Asphalt Jungle

R. G. G. PRICElives in Sussex and is a regular contributor to PUNCH. He writes for the ATLANTIC on a variety of subjects.

Much as I approve of the warm hearts of the people who are trying to arouse world opinion on the conservation of wildlife, and while I quite realize how helpful the whole movement has been to photographers, I cannot help feeling that there is something backward about penning creatures threatened with extinction in odd corners of swamp and jungle. After all, nobody suggests keeping Eskimos or Pygmies at the point the race had reached when the earliest explorers ran across it, as a method of preserving their way of life, so why should animals be deprived of their right to join in the march of evolution? This march is generally spearheaded by man, who moved away from bush and desert into cities. I believe the proper policy for wildlife is urbanization.

The right place for a herd threatened by a new dam is not some artificially created game reserve, low-grade agricultural land turned into a high-yield tourist attraction. Nor is it a zoo. I am not arguing at the moment whether there is a place for zoos for education and study; but surely nobody wants to confine all the animals there are in vast zoos, whether the open-country kind or the sort that have concrete terraces and houses for the chimps, where they can exhibit their own earthy variety of gracious living. Nature is a unity, and if man, the paccmakei in evolution, has become urbanized, the rest of the animal kingdom ought to have a chance at city living.

Of course, menaced animal populations that were forcibly transported into the centers of conurbations and turned loose might simply get unhappy and go away. But before long, the more adventurous, the more evolution-worthy, would begin to adapt. Life is capable of the most extraordinary responsiveness to new conditions and is used to a constantly changing environment. If the rabbits introduced into Australia were soon climbing trees, there is nothing impossible in the idea of pumas learning to roost on top of billboards or pythons coiling on the roofs of elevators. In time, the design of buildings would take the local fauna into account, as it does in the tropics.

A more serious difficulty is that the very people who are all for conservation when it means keeping the dumb chums on the other side of the globe might agitate against having them live next door. Man, they might argue, having originally built cities to put walls between himself and the wilder fauna, is retrogressing by inviting them inside. This completely ignores the contribution the animals would make in keeping man at the head of the evolutionary march. Through most of his long history he has been both hunter and hunted. Separated now from the wild beasts among whom he passed his earlier years, he is in danger of losing the keenness of his senses, the splitsecond operation of his responses, the fear-driven intensity of his cunning. The automobile has to provide the stimulus once shared by the tiger and the peccary, the crocodile and the black mamba, the piranha and the bison.

I suspect that in a few centuries animals kept in reserves would turn into frustrated, pampered, neurotic exhibitionists and fade away. If man needs to be kept sharp and bright by animals, they need to be kept alert as veil. They want tougher competition than they get from photographers. Of course, a few species might become domesticated without difficulty. Gentle creatures with large, melting eyes that once peered through dappled sunlight would easily seem at home on carpets or trotting behind their owners through supermarkets. But for the feral type of wildlife, it would be in the tougher aspects of urban living that it would find fulfillment.

In the early stages of wildlife urbanization, hunting would have to be forbidden and city ordinances would have to impose severe penalties for killing any animal except in defense of life. It would be preposterously wasteful to transport the animal population of a valley threatened by a hydroelectric scheme into the center of Philadelphia or Paris and then let the inhabitants turn the working week into one long unbridled safari. To allow the human environment to become a challenge once again, the displaced fauna would have to be given a reasonable time to settle down. Two complete breeding cycles would be the minimum, and animals would come off the protected list quite slowly. Some people might argue that numbers should be allowed to rise until man has to compete for each mouthful of food. This is mere sentimentality. It is not suggested for a moment that man should abdicate. Until beavers can build a better dam than engineers, for example, man is entitled to exercise sovereignty over them.

What would life be like if we admitted to our cities creatures from land taken over for agriculture, power stations, housing, and the other beneficent uses which annoy the wildlife lover? The conversation of husbands after a day at the office would become more varied and interesting, even though their wives would grumble at the teeth marks in their trousers and the higher insurance premiums.

“Dodged a timber wolf in the depot this morning. It got Tom Petersen.”

“I said he was getting too heavy. The Murphy girl got caught by an anaconda at the clinic. Is Arnold back at work yet?”

“This morning. The plastic surgeon did a wonderful job. Good thing the elephant was distracted by the lights’ changing. What’s that hole in front of the garage?”


The fear that we undermine our children by being overprotective would vanish in a world where schools would be liable to invasion by baboons, cobras, or dingoes, and where nobody would dream of opening a door without being ready to leap sideways fast. Children would, in fact, rediscover some of the lost skills possessed by primitive races. They would learn to run far and fast, to climb quickly, to smell carnivores from a distance, and possibly to communicate telepathically. The boredom to which so much juvenile delinquency is attributed should be markedly reduced.

The city is becoming independent of weather. Central heating, air conditioning, heated roads, refrigeration, and all the other anticlimatic techniques would mean that there would be a far wider range of animals in a single locality than would normally be found. A man might be chased home by a herd of hungry elks only to fall a victim to a tarantula in the bath. Fights between polar bears and rhinos might easily occur on vacant lots. There would always be something going on.

Writers concerned with the problems of urban living constantly warn against the psychosomatic dangers of monotony. The similarity of buildings, the disappearance of regional variation in food, the uniform pattern of time-employment create tensions.

Man has reached this far because of his liking for change and variety, by straining his adaptability to the limit. As the city becomes increasingly comfortable, man begins to take it easy, and that is the danger point. The urbanization of the menaced denizens of marginal lands, as well as being kind to them, would be health-giving to us. Nobody could call an office block monotonous to work in when in several of the offices human occupants had been replaced by leopards.