-Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
by Jon Mooallem
In this book the author explores the attitudes of everyday people to threatened and endangered wildlife, and the convoluted efforts of conservationists and scientists to save them. Convoluted because the more closely you look at each issue, the more insurmountable and unrealistic the effort appears to be- even though of course we can\’t bear to let go and stop trying. In this regard, it shared a lot of sentiment with Inheritors of the Earth– the world is going to keep changing, we have now moved beyond the point of being able to halt our impacts on wildlife and the land.
It starts with the author deciding to visit three areas where he can see in person animal species that are struggling, on the brink of extinction as it were. For some of the trips he takes his young daughter along- so part of this is also looking at what children understand of wildlife issues (most young kids don\’t care and are very human-centric and selfish, he concludes, while older children express concern for the welfare of wild animals) and how his own three-year-old responds to seeing them. He goes to Churchill to view the polar bears- which every year face a longer stretch of fasting waiting for sea ice to form, while more cubs starve and never make it to adulthood. He goes to Antioch Dunes, a place where the endangered Lange\’s metalmark butterfly lives on one host plant species that thrives on shifting dunes- but by the time it was made into a wildlife refuge so much sand had been mined and trucked away the ecosystem changed drastically, and now it\’s only through the constant efforts of humans to eradicate \’weeds\’ and plant the butterfly\’s naked stem buckwheat that keeps the species going. Finally, he travels to Michigan to join the team of Operation Migration and see how whooping crane chicks, raised in captivity by men masked in crane costumes, are led by ultralight planes on their first migration. In each case, the author talks with scientists, conservationists, and bystanders alike. He interviews the camera crews and the host who puts out birdseed (whooping cranes unexpectedly visited her yard). He talks about shifting baselines, how the public\’s perception of wildlife issues is influenced and changes over the years, how charismatic species get all the attention while lesser-known and smaller ones quietly disappear. There\’s discussion on how bison were nearly wiped out and since recovered and how canada geese went from being seen as rare harbringers of changing seasons to outright pests. There\’s the true story about a humpback whale that swam up a river and stranded itself- and so many people came to view this one animal in trouble, they trampled all over the butterfly refuge which was even worse for that species and its host plant. The parts about the legal tangle of how individual species get protection, are listed or de-listed as endangered, and suffer from lack of funding, was a bit tedious to read through.
But it becomes very clear that for many species, people are obviously propping them up, and if we withdrew our support, they would simply disappear- in some cases, very quickly. How long do we continue that effort? (For example, the whooping cranes led by aircraft on their flight paths have successfully migrated on their own afterwards- considered a success because now they can live free of human assistance. But when this book was written, none of them had raised their own chicks. So that population could only continue if people kept hatching, raising and releasing cranes to supplement it. Never was self-sustaining). I don\’t know what to think of the message this book gives me. On the one hand, it\’s encouraging to see how many people do care about wildlife and are going to great efforts to help our fellow creatures survive- even if some of them don\’t act as wild as they used to (whooping cranes visiting bird feeders, whitetail deer in backyards). On the other hand, the glum none-of-this-matters-in-the-end attitude makes me feel very depressed. What we have done to our Earth is dismal. As long as humans keep taking up so much space and increasing our numbers and use of resources, I don\’t see how things can change or even be sustainable. Much less remain habitable for the diversity of species it once supported, in the long run.
Note: I shortened the subtitle in my heading. In entirety it is: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.
Rating: 4/5 339 pages, 2013