Book Review: Wild Ones, By Jon Mooallem

Reviewed by KAY MATTHEWS

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In his book Wild Ones, Jon Mooallem writes about an endangered butterfly that lives at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, a strip of land an hour east of San Francisco on the industrialized fringes of the town: “It turns out that the Lange’s metalmark flies in a confounding and counterintuitive wilderness, where some of our most comforting ideas about nature unravel. I kept chasing the butterfly, wherever it led me. And before I knew it, I was all the way back at conservation’s first principles, faced with petrifying questions like, what exactly are we preserving, and why—questions worth asking, even if they can’t be answered.”

Mooallem’s admission that these most fundamental questions can’t be answered doesn’t stop him from trying to figure out why they can’t be answered in a journey through time and space subtitled “A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.” They’re the same questions many New Mexicans, who were caught up in the Mexican spotted owl wars in the mid 1990s, asked when environmentalists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the owl as endangered and the entire Region 6 of the Forest Service was shut-down to all wood cutting, both commercial and subsistence.

Interestingly enough, the same environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, that was largely responsible for the listing of the owl also petitioned for the listing of the polar bear in 2005, one of the other endangered species Mooallem highlights. The whooping crane, the third species he focuses on, is another creature that resonates with New Mexicans who used to troop down to Bosque del Apache in the 1970s and 80s to try and get a glimpse of the magnificent white bird raised by the more common sandhill cranes at their winter feeding grounds.

There are few sightings of the Mexican spotted owl in the forests the environmentalists shut down for its protection, and Fish and Wildlife gave up on trying to establish a viable whooping crane population at the Bosque in 1989 (the whoopers mated with the sandhill cranes instead of each other). As Mooallem explores the precarious situations of the butterfly, bear, and crane he has no illusions about their viability, either, and instead comes round to the more interesting tale of the animal/human cultural connection that makes the story oftentimes more about the people component of that relationship than the animal: “At some point that fall [when following the crane migration] I would lose interest in the legendary wildness of whooping cranes and wind up wonderstruck, instead, by the wildness of human beings . . .”

Weaving a cultural history of our relationship with animals Mooallem leads us through the bizarre and the sentimental. Thomas Jefferson was determined to discredit the Theory of American Degeneracy, which argued that wildlife in America was smaller and weaker than that in Europe, by insisting the mammoth remained extant in the American west. Then, when the mammoth was proved extinct, Americans rationalized this fact as God’s way of helping a young nation spread west: Manifest Destiny unleashed on wild animals. When Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot an injured bear his hunting guide had attached to a tree for his “kill”, not only was the teddy bear born but the notion of animal as “anthropomorphic heroes of fiction” (e.g., Jack London’s White Fang), engendering an empathy for wild animals that lives on in the children’s stories we all know and love.

This compassion and aesthetic appreciation of wild animals supplanted fear and extirpation as we became more removed from nature, and eventually led to the promulgation of the Endangered Species Act. Passed in 1973, during the Richard Nixon administration, by an “overwhelming majority of Congress”, the act says: “The purposes of this Act are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend may be conserved.” According to an historian Mooallem quotes, however, most of Congress viewed the act as “a largely symbolic effort” to protect “charismatic magafauna”—grizzles, whales, bald eagles, etc. Little did they anticipate the listing of the snail darter, which held up a major dam-building project in Tennessee, or the silvery minnow, which has periodically shut down irrigation in the Rio Grande Valley. A lepidopterist who worked at Antioch Dunes said this to Mooallem: “People would say, ‘How do you save the blue butterflies?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t give a shit about the butterflies.’ . . . Once the habitat is gone, it’s gone. It’s too complex. You can’t put these things back.”

This cynical evaluation seems to apply to the situation of the polar bear. Mooallem travels to Churchill, Manitoba to spend time with a dwindling population of the bears, dependent on the yearly freeze over of Hudson Bay to hunt their primary food, seals. During the summer months they fast near the town, waiting for the ice to form, which, due to climate change, freezes later and later each year while melting earlier and earlier in the spring.

While the goal of the bear’s listing as threatened (Mooallem details the semantic hair-splitting between “threatened” and “endangered” and the lawsuits involved) was to point to the need to slow down carbon emissions before the bear’s habitat is altered to the point of its extinction, the creature’s situation reveals the contradictions inherent in the conservation movement. Mooallem meets the range of people involved in the efforts to “save” them. The director of Polar Bear International tells him that his job is to “market” the bear to tourists so they can go home and convince others of the need to change their habits to “offset” the carbon emissions generated by flying to Churchill. But as more people empathize with the bear’s plight, many want to feed the starving ones; this hands-on management, which is becoming increasingly the norm, will do nothing to stall climate change.

Butterfly habitat at the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge has already been altered to the point where unless the Lange’s metalmark is raised in captivity it will soon be extinct. The dunes that supported the buckwheat plant that fed the butterfly are gone, carted away to build roads and bricks, and a gypsum plant next door layers the land with fine dust. The Fish and Wildlife Service relies on volunteers to help it try to recreate the lost habitat; as one employee tells Mooallem, “This place will never run on its own.” As Mooallem describes it, “ . . . here at Antioch, on behalf of a tiny butterfly that no one has ever heard of, on a refuge where no one goes, America seems to have quietly blown past the threshold a long time ago” without ever really answering the question of where you draw the line to save a species. Which also raises the issue of  “shifting baselines syndrome” or “environmental generational amnesia”: the condition of generational baselines against which subsequent losses are measured. “It begs the question of what baseline biologists should be measuring wildlife populations against in the first place.” At one point Mooallem asks the biologist who is breeding the Lange’s metalmark in her laboratory, why save any species? She talks about “ecosystem services” and “extinction of experience” but finally says, “the point is to keep some uniqueness in the world.”

And finally, there are the cranes. Mooallem follows Operation Migration as it leads whooping cranes by ultralight airplanes to their winter home in Florida. Here Mooallem meets up with many of the human wild ones: agency biologists, animal activists, professional environmentalists, ultralight pilots, and any number of volunteer “craniacs” who all work, in an oftentimes contentious coalition, to establish independent flocks of whooping cranes in one of the most intensive—and intrusive—conservation interventions. We’ve seen the cranes following the ultralights on TV or in the movies, but Mooallem takes us on the journey from start to finish. The birds are hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland where they are raised by keepers dressed in bird costumes (to prevent imprinting on humans); Mooallem describes them as “a bee-keeping suit crossed with a Ku Klux Klan getup.” After a few months the cranes are shipped to Wisconsin, where the Operation Migration pilots, also dressed in bird costume, train them to follow their ultralights in the skies above the preserve. Then, in the fall, weather permitting, the planes lead them 1,285 miles over what can take as long as four months to their refuge in Florida (accompanied by Cessnas, motorhomes, and ground crews). With luck, the birds will have learned the route and fly back to Wisconsin, on their own, the next summer.

But the cranes who come back to Wisconsin have failed to procreate there and scientists from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, which oversees Operation Migration, decided to abort the migration program until they could figure out why the birds were not successfully raising chicks (they kept abandoning their eggs). As in the situation at Antioch Dunes with the butterfly, the crane populations continue to depend entirely upon human intervention. This intervention also extends to “policing an aesthetic,” or determining where the birds go in a wilderness of our own making: “We are everywhere in the wilderness with white gloves on, directing traffic. . . . what does ‘wild’ even mean?”

This question has been asked many times before, of course, by Bill McKibben, William Cronon, and others. But as I said before, Mooallem’s book is more about our human relationship to animals and to whatever we deem is wilderness, which may be many different things: “impossibly nostalgic, an almost religious fantasy of purity in what’s remote”; the simple desire to have our children experience what we experienced; to “save” something good. Mooallem points out that some conservationists “are arguing we should be actively seeking to cultivate a new nature, instead of struggling to forestall the disintegration of the one we happened to inherit.” We can “manage relocation of species” and accept invasive species that create “blended” habitat: “Seizing that kind of creative freedom—owning up to our power on Earth and exerting it—is either inspiring or existentially terrifying, depending upon whom you ask.” Mooallem’s book shows us it’s both.


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