Author Jon Mooallem describes the haphazard, and often inspiring, efforts of conservationists to protect endangered species.
Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and author of the book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Mooallem spoke with Associate Editor Jessica Knoblauch in May of 2013.
Jessica Knoblauch: Jon Mooallem, welcome to Down to Earth.
Jon Mooallem: Thanks for having me.
Jessica: Your new book explores modern conservation efforts as well as the contradictory relationships that people often have with wildlife. What inspired you to write this book?
Jon: I actually got very interested in all this stuff right around the time my daughter was born, my first daughter, Isla. Like I think most parents, suddenly we found our house was being invaded by animals, mostly stuffed animals. The animals were everywhere; we had geese on the blanket and polar bears on the sippy cups. At the same time I was reading all these really sobering environmental reports and learning about wildlife conservation issues for the New York Times Magazine. I was starting to report on some of those issues. And it just sort of hit me that I was sort of straddling these two worlds.
Most people I think, especially people who live in cities, we don't have a lot of interaction with wild creatures, aside from pigeons and some raccoons and things like that. And I think I'd had this image that was really the same image we give to our kids of wild animals sort of being this separate kind of nation that lives out there somewhere in the woods and they're all getting along fine without us. And I was really learning about the reality, which is completely counter to that world. The reality that, in fact, a lot of endangered species are really reliant on us for their survival. They're reliant on very direct and very specific hands-on management. And it's just an idea that kind of blew my mind. It seems to go against everything, all our romantic ideas about wildness and what we're even trying to preserve.
What was the story behind "Operation Migration" and the bird costumes?
Jessica: One of these conservation efforts that you stumbled upon was this project called "Operation Migration" where people dress up in bird costumes so that they could give flight lessons to endangered whooping cranes. Can you tell me a little bit about that project and how it came about?
Jon: Sure. The book is based around three particular species, and the third part is about whooping cranes which is really one of the species that has come the farthest through almost a century of conservation at this point. They were down to about between 16 and 20 wild birds in the late 30s and 40s, and now there are more than 300 wild birds. And that's a pretty miraculous conservation success. That's one that people really like to tout.
At the same time, that's really not nearly enough birds to put the species on solid footing. So what they're trying to do now is start a second population of whooping cranes, reintroduce the birds in the eastern part of the U.S. And what that means is they're breeding birds in captivity at a government lab in Maryland and then they have to try to teach these birds to migrate because normally cranes would learn migration from their parents. These birds don't have parents, the parents are back in the lab, so it takes human beings to do it.
So they've trained birds to fly behind ultralight aircraft, which are little, kind of, airplanes that look like a hang-glider with a seat and an engine dangling underneath it. And this group "Operation Migration," which is a nonprofit that works with a lot of the government agencies—none of these guys are scientists, they're all just kind of rough neck pilot types who got involved in this one way or another—will fly the birds, one day at a time, 1200 miles from Wisconsin to Florida. It takes them several months; they can't fly every day; the wind has to be just right.
And they stop over on private land. They have this network of stopover points where they stop and they've got a whole convoy of RVs and trucks and things that follow them on the ground. And then when they get to Florida they let the birds loose at a wildlife refuge, and the birds have then actually learned the route themselves, so once they do it one time they're able to migrate back and forth. And they wear costumes so that the birds don't get acclimated to people. The birds only know that there's this thing in a big frumpy white costume that they regard as a kind of authority or parental figure. And they fly behind these planes. The people never talk, so the birds never hear a human voice.
So they've been doing this for 10 years now and in some ways when I talked about realizing that the wilderness was full of people micromanaging animals and intervening in these very eccentric ways, this is really the prime example of it. I mean, it doesn't really get more preposterous looking than men dressed like birds teaching birds to fly. But really I found that having spent the season with these guys—going on the migration with them one year and really getting into the stories of the pilots themselves—that was really when I started to feel just how admirable this work is, and just how beautiful in a way. Even in cases where the work can feel futile, there is something really undeniably human about just trying to grab onto one piece of this kind of overwhelming upheaval that's going on with the planet right now and just trying to keep one beautiful thing in place.
