Tiffany Yap, a Bay Area resident and conservation biologist originally from Ohio, always loved wildlife. When she came to the Bay Area for her undergraduate and graduate studies, she became enthralled by California’s rich biodiversity. Today she works for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that advocates for protecting wildlife and wild places. Now she has taken her love of all things wild—in combination with her knowledge from her years of studying biology, environmental health sciences, and environmental engineering—and brought it to her debut graphic novel, Tales of the Urban Wild: A Puma’s Journey.
The book, which is available for sale on Oct. 24, focuses on the life and struggles of a young mountain lion navigating the spaces where the human-built and natural environments meet, otherwise known as the wildland-urban interface. Yap’s book is accompanied by striking brown and yellow hued illustrations by the Seattle-based artist Meital Smith.
Yap is one of the people that helped write a formal petition to the California Fish and Game Commision that resulted in mountain lions living in Southern California and the central coast being listed as a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act. While those animals are still under consideration for official protective status, Yap publishes this novel to show the risks that mountain lions face as humans encroach into their natural habitat.
The Oaklandside recently talked with Yap about her novel, California’s mountain lion population, and what she hopes the book will mean for the remarkable species.
What is the premise of your novel?
It’s about a young male puma that is living in the urban-wildland interface—in the transition zone between a lot of people and a lot of open space. It’s an area where people and wildlife tend to interact the most. He’s searching for his own territory and he comes across a lot of obstacles along the way. He’s struggling to survive. He needs to survive dangerous roads, wildfire, rat poison, conflicts with farm animals, all these things that mountain lions and other wildlife have to deal with on the daily in order to survive around us.
The book also highlights a lot of the biodiversity in California. It takes place in central California. So not only are we seeing this mountain lion go through life, but along the way, we’re being introduced to all these other animals that live amongst us, and also the people that live amongst the mountain lions.
How do the illustrations play a role in the story?
I think the illustrations are really key here because in some ways, when we talk about wildlife, and how they live amongst us, sometimes it’s really hard to picture what that means. Some animals we see regularly, like a lot of birds we might see pretty regularly, but mountain lions are really elusive. And so I think with illustrations, it kind of helps to give a better idea of what mountain lions are doing, while we’re around to show that like, ‘oh, they get scared when they hear us. They’ll run away from their kill if they hear people talking or approaching.’ The illustrations provide an accessible way for people to connect to what’s going on with wildlife around us.
It’s also a different way of storytelling that might be more accessible to a broader audience. This book is fictional, but it’s based on actual events and on scientific information and scientific studies. As someone who works in conservation, we’re trying to communicate and message these things that are being produced from these studies. And I think, you know, putting that into a graphic novel, where there’s text and illustration and more of a story, I think it makes the information a little bit more relatable for more people.
What real-life events inspired this work?
There wasn’t one animal’s life that informed this story. It’s more about all the different things that we would hear about mountain lions, and how much people affect them. Mountain lions, particularly in California, are facing an extinction vortex caused by people. The way we build our roads and development and fragment their habitats has made it hard for them to survive. They’re getting so boxed into these subpopulations and having high levels of inbreeding that they might go extinct within a few decades.
The real life stuff that this is based on is three mountain lions that were killed on one road in one month. But there’s also really fun things too; someone captured a video of a mountain lion playing with a flag at a golf course. Or, there’s a video of a mountain lion playing with a swing on a tree. It’s all these little ways that they navigate around us but also interact with the infrastructure that we put there.
California has a huge range of animals, why did you choose mountain lions?
People feel very strongly about mountain lions, whether they love them or they might be scared of them, but I think a lot of people really love them.
To me, mountain lions are an iconic species in California and they’re also this really great kind of umbrella species. When we talk about mountain lions, there are so many other species that they affect. They’re a keystone species. Some people call them ecosystem engineers, because they affect the landscape so much. They affect the way deer and other prey navigate the landscape, and they also affect how other smaller predators like coyotes and bobcats move around the landscape. Their kills provide food sources for so many different animals: scavengers, from bears to beetles, even raptors and songbirds.
They move through so much area, they’re so wide ranging. So as they’re moving through these different areas, whether it’s along the stream or through shrublands, or in a redwood forest, there’s so much you can show in the visuals, and there’s so much that can happen with other wildlife. Focusing the story on a mountain lion is a really great way to be able to highlight all these other species that live among us.
How does your work as a conservation scientist in California inform your work as a writer for this novel?
I did undergraduate and graduate school in California, so all of my academic life, most of it had been learning about California wildlife, California habitats. Then after that, a lot of work—even before I got to this nonprofit—was based in California. And so, I have been lucky enough to be able to experience a lot of the landscapes that are in the story and to see a lot of the species that are in the story. And that inspired a lot of the story. I wanted to tell the story about a mountain lion, but I also wanted to showcase the amazing biodiversity that we live amongst.
There’s such awesome diversity here and so that informed so much of the story. But also, I really wanted to highlight people and the people who live in urban-wildland interface in this story as well and the scientists who study wildlife. And that, again, is inspired a lot by what I had done either in the past, or in talking to other scientists, like how they study the animals that they are interested in. A lot of my experiences, whether it was through work, or otherwise, informed what went into this story.
What impact do you want this work to have? What do you want readers to take away?
I hope that people walk away with a better understanding of what it’s like for mountain lions to live among us and all the challenges we impose on them. I hope that readers come away with a little more empathy for mountain lions and other wildlife. I also hope that the book helps to nurture a connection or a reconnection with nature. Because again, I think that kind of connection is really important in conservation work.
What is your favorite part about the novel?
My favorite part about the novel is really how it integrates all the different things that are going on and kind of really shows how interconnected we all are. Whether it’s mountain lions, people, or all these other species, I really like being able to include everyone in the landscape. Oftentimes, its nature or people. But in this book, we’re all there together. And we’re all trying to find a way to coexist safely.
What was your favorite aspect about writing your first novel?
I really enjoyed learning about other species, because I was writing this book about mountain lions, but I wanted to highlight a lot of other species. I’m a herpetologist by training. I studied salamanders, so I really loved highlighting the salamanders. But then there were also these other species I didn’t know as much about, like beavers. So I had to do a lot of research about beavers and learn about them, and how they move and how they navigate. That was really fun.
Also working with the illustrator was just incredible. Meital Smith is so talented. She came in really open and ready to go and we were able to talk things out. I love the way that we were able to work together and then I loved how it turned out.
Do you have any final thoughts about the novel that you would like to share with readers?
I’m really excited for this book to be out. I am really hopeful that it will have a broad reach. Again, we all live in this space where other wildlife also live, whether we see them or not.
It’s really fun to know that these critters are out there and I hope that lots of different people get to experience it through this book. And I hope that there are some young folks out there who are inspired to work in conservation, to do wildlife biology, to pursue their passion. This is the kind of book that I wish I had when I was younger. We tried to make the book very inclusive. The ecology and conservation space is kind of opening towards that, but it is predominately white. I am hopeful that younger folks will see an opportunity.
Tiffany Yap will be hosting a book launch party on Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. at Cape and Cowl Comics, 1601 Clay St., Oakland