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The Secret Life of Urban Animals—Why Cal Senior Rebecca Hui Cares and Wants You To

January 9, 2014
by Shelby Pope

At first glance, Rebecca Hui seems all over the place, literally and figuratively. She’s trailed cows around Ahmedabad, searched for dogs in Moscow, and hunted for cigarette butts in the alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The UC Berkeley senior double-majoring in business and urban studies has traveled around the world researching her unconventional project, “The Secret Life of Urban Animals,” which views urbanization through the eyes of local animals. Using hand-drawn maps and a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to examine changing human/animal relationships, she has gained an impressive group of funders, including National Geographic and Big Ideas@Berkeley, not to mention a Fulbright from the United States-India Education Foundation.

Her work has several potential uses—she mentions animal and environmental advocacy, and their relevance to city planning—but her main goal is to highlight the hidden world of everyday city life for a broad audience. 

“ ‘Secret life’ refers to the larger idea of being aware of others and things that aren’t you or your existence,” Hui explains. “I hope to making people aware of these subtleties that make up the world that we live in, all these things that we would never think about. Hopefully that in itself would inspire (people) to be curious to change some element of it.”

Her interest developed when she was in India the summer before her sophomore year, doing contract work for Solyndra but growing fascinated with the larger presence that animals suddenly played in her daily life—the cows that shared the roads with people, the pigeons that her roommates welcomed into their house. (“If we build our houses on their houses, why can’t they build their houses in ours?” her roommate asked.)

One day, Hui decided to simply follow a cow around. Then she followed more cows around. Armed with her business school background—“Haas taught me you have to collect evidence, you need to quantify a lot of thing before you can put a conclusion to things“—Hui wrote up her findings and drew maps with crayons illustrating how cows navigate their daily lives in a region that’s becoming increasingly industrialized. Eventually she published her work in an Indian landscape architecture journal. “The cow is a very idiosyncratic and fascinating character to talk about development through,” she says. “There are a lot of talks about how our world is changing, how India is changing and it speaks to a very specific demographic—academics, activists. But it’s not reduced into the layman terms, and I think there’s something to be said for taking something everyone can relate to—for example, the cow.”

After India, Hui decided to expand her work, examining how urbanization and the influence of capitalism are changing relationships between humans and animals around the world.

Last summer, she went to Moscow to observe stray dogs that live in Moscow’s metro, and the famed subset that has learned to ride the systems escalators and even navigate its trains to travel from place to place. But alas, the subway-riding dogs were nowhere to be found. Hui spent her days sketching the subway stations and buying sausages from vendors in an effort to lure the dogs out until she realized she had to shift her focus to why they disappeared.

Hui’s Metro Mutts project eventually found a few possible reasons for the dogs’ disappearance: A new metro director’s anti-dog policies, the fact that dogs are more likely to go underground during the harsh winters, and civilian dog hunting groups whose forums she discovered online. The group members poison the stray dogs that roam the city, viewing themselves as the only line of defense against a filthy, disease-ridden city.

Next up, she’s planning more case studies in India, focusing on how leopards and monkeys interact with their developing cities.

Hui hasn’t decided if she wants to expand the research into a documentary or a children’s book, but she wants something with a strong visual component: “I illustrate a lot and I believe in the power of powerful visuals to transcend the language barriers,” she says. “I want to spread the idea much further beyond the academic world.”

But her mind has trouble settling on just one topic. She’s develop the design for a bus that also acts as a school in developing nations, and she’s working on a job training program in the Tenderloin called Apples and Wages. And in her free time, Hui likes to run mini-experiments for fun.

One such experiment involved Google Glass, which she calls “The Louis Vuitton purse of Silicon Valley.” After testing out a pair, she wanted to examine how the glasses function as a status symbol in the tech-obsessed Bay Area, so she took them to a San Francisco nightclub and measured people’s reactions. Another of her experiments involved trying to discern meeting spots for the Triads, the notorious Chinese gang with a presence in SF’s Chinatown. Noting that gang members were more likely than their elders to smoke and to loiter, she pinpointed possible meeting spots by counting cigarette butts—and says an ex-Triad member later confirmed the accuracy of some of her mapping.

Hui says one of the most important things she’s learned conducting all her experiments is the value of losing control and looking beyond her day-to-day experience.

“A lot of it is the idea of losing your own sense of control and saying, ‘OK, for three hours I have to follow this cow no matter what,’ ” she says. “Why would I ever think about dogs disappearing? I wouldn’t, until I forced myself to lose control of what I naturally think about every day. There are all these patterns that are everywhere, but we don’t notice.”

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