Why do people place such significance on trying to protect other creatures?
Jessica: Well and that sounds like part of the motivation for some of these people. I was wondering about that because a lot of these people have been working on these conservation projects for years and years, and many of them admitted that they don't know if their efforts will ultimately save the species, but they continue to try anyway. What is it about people that make us place such an importance on trying to protect other creatures, even when we know they probably can't be saved?
Jon: To me that was really sort of the big inspiration for doing this book. I think I found right away that, for whatever reason, probably because I was coming to this as an outsider, that I was having conversations with a lot of these conservationists that I just had never seen people have before. I've read a lot of books about endangered species, and honestly I walked away from this project really feeling like a lot of those books do a disservice to the conservationists by kind of just portraying them as these very two-dimensional, heroic figures.
And I really just felt like that really simplifies the issue in a way that I'm not sure is a) accurate, or b) really honors what they're actually doing. The people I met, like I said, many of them are not professionals or scientists, or maybe some of them have become professionals just out of sheer dedication, but these are people that sort of felt an idiosyncratic impulse to help. They saw a problem that they felt like they could help solve. And I think that in a way, they are living with uncertainty, even the scientists.
I think just the kind of more personal stories is what I found really compelling, because then it becomes a story not just about conservation, but about being a human being on the planet right now.
I mean It's impossible to be on planet Earth right now and to not feel some ambivalence about trying to do good work for the environment or good work for an endangered species. The deck is just stacked against you in a lot of cases. And I felt like it was really cool to have long conversations and really get to know some of these people who are on the ground doing the work because they're thinking about all this stuff, too. They're not blind to the reality. And several people actually told me, "We don't get to have these conversations. We can't put these kind of philosophical questions on our grant applications. We're just trying to figure out how we can feed ourselves, how many more months left we have with the satellite tracking."
And I do feel like there's an undercurrent; obviously there's a lot of challenges facing the field of conservation right now, and I think that there's some real energy to try to reimagine what they're all trying to do, but those conversations don't necessarily always happen in public. I think just the kind of more personal stories is what I found really compelling, because then it becomes a story not just about conservation but just about being a human being on the planet right now. All these people are feeling the same kind of worry or confusion that I was feeling just as someone who had now brought a daughter into the world and was thinking about the future in a new way.
What makes a species charismatic to humans?
Jessica: One of the things that I found interesting in your book is you looked into the research about why people get worked up about saving some types of animals, but not others. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jon: Yeah, this is really interesting to me. There's this whole field of research right now, social science research, which is really just looking at how people feel about animals. What are our ideas about animals and our attitudes towards them? And it's wonderful! I mean there are just really some perverse findings. Like, people in upstate New York who watch more TV, the more TV they watch, the more likely they are to be afraid of a bear attack. There's just kind of these weird trivia facts that emerge through the research.
But a lot of it just has to do with the very practical question, what do people care about when they care about an animal? And then, how can we get them to care about things that they wouldn't necessarily be inclined to? And some of it's pretty straightforward. Some of it's just physical. We tend to feel more empathy for animals that look like us. So a bear looks like us. An otter kind of looks like us, it's got kind of hands and like a little mustache. We don't like nocturnal, slithery things. It's sort of self-evident, I guess, but it's interesting to see it empirically all put down.
But then what I also found is that there's really a cultural dimension to it, too. It's very much about context and the context in which we encounter these animals. And I go through a number of examples in the book where you actually see the culture's feelings about a particular animal just do a 180 over time. For example, I talk about the origin of the teddy bear, which came in the early 20th century after Teddy Roosevelt had gone on a bear hunt and refused to shoot a very sick-looking bear that his hunting guide had tied to a tree for him to come have the honor of shooting. He just sort of took mercy on the bear.
