Emma Burnell: As Covid-19 has sent its humans indoors, London’s animal life has come to the fore

Emma Burnell: As Covid-19 has sent its humans indoors, London’s animal life has come to the fore

London is a big city with everything that entails. It’s one of the reasons I love it so much. There’s so much to do, to see, to explore. But, of course, at the moment that isn’t true. Our lives have become much smaller – confined to our houses and our flats. For some, just living with families or housemates. For others – like me – living alone and smiling through the back door at the neighbours playing with their children on our shared lawn. 

As my life has – temporarily – receded, wildlife has stepped in. There are more birds than ever in my garden and on my daily walks. And not just the usual pigeons and sparrows. There was a greenfinch in my garden the other day. Sadly, my cat didn’t think it really belonged there and decided to kindly drag it, flapping and squawking, through the cat flap. This was a bit of a shock, not because I was recording a podcast at the time. My guest was somewhat shocked by my screaming and swearing. 

My work is usually about thinking about power: how it’s gained, how it’s wielded, how it works. I watch the big beasts of politics and comment on what I think their motivations are. What their end game is. I have watched them for years, developing an understanding of their behaviour as they mark out their territory and vie for position. 

Now, I’m reduced to commenting on the incredible power dynamics of the neighbourhood cats in general. For some reason my small patio has become ground zero for a three-way throw-down that takes place daily. Some days it looks (and sounds) like the last 20 minutes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as my Smudge (definitely good) defends her territory against Yowly Cat (who will put his face right inside the cat flap and call for hours) and Greedy Cat (well publicised on local forums for only being after my Dreamies). This can go on for hours. 

I used to hate anthropomorphism (projecting onto animals human emotions and traits). But now in the absence of real human interactions, I have all sorts of theories about the turf wars going on in my garden. It’s displacement activity – sure. But when very little is all we have, let us celebrate it in whatever way we find works for us. If I need to theorise about the motivations and lust for power of Yowly Cat (while also periodically chasing him off) then what harm am I doing? I promise I’ll give all this up when it’s over. And it’s better than getting curious about the noises the foxes are making all night, every night – trust me. 

London has always had an abundance of animal life, of course. From our wily urban foxes to the dogs that make sure families use our equally plentiful green spaces. In Leyton, we have regular flocks of parakeets, long descended from someone’s escaped family pet, or so legend has it. The quiet stillness may be new and may have led to an emboldened presence of those on four legs (or with wings), but they have always been here. Maybe this trying time will help us to appreciate them more. 

When this is over and the humans resurface, will the wildlife readily cede their new territory? Judging by the number of cats in my backyard alone – I’ve just seen a fourth add his presence to the mix, nickname TBC – I’m not sure it will. If it does, I will miss the birds (except those who end up stricken in my living room). Perhaps, in future, we should take our role as guardians of this place for all who live here more seriously.

Emma Burnell is the person behind Political Human. Follow her on Twitter. Photograph: Smudge, an informal pose.

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Categories: Culture

1 Comment

  1. Aurangzeb says:

    regular pigeons and SPARROWS

    just to let you know – sparrows are not REGULAR anymore ..

    it has been literally impossible to see sparrows in quite a while.. im suddenly seeing one here … one there…. one another place… still small numbers, but visible to the human eye quite clearly.

    perhaps a greenfinch comes to your eye mores, but they do prefer safer areas like the parks and water bodies in the london boroughs and counties.

    now that your nasty cat managed to hurt one, i do not think it should be a feeling of pride with which you should mention the YOWLY cat or the RAT cat or the NASTY cat!

    Cats are menaces and honestly, I suggest that you ensure your cat sticks to your home. The moment it starts entering others homes and territories, he is going to be prey to an irate human beings wrath, especially when their fish , their birds , the gardens are messed with.

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