Learning to Live in an Upended World: Animals without us

Learning to Live in an Upended World: Animals without us

By Natalie Taylor

While we, humans have been in lockdown, animals around the world are taking advantage of our absence. South African lions have been spotted sleeping peacefully on a stretch of a normally tourist-heavy highway. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought some surprisingly positive upshots for the animal world. One of them, is a global concern about “wet markets” and wildlife markets, and a call to ban them permanently. Some areas have experienced reduced air pollution and cleaner waters, with the resulting increase in fish life. However, bad signs are here as well—poachers are taking advantage of diminished or absent controls in nature preserves. In Africa there’s an upsurge of the slaughter of black rhinos and more wildlife trafficking. In Colombia, poaching of wildcats has increased.

But more benign and interesting effects are showing up in the animal world. With humanity practically AWOL for many months in some parts of the world, nature’s responses have been quite amazing.

Even animals in empty zoos have been affected by the lack of humans. Personnel shortages mean fewer zookeepers and less interactions than the animals have been used to. Some social animals appear to miss the attention of humans. A keeper in a wildlife park in New Zealand noticed that many animals continue to show up for their daily “meet the public” moment even though there is nobody to watch them.

Perhaps the most interesting aftermath of the lack of humans is that wild life has been—well, running wild. As beaches lie empty of humans there has been a massive increase in the hatching of baby turtles from Brazil to India. With their most powerful predator, us, in hiding this season, their numbers will explode in the oceans. Without people on the streets, many animals that never ventured into urban areas have been showing up—sea lions in an Argentine sea port scramble up to shuttered doors in search of food; roe deer roam through a city in Poland; a wild sow crosses a city parkway in Haifa with her young in tow; and a flock of mountain goats wander along sidewalks in Wales, then surround an empty McDonald’s like customers waiting to place an order. 

These scenarios remind me of one of the most fascinating books I’ve read. In his 2007 book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman shows just how tenuous a hold we—humans—have on the planet. In his hypothetical vision, all human life vanishes and quickly all we have built begins to crumble. Within a short time nature and its creatures recapture earth, leaving behind only ruins of what we believed was “our” world.

It’s a frightening scenario, but it emphasizes how ephemeral our presence on earth is, and how quickly other life forms take over when we are not present.