Kelty, Christopher. (2021). “The Maze of Nature in Los Angeles, an Introduction”. Labyrinth Project Working Paper January 2021.
Welcome to the Labyrinth.
A series of stories that intersect like passages in a maze. Stories about Los Angeles, about nature, about animals and humans, about responsibility and moral failure.
Nature in Los Angeles is a maze in which you are lost: every time you try to do something good it turns out to also do something harmful; every time you try to stop something harmful, it seems to get in the way of another entity’s flourishing. Can you find your way out? Did you bring thread? Is their a monster in this maze?
Years ago, the writer and activist Jenny Price wrote a now famous article called “13 ways of seeing nature in LA” (Believer Magazine, 2006). Los Angeles, she said, suffers from the myth that there is no nature here: that it is a concrete wasteland, or a development machine gone mad, or an artificial paradise, or just the happiest place on earth. It’s not true of course, nature is everywhere in LA.
One of the reasons it’s hard to notice nature in LA, or in most cities is that humans cling to a distinction between nature and culture, between rural and urban, city and country, wild and tame, domesticated and feral, and so on. Looking at nature in LA makes it clear that the problem is not a nature/culture split, but maybe more of a nature/nature split. For some people nature is one thing, for others it is another and among all the diverse people in this city who care about nature, there is no agreement about where it is, what it is, how it has become what it is, or whether it needs saving, protection, and enhancement or separation, productive use, exploitation.
For some folks, nature is what is rare, precious, and threatened—biodiversity in the Santa Monica Mountains for instance. For others, nature is what needs to be reclaimed from the past, from development, or from the city’s growth—the LA River or a coastal wetlands. For yet others, nature is what lies just outside their front door, or down the street—landscaping in yards, tree-lined streets, or public parks.
And for a lot of people, we humans, we the species are also part of nature, not separate from it: we are animals, we grow and die, we reproduce, but we also build things and change our environments. We change both the nature outside us and the nature that is inside us. We feed and eat, we poison and kill, we settle and we move around. A lot. We love, we feel shame, we take responsibility, we argue, and we decide, in one nature or another. This is what it means to live in a nature/nature split. It’s not a choice between what is nature and what is culture—humans are part of nature too. But it’s not all nature either. That’s too easy, and politically dangerous. There is always more than one nature around us. These natures are always in conflict, always in a subtle dance with each other, or a not so subtle chase scene, down a concrete riverbed perhaps; these natures are sweeping through a gene pool or saturating a food web or changing a climate. We don’t control these natures, but much more importantly, we also do have some control over them, we are not innocent of the nature we have now nor the one we will have in the future.
This is why it is a labyrinth. Do you go into the entrance?
You are here
The first thing you see in the labyrinth of nature in LA might be a coyote walking down your shady, or not-so-shady city street. Or maybe a possum or a raccoon. Or if you are really lucky, maybe a mountain lion in the hills above your neighborhood.
Turn a corner, just outside your back door you might find a cat looking at you. Likely, it’s a feral cat, or a cat allowed to wander. You might refuse to feed it, because you don’t want it to become your cat. This is the responsible thing to do, you think. In a plea for attention the cat might kill a hummingbird and leave it on your doorstep—a practice that is widespread enough that it gets the anxious attention of conservationists, like your neighbor, who is concerned about birds. He tells you that the research shows that cats kill as many as 4 billion birds a year in the US. He’s pissed about it.
However, it’s likely your other neighbor, the tough guy with the big German Shepherd and a soft spot for kittens, who is feeding the cat. Maybe you see the same cat at a nearby park, marsh, golf course, cemetery, or abandoned lot, where it is part of a colony of cats fed by other humans. While there, the cat is likely to be stalked by that coyote you saw, perhaps even killed and eaten, if the stomach contents of coyotes, recently studied by the National Park Service, are any indication. 50% cats, 50% Doritos. Actually, it’s only abut 20% cats, but you get the picture. Definitely Doritos though, probably Flamin' Hot Doritos.
