Moving into an off-campus basement apartment this year brought with it a host of unexpected challenges: sinks unattached to walls, mysterious black gunk on windowsills, and an alarmingly vocal heating system, to name a few. But none were quite as visceral as my first encounters with Scutigera coleoptrata. Scuttling under furniture or luxuriating in my sink, these beasts present a terrifying appearance: rigid bodies surrounded by a fringe of antennae-like legs that lend S. coleoptrata an alarming speed. They have large forcipules, the centipede feature that Wikipedia comfortingly describes as “venom claws.” Unsure how poisonous the creatures were, my usual strategy was to frantically imprison them in glasses and deposit them outside.
It wasn’t until Monday that I decided to investigate the matter more deeply. In doing so, I learned not only their scientific name but also that the centipedes are the tyrannosaurs of the basement ecosystem. Though their stinging appendages can’t pierce human skin, they easily dispatch silverfish, bedbugs and cockroaches. Harmless to humans and deadly to the entire spectrum of invertebrate pests, their presence is actually encouraged by some pest-control websites as a biological alternative to chemical sprays and poison traps.
The challenges of living with Scutigera are a microcosm of the worldwide struggle over apex predators. Apex predators prowl comfortably at the top of a food chain — there is nothing large or vicious enough to eat them. They include the centipedes in my basement as well as more photogenic and macroscopic examples, like lions on the Serengeti or orcas in the polar oceans. Wherever they occur, apex predators engender conflict in human populations. This is rarely direct confrontation between predators and people — that war was won long ago with the advent of fire and the flint spearpoint, and Homo sapiens has assumed the unprecedented status of a global apex species. The conflict I’m referring to is an interspecies struggle between those who seek to rehabilitate predators across their former ranges and those who raise concerns over the compatibility of large carnivores and human habitation. In the United States, the flashpoint has been the reintroduction of wolves to the Northwest since 1995, with growing populations concentrated in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
The most recent skirmish was typically convoluted. Pressured by ranchers and big-game hunters, the state of Montana requested federal permission to cull some of its 550 wolves. But on Oct. 7, the Fish and Wildlife Service denied the request, as a federal judge had returned wolves to the endangered species list in August. With bureaucratic passive aggression, the agency explained that it in fact supported Montana’s plans, but doubted that any approval would survive a legal challenge following the August ruling.
Meanwhile, the Northwestern ecosystem is looking healthier than it has in a century, with wolves controlling rampant elk populations and allowing the reestablishment of beavers and foxes in areas where coyotes had driven them out. But the wolves have killed at least 3,540 domestic animals in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, with a private group forking out $1,223,549 to compensate ranchers in those states.
This dimension makes wolf reintroduction more complicated than standard “not-in-my-backyard” battles. Unlike many environmental projects, where a privileged minority hijacks the debate, a 2010 study found that 51 percent of locals in Wyoming counties bordering Yellowstone were opposed to wolf reintroduction. This compared to 91.2 percent of Stock Growers Association members, but only 34 percent of the state population as a whole. All these trends mirror situations worldwide in which urban dwellers support the abstract notion of predator reintroduction, while locals are wary of sharing space with animals capable of causing significant damage, economic and otherwise.
It is undoubtedly easier to exterminate wolves than it is to reintroduce them — the former was accomplished over 95 percent of the animals’ range in the continental United States, while the latter can boast no unqualified success stories. But it seems that the question is one of defining healthy communities — whether as diverse environments in which contradicting interests must be balanced, or as monolithic entities that are both safer and more static. Like the decision to build a low-income housing unit or a mosque in previously homogenous areas, the reintroduction of wolves presents a uniquely democratic challenge in our public sphere: mediating seemingly incompatible concerns. Environmentalists want healthy ecosystems, ranchers want living livestock, and wolves presumably want to frolic, eat and reproduce (none having commented directly on the matter). Establishing a model of coexistence requires both a dedication to creativity and an acceptance of sacrifice — values well worth studying.
As European nations undergo demographic shifts, income inequality widens across America and ecosystems everywhere come under climatic stress, I wonder what the murky parable of the wolf — or, indeed, of the Scutigera coleoptrata — might offer in terms of how we construct and manage communities. It’s not easy to share a basement apartment with an inch-long insectivore, let alone share a wilderness with an 80-pound carnivore — but it might do to think before we squash.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.