Urban Hostilities

Observing Animal Displacement in Toronto


Ethnography in a Global World

Anna Chen


Cities are often plagued by overpopulation. There is always work to do, so there is always the need for people. It becomes a necessity then, to build to support this constant cycle of growth as the concentration of city residents increases workforce demands. Humans build upwards, and they build in spaces that could be better used. They expand into the dirt where burrows would form, and into forests where birds would nest. In the face of a large populace of people, the animals that inhabit the land get left behind. They become nuisances. Suddenly, their homes become hostile, and if they do not learn how to navigate the ever growing cityscapes, their bodies will descend into the concrete. People will stare at these wayside corpses and it will experience the disgrace of having died in a place that is no longer theirs.

Take, for example, the common squirrel, its body rotting into the road. When an ant dies, it releases pheromones as a warning to escape (Mizunami et al.). When a bee dies, it releases pheromones as a call of attack on a predator (Wyatt). So what does a squirrel release when it dies? Its viscera bursts from its body and grows from wet to tacky until it has no moisture at all. But do other squirrels see this as a warning? Do they see the body, the blood, and smell its metallic scent?

The introduction of trees (the common squirrel’s home) within metropolitans is the product of realizing that the clear cutting of forests was actually a detriment. But at the time it seemed so necessary. People want paper, they want houses, and they need spaces for them. It doesn’t matter if they served as homes for other creatures, the desire to meet personal demands far outweighs the destruction. The possibility of cohabitation is not considered in the face of human advancement.

As mentioned, there is always a need to build. That is a demand of a roaring metropolitan. This is rooted from the mindset that purpose is a requirement to exist (Raffles). If a facility is not profitable enough, it is torn down, demolished, or reused into something more beneficial. Areas dedicated to pastimes such as recreation are dismissed in favor of economic growth. So people build. They build and rebuild and build again, disrupting lives to make way for those that they don’t know yet exist.

It is strange, this demand for utility. It is strange because for all the espousing of purpose, what is built are fragile spaces that are always in need of repair. It is as strange as it is ironic, that to make room for more people, the homes of other beings are dismantled. An extinction is catastrophic. It damages ecosystems in irreversible ways. Yet, the damage is done anyways for the greater purpose of urban development. It is continually done long after the acknowledgement of devastation.


The role of intrusion becomes reversed inside a metropolis. The natural environment of animals have become overturned, making them an unnatural sight within the manufactured spaces of the city. For example, there is a concrete path between the university and the park next to it. It is a highly trafficked foot space between passing civilians and rushing students, desperate to make it on time to class. One day, the sky was grey and cloudy, sapping warmth from the afternoon. It was the sort of troublesome weather, where winter coats made you sweaty but lack of protection made you sick. I had to walk between buildings to get something from campus. Some carried their jackets like luggage, while others had it on. There were some, even, that only wore t-shirts. The pets were the same. Some still retained their mini sweaters to fight off the chill, but no longer wore the tiny winter boots that protected their paws.

There was a congregation of pigeons, maybe eight or nine, maybe more, all slim, in the middle of the path. Under them were white crystalized rocks that covered at least a metre with no gaps. They pecked at it, feeding themselves, hungry for food.

“It’s salt,” I overheard a student say with a slight tilt in their voice. They looked to their friend for confirmation. The friend nodded.

“It’s salt.”

It was a period where the weather was highly fluctuating, so winter was expected. One day it would snow over 10cm and the next it would be 10°C. It was a wonder if the weather had caused them to lose out on food.

They were still pecking at the ground when I walked back. They waddled around in groups where they pecked, never bumping into each other but close enough to touch. As a pathway, it is inevitable that it would be trudged upon and break apart the group. Their feet moved in tandem with the people behind them as they moved out of the way. There was no rush, no fear, as they pecked the ground while they made space.

Behind them were sections of grass, various patches of brown but mostly green. Even farther, a copse of trees. Yet, there they gathered, pecking at the salted pavement.


