Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on the arts and overlooked history. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic.
Raccoons, rats, and pigeons have adapted to live in close proximity to humans. What if we tried to understand their world instead of writing them off as pests?
Cities are built as human habitats, but of course, we’re not the only animals living in them. Among the many species alongside us are those known as synanthropes—from the Greek syn, “with,” and anthropos, “human”—who have adapted to live in close proximity to us. We mostly view them as pests: pigeons, raccoons, and rats. Yet appreciating their survival in our built environment can in turn reveal our impact on ecology, and how what we construct for ourselves—whether it be a landscape or convenient trash cans—can be of vital importance to them.
On an August evening in Manhattan, after a rain that left the sidewalks gleaming, I was one of about 20 people who departed in staggered groups from the southeast corner of Central Park and entered the darkness of its paths. Back in the 19th century, the park’s trees were meticulously planted, its glacial rocks blasted to smooth lawns, and its lake created where once there was a swamp. Although designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux aimed to bring the pastoral into New York City for the improvement of human life, Central Park is now a refuge for wildlife, too.
Armed with flashlights and headphones, we were guided by a 35-minute audio tour that highlighted one of those synanthropes, the raccoon. Called “The Washing Bear”—a reference to how raccoons seem to wash their food in water (but are really getting their highly sensitive hands wet so they can examine the food)—the audio tour is the latest in a series of immersive audio experiences from the Synanthrope Preserve, a collaboration between two New York-based creators—interdisciplinary artist Gal Nissim and experience designer Jessica Scott-Dutcher. (While the launch of “The Washing Bear” brought people out collectively, it’s free to download and listen to any time.)
“We wanted to shift perspectives about urban nature and around animals that share our habitat,” Nissim told me. “We were mainly interested in these synanthropic animals and the animals that people tend to not like very much. We were wondering how we could open this up as a wider discussion and maybe show their side of the story.” For each sound walk, Nissim and Scott-Dutcher extensively investigate these urban animals, learning from park rangers, researchers, and the animals’ local fans.
Although many urbanites detest these creatures, other humans form relationships with them. Nissim and Scott-Dutcher’s first tour, a pigeon walk in Washington Square Park, ends with a man who feeds the birds almost every day. Likewise, in Central Park, they encountered someone so familiar with the raccoons that he had names for individuals, such as “Yoda” for a particularly old animal.
“I think that it’s really easy to just stick [raccoons] as ‘trash pandas,’ but they do have this complex shadow world that happens parallel to ours, with their own social structures and interests that we influence, but are completely independent,” said Scott-Dutcher. Indeed, on “The Washing Bear,” Scott-Dutcher describes raccoons as “our little shadows.”
Scott-Dutcher’s voice, along with a recorded rhythm of footsteps, guided my group past exposed bedrock that glittered under our flashlights, and between the rare stand of American elm trees on the Mall. Fireflies pulsed below their twisting branches. Descending into Bethesda Terrace, its angel statue just visible in the dim light, we spied sparrows nestled in its arches.
We had not seen a raccoon as we plunged into the deeper darkness of the Ramble, a dense woodland cut with serpentine paths that most avoid after sunset. There the city street noise was gone, and the hum of cicadas was punctuated by the clicking of red bats using their echolocation to catch insects.
Finally, we arrived at a favorite nighttime scavenging spot: a group of trash cans that brim with garbage at the end of a busy summer day. There was a rat stuffing a dirty napkin in its mouth, but no raccoons. Then, up in the crook of a trunk, my flashlight caught the eyeshine of a little masked face.
“We don’t take you to a secret place in the park,” Scott-Dutcher said. “All the places that you go to are 100-percent the most touristy and active places in the park during the day. Just going at a slightly different time with a slightly different mindset can show you something remarkable.”
Throughout the sound walk, the artists raise questions about our preconceptions of the natural world and how humans have altered it, whether by creating ecological barriers or through patterns of trash accumulation and removal.
The nocturnal journey ended on a bridge over an artificial lake fed by a stream sourced from city tap water, reflections from apartment buildings and skyscrapers rippling on its surface. In rural areas, raccoons would fish at waters like this; here, human design has resulted in new animal behavior. The Synanthrope Preserve asks that we appreciate our roles in this shared urban existence, and maybe think twice about what we toss in the trash: It could be another animal’s next meal.