And if not this cat, probably others, judging by the commotion down at your city council meetings. Some shocking number of your neighbors have lost cats and small dogs to coyotes, which they insist the city must do something about. They yell, cry, tell stories of their lost beloved pets, and wave signs and don MAGA-red t-shirts that say #evictcoyotes. The police chief declines to do anything; the city council orders an environmental review and asks for bids from trappers and pest control companies to deal with the problem. The pest control companies complain that they can do nothing because recently, as a result of an overzealous resident’s inhuman snaring of a coyote a few neighborhoods over, the city has banned snare traps as inhumane. But, say the pest control guys, they are the only thing that works. All but the dumbest coyotes are too wily to go into a cage trap. Do something insist the neighbors, these are wild animals invading the city.
You backtrack through the twisty little passages of the maze and return to your street. You see your neighbors from the apartment a few doors down setting cage traps nearby. Not for coyotes, though they might catch a dumb one, but instead to catch that feral cat from your backyard. They have no interest in killing it though, because they are Trap-Neuter-Return experts. They have taken responsibility. They have decided that the best way to get these cats off the streets is to slowly reduce their numbers by spaying or neutering as many as possible. So they feed the cats to get them to go into the traps, then they take them to a vet to be fixed, have the tip of their ear clipped off as a sign of their reproductive status, and then return them to roughly where they found them. With great emotion, they insist this is the only humane way to deal with abandoned, homeless, cats. Otherwise they will go to city “kill shelters” where the cats will be euthanized by the thousands. Better to let them live out their lives, aging in place and to die of natural causes. Natural causes, you think, like cars, coyotes, and Doritos.
Animal Services—the proverbial dog-catchers—are interested neither in helping you with the coyotes nor with the cats. They stopped trapping or killing coyotes in 2004 as a matter of policy, and as for the cats, they are under a gag-order and cannot provide you any information about trapping, neutering, or releasing cats into the city, nor give you any vouchers to spay or neuter your cat, nor will they do it themselves. But they quietly direct you to one of a dozen organizations that will neuter the cat and release it back into the city to be fed by your neighbor. Organizations with names like Fix Nation, Alley Cat Allies or “Best Friends”, whose motto is “Save Them ALL” and which sounds suspiciously like a scientology spin-off cult to you.
This hush-hush hand off is the result of a lawsuit, your neighbor with the traps explains: 10 years ago “bird people”, she says disdainfully, filed a lawsuit to stop the city of LA from doing TNR unless they could prove it was environmentally safe. The resulting environmental impact report, which is 400 pages long and has two appendices of thousands of impassioned comments from cat lovers, among whom is a prominent city council member. The report determined matter-of-factly that there is no significant ecological impact from the proposed project. Cats kill birds, basically, what about it? Days later, a public hearing on the topic draws your attention—this one boasting a long line-up of glamorous young women wearing black shirts that say SAVEKittensLA, and who have no patience for the bird-loving environazis who, they insist, are dooming kittens to death in the killing fields of Animal Services' shelters. They have a threatening glow in their eyes as they address the city officials, and you remind yourself to never, ever fuck with these women. The cat-loving City councilman agrees.
You’ve turned a corner in the maze. But now you have two problems: this cat has left fleas and shit all over your yard. You worry about the fleas, because you read a report in February that an outbreak of Typhus was discovered at City Hall. Of all places. (Fox news insisted on calling it a “medieval disease"). You worry about whether the fleas that are on this cat come from rats, and whether the rats are also eating the food your neighbor leaves out, or only your compost, where you discovered a nest full of baby rats that jumped out at you horror-movie style. You also worry about the shit because you’ve heard about toxoplasmosis gondii, an infectious parasite that cycles between humans, cats, rats, and shit. You figure that the rats and cats are working together here to manipulate you, just like the Russians and the QAnon people. The cats don’t seem to do anything about the rats though; probably because there is plenty of cat food for both of them.
