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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Narrowing distance in animal planet

A herd of goats walk the quiet streets

A herd of goats walk the quiet streets in Llandudno, north Wales on March 31, 2020. A group of goats have been spotted walking around the deserted streets of the seaside town during the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus. Credit: AP/Pete Byrne

You must have seen the goats by now.

Stars on social media, they wander through a desolate town in Wales. Resplendent in white, their majestic horns arced in gentle curves, the wild Kashmiri goats live in a nearby nature preserve, but they're in the streets of Llandudno because the townspeople are not. The humans are in coronavirus lockdown, like much of the world. And the goats are taking advantage, exploring newly empty terrain, eating hedges and flowers, climbing onto walls. In videos, you can hear their hoofs clack as they trot down deserted pavement. 

Usually, it's the animal world that retreats in the face of human expansion. Now it's the reverse. We're the ones hunkered down and withdrawn, and animals are expanding their range into our neighborhoods. It's a curious fulfillment of the Aristotelian concept that nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of life, other life rushes in to fill that space. 

It's happening all over.

Coyotes have been spotted in the streets of San Francisco and wild boars are bounding through Barcelona. Buffalo plod down empty highways in India and wild turkeys gallivant in Oakland, California. Whales are venturing into normally crowded shipping lanes in the Mediterranean Sea, and raccoons have made the scene on a beach in Panama. And in Yosemite National Park, usually one of the nation's most crowded national parks, staffers have spotted numerous bears, bobcats, and coyotes outside cabins and apartments and on park roadways.

There is a rich irony to this pushback from nature, which for centuries has been on the other side of the push-pull with people. Research indicates that human activity — like development, deforestation and the global wildlife trade, including live animal markets — increases the risk of emerging diseases, three-quarters of which have their origins with animals, including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and, most likely, this new coronavirus. Getting too close to nature, in other words, can be risky business. Now nature itself is narrowing that distance.

In some cases, wildlife are deliberately pursuing humans. Like the sika deer in Nara, Japan, no longer being fed by tourists in the park that is their home, taking to city streets and subway stations in search of food. And the hundreds of macaque monkeys mobbing a city plaza in Thailand, hungry without handouts from people visiting the Phra Prang Sam Yot monkey temple. Then there are the crows and seagulls who've flown from parts of Everglades National Park, with no visitors' lunches to peck.

Opportunists? Sure. But this animal adaptation is also reason for optimism.

Watching them respond to unusual circumstances gives me hope that we will be able to do the same. As we venture out from our homes in the weeks and months ahead, we're going to encounter different situations to which we must adapt.

We might have our temperatures taken before entering buildings, airports and public transport, and before visiting hospitals and nursing homes. We might have to wear masks, and maintain distances in more crowded situations than we're used to. We might have to rotate work schedules, both by time and where we work. We might have to attend school differently, with different seating and schedules, sometimes at school, sometimes at home. We might have to eat out and attend sports, concerts, movies and plays differently.

I like to think we'll be like those goats, nosing around curiously in our new environment, like we're trying to figure it out, darting a little this way, bolting a little that way, tentatively at first, then more bravely.

Nature might abhor a vacuum, but it also shows us how to fill it.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.