Squares are carved out of cement by trees, and trap them inside. They become pot bound, encased in cement, for the decorative purpose of being “green”. Even then, they will be chopped when they are unsightly, and outgrow their aesthetic. The disembodied branches fall, and eventually a nest is formed. Tiny brown birds mill about within its cavernous space, the illusion of nature in the cement surrounded space, despite the greenery across the road. But still, walk too confidently towards them and they’ll scatter in fear of a predator’s wrath. The concrete is the wrong colour for them to blend in and they are not used to people.

These tiny brown birds will follow pigeons twice their height, peck at the floor for the same food, and take steps two paces behind. There is no fight for territory amongst them. They just waddle around with their round bodies and bend down for what they think is edible. In some cases, they walk along with humans, leading them down paths from a good foot away. There is no fear when you approach them, aside from increased paces. But in this instance, it could be that they’re more scared for their tails under your approaching feet than they are of you being a predator.

There is the sight of two pigeons, beaks interlocked. They swayed back and forth like tug of war. They did it on a concrete ledge, slightly above the ground as floods of people walk by. It was mid-afternoon when I saw them. And yet when someone intruded into their own little space, they only slightly jittered to the side.

Of course an animal’s perception would be different from a human’s, but their perception of space must be too. They must be in their own spaces, or as Kathleen Stewart would phrase it, in their “mattered forms” (Stewart), with their own atmospheres and moods and directed attention. That must be why it is so stark when they seem scared. They lift their head in jerks towards disturbance because the mattering they became accustomed to has changed.

There was no greenery around those pigeons, no branches to obscure them from predators or other foreign threats. The steps of hundreds of people surrounded them. Yet still, they simply sat together in peace. But the brown birds, they live in fear of the towering limbs that are human legs. They are so small that they could be squashed in an instant. Any indication of your notice and they jump away, maybe even hop, and try to fly as far as their wings can carry.

Despite this, they still gather in their caverned abode once the threat disappears and their anxiety shifts into something less attentive. They jump between the roots and peck at the dirt contained inside the concrete.


Every Tuesday, in the lull between classes, I walked between buildings towards a place to work. Every week, without fail, there would be a pigeon roosting on one of the gates I walked past; sometimes, there were even two. It never shied away when I came close to the inner part of the sidewalk. In fact, it never moved at all. It always sat there, resting, feathers puffed. I pointed them out once to my friend and how often it was there. Was it the windflow, or the protection that made this location so optimal to roost?

That same Tuesday with my friend, two were resting on the pedestal-like stone, stark against the beige white, when two blonde women, exited the building. The taller of the two noticed first.

“Shoo, shoo!” she waved her hand towards the birds. They made no movements. She said it louder, shaking her hand. It looked close enough to touch. The birds were stubborn, but they eventually flew.

The taller woman complained. My friend and I continued on. 

I had always thought the residents of that building welcomed the birds, with how commonly they were there. Maybe I should have realized otherwise. While they were a common sight, there was never a nest made, and surely a spot so coveted would have been claimed by then. Distantly, I wondered where the birds flew.

The next Tuesday, again, a pigeon was roosting.


My friend’s home is in an apartment building, one of many that face each other. The buildings are arranged in a circle, and surround a small, desolate field. There are more sections like this, spread throughout. Tens, if not more than a hundred pigeons decorated the ground and pecked at the dirt. They stood out, starkly, grey and light against the brown patchy grass. They stood on tables, on seats, on pathways, they took up any space they could.

And then a large truck drove by.

It was a swarm, a united flying front, synergized and headed towards the same place. I ducked in fear of being hit by one of them. They flew from one side to the next, in the direction of the opposite building.

They found purchase on ledges. Or at least, they would try to. Some balconies had black mesh covers pinned in place over the entire opening. The pigeons would fly towards it, stop for a moment, and fly somewhere else. With such a large population, it wasn’t a surprise why residents would do so. The idea of going outside to find your stuff covered in bird poop isn’t appealing, having it fall on you even less so. Even the idea of having it on your window is bothersome.