So you go to the website of the LA County Department of Veterinary Public Health to look for information about typhus outbreaks. You learn about the downtown one, and a couple of others, which are somehow related to an outbreak of a disease you’ve never heard of called Virulent Newcastle disease, which affects poultry and has activated a tri-county quarantine of chickens and pigeons. This has angered the chicken farmers and pigeon fanciers whose animals are being euthanized, but it has also angered Mexican drug cartels, who launder money through backyard and underground cock-fighting tournaments, and who are losing both their prize cocks and a steady laundering service. Now you know you are well and truly lost in this maze, because this is more information than you need, so you take the advice to call a pest control professional to deal with your rat problem, and retire to watch The Shining.
The following day, you see the maze in fresh light. You call that pest control officer (he’s not busy, he has no coyotes to catch), and he installs a series of bait stations around your house to kill the rats. Inside the bait station is a poison called Brodificoum, an anti-coagulant that the rats eat which eventually kills them by thinning their blood and causing them to bleed to death. They don’t die immediately, he explains, but go inside, eat a bit, and then go back to their nest and eventually die somewhere conveniently hidden from consumers and residents.
Two weeks later you watch the pest control official re-fill the bait station on his second monthly visit to your house, and notice when he opens it that it has become home to a horror show of spiders lizards, crickets, and a ton of snails, all of who are clearly eating the bright blue bait block and pooping blue snail poop… you have so many questions… The pest control officer explains that the snails don’t die from the poison though because they don’t have circulatory systems. But, he says, keep your cat away from any rats because it can also kill your pets if they eat rats who have eaten the poison.
“It’s not my cat!” you yell. Pause. “Wait, what?”
It turns out that not just the cats and dogs, but also the hawks, raptors, bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes that eat rats are also being killed by the poison. The rats eat the poison, but don’t die immediately, then they get picked off by a hawk or die in a convenient all-you-can eat buffet format by bringing the poison back into a nest. The poison goes into the predators' system, affects their immune system and makes them susceptible to other diseases with even more medieval names like “mange.” In fact, the pest control officer tells you, there is a bill in committee at the California Assembly to ban the poison because of this.
“That’s good,” you say. But then the pest control guy reminds you about the typhus outbreaks. “That’s bad” you say. He explains that the other option is to set snap traps and to come back and check them every day, no poison necessary. “That’s good” you say. Then he quotes you the price to do this and tells you about the smell. “That’s bad.” Nonetheless you ask him to switch, but as he’s leaving he tells you that as long as your neighbor is leaving food out for everyone, the rats are likely to be uninterested in the peanut butter on the traps he will set. So you fire the pest control guy and decide to go have a word with the cat-feeding neighbor instead.
As you backtrack out of these long looping passageways, your other neighbor, the anxious conservationist, stops you. He points to your trash bins and scolds you for putting plastic in the waste bin instead of the recycling bin. “Why do we have these things if you won’t use them correctly” he says. “Do your part!” You feel that blush of shame rush over you as you start fishing out the plastic containers, which you failed to wash completely, which is why you put them in the trash to begin with. And actually, probably didn’t need to buy them anyways because you could have just used the glass ones you bought—but it was just so much easier and cheaper… you sigh. Your neighbor mutters something about how unnecessarily green your front lawn is, and points to your big California Sycamore with the low-slung branches. He says it has the characteristic signs of the Invasive Shot Hole Borer, a tiny insect designed by HR Geiger which, he explains, is decimating trees around the world in climates like LA. If not dealt with, it could destroy up to a third of the urban forest in southern California. Your neighbor continues to make you feel ashamed of your choices, and of your complicity in climate change, and extinction, but you can’t hear him because a flock of red crowned parrots squawks insanely loud as they land in the high branches of the Eucalyptus across the alley. These invasive parrots, escaped pets, are thriving in Los Angeles even as they go extinct in their native range in Eastern Mexico. This is a fact you learned from a documentary about the rare up sides of extinction, but you decide not to mention this to your conservationist neighbor, who is definitely not in favor of invasive species in the city. Anyways, he’s moved on to the next victim of his righteousness, and so you continue on your way.