This was at a time when bears were being exterminated all around the country. And suddenly the bear, which had been a real menace and a real shorthand for the dangers of the frontier, now it had become a kind of a cuddly victim. It was something that was primed to be turned into a children's toy and kind of snuggle up to because we didn't have to be afraid of it now that we had sort of backed it into a corner. And you see this again and again, this idea that we exert our power and we beat these animals back and then suddenly we start empathizing with them as underdogs or celebrating them as a kind of idyllic symbol of a wildness that we've lost.
What do we find so appealing about keeping nature natural?
Jessica: Well and you mention the power of people to have an impact on these animals' environments. What is it about keeping nature natural that's so appealing to humans and what is it about changing nature too much that freaks us out?
Jon: This a really big, philosophical issue that I think environmentalism probably is going to have to really try to address or reconcile. I think we're living in a time where we still kind of tell ourselves this story about how nature is something separate from us, and that our job is not to leave any footprints in it, to put it back the way we found it. And really, at least in my experience reporting this book, it seems pretty evident that in most cases that's just not possible anymore. We can't treat it as something outside of ourselves, and we really need to embrace the fact that really our influence isn't always negative. Every time we touch something we're not ruining it.
Really this is a question of how we see ourselves on the planet. And up until now, we've seen ourselves as really not wanting to own up to our power, and to try to erase the consequences of our power or put things back together. There is a movement, you know, that is discussed a little bit in the book, this idea of bringing in animals as proxies for wooly mammoths and things that have been driven extinct, or now you've got Stewart Brand talking about resurrecting passenger pigeons with genetic engineering.
There is a more creative way to approach these problems, and I'm not endorsing either one of those proposals, but I think that they represent a new outlook on the problem, which is: let's own up to the fact that we're quite powerful and let's try to wield that power in a good and creative way, instead of just wielding it to pretend like we're not here and sort of cover our tracks. That's a really interesting kind of policy question for people in the field, but it's also just a really interesting philosophical and imaginative question for anyone who is the least bit interested in nature and anyone who wants to think seriously about how we're living on the planet right now.
Jessica: Right. Well, and I feel like that question comes up a lot with climate change as well, this idea of geo-engineering the environment to stop climate change. Some people think that's sort of a line that you don't cross, while other people point out, look we're already engineering the environment, this would just a more proactive or purposeful way of doing it, so …
Jon: Absolutely. There's a guy named Josh Tomlin who's written about this pretty eloquently. In the book, he says, "People don't want to play God, but the answer is we're already playing God, we're just not doing a very good job of it." And his point is, basically we are kind of officially engineering a world that's filled with rats and starlings and kudzu and jellyfish. We're changing the landscape—the animal landscape—but we're not doing it purposefully. And so his point, and others like him who are making this case in the field right now, is we shouldn't necessarily think of our influence always as being negative. It's negative now because we're not actually being proactive about exerting it.
After the ESA became law, why were some who had voted for it so surprised at its power?
Jessica: I know you did a lot of research on the history of endangered species and conservation. One thing that you mentioned was that when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the power within the law ended up surprising some of the congressmen who signed it. Can you explain why that was?
Jon: Yeah, I was really shocked by this. I mean, what a coup, right? This is one of the most really powerful—I mean, I would say one of the most powerful laws on the books period—but definitely a powerful environmental law. The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. This was the time of Watergate and Vietnam, and it just felt really good to put a law out there that was about protecting blue whales and grizzly bears and bald eagles. Who wouldn't go for that?
But there was a kind of undercurrent of very idealistic congressional staffers who really beefed up the law pretty assuredly to the point where … I quote some historians who say that it was clear that most congressmen had never read the law, that Nixon didn't understand that it protected insects, for example, too. And it really just kind of blindsided people. I think that as a consequence of this, people treat the Endangered Species Act very gingerly, I've found. There's a real hesitancy among some environmentalists to really use the Act at its full strength because it's almost like there's this feeling that, you know, we really got away with something here, we really got this law on the books. And they don't want anyone to take it away. And of course, it is always under threat. But it is an extremely idealistic idea—the idea that America has passed a law that is there to be a counterweight to its own economic growth. And that's more or less exactly what the preamble to the law says, that this is a law that is going to stand up for endangered species and their ecosystems against the other forces in American society that are intent to blot them out.
