Buddha statues with flashing haloes studded the intersections; everything smelled like incense, garbage, or gasoline. They were present but invisible, hidden somewhere in the tall grass and flowered branches. A couple of days after the cameras went up, Anya Ratnayaka woke to a string of text messages bursting with exclamation points. But when she unlocked her phone and saw a grainy security-camera image of the thief, she realized her life was about to change. Geckos climb its walls, and thick-bellied monitor lizards scurry around its bushes.
She picked me up in the back of a motorized rickshaw, and we honked our way north through the jammed streets. They are, in their empty promises that truth can be made legible and laid bare, embodiments of a moment of deep epistemic anxiety. Still, most Colombo residents have never seen a fishing cat in the city—if they even know what one is. He soon fell asleep, occasionally stirring awake to lick his limbs and bite at his nails. Other times they happily move in, finding readily available food or other advantages over life in the wild. It was there, more recently, on an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, when Paula, an aspiring lawyer, made her cheating husband pass a polygraph test before she would take him back. Urban animals as varied as Canadian raccoons and Barbadian bullfinches can outperform their rural counterparts. This one had cloudy eyes, probably blinded by a hot-water attack in the nearby jungle. I made my way to the dead end of an alley, where suddenly, a motion caught my eye and a creature tumbled out of a nearby shrub. But goldfish were cheap, so no one in the building—an environmental nonprofit in the bustling, sweaty center of Colombo, Sri Lanka—bothered investigating. From there, he could scamper to the cinema, then sneak back home to fish from the ponds before morning. In Sri Lanka, cars—which have killed more than fishing cats in the past three years—are far from the only threat to the felines. Flush with new businesses and tropics-hungry tourists, its Western-style north end is now crowded with glittering skyscrapers, immaculate coffee shops, and thumping nightclubs. The first fishing cat I encountered in Sri Lanka was frozen like a popsicle. In a recent paper in the journal Animal Behavior, Benson-Amram and two co-authors propose that this situation is especially—and paradoxically—problematic for the animals best able to take advantage of the resources and opportunities that cities offer. And many of the MSD students, being extremely savvy about the workings of the media, have attempted to turn the rhetoric of bad faith against their accusers: Encounters like these are often as bad for the intruding animals as they are for the humans involved. In what urban animals are? They take fish from the ponds. Do behavioral shifts like this reflect deeper changes in how urban animals think? The canal had an elevated grassy towpath that was partially hidden by flowers and trees, and it was easy to imagine fishing cats bounding along it. Sometimes animals end up in cities because they have nowhere else to go. Now, as Colombo expands, the animals that are adapting to the city also have to deal with its greatest peril: True to their name, they dive like Olympians from riverbanks to snag unsuspecting fish. The beefy cat plopped down near the wooden shelter, eyeing me warily as I scooted toward him.
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