Many of us lost souls in lockdown will have seen the meme of the Loch Ness monster hauling itself out of the water, accompanied by the words: "Now that the humans are in isolation, wildlife in Scotland returns to normal." As Covid-19 shuts down streets and suburbs, airports and towns, so the animals are returning. This might not take the form of the Loch Ness monster romping through the streets of Glasgow in search of Scottish shortbread, but there are countless other examples of the animal kingdom’s recent offensive.

Perky boars have been spotted wandering Barcelona’s streets. Wild turkeys have been shown munching the grass in California schoolyards, and the world’s most loved herd of goats, in Llandudno, north Wales, have been starring to virtual applause in the pages of The Guardian.

The goats are pretty much doing what goats normally do — eating –— but this time they’re doing so in deserted streets. Coming in off the fields surrounding the town, they clearly have the freedom to do mostly as they please.

You fancy they know it, too. Pretty soon one of them is going to be running for mayor.

Closer to home, the animals are also returning. The latest social media darling was a hippo, seen browsing last weekend through the streets of St Lucia in northern KwaZulu-Natal, unaware of the clicking of smartphone cameras around it.

Recent runs of sardines and anchovies off the Cape west coast seem to be unusually large, with the fish venturing closer to the shore in greater numbers than usual. This might be explained in ways other than the animals returning during lockdown, but the cormorants and seagulls catching the huge shoals of fish just off the beach don’t appear to be arguing.

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board has pulled up its gill nets and drum lines for the duration of the lockdown, as reported in Getaway magazine. The nets are an emotive issue for environmentalists because they trap sharks, larger fish and turtles by the gills as they swim. Unable to move, the fish die a slow death from starvation.

Most nets have been replaced along the Hibiscus Coast in recent years by drum lines, massive buoys that have baited hooks attached to the lines hanging from them. The purpose of the drum lines is to attract sharks but not the other marine species such as turtles and even occasional whales, who won’t be lured by them.

The Sharks Board says this is a better way of protecting swimmers and surfers because the drum lines substantially lower the percentage of random entrapment caused by gill nets.

The worldwide story of the animals’ return to deserted city streets has, however, been dogged by accusations of false news and egregious Photoshopping. Some of the images we’ve been seeing are almost certainly false. There are no dolphins, for example, scything through the waters off Venice.

But the quality of the city’s water has undoubtedly improved. There is less traffic on the water and less human traffic on the cobbled streets. Fish have returned and you can suddenly see through glass-like water to the bottom of canals.

If the water quality has improved, air quality has too. Traditionally smog-shrouded cities like Los Angeles have reported huge improvements in air quality now that cars, buses and trucks aren’t running.

Gauteng’s traditional blanket of grime, building up now that we’re in autumn and heading towards winter, has also been substantially reduced through the spate of recent rainy days and lack of traffic on the roads.

Slim pickings

With the reduction in air pollution the weather will change, if only temporarily. As we head through autumn it might even be getting slightly colder earlier in the year, with clearer night skies and therefore more stars.

While the animals return (and, in the case of Llandudno’s casually entitled goats, take over), not all news is good. The pigeons in San Sebastian, in northern Spain, are starving, reports a friend who lives in the city.

With Covid-19 hitting Spain badly, no-one has ventured onto the streets and squares. The pigeons, reliant on crumbs and pickings, have been forced into a crash diet. Said friend reports they’re looking less plump than usual. And they’re tetchy, too.

All this leads one to wonder about humankind’s relationship with the natural world. The lockdown provides an opportunity to look backwards through time, to glimpse into yesterday and beyond, to see how the natural world might have been, however fleetingly.

From where I’m writing in my study I look down on the sea and a sliver of beach that emerges at low tide. With each passing day, the sand seems more untroubled by footprints, more pristine. Such views inspire me to wonder what this coastline in St James, next to Kalk Bay, was like 10, 50, 100 years ago.

The images in my mind’s eye wind backwards at speed, to when there were no houses here, to when the railway line wasn’t built and even the aquarium on the common hadn’t appeared.

Soon, even the early lime kilns that dotted the coves and inlets have vanished. The milkwood forest that reputedly stretched from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town is miraculously restored. Only the animals and the first man remain.

Such imaginative trawls are what we do in lockdown. We wonder what once was and reflect on how much has changed. We reflect on how much we have changed it, how much plastic we have brought into the world, how blasé we are about carbon emissions, how casually we consume, how thoughtlessly we travel.

This moment of reflection is why lockdown has spawned so much social media navel-gazing and anguish among the chattering classes. So many Facebook diaries, so many witty reflections on binge Netflix watching, binge drinking, binge eating, as all those early lockdown resolutions fall like the rand/dollar exchange rate.

Dead time makes us wide-eyed. Never has so much bad poetry cascaded, like rubbish, through the world. Never have we been as sensitive and sentimental as we are now.

The return of the animals is part of this sentimentality. I am prey to the contagion. I want to know if that squirrel reported to have darted in from the garden to raid the left-behind melon rind and seeds in my suburb was doing so because of lockdown.

I have no way of telling. I only know that for a precious window I — like all of us — am seeing the world differently. It’s a gift, a strange gift, to be sure, but a gift still.

The other day I saw a rat squashed by a car tyre in the middle of the road. Blood dribbled from its open mouth but it was still alive – it moved. I fancied that the rat, like the shrinking pigeons of San Sebastian, was hungry. It was scampering from the park, where it usually forages, to the houses on the other side of the road because it needed food.

I’ve been reading about rats. Scientists now believe they have empathy because they get visibly agitated when one of their number is in distress. They do what they can to help.

Rats are our worst nightmare, creatures of dirt and darkness, creatures of the very apocalypse in which we find ourselves. But as we now have time on our hands, in the spirit of emotional and spiritual challenge, let’s try to understand them.

As we are so besotted with the returning animals, why not stretch our imaginative powers out of our comfort zone? Why not consider the maligned rat?

It might help to know that scientists tell us they chuckle when tickled.

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