for a while. I mean, it’s tough for the wildlife bureaucrats in New Delhi, because they’re dealing with two difficult things. One, there’s the wildlife protection act, which is quite strict when it comes to preventing people from harming or pretty much just messing with wild animals. And also the fact that the monkey is a representation of Hanuman, who’s a Hindu deity. So people are very… They kind of make offerings to the monkey outside the temples to the live monkeys, as well as the statues inside the temple. So they’re encouraging this behavior the monkeys get. They lose their fear of people, they get more aggressive. They figure out that if you take someone’s cell phone, the person will hand over a treat to get the cell phone back. They basically ransom — hold the phone for ransom. They’re very smart. But so people contribute to the problem, but they want the problem solved. And there’s a lot of pushback if you try to do anything like trap the monkeys. I mean to try to hire monkey catchers is a very vexing prospect in New Delhi. Nobody wants that job.

Rob Dietz  

I’m glad you brought up the reverence that Indian people have for wild animals and for nature. One of the recurring themes in this podcast is that humanity needs something of an attitude adjustment when it comes to nature, sort of rather than trying to dominate or outsmart nature, we need to connect with nature, understand that we’re a part of it, and maybe not masters of it, adopt some humility. And I was really fascinated by that idea that there’s this reverence in India, and even though I think their human-wildlife conflicts are worse than what we experience in North America — I mean, the people are dealing with leopards, which are more than a nuisance, quite dangerous. They’re dealing with the macaques, as you said, and anyway, it seems like it’s a more common occurrence than, and more serious than, what we see. And yet they still have this reverence, and they’re way less willing to kill species. I’m wondering if you think there are lessons or habits that the US and other countries and cultures could adopt from India?

Mary Roach  

Well, it would be lovely if everyone here had that kind of reverence or respect for wildlife. I think the thing to keep in mind with this country is when you go back to the 1800s and early 1900s, there really was that powerful sense of “we own this land, manifest destiny, we we are here to make it our own, to conquer wilderness.” Wild animals were either a commodity or, you know, for their pelts, or varmints, competition for hunters, or creatures that were taking livestock. So there was this adversarial relationship and sense that, you know, you kill as many as you can, and they had bounties on them: coyotes, bears, wolves, cougars. They were bountied creatures. People could bring in a tail or a pair of ears and and get money. We have actually, although it doesn’t always seem that way today, we have actually come a long way from that mindset. In the 60s and 70s, the animal rights movement, animal welfare, environmentalism — this sense of the planet as something you don’t take for granted and something that you value for its own intrinsic value, not because you’re going to sell it or make money off it, but because it’s worth protecting, you know. We’ve made progress but, and because of all those protections and the lifting of bounties, you know, a lot of these species have come roaring back. And that’s great. It’s a huge success story. But now the populations have hit the point where people are starting to get annoyed again, because there’s bears in their living room. Or there’s coyotes running out of the woodlands looking like they’re about to attack toddlers, and also because of social media and because of the news cycle. And because of doorbell cameras. We have kind of I think an inflated sense of these animals’ presence, like cougars. Cougars were coming in, wandering around the suburbs of Los Angeles all along. But until there were doorbell cameras, nobody knew about it. It happened at three in the morning, and they’re very stealthy. You just didn’t know they were there. And now there’s this sense of invasion. And we have to fight back. They’re taking our pets. There’s a fear that’s been somewhat fanned by the all the media.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, it’s one of those primal fears. I mean, I spend a lot of time recreating in the woods and I go into cougar habitat and bear habitat all the time. And you know, the statistics are with you. I live in Oregon. The state of Oregon has exactly one documented death from a mountain lion attack in the last couple of centuries. And so you know, your odds are so much better of crashing your car on the way to your hiking trailhead than of even seeing a cougar. I have actually had an encounter that I talked about, told the story of it. Basically a mountain lion killed a deer about 10 or 20 feet from my tent. It was it was dragging the deer right towards the tent, and I managed to scare it off and found the deer with a broken neck in the morning right there. I thought I was gonna go look for… Maybe I’ll see a trace of blood or something. No, the whole deer is there with claw marks and a broken neck, but it kind of made me go more towards that reverence and I hope that cultural story plays out more than the “we’ve got to fight back.” I just have the greatest hope that we can learn to coexist more so than, “Well, gotta get rid of them.”

Mary Roach  

Yeah, I mean, you have people who, you know, they catch a glimpse of a cougar crossing a field across the street from them, and they call Fish and Wildlife to report it. And I want to say, “Lucky you.” You saw a mountain lion. Not very many people see them. They’re very good at staying hidden. And we’re not on the menu. I mean, they’re not stalking us for food. I mean, you were in a situation that involved food. And that was actually a pretty scary encounter, I think, because when an animal senses there might be competition for their food, that’s sometimes when things get hairy. But yeah, there I wish people… I mean, I feel lucky that there’s skunks, raccoons, and possums that pass through my yard. They don’t get into the house, they’re fine. They’re not doing anything. Occasionally, they poop in the corner by the fence and whatever. So do the neighbor’s cats.