You turn down a strangely familiar passageway and there you find your feral-cat-feeding neighbor talking to the pest control guy who you just fired. They have caught a possum in a cage trap in the neighbor’s back yard. Apparently the cats and the possums had been fighting (over the cat food he leaves out, no doubt) and so he called to have the possum removed. As you approach, your neighbor asks the pest control guy: “So you are gonna take this possum back to nature right, where will you release ‘im?” The pest control guy’s face twists up, he looks tortured, and finally says… “possum heaven?” When this fails to register, he explains that state law requires him either to release the possum on site, or take it to be euthanized. Humanely, he adds. This angers the neighbor, who says, why not just take him to the hills where he belongs, he’s obviously lost and should not be in the city! The pest control guy tries to explain that the city is probably now their natural habitat, and that moving a possum might risk spreading disease or maybe endangering the possums. The same, he says, goes for squirrels, raccoons, gophers, skunks, and coyotes, all of which are everywhere in the city, regardless of the neighborhood, the vegetation, or the desires of the human residents. But this only makes your neighbor angrier. You scurry along the passage into a clearing in the maze where you can watch the two of them argue from a safe distance.
You turn on the radio which is playing a podcast about a little known LA City project from back in the 1970s. The host tells a story about how when residents called the city about wildlife, the “Department of Animal Regulation” would dispatch an officer with a trap. If an animal was caught, it would be returned alive to the shelter, and then, every so often, Animal Services would borrow the Department of Water and Power’s helicopter, place all these possums and raccoons and owls and foxes and non-poisonous snakes on the copter, fly up into the Angeles Forest Mountains an undisclosed location, and release the animals back into the wild. Countless animals were “returned to nature” this way. Even raccoons who had never known anything but deli scraps and koi ponds in Westwood.
The city continued to do this for like two decades until the California Department of Fish And Wildlife cottoned on. They explained to the city officers that it wasn’t a coincidence that as soon as the helicopter flew over the drop spot, a ring of coyotes had appeared, almost literally sporting a knife, fork, and napkin tucked in at the neck. Lunch time!
This cartoonish image haunts you as you gaze distractedly at the scene of the cat-feeding neighbor berating the pest control guy for being an animal murderer, the conservationist neighbor shoos away the invasive parrots, the feral cat caretakers carry off a trapped cat, a sick looking rat wanders out of a bait-box by the house across the street while a hawk circles ominously above it, and the possum looks at you with what can only be described as the animal equivalent of Schadenfreude. A passageway you hadn’t noticed before opens in front of you, and you leave this maze with more questions than answers.
All these stories are true. They come from fieldwork, interviews, news reports, discussions with experts and non-experts around the city. But when I say the stories are true, I mean that they really come from real people—not that they are accurate, or that they tell us what we should do about nature in LA. There is conflict and confusion. Not everyone understands what to do about the animals and plants around us, and different people, even different experts, have quite different ideas.
Nature isn’t simply out there. Nature is a debate with grave consequences; nature is when we decide to kill or die, to relieve suffering or to ignore it, to poison or to feed; to shame each other or to take responsibility. When we debate about nature, and when we choose to do things in the name of nature, sometimes we ruin someone else’s nature and sometimes we contradict ourselves. Sometimes we do good, but sometimes, as these stories suggest, our actions are absurd. For some people, science is the answer—and indeed, science can tell us things about nature that few other ways of knowing can. It’s a valuable, maybe even the most valuable, tool in our kit, but it is only one tool. There are many ways of cultivating our understanding of nature in LA—sometimes it is necessary to listen, and especially to question what seems most obvious or right or true, because in a labyrinth, there are a lot of wrong turns, and usually only one way out.
What can we live with? Who is responsible? Do we always have to choose? Who was here first, and does it matter? What should we kill? These are human questions. But for too long humans have tried to answer human questions by talking only about humans. The questions are good ones, but humans aren’t the only ones who care about the answers.