For James Barilla and his family, the dream of transforming their Columbia, South Carolina backyard into a haven for wildlife evoked images of kids catching grasshoppers by day and fireflies at night, of digging up potatoes and picking strawberries. When they signed up with the National Wildlife Federation to certify their yard as a wildlife habitat, it felt like pushing back, in however small a way, against the tide of bad news about vanishing species, changing climate, dying coral reefs. Then the animals started to arrive, and Barilla soon discovered the complexities of merging human with animal habitats. What are the limits of coexistence, he wondered? To find out, Barilla set out across continents to explore cities where populations of bears, monkeys, marmosets, toucans, and honeybees live alongside human residents.
In this interview, author James Barilla describes his experiment in Zoological living.
What have been the most enjoyable and least enjoyable aspects of watching your garden ‘go wild’?
The most enjoyable aspect has been seeing new plants and creatures find their way into our yard—that feels like validation. Probably the least enjoyable aspect has been having creatures show up that we struggle to live with—right now, there are two yellow-jacket nests flourishing in our front yard by the sidewalk, and I have to figure out what to do about them.
In your expeditions and trips, you investigated tensions between humans and animals in many different contexts. What was the greatest surprise to you?
What surprised me most was the degree to which people in Delhi were willing to put up with the bad behavior of the monkeys living in the city. These are animals that have learned to invade homes and are potentially violent toward people. Yet the people there tolerate a degree of menace and inconvenience that I find hard to imagine at home.
Stepping back from your yard and its specifics, what are the larger ‘lessons’ you hope readers will take away from reading My Backyard Jungle?
We can think of habitat far more broadly. A surprising number of creatures can inhabit what we tend to think of as inhospitable landscapes, the city being a prime example. The question is whether we can figure out ways to live with them. That ongoing process of learning to live with other species is hopeful, I think.