Rob Dietz  

Like I said, I just hope that we all evolve a little bit and realize we’re gonna have to coexist. I mean, what kind of world is it without wild creatures around us?

Mary Roach  

I agree. I agree. I, I hope so too. And you know, I do feel that there’s reasons to be hopeful. Wildlife Services, which is the wildlife arm of the USDA, which of course… It historically, and to a large extent today, is out to protect the interests of agriculture. And so a lot of these animals that cause problems for ranchers and farmers, you know, they are the control people. But what I was gonna say is, I think it’s 10 states now. There has been budget for hiring nonlethal specialists. That is to say, conflict specialists whose strategies are nonlethal. In other words, not poisoning or trapping or shooting. And that’s great. And that culture is starting to permeate Wildlife Services a little bit more. I mean, that’s what I’m told. And there are people doing really good work with carnivore coexistence. And that is bringing in both sides, bringing in the ranchers and the hunters, and having them sit down with the animal welfare people and the environmentalists and getting them not just to talk, but to listen, and to try to come up with compromise scenarios. And that takes skill on the part of the moderator or the person who’s bringing these two opposing views into the room together. And that’s a whole kind of science unto itself. And that’s very promising. I think, you know, it’s very much specific to areas where there are conflicts. And I just think that, you know, the cultural consciousness is evolved to a point where you’re not going to get away with mass poisonings, you know, not just from the perspective of animal cruelty, but from the perspective of the environment and secondary poisonings. Like, what is that doing to the birds that prey on these squirrels or other small rodents? You know, what are the larger effects to the environment? I just think there’s enough watchdog organizations and good reporting, environmental reporting, out there that that kind of thing won’t pass anymore. So that’s a good development.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, you’re actually taking me back to… I used to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service. You’ve taken me back to my days there. There was sort of this contingent there that was about… They call them the hook and bullet crowd, you know, they were about, “Oh, let’s, let’s make sure there’s enough ducks to shoot.” But there was this, I think, a much larger contingent of, “No, we’re a conservation agency. And yes, we need habitat for ducks, but we obviously need habitat for all the species, and we’re going to focus on the ones that we’ve really decimated through expansion of the human sphere.” But that culture — yeah, I think you’re right. I think it’s changing, and it requires, like you say, a political skill that we’ve got to work on ourselves.

Mary Roach  

Yeah, it’s an interesting irony. You know, you mentioned making sure we have enough ducks to kill, but the reasons we have some of these most beautiful parks and wild areas set aside and not turned into agriculture is through the efforts of highly placed hunters by people who… So these wilderness areas were set aside by hunters for hunters but they also can be shared by hikers and birders, and we have that just out in the valley in California — these wetlands that you go out there as a birder, which I do, and it’s just amazing collections of migratory species and also some dudes who want to go shoot some ducks, but it’s an interesting coexistence that’s developed over the years. It would be great if Fish and Wildlife were… Yeah, I was gonna say if it were separated, but you know, those hunting licenses, the money, the taxes off those — that does support a lot of conservation. It’s a little bit of an awkward coexistence, but it has kind of worked in its own odd way.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah. You and I have both met hunters who are unbelievable naturalists, conservationists, and are in our camp, and would probably share a lot of the same sentiments.

Mary Roach  

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, I’m somebody who lets the slaughterhouse worker do the killing, you know? I have respect for somebody who’s hunting to fill the freezer, as they say. I have respect for that. It’s more the trophy hunting and poaching and all that side of it that I object to.

Rob Dietz  

So we did this episode, right, in the beginning of this season on the history of people dominating animals, and we gave some stories around zoos and menageries that people held. And in that episode, we had two conclusions. One we’ve already kind of talked about, which is how we need to learn how to coexist with predatory animals, like bears and leopards and mountain lions. The second conclusion was that we need to appreciate that many animals that we view as nuisances or dangers, they might also be doing something helpful, directly helpful for people. And of course, they may have an ecological importance that we don’t understand. I think you reached a similar conclusion after your journey. I was wondering if you could talk about that?

Mary Roach  

Oh sure. Well, the thing that comes to mind, you know, I have a chapter that deals with the trials and tribulations of bird seed farmers, basically, sunflower growers. These are individuals who have huge plots of bird seed growing. They’re having a problem with birds.

Rob Dietz  

Even on a nice big stalk for the birds to easily reach, right?