Another friend, for example, has had a pigeon nesting on their balconcy for over a year. Every removed nest is rebuilt, every countermeasure is ignored. It is persistent to never leave. The pigeon stays, and coos incessantly, inside its nest on the balcony’s ledge.

But where would they go anyway? If not the warm alcoves with protection from rain and wind? It is a natural instinct to head towards the highest sense of safety for a place to rest. That is why so many people condense into the shade during the summertime, despite the collective bodies’ sweltering heat.

The pigeons on the mesh continued resting. Some flew to adjust their positions. From the window of my friend’s home, I saw them unanimously fly towards the building, like a flood.


In public places, you aren't allowed to loiter. It blocks space for foot traffic; it becomes a fire hazard; it becomes suspicious. Why are there so many people gathered in one place for a prolonged period of time?

In the same way that an animal's desire to live in an urban environment is scorned, so is the youth's ability to exist outside their own homes. It is as if they are disregarded the same, despite so many things built for their “future”.

During the nights I would be out late, there were times when people were very loud, without a care of the time or the attention. A large group of teenagers, at least 8, likely more than 10, gathered, yelling greetings to each other across the station despite the time. They were boisterous, they were excited, and undoubtedly enjoyed each other’s company.

And they were, especially, very, very loud.

But most places for them to gather would be suspect, especially at the late hour. Even during the daytime, they would receive questioning glances and cautious approaches. Areas that served for recreation and costless or low cost gatherings were dwindling, being replaced in favor of condo dwellings, and parks were far and few between. Not to mention, that they also have so called “closed” hours. So where was there to go but public transit spaces ? With its cheap entry and ease of gathering.

Something I noticed, as the teenagers loudly cheered, laughed, and threw around food, was the inactivity from above. During the night time, the pigeons of the station tend to rest above the light fixtures, likely for its expansive hidden flat surface and the emanating heat.

Loud noises are one of the major factors in making an animal fearful. They are also one of the major components that would rouse anyone from sleep. Yet here, they did not move and come out of hiding. They did not fly away in fear from the source. They continued to sleep, peacefully, hidden above the lights.

Below them, the teenagers moved. They hugged and shared and travelled from one place to another. They created a space for themselves in spite of the hostility towards their presence. The station was left quiet.


On my way home during winter nights, I would always see pigeons roosting. They would puff themselves up into little orbs, and sit high above where humans can reach. A little edge above their heads, surrounded by pipes with spikes placed on them. Still the pigeon persisted, resting with its eyes closed and no other care in the world.

Its eyes never opened when the tunnels were inundated with footsteps and chatter. Perhaps it was warmed by the heat of the subway, or perhaps it was that deep of sleep. It looked to be the picture of comfort, on that singular ledge surrounded by spikes.

That perhaps, is the crux of this multi-species ethnography. Urban metropolitans are hostile towards animals, yes, for what is perceived as a greater need; to expand and accommodate a growing popululation. The animals simply have the misfortune of living in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that isn’t exactly the case, because even if the animals are dehoused, they are not helpless. They adapt. They overcome. It is the ability to find freedom in things they cannot control that make them so resilient. The pigeons become accustomed to towering bodies and fear is not obvious amongst their steps.

Those tiny brown birds, so scared, so flighty, still are common within the city. They rest on patches of grass, even if in concrete, because it was available. They peck at light spots in pavement for food, because that is what is available. This is the environment that they are accustomed to and this is the environment they live in.

So what is there to say of the squirrel? With its body bleeding into the pavement, it would be easy to employ Darwinism and be done with it; but it is not so simple. There are not many that take joy in seeing a corpse in the middle of the road, too small to be seen, to be stopped before impact. There are not many that would take joy in being the cause of the impact either, of having it set into the crevices of their cars. But there are also not many that get hit in the first place. The squirrel also adapts, taking home in the trees that remain, foraging for food that citizens leave behind.

Anna Chen

Anna Chen is a Toronto born multimedia artist majoring in Creative Writing. She specializes in narrative and illustrative forms, and holds a passion for animation.

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