Monday, February 24, 2014

The often disturbing, sometimes inspiring ways in which humans interact with animals

Finally!  I first heard about Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones:  A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America on the 99% Invisible podcast in October.  (If you have still not listened to this, you are doing yourself a grave disservice.)  I promptly put it on my library wish list.  3.5 months later, it was finally in my hands.  And now I've finished it, and it's left me with a lot to think about.

Jon Mooallem writes about raising his daughter under the cloud of knowing that the world she sees as an adult will be drastically different - half of all species on earth now could be extinct by the end of this century.  He sets out to learn about conservation in America by tracking three endangered species - the polar bear, the poster child victim of climate change; the Lange's metalmark butterfly, a tiny, delicate beauty; and the whooping crane, a species that has been on the receiving end of a truly amazing amount of human interest.

What Mooallem learns is absolutely fascinating, even if it ultimately makes you believe that wildlife conservation seems completely doomed to failure.  After all, is there a purpose to saving the polar bear if we are committed to ruining its natural habitat?  And what value does one small species of butterfly add to the world when there are so many other species that have a greater impact on their environment?  While the book is ostensibly about these animals, it is also about the many, many people who have dedicated their lives to what seems to be a losing battle of trying to save the world, one animal at a time, and just how much passion and effort and pain and heartache people put into the effort.  And that's the reassuring part alluded to in the title, I think - much as we humans are destroying the world around us and changing it irrevocably from what it originally was - we also make Hail Mary, last ditch, desperate efforts to save those species we consider "worthy," often at the expense of other animals and at great personal cost.

I've never thought of it that way before, really.  I have always looked at the flip side - how we all just go down this path of least resistance, doing what we always do and punting to the next generation to deal with things when they get to a true crisis point.  But we also spend so much energy and manpower and money and time and research trying to do the opposite, too.  For example, there are people who dedicate years of their lives to dressing up in white sheets with crane puppets on their hands, in complete silence, trying to help captive whooping cranes learn how to survive.  Then these people (still dressed in the white sheets) drive ultralight planes at a very slow, frustrating pace, down a migration pattern that they want the cranes to follow, in the hopes that these cranes will then learn to migrate south on their own.  And they land in people's farms and are hosted by these people who kindly give up part of their land every year to these cranes, even though the hosts are never allowed to see the cranes, in hopes of keeping human contact at a minimum.  It's true.  Watch here.

Can you even wrap your head around the absolute generosity that is present every day in an endeavor like this?  And whooping cranes are just one example.  There was also a fantastic story about Humphrey the Humpback, a whale that got off-track and swam upriver from the ocean, and then all of the human effort that people exerted to get it back into the ocean.

For all of our capacity for harm on a massive scale, human beings also have a true capacity for greatness on an individual level.  The question remains, however, whether those individual efforts will ever be enough to keep species alive and viable in the future, or if they will forever more rely on humans for their survival.

I learned so many things from this book.  For example, the Lange's metalmark butterfly is an endangered species, but there is a butterfly that looks almost exactly like it living elsewhere in the country and doing fairly well.  That other butterfly is not a very close genetic relation to the Lange's.  The Lange's closest genetic relative looks nothing like it, actually, though genetically, they are almost twins. And the other one?  Also not endangered.  So... what makes the Lange's so special that it gets status?  Not its looks, because there's another butterfly that looks just like it that is not endangered.  And not its genes, as it has a pretty close relative that is not endangered.  Hmm...

This was such a wonderful, beautifully written book about peoples' relationships with animals over time, and how difficult the issues are that surround conservation today.  Is it worth saving a species if the habitat they live in is doomed?  Should we allow animals to rely on humans for survival to help  save a species or should we be hands off?  How "wild" should we expect animals to be when control so many aspects of their lives?  And should we be trying to save a few, "important" species, or should we concentrate on ensuring that the pockets of the world all of us live in are as biologically diverse as possible?  These are all difficult questions to answer.  Mooallem doesn't attempt to answer any of them, but tells us so many stories to illustrate how we have struggled with this for so long, and continue to struggle with it.  Wild Ones is a wonderful homage to conservation struggles in America, full of personal stories and historical anecdotes and shot through with so much wistfulness it can be hard not to cry.  Highly recommended.


  1. I guess since we made most of them die out then yes we should help

  2. I need to get back into podcasts. I have been so slack! What I should do is take breaks between audiobooks to listen to a few. I need to think of that instead of immediately starting another audiobook!

  3. Our relationship with animals is so convoluted and crazy and contradictory.

  4. Anonymous2/26/2014

    Sounds fascinating! I love to read about conservation efforts -- the work people are able and willing to put into saving these animals can be really inspiring. I was reading recently about the indigenous species of New Zealand, and how hard New Zealand is working to make sure that the dangerously endangered ones will have a chance at a comeback.

  5. Well, your post made me really contemplate there for a bit. I love books like these, and these topics are never black and white. There's so many different opinions, facts, and sides to the story.
    My boyfriend is an environmentalist and wildlife photographer, and this is definitely something he'd be interested in reading. Thank you for your well thought out review! New follower :)


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