Mary Roach  

Yeah, it’s like you’re growing bird seed, and you’re having a problem with birds coming in eating your seed. I mean, the sunflowers are mainly grown for the oil, not to feed birds. But nonetheless, it’s been an ongoing problem for the sunflower people. And one of the things that I loved was, I found a report from the early 1900s, with a quote from the head of the Department of Agriculture, saying that the blackbird, which is the key perpetrator of grand theft sunflower seed, that the Blackbird is a decidedly beneficial species in terms of the pests that it eats and the weed seeds that it eats. And you don’t hear about that from today’s sunflower growers. You don’t hear them saying, yeah, they eat some sunflowers, but they also eat a lot of insect pests that we would otherwise have to kill with pesticides. They have a positive side as well. Yeah, I found something online that they had calculated the value of each tufted titmouse to the pecan industry. And it was something like $2,600 because, again, of the pests that they eat. So when you look at the broader picture, and you understand the behavior of the species in a fuller way, there’s often another element to their existence that is of benefit to the human.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, again, I think you’re hitting on this really important point especially in farming of viewing your place in the ecosystem, rather than just viewing an industrial process, right? And obviously, it’s hard when you’re trying to make ends meet and line up the cash flows, but but like you say, sometimes it comes out in your favor if you take the ecological or the ecologically sound action rather than destroying all the red winged blackbirds.

Mary Roach  

Which doesn’t, yeah, which doesn’t work, which doesn’t help. But the other thing is… by learning more about the species in question, you can sometimes come up with preventive measures. You can kind of, instead of trying to fix the problem, once it’s there, you could try to prevent it by… They can do things like planting a lure crop, which is an appealing, but cheap to grow, crop nearby that would draw them over to another field. You can make sure that you don’t plant your sunflowers anywhere near a cattail marsh, which is where they like to hang out, roost, nest, whatever. That’s a basic one right there. So there’s benefit in understanding the behavior of these animals, the life cycle, the timing, and sometimes what they’re doing is just for a few weeks. You know, it’s not the whole year. So if you can figure something out, just for those few weeks, like a very effective scaring technique that might… You know, scaring animals doesn’t work for very long, because they figure it out, and they kind of call your bluff. But what if it’s only, you know, if the harvest is only going to take two weeks? Well, then it’ll probably be good for two weeks. So just knowledge is power, I guess, I would say for all of these scenarios.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, for sure. I would second that. I love the idea of people being ecologically aware and knowing what’s around them, how the habitat and the species behave. And yeah, it’s just brilliant. Okay, this is gonna be a little strange. I think you can tell I gravitate toward the animal stuff in your book, but you also cover plants. And I did find your discussion on poisonous plants to be fascinating. Especially castor beans and the deadly poison ricin. So here in this podcast, where we’re used to discussing and joking about all these existential threats, right, like runaway global heating or economic meltdowns or civilizational collapse, you introduced me in Fuzz to a new and fun threat to worry about. You quote this biochemist from Montana State University, Seth Pincus, who is an expert on ricin, and he says you can take a ricin gene and dump it into a highly contagious virus like influenza. And then you go on to explain, well okay, now you’ve got a bug that can infect millions of people, but also kill millions of people. So where do you rank mass ricin poisoning in the pantheon of threats to humanity?

Mary Roach  

Well, that scenario has one stumbling block for your potential mass murderer, which is, you know… Okay, say it’s going to be used in a military manner to create genocide? Well, first, you have to figure out how to protect your own people, because you can’t control that, you know, if it’s a highly contagious virus. It’s going to get out in your own population, and maybe your own family. So you’d need an antidote or a vaccine or something. You know what I mean? It wouldn’t be that. I mean, maybe it’d be simple to drop that portion of the ricin’s genome into this virus, but it wouldn’t be… There’s a lot of things you’d have to have in place first, so I’m not seeing that as a likely development. We have a lot of other more likely global disasters in store for us before anybody, I think, turns to the bioengineered ricin holding virus.

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, I was hoping you would go that way. It sounds like a, you know, Breaking Bad episode on steroids.

Mary Roach  

Totally does. It totally does. I mean, you know, it’s within the realm of possibility according to Dr. Pincus, but uh, I wouldn’t… Yeah, I wouldn’t be too worried about that one. We have enough to worry about, Rob.

Rob Dietz  

Yes, thanks for putting me at peace with that. Now, to get away from peace. I want to talk about writing with you for a little bit, because I’ve played around in the writing world some, and I’m just always fascinated by people able to express themselves. You know, you’ve written some amazing books, you can tell from Fuzz and in your whole body of work that you put a lot of care into your — let’s call it the investigative process. You follow threads, you travel around the world, you read scientific papers, you interview all these knowledgeable people, and you’re, you know along the way, you’re uncovering truths and dispelling myths and getting it all down on paper. I was wondering if you can talk about your information gathering process, like how do you go about it and what’s the ratio between your good leads and your dead ends?