Jessica: Right. I feel like with all the lobbyists on the Hill nowadays something like that wouldn't get past somebody.
Jon: It's kind of an interesting thought exercise to think about what would happen if they tried to pass the Endangered Species Act now. In one sense, it's no longer a feel good thing, right? There's a whole side of the political spectrum that has a really violent reaction to the idea of saving species, just because after all these years of the Endangered Species Act they feel like it's been used as kind of a cudgel. So yeah, I don't think there's any chance there'd be a law like that right now. Is that a downer? I don't mean to be all downer about it. It's sort of just an interesting story. I think about how American society has changed, too, you know?
Jessica: Yeah, no, definitely. I mean, it's the environmental world. It's going to be a downer no matter what.
Jon: Well see, I don't agree actually, we can argue about that. The subtitle of the book is, A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story about Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. And it's been insinuated to me that maybe the "weirdly reassuring" part was just kind of tacked on by the publisher's marketing department. But I actually really disagree. That was really a legitimate feeling I had walking away from all this. I started as a place of real pessimism and worry—especially just as a new father—and I think that it's easy to feel that way when you're on the sidelines and just kind of thinking about how overwhelming a lot of these problems feel. But when you're actually there with someone who's dealing with a very particular piece of the problem, and is just really invested in it, even if they themselves have doubts about whether their work is futile or what it's all going to amount to, there is just something really exhilarating about being around that kind of energy and that kind of idealism. And I think that that's hard to pick up on when I'm sitting here in my house, and I'm thinking about whether I should buy a Prius or a Volt or whatever. I felt like actually getting out there, for me, and being among these people was a complete anecdote to that kind of vague unease. And I guess I kind of hope that the book can help people be there a little bit too, be where I was.
Why did you focus on the polar bear and metalmark butterfly stories?
Jessica: The "Operation Migration" has definitely had a more positive ending. I guess not quite ending, because it's still going on. But then you also talk about the polar bears and the butterflies in California that are endangered. Especially the butterfly story, how did you come upon that story or why did you pick that one to talk about?
Jon: The second part of the book is about the Lange's metalmark butterfly, which is this tiny butterfly that lives on basically this 67-acre scrap of land called the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge. It's about midway between San Francisco and Sacramento. And it's just like … It's not what you're thinking when I say "wildlife refuge." It's this piece of riverfront land in between a waste transfer station and a water treatment plant. There's a biker bar there. There's a wallboard factory that makes drywall right in the middle of the property that actually splits it in two. And somehow this little butterfly just hung on there.
The first section is about the polar bear, and I was sort of looking at the bear more as a piece of marketing paraphernalia than as a real animal, the way it's been held up as a rallying point for climate change and the kind of pandemonium that erupted around it. And then I really wanted to go somewhere that was the exact opposite, where it was something that I'd never heard of, and where it really wasn't getting the kind of attention that the bear was. And this is it. This is the Lange's metalmark. I couldn't have found a better opportunity. It was really just a chance to say, well, let's look at how we got here. Let's look at what happened on this piece of land over the last 100 years or so. And who were the people who came in and out of the story of this butterfly?
Why are so many endangered species found on DOD-owned land?
Jessica: Interesting. And you mentioned this is on a wildlife refuge. One of the facts that you mention in the book is that there are actually a lot of endangered species on land owned by the Department of Defense, of all things. Can you explain why that is?
Jon: Yeah, that was a really stunning discovery for me. There's basically more endangered and protected species right now living on land that's owned by the Department of Defense than land that's owned by the Department of the Interior, which is the government agency that's supposed to be setting up refuges for those species. And basically this happened by accident. This happened because the Department of Defense owns huge tracts of land for training bases or where they do exercises that have, by accident, been fairly well preserved. And to their credit, they're really kind of bullish on endangered species. They like to promote all the work they're doing. There's a species of endangered butterfly in Washington, which is mostly concentrated at a firing range. There's many species of birds where great deals of the population are living on military land.
