The Mascot and the Refugee: Survival Strategies for the New Urban Jungle

As humans rebuild the world to suit our needs, many of our fellow creatures simply get out of the way–but others try their luck alongside us. Austin, Texas is home to two notable urban wildlife populations. In the early 1980s, one and a half million Mexican Free-tailed Bats moved into a bridge in the center of the city. Though initially greeted with fear and suspicion, they managed to turn their reputation around, thanks to the dedication of bat enthusiast Merlin Tuttle and their own set of helpful characteristics. Their nightly flight is now a popular tourist attraction, and the bats themselves are a beloved part of Austin’s culture.

Meanwhile, the rare Barton Springs Salamander, which has lived for in the same spring system for millennia, has watched Austin grow up around its home, and has watched its citizens turn that home into a popular recreational swimming area. Now, as the city’s growth threatens the salamander and its habitat, environmental activists, academic scientists, and city wildlife managers do their best to save the salamander, and to leverage its rarity to save Barton Springs. The story of each species illuminates the many different ways in which we relate to the animals that live alongside us, and what those relationships say about us—our values, our goals, and how we picture the future.


Cara Giaimo

About Cara Giaimo

Cara Giaimo is a freelance writer and researcher. She spent three years as a staff writer at Atlas Obscura, and now writes for the New York Times, Grist, Technology Review, and elsewhere. Her professional interests include multispecies ethnography, environmental movements, and puns; some more leisurely ones are gender, loud music, and blimps. Cara holds one degree in science writing from MIT, where she wrote a thesis on urban bats and salamanders, and one degree in English and biology from Amherst College, where she wrote a thesis about experimental nonfiction. You can find her at or on Twitter @cjgiaimo. Thesis: The Mascot and the Refugee: Survival Strategies for the New Urban Jungle


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