Many biologists grew up liking animals. That’s why they became biologists. Not me. I never had a particular interest in animals, never had pets, never brought in animals from outdoors. My interest in the local wildlife only emerged after I had been working as a (molecular and computational) biologist for some time. Walking to and from the lab, you start to notice things.
The cities that I had always thought of as belonging to us humans do not really belong to us. They belong to a wealth of living things, each hopping, flying, scurrying along in their quests to eat, to not be eaten, to find mates, to care for their young, to find shelter, in short: to live. Isn’t life a beautiful thing? Isn’t evolution marvellous?
While working in England, I met rabbits, stray cats and the odd fox. In Boston, I would sometimes see chipmunks. In Japan, I even once tried to save a toad’s life.
Here is what happened: I was walking home from work at night, when I saw a big toad sitting on the pavement in front of me. I was still marvelling at this thing of beauty, when I noticed a cyclist approach. In a heroic effort to save the toad, I jumped out in front of the bike, waved my arms and shouted something like: “Dangerous! Frog!” (Yes, reader, I do know that frogs and toads are not the same thing. I just don’t know this in Japanese.) Anyway, the cyclist might or might not have seen the toad, but she definitely saw what must have looked like a crazy woman waving her arms and shouting at her, so she cycled past at a very, very safe distance. Meanwhile, the toad quietly jumped away. Not to safety, but right onto the street. Some animals can’t survive to save their lives.
Survival was also topmost on my mind one night in California, when I was walking home from the lab. It was almost midnight, and I had spent a long day in the lab. I was hungry and tired, and so the conundrum that presented itself to me was the following: Is it better to go to sleep right away on an empty stomach, or is it better to have a bite to eat, at the expense of sleep? Which one is higher up on the survival scale?
I was still pondering this, when I met a creature I had never seen before in my entire life. It looked a bit like a rat, but its legs were higher, almost like a cat’s. It was definitely not a cat though. It was greyish-black and white and had a long tail and funny little eyes. “Well, and who might you be?”, I asked. Back at home, I searched the internet, trying to find out what I had just seen. After looking around for a while, I found a site where you can search for an animal you have spotted by using its height, colour, type of habitat etc. I found that what I had just seen was an opossum. Now, this was exciting! I had never seen a marsupial in the wild before! Always wanted to see an opossum! Elated, I read up on them on wikipedia, and, for good measure, on a few other pages.
At some point I realised that instead of eating or sleeping, I had just spent about an hour looking up opossums on the internet. Some animals can’t survive to save their lives.