The Urban Jungle

As an official with the Animal Rescue League of Boston, Brian O'Connor has assembled just the sort of high-tech arsenal you'd expect from an organization with a comic-book name. He packs tranquilizer rifles, tree-climbing gear, and a remote-controlled net launcher. He has captured a peacock with his net and once corralled an emu on Route 128 using decidedly low-tech roll-up fencing. O'Connor is a man, in short, with a talent for dealing with the unexpected. When the unexpected takes the form of an alligator i n Jamaica Pond, as it did in 2003, a talent like that can come in pretty handy.

News reports of moose in Wellesley and bears in Lexington are commonplace these days. But those stories are set in suburbia's untamed wilderness. When Little Joe, a gorilla at the Franklin Park Zoo, escaped two years ago, it made headlines from here to New Zealand. Now, while Little Joe kills time back behind bars, hordes of wild animals are roaming the streets of Boston. Just ask the people whose job it is to round them up.

Over the years, a trinity of animal services — O'Connor's Animal Rescue League, Boston Animal Control, and the state's wildlife division — has quietly collected wild things enough to fill a fleet of arks. Workers have come across three alligators, two of them dead, and several possums that looked dead but, true to form, were just playing possum. They've investigated cockfights in Dorchester. They kept a close eye on Mr. Gobbles, a turkey that back in 2003 could usually be found gazing at his reflection in shiny Kendall Square office windows. They've chased down skunks, bats, deer, piglets, raccoons, harbor seals, moose, injured swans — this is Boston, after all — and a weasel near the State House. No kidding.

Animal rescues are often the end result of Bostonians behaving stupidly. In 2000, an asbestos remover stopped by work to pick up his paycheck, leaving his pet boa constrictor coiled on the passenger seat of his car. He returned to find the tip of the snake's tail sticking out of a vent. Its other seven feet filled the car's hollow frame like toothpaste in a tube. The man drove to an Allston body shop — perhaps not the obvious choice — and workers there called John Linehan of the Franklin Park Zoo. “We began dismantling the car and quite literally sawing apart the frame,” Linehan remembers, laughing. “In a way it was a coarse form of surgery.” Four hours later the procedure was complete, but, he says, letting a snake ride shotgun “is not something I recommend.”

Sometimes people are irresponsible on a grand scale, such as when we bulldoze animal habitats to make room for condos. “With development encroaching on the amount of space animals have to live in,” O'Connor says, “we're starting to see more and more animals within the city.” That's probably the explanation for the moose that passed through Cleveland Circle back in 1996. The same equation holds for deer. Linehan was once summoned to Hyde Park to rescue a doe that was darting through traffic and vaulting over cars. “She saw her reflection in the doorway of one of the storefronts and ran right through it,” Linehan says. The capture took a while, but the claim was settled quickly: The door, and the office it opened into, belonged to an insurance company.

Like the common two-legged tourist, many wild animals come to Boston for the food. Often, they decide to stay. You can find “more squirrels, skunks, and raccoons per square mile in Boston than in the woods,” says Daniel Master of Critter Control of Greater Boston, an independent pest-control outfit. “There's more food here, and predators are nonexistent.” A squirrel moved in with my wife and me last summer for those reasons. While his brethren were busy dodging cars on the Mass. Pike, this squirrel loitered on our fire escape, fogging up our bedroom windows. My wife finally fed him a handful of walnuts. A few days later, Animal Control came to evict him from our living room.

We aren't likely to see a decline in the city's wild animal population anytime soon. The animals are protected by a thicket of state and federal laws, one of which forbids moving them from their habitats, even if that habitat happens to be your backyard. Fifty years ago, coyotes didn't exist in Massachusetts. Today, thanks to legislative benevolence and teeming trashcans, there are more per square mile within Route 128 than outside it. They skulk around the Arnold Arboretum, the UMass campus, and the old state hospital grounds in Mattapan. One was spotted trotting up Huntington toward the shops at the Pru and Copley. Occasionally, even coyotes like to visit a real urban jungle. B