Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America-Jon Mooallem
Jon Mooallem travels in the world of animal conservation groups after realizing how many fake animals we surround our children with and asking what are we doing about the real ones?
That subtitle says it all, doesn't it? This book really delivers on its long promise. I was indeed, sometimes dismayed, often reassured despite myself by the stories Mooallem shares. Mooallem writes in a charming and self-conscious manner about what his journey talking to various kinds of animal conservationists. There are many references as to why he was doing this and those reasons changed along the way. His choice of the central stories were well done. There's the super trendy and controversial polar bear. The 'sexy' image of conservation campaigns. The stories sometimes took on surreal aspects (Martha Stewart shows up) as Mooallem discusses the disconnect between the under-researched public's demands versus what the scientists think would be the right thing to do. The polar bear also demonstrates a central issue-our emotional reactions to the plight of animals. His second was the unknown and more endangered Lange's metalmark butterfly whose survival depends on the constant maintenance of its last known habitat which has been so studied that the studies themselves endangered what they were studying. This is a great demonstration of the issues of what is "natural" and "saving" as well as a great historical lesson on the well-meaning actions of the past which time has shown to be so harmful. Finally, the book goes onto the discussion of Whooping Cranes. This is also an often not-funny but also funny journey into the people teaching the cranes to migrate. The disconnect between what the people want (the cranes to be like the historical cranes) and what the cranes actually do is an excellent depiction of when reality clashes with romanticism and how we really can't control what the animals we "conserve" do. It is also heart warming in that these people really give up a lot in order to do something with so little overt reward-shepherding for 6 months or so, a flock of willful giant birds while simultaneously doing everything they can to minimize the cranes' identification of them as human.
Mooallem really won my heart as he never gives into moralizing nor does he romanticize the "wild" but rather presents these stories as three case studies of what it means to be in a broken world and what we can do, what we try to do, and the indignities people endure in order to attempt to make it a little less broken. I'm left not with a sense of animal conservationist groups are unilaterally amazing nor with a sense of critiquing the efforts of various groups but rather with a deeper understanding of the immensity of the problem and a deeper appreciation for what people are out there attempting to do. I'm simultaneously a little more depressed and a little more hopeful and also still fascinated.
Oh, by the way, if you doubt this book's relevance or interest for non-USians, this book was literally handed to me by a British lady and a German man who had bought each other a copy as presents for Christmas.