And I think that that goes back to your earlier question about how we conceive of us and wilderness, and the fact that a lot of these place, which would seem to our kind of romantic sense of wilderness and nature as the complete antithesis of what we want to see, are actually these really robust refuges for species. And similar to the Antioch Dunes, which is basically a piece of forgotten industrial wasteland, but it's the one place where this butterfly lives.
Why is there such a rich diversity of butterflies in San Francisco?
Jessica: Right. Well, and in addition to the Antioch Dunes, one thing I didn't realize was that San Francisco is known as this national treasure for butterflies. Can you explain why so many different kinds of butterflies are able to exist here?
Jon: Yeah, this was probably my favorite part to research of the book, just this history of butterfly people in San Francisco. The characters that emerged over the last 100 years are just absolutely stunning. Someone said to me that it should be compared to almost the Galapagos for butterflies because you get these little microclimates all around San Francisco and the peninsula where the temperature can vary by 15 or 20 degrees, so you get different plants growing there and you get different species of butterflies that use those plants as their host plant. So you've got these little pockets of diversity.
Around the Gold Rush, there was a French attorney who actually came as part of the Gold Rush and wound up just chasing butterflies instead. He discovered all these new species. He became very famous in entomological circles, and from there you had just a stream of butterfly people. I talk about this one guy, James Cottle, who was a cop in San Francisco, a police officer in the early 20th century, who as a hobby was just a big time butterfly collector. I found a profile of him in a local paper in 1906 called, "By day he catches burglars, by night he catches butterflies." No, it's reversed! Sorry, I blew it. It's the other way around, the burglars are out at night and the butterflies are out during the day. But he was this big, brawny guy and he talked about butterfly hunting like it was bear hunting or something. It was very macho stuff. So that was just a real joy, just seeing how each of these people grew attached to this landscape.
Did you uncover any other interesting stories about San Francisco?
Jessica: Did you find anything else out about San Francisco just with researching this book?
Jon: I found out a lot of things about San Francisco. Actually another thing related to the Antioch Dunes which I found really interesting was, I'd always heard this story about Humphrey the Whale, which was this humpback whale that in 1985 swam into the Bay from the Pacific and just kind of swam up the San Joaquin River almost all the way to Sacramento. And I'd heard stories about this. I have a children's book for my daughter about Humphrey the whale and all the good people who were trying to turn the whale around. And it was quite an ordeal for a long time. It was a big national story. They thought this whale would die if it didn't get out of the river. And eventually Humphrey went back out to sea, and it was a big celebration. But it was just total pandemonium. Wayne Newton had offered to do a benefit concert at one point to raise money for Humphrey. Just everyone was out there, a flotilla of boats trying to turn him around.
It definitely seems like we've got to start asking better questions. We've got to know more about what we're trying to accomplish, before we figure out how to do it better.
It turns out that this was actually a real turning point in the story of the Lange's metalmark butterfly too, although no one really realized it at the time. Because when Humphrey swam up the river he spent a lot of his time in the area of Antioch, and the dunes, the refuge—which had just become a refuge at that point—was really one of the only places on the river that was open land, where people could come look at Humphrey. And so they had a mob of people rush out to the dunes over the course of a weekend, thousands of people to see Humphrey. The irony there is that these people ended up trampling a lot of the butterfly habitat, and made a really big dent in the population and really affected the way the Fish and Wildlife Service managed the land from there on out, not really in a positive way, actually. So this kind of love for a single whale almost undid an entire species of butterfly.
Why is the tension between eco-tourism and preservation?
Jessica: Oh wow, that's crazy. But I feel like it's sort of a similar situation with your stories about people going to see the polar bears. They try to keep people away from these wild creatures, but if you have so much tourism come in it's always going to have some sort of effect.
