Conclusion

Plus ga change, or so the saying goes. While an elephant execution is unlikely to draw anything but public outrage today in New York City, nature still constitutes spectacle in Gotham. At the time of this writing, the brightest stars on the stage of New York City wildlife are not elephants, but birds: namely, a pair of red-tailed hawks called Pale Male and Lola, residents of a tony Fifth Avenue perch above Central Park for the last eleven years and subject of both their own PBS documentary and their own biography (Winn 1997). On 7 December 2004, workers at the Fifth Avenue co-op where the birds had nested for over a decade on a twelfth floor cornice unceremoniously removed the nest and the pigeon-deflecting spikes which inadvertently anchored it in place, promptly sending the city into a tizzy. In the ensuing days, as word spread about the death of the twiggy homestead, a swift storm gathered over East 74th Street. Feather-bedecked birdwatchers protested in front of the co-op carrying placards saying "Honk 4 Hawks", and were answered raucously by the horns of passing taxi drivers and city busses. Pro-hawk celebrity shareholders in the co-op such as Mary Tyler Moore2 squared off against anti-hawk celebrity shareholders like Paula Zahn and husband Richard Cohen, the co-op board president who was reputed to have spearheaded the effort to rid the building of its famous fowl. The New York Times ran a pro-hawk editorial under the headline "Squatting Rights" admonishing the wealthy residents at 927 Fifth Avenue to "learn to live with the hawks" (New York Times 2004b). The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation scrambled to sort out the legal mess as bird-lovers demanded reinstatement for the pair under an international treaty protecting migratory birds. The hawks circled nervously, reportedly making several unsuccessful attempts to rebuild their nest in brazen defiance of forcible eviction by their erstwhile landlords, thereby endearing themselves further to pro-hawk urbanites who quickly took them to heart as noble comrades in the endless struggle for affordable housing in New York City.

Pale Male and Lola, like Topsy, are mere chapters in the age-old story of human beings struggling for urban elbow-room with unpredictable non-human neighbours: some charismatic, some repugnant, most (liked hardened urbanites the world over) persistent in the face of encroachment. For some at the posh co-op, the hawks had become a pest (much as the rebellious Topsy had become a nuisance to her owners), sending bird droppings and the dead carcasses of small prey spiraling down onto the heads of their well-coiffed human neighbours. For others, such as hawk defenders at the Times and across the boroughs (much like Topsy's trainer, who refused to aid or even attend her execution), the hawks were a forcible and welcome reminder that New York City continues to be a part of nature (whether it likes it or not) and the rightful habitat of more than just humans. Nor was this the first time the city was forced to confront the less appealing side of such impressive birds: a few years ago, an innovative City Parks programme intended to rid Bryant Park of the never-ending scourge of rats and pigeons by unleashing predatory hawks in the vicinity came to a screeching halt after one of the birds nearly made off with a parkgoer's precious pet chihuahua (WNBC.com 2003). The struggle continues: co-op, or coop? No matter how far urban humans manage to bend nature to their will, the conflict between the romantic and classical views of wild nature are never wholly resolved, while the paradoxical lurks quietly beneath, betraying our simultaneous hope and fear that we are not, after all, entirely in control of external nature.

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