It is time for a more peaceful “good-news” story. Well, good news if you like beavers. Bad news if you suffer from “castorphobia”, or fear of beavers. To be sure, they are ugly critters, with their huge yellow teeth. But on the other hand, the presence of beavers can often be a sign that there is good fresh water to be had. And everybody likes fresh water. Well, unless you suffer from “hydrophobia”, but never mind about that…
This piece in Komsomolka announces that the beaver population north of Moscow has increased in the past 3-4 years. And this is seen as a good thing. The Russian word for “beaver” is бобёр (pronounced “ba-BOR”), plural “ba-BRY”. This word is inherited from the ancient Proto-Indo-European language (PIE). Linguists reconstruct the original word as something like *bʰébʰrus from the root *bʰreu- (“brown”), so something like “brown animal”. Cognates in other Indo-European languages include Latvian bebrs, and, obviously, English “beaver” and “brown“, respectively. These words did not change very much over the millenia. And nor did beavers themselves. They are the same ugly but lovable critters which our ancestors encountered as they wended their way into the European rivers and marshes.
Latin, for some reason, chose a completely different word for this animal: castor, from the Greek kastor. Originally Latin used the same word as everybody else: fiber (probably pronounced something like “fibber”), with the PIE *bh sound becoming the f sound in Latin. According to this online etymology, at some point Latin people stopped saying “fiber” and started saying “castor” which they borrowed from the Greeks, because Greek women associated beaver-musk (used as a medicine) with the divine being Kastor (twin of Pollux) who was sort of a god of medicine.
And speaking of beaver-musk, this is another one of the beaver’s amazing properties. Beavers are basically large, semi-aquatic rodents with humongous front teeth used to chop down trees; and giant flat tails that look like ping-pong paddles. Let’s face it, nobody really loves rodents, because they are ugly and filthy. But an exception is made for beavers. Beavers possess many valuable (for human exploitation) assets: Their pelts, obviously; also their musk glands, used to make perfumes and medicines. Not to mention their industriousness — these are the hardest-working animals in the world — and their highly ethical nature. Beavers, like all rodents, are legendary for being good parents who dote on their families. In fact, beavers possess all the good qualities which humans claim to have, but often don’t.
Beavers On The Yauza River
Returning to the Russian story, the lede is that inspectors from the Moscow Nature Center as well as residents of the Moscow North-Eastern Administrative Okrug (СВАО) have commented on the increase in beaver population in this area. Here is some information in English about this administrative unit and the area it covers, for those who are interested in geography.
The main river in Moscow, of course, is the Moscow River. One of its tributaries is the Yauza River, and still another river feeding into the Yauza is called the Chermyanka. The Yauza is an ancient Russian river, mentioned in Chronicles as early as 1156. In time it became filthy and polluted with industrial waste. Despite sporadic attempts at clean-up the river remained a sewer until around 3-4 years ago, when a serious effort was made to cleanse it. The return of beavers is in fact a bellwether event indicating some ecological success in this arena. Since beavers are very sensitive to chemical pollutants in the water, and tend to stay away from dirty rivers.
The Komsomolka reporter interviewed a specialist named Azamat Kunafin, who heads the Ecology section for the Okrug, within the science center at Sokolniki. Kunafin described how beavers avoid chemical pollutants, and how their numbers are visibly increasing now, especially in spring. Kunafin and the other zoologists beg the public to please, not feed the beavers. Sure, they’re cute. But it doesn’t do them any good to become accustomed to human food. People will toss them vegetables and fruits, which really are not good for them. And young beavers in particular need to learn how to acquire their own food. Which consists mainly of the bark from trees. So, unless you’re tossing them some bark — please don’t bother. And even then — don’t do it. Let them learn to strip their own bark.
According to other interviewee, Boris Samoilov, who is the editor of a travel book about Moscow, beaver family life goes something like this:
The first one-and-a-half years of their lives, young beavers live with their parents. After which Mama and Papa Beaver chase the young’uns away from their territory. Unlike human children, the exiled ones do not complain or try to sneak back into the parental domicile with a bag of dirty laundry: They cheerfully swim off in search of their own territory. A place of their very own! Sometimes they can travel pretty far — according to Samoilov, three years ago his team managed to photograph a beaver who had swimmed all the way up the Moscow River to the “Udarnik” movie theater!
Samoilov explains that it is not desirable for beavers to live within the city limits — this is not their territory, this is not the right place for them. From the human point of view, beavers are destructive: They subsist mainly on a diet of trees. Trees are inherently low-calorie, which means the beavers have to chop down quite a lot of them. They will lay waste an entire area of forest, and then just cavalierly move on, every five years or so.
“Is it safe to pet them?” he is asked.
“Beavers are peace-loving animals. During the day they hang out in their lodges. One may approach them. But I would not recommend trying to pet them. They have big teeth and sharp claws. I would recommend just leaving them alone.”
But Doctor Samoilov: You know us! We’re people! We can’t just leave nature alone. It’s not in our … er… nature!