What on Earth Do We Think We’re Doing? Adventures in Saving the Critters

Last week I wrote about the abject failure of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to enact the Endangered Species Act. A Damning, (and should be) Show-Stopping Report. But maybe this failure—because other jurisdictions may be experiencing the same difficulty, even if they might be doing a better job of it—points to a larger failure. Instead of saving critters we could be just managing extinction.

A wonderful book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem looks at whether or not our conservation efforts are simply a way of atoning for messing up the planet.

Caring for the planet may not be the same thing as doing it any good.

Mooallem is wryly funny, authoritative, forgiving, undogmatic; and seriously thoughtful about our pathetic absurdities, exposing the fine line we cross between making fools of ourselves and being heroes.

Don River

“We train condors not to perch on power lines. We slip plague vaccine to ferrets. We shoot barred owls to make room in the forest for spotted owls. We monitor pygmy rabbits with infrared cameras and military drones. We carry migrating salamanders across busy roads in our palms.”

We have our favourite charismatic alpha faunas, like polar bears. We’re tranquillizing them, and then delivering them by helicopter, swinging in a net from a cable to some place far away from Churchill, Manitoba, (self-proclaimed capital of the polar bear world.)

“Making polar bears dependent on us for their very survival in such a hands-on way can feel like just as much a defeat as letting them die out. It would mean conceding that their ecosystem is irreparably broken, and that we have to be responsible for them in perpetuity.

“In Florida, manatees were huddling around coastal power plants, warming themselves in the outflowing plumes of hot water, and volunteers were kayaking into the Gulf of Mexico to ladle out seas turtles that were floating belly-up, stunned by the cold, then rushing them to triage centers and bundling them into blankets.”

Whooping cranes are being trained to follow ultralights along a migratory path from Wisconsin to Florida. At great expense and effort a few hardy volunteers head upwards in their flying machines, a Cessna acting as a spotter followed by a large entourage of motor homes. It takes weeks and weeks to do this and close to perfect weather conditions.

“Wild cranes can fly the entire migration in as little as a week, swirling up to eight or ten thousand feet on columns of rising, warm air and coasting for miles, the ultralights can’t keep up with birds at such altitudes and must stay closer to the ground, forcing the birds to flap the whole way.”

We’re  teaching birds how to fly, badly.

Once the whoopers get to Florida, they go shopping, to the dismay of their handlers. “In a world of Costco regional distribution centers and Krispy Kreme drive-thrus, we are asking them to block it all out, to see the Wal-mart retention pond as a slum instead of a providential new form of habitat in a changing world, and to see the corn piling up outside an ethanol plant not as food but as a ‘waste product.’”


Our herculean efforts to save particular species are supposed to be saving the hangers-on, the also-rans, the ecosystem that supports them, but in many cases the habitat is just gone. So simply leaving it alone won’t cut it either.

We would have to look back 12,000 years to the Pleistocene era, before humans slaughtered the big mammals with a Clovis point on their spears to find all the keystone alpha species resting comfortably atop of the food chain. Since then we have been trying a “Pleistocene rewind.” Since then we have been at the mercy of “environmental generational amnesia,” our tendency to calibrate our standards of what’s environmentally acceptable to how we saw things in our childhood. But if you measure declining environmental health from only one generation to the next, it doesn’t look as bad as it really is.

“There are calls to stop blanket vilification of invasive plants, to accept that weeds are not going away, and to realize that they can be parts of equally bio-diverse ‘blended’ ecosystems rather than only blights on the ‘native’ ecosystems we feel such nostalgia for.”

Mooallem seems to be aiming for getting our outrage right and then sitting back and accepting the inevitable, that we’re not getting anywhere.

But how can we not think that by carefully capturing a wasp with a glass and a dry cleaner’s cardboard and then releasing it outside, that we’re both, wasp and human, better for it?  Yes, we seriously messed up the planet but we sincerely want to atone for this. Anyway, what the alternative?

Wild Ones is a great storybook apart from being an exploration of our deepest humanity.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem, Penguin Books, New York.

To see a polar bear be transported by helicopter, watch:


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