Mary Roach  

Um, well, first of all, thank you. You make me sound amazing. I thank you. I will say that a surprisingly large chunk of time is spent in the early stages of a book, just sending out emails all over the place, picking up threads and saying, “Hey, you don’t know me, but I write these books, and I’m kind of curious about what you do. Could I get you on the phone for a few minutes? What are you going to be up to in the next couple of years? Is there something I might be able to tag along on?” And the tagging along is sometimes a bit tough, particularly if it’s an academic institution or a corporation. Now, there’s a lot of layers of, you know well… The public affairs people have to be okay with it, or the legal department has to be okay with it. The CEO has to… So it’s a process of wooing people sometimes. And also of, you know, like for Grunt, I wanted to go out on a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. And that took about a year to get on there. Part of it was logistics. And part of it was just the the levels of command that had to sign off, you know, sort of going up the chain of command and then back down to find the submarine commanding officer who would be open to me being on board. But it to me, it’s almost like I’m stalking them. It’s a kind of a quest. I can make this happen. I’m very persistent. But to answer your question… It takes a lot of time, you know? People will say, “Oh, are you writing the next one?” I’m like, “Writing? The writing is not going to happen for like, six months or more. I’m just in the quiet stalking phase.”

Rob Dietz  

Yeah, like one of the leopards in India. Well, I suspected that you had to have that kind of persistence, and that it was, you know, sort of a labor of love. On the writing side of things, when you do get around to that, I want to heap a little bit more praise on you. And I think it’s hard enough to write good explanatory text. I mean, just look at your average set of instructions for a bookshelf or something like that, to assemble it, right? But you have really amazing skill at that. But even more so is your skill with humor. And I found in reading Fuzz that there were a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the book. I mean, one of the ones from India… You were on the phone, asking about the forest department’s plans for macaques. And the guy on the other end of the line, Dr. Singh, he replies laparoscopic sterilization, and you say… Your quote in the book was, “He says it with a grand flourish as though introducing a special guest.” And I just started laughing. And I think there are just dozens and dozens of those in the book, including hilarious winding footnotes. But it seems to me that comedic writing, at least when I’ve tried it, that’s the toughest of all. So I mean, how do you approach that? Is that just kind of your personality spilling out? Or how does that end up on the on the page?

Mary Roach  

Well, it’s the most fun for me to write those lines. I mean, that scene with Ishwah Singh on the telephone was frustrating, because he hung up directly after he said laparoscopic sterilization. He hung up, and I couldn’t get ahold of him again. But the moments of frustration: those are great material for humor. When things are going well, it doesn’t lend itself to very much humor, you know? It’s like, “Well, it was a lovely day, and everything was going well.” Nobody wants to read that. So it’s moments of adversity and failure that are kind of fun to mine. The humor, the success of the humorous writing, is entirely dependent on the success of the reporting. Like I when I’m looking for, you know, what I will do and where I will go and who I’ll talk to and what we will see. I’m always looking for things that are going to be not necessarily funny in the traditional sense, but unexpected or that will create awkward moments for me as an outsider, because I am always an outsider within these books. So I’m looking to put myself in situations that will hopefully have some moments that are amusing or surreal or goofy. So a lot of it has to do with the persistence in the early stages of the book, of getting access to those places that might generate some fun material. So it’s very much dependent on the reporting as much as it is on the writing, which is kind of counterintuitive.

Rob Dietz 

I love that. I mean, you’re talking about getting access to the places and the people, and then you make it accessible to all of us. And you’re right, like it’s a, I guess, a combination of the two things. And it’s just so incredibly well done. In fact I… So I knew about you long before you wrote Fuzz, and I have your other books in mind. And having read Fuzz because it was so related to what we’ve talked about this season, I’m really looking forward to picking up your other books and continuing to learn and laugh.

Mary Roach  

Oh, well. Thank you so much. They’re all being rereleased in October with a new cover redesigned, so you can get the spiffed up new releases.

Rob Dietz  

Nice. Yeah, maybe I can get the box set.

Mary Roach  

Yeah, you know, my agent’s been trying to get a box set to go on for years. We haven’t been able to. Someday I will have a box set and an action figure. That’d be great.

Rob Dietz  

That’d be cool. The Mary Roach action figure!

Mary Roach  

Is it too much to ask? I don’t think so.

Rob Dietz  

No, not at all. Okay, well, so Mary Roach is the author of Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. Thanks so much, Mary, for coming on and sharing your knowledge and your sense of humor. I’m really glad to have this chance to talk with you, and I really can’t wait to see where your wandering spirit takes you next.

Mary Roach  

Oh, thank you so much, Rob. It was just a really enjoyable conversation and thanks for the work that you do and getting people to think about these bigger topics and our role on this fragile planet. I appreciate it.

Melody Travers  

That’s our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town. This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Get more info at postcarbon.org.