Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem, The Penguin Press (www.us.penguingroup.com), 2013, 339 pages, $ 27.95.
Unless you are a naturalist or a damn good liar, you would be hard pressed to argue that the receding sands of the 67-acre Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge are the crown jewel of the United States’ wildlife refuge system. Flat, barren, weedy, abandoned, the land could be dismissed as wholly unremarkable were it not for an assemblage of rare and endangered plants and insects that call the dunes their home. Having written about the Antioch Dunes for Bay Nature magazine in 2005 (Taking Refuge: The Endemic Nature of the Antioch Dunes), it is one of those rare species – the Lange’s metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei) – whose story plays out between the covers of Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones, that first drew me to pick up this purportedly “sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about looking at people looking at animals in America.”
Through the stories of the Lange’s metalmark butterfly and two text-book species closer to the public’s eye, the polar bear and the whooping crane, Mooallem catches us up with three wild creatures that aren’t so wild today. First there’s the polar bear, the largest living predator on land, who capers and cavorts for tourists’ Kodak moments in exchange for dumpster dives and dog chow. Then there’s the butterfly, whose dwindling population at the Antioch Dunes is beleaguered by invasive weeds and wildfire, and may be hanging on by a gossamer thread only through the aide of a program rearing captive butterflies in southern California. And last there’s the whooping crane, birds that literally require baby gloves – hand puppets – to rear their young in captivity and to imprint their migratory flightpaths with ultralight aircraft.
Mooallem’s strength – and arguably the understated crux of Wild Ones – is peeling back the onion to expose the human interest story behind each of these species. As the stories play out, Mooallem deftly illustrates how the future of a bear, a butterfly, and a bird is wrapped up in the fallibilities, foibles, and follies of the conservationists at their sides. In some cases, the species even appear to take a back seat to egos and wounded pride, raising the question: who needs their hands held more, the wildlife, or their conservationists?
Given the subject matter at hand – three species that have in many ways become adapted, if not arguably tamed or even indentured to urbanized habitats and the conservationists that care for them– I found myself at a loss reconciling the book’s cover title and subtitle with the pages sandwiched in between. For starters, I’m led to question the appropriateness of the phrase, Wild Ones. In Mooallem’s investigative forays into the world of conservation, there’s little wild about a bear that endures humans toting cameras, butterflies reared in captivity, or birds taught to feed and fly with hand puppets and planes. Try as I might, I couldn’t dismiss it as tongue-in-cheek. Then there was the preambly subtitle to further set the mood. Let’s be honest; has there ever been a wildlife story that isn’t in some way dismaying? (Bambi’s mother is shot by hunters. Travis shoots Old Yeller. And the grisly fate of the fin whale in Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing… <ugh>.) Moreover, rarely did I find any of the three stories reassuring (not even “weirdly” – happy endings here were about as common as the species are rare), nor were they really about “looking at people looking at animals in America” as much as they were more about “looking at the people protecting the animals in America,” to be precise.
Misleading title aside, Mooallem’s journey is as insightful as it is provocative, leaving one to wonder resignedly if the fate of certain species is inexplicably intertwined (read: doomed) by those charged to protect them. As Mooallem points out, perhaps the only wild ones today are those that frolic in the wistful woods of our nostalgia. Mooallem raises some important questions. Are conservationists and the public ready to reconcile our fantasy of wilderness with the reality of wild-ish? Are we ready to settle for butterflies reared in deli containers, or whooping cranes that stopover in backyards alongside juncos and titmice to gorge themselves on birdseed? Like it or not, this subsidized wildlife experience may be the only legacy we have left to leave our children.