Jon: Yeah, these are the stories I was really trying to get at, these stories where there's sort of an animal in the center of the story, but setting in motion these really complicated and sometimes pretty funny human dramas. I guess in the dark sense funny. You've got this town called Churchill, Manitoba, which is really the only place in the world where polar bears—polar bears are generally pretty solitary animals—and here is a place where they're congregating every year at the same time of the year in great numbers because they're waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over, and once it freezes over they can get back on the ice and hunt.
So they've been off the ice all summer, just kind of waiting around and that means that these bears can be monetized. Churchill now calls itself the "Polar Bear Capital of the World." And it's really become a ground zero for environmentalists, or celebrities, if you want to film polar bears this is where you go. So you've got a very small, local community of people who live in a tiny 900-person town with no roads going into it, who every fall are beset by 10,000 tourists and a whole bunch of environmentalists. And it makes for some pretty uncomfortable situations between them and some pretty interesting arguments about both the fate of the bear and the character of the bear, too. Is it a victim of climate change? Is it this kind of helpless cog in a machine that's going to disappear? Or is it this formidable neighbor that these guys live with, that people have a respect for, maybe a little fear for, too?
Has your outlook changed after writing this book?
Jessica: Well and you mentioned, earlier on, about how coming into this you were a little pessimistic about the state of conservation and endangered species and all that. How has your opinion or outlook evolved after having written this book?
Jon: Yeah, I mean I was very pessimistic. I wasn't a little pessimistic! I don't know. I felt like, in one way or another, I wound up looking at a lot of—I don't mean this in necessarily a derogatory way but—some blind spots of what conservation is doing. Just being an outsider, people ended up discussing with me the questions that no one's really asking, questions that are fundamental questions, about like "Well, what are we trying to save here when we save this butterfly? And is it worth it?" [These are] things that are sort of assumed within the field. You know, I don't have any policy prescriptions for conservation, that's not really my place, but it definitely seems like we've got to start asking better questions. We've got to know more about what we're trying to accomplish before we figure out how to do it better.
It seems like there's really not a lot of certainty about how to explain what some of these projects are all about. But I think that the comfort I took, or the sort of a feeling of rightness, I guess, has to do with the kind of idealism that I saw, and this kind of very human spirit that you do just want to preserve things that look to you to be beautiful, and that I think is a really beautiful thing. To just take it back to that very simple impulse, to say: we live in a place, we live surrounded by animals, we always have, and now we're trying to keep it that way; we're trying to keep something that feels right. That's a pretty simple-minded statement, I guess, but I honestly found that it's very helpful to take it back to very simpleminded statements sometimes and kind of start over and reconceive of what we're doing from there.
Jessica: Definitely. Well and it never hurts to have a touch of idealism, especially when dealing with some of these harder issues.
I think that the comfort I took, or the sort of a feeling of rightness, I guess, has to do with the kind of idealism that I saw, and this kind of very human spirit that you do just want to preserve things that look to you to be beautiful. And that I think is a really beautiful thing.
Jon: Yeah. I think the conversation can get extremely complicated and extremely political, obviously. What made me feel reassured in the end was just seeing that people across the spectrum seem to share something, seem to share a kind of a common identity of just humans as a species. And we can disagree exactly about what we should do with the impulses we feel, but that certain impulses of just wanting there to be a beautiful world for your children are kind of universal. I don't know. I kind of see the book as me walking through and walking readers through a kind of set of experiences and going to a set of places that makes those kind of conclusions feel hopefully a little earned so that they can resonate in a new way.
Jessica: Definitely. Well, I found the book to be very hopeful.
Jon: Well that's cool. Okay, good.
Jessica: Well, that's pretty much all the questions that I have for today. Jon, thank you so much for your time.
Jon: Thank you for the great questions.
Jessica: Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and author of the book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. To read more of Jon's work, check out his website at jonmooallem.com. And for more interviews with environmental experts, please be sure to check out other Down to Earth episodes at earthjustice.org/DownToEarth.
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