Book Week: Jon Mooallem’s ‘Wild Ones’

July 1, 2013

Detail from cover of "Wild Ones."

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. By Jon Mooallem. Penguin Press HC, 2013. 368 pages.

Reviewed by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist, The Nature Conservancy

If you have children, I am sure you have witnessed their fascination with stuffed animals, nature videos, pajamas adorned with squirrels, plastic dinosaurs, and other representations of wild things.

But what is the connection between that Christmas stuffed polar bear and the real thing — which is in dire straits due to climate change?

Jon Mooallem was struck by the way his daughter saw nature and decided to probe more generally the relationship between Americans and iconic endangered species in particular. Most conservation biologists are well aware that many of our endangered species are totally reliant on management and help from humans into perpetuity if they are to survive, and that the state in which they currently exist has no resemblance to what once was.

Mooallem’s book is about the stories we each create about the species we most love, and the way we can straddle despair and hope as we work to secure a future for a species whose habitat is dwindling.

Wild Ones can be a disturbing book because it questions our greatest success stories. Our national bird, the bald eagle, has recovered from only 417 nesting pairs in 1973 to roughly 10,000 nesting pairs. But should this be cause for celebration when we realize there were likely 50,000 in the late 1700s and probably many more when Columbus arrived in 1492?

Should we be bothered that extreme measures are required to keep many species from disappearing forever? Or should we be inspired that people are willing to do so much to keep the whooping crane or the California condor around?

The best part of the book is its examination of the relationship between children and animals. Mooallen does not romanticize this relationship:

“We like to imagine our children as miniature noble savages, moving peacefully and naked among the beasts — ‘the naturals’ as the first colonists called the Indians. But they’re more like the colonists: greedy, vindictive, wary, shortