polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Hanging Out in the Polis with Cute and Fuzzy

by Hector Fernando Burga

Here at polis we usually write about cities, social transformation, new urban innovations, featured artists and even now and then a beautiful picture or film that captures our imagination of what the "urban" is or can be.

But, who says that polis and The Polis cannot be a place for cute and fuzzy critters? Like the fat squirrel that lives outside of my apartment in Berkeley.

I have been watching this little gal/guy over several weeks as it seeks comfortable surfaces where it can lay its body and receive some warmth from below and above. Most importantly, I imagine, from its favorite spot on my front yard fence, it monitors the situation in case a predator like cat passes by. From its high reconnaissance post, it seems at times to be monitoring me more than anything else.

I haven't named it, since this step would surely represent a colonial project of anthropo-morphism. I'd rather allow our ambiguous relationship to remain mysterious and full of wonder, like the one described in one of my favorite short stories from Julio Cortazar: Axoltl.

Instead, I will use adjectives, which equally evidence my anthropomorphic gaze. Indeed words get in the way of a special relationship. What is certain is that cute and fuzzy (C&F) has become a companion during my long hours of dissertation writing. But on a more serious note C&F makes me consider the presence of urban wild-life in our cities, which leads me to the following question: should we plan for animals in our cities? Or is this one of those frontiers of planning that ends up being more of a theoretical exercise rather than a practical one?

Back in Miami, where I travel regularly, urban wildlife is always present in one way or another. Miami conjures up Miami Beach, Enrique Iglesias and Pit Bull (the rapper), but this is not the wild-life or wild living that I am referring to. Rather I am considering how everyday life in Miami is filled with brushes against lizards, ibises, manatees, alligators and wild turkeys, boas, and tropical cousins of C&F. Some are invasive species, like the fascinating story of urban parrots liberated from the nets of Miami's Parrot Jungle after Hurricane Andrew. You see them fly in formation loud and proud over the skies of South Florida. There is also the case of the frozen iguanas, solemn and dignified as they encounter the perils of rare subtropical frosts and meet their material terminus to face their metaphysical Iguana creator.

Yes, animal life becomes the fodder for urban legends. They are all around us. Come to think of it, we are the ones encroaching on animals rather that the other way around. Recently a cougar was shot in the streets of Berkeley, making residents aware of their proximity to wildlife. And yet it seems that the only way to conceive of planning solutions for animals involves domesticity in the city, production in the countryside or conservation /preservation in the wilderness. One good example of this determined relationship is the S street Park in Washington DC, colloquially named “Dog S**T Park” by North Dupont Circle residents.

But what if there are other ways to relate and plan for “Cute and fuzzies” and “uglies and hardies”? Practical solutions are evident and ongoing scholarship on Animal Geographies may open a theoretical space for the exploration of new relationships and spatial outcomes with animals.

Certainly, many questions remain: What are our priorities? Where, why and how should we allocate infrastructure funding for such an issue? What techniques do we have available to consider this scope? What is the purpose? These are all valid questions to ask and consider, specially if we realize that we are not alone in the Polis.

Credits: Image of "Cute and Fuzzy" by Hector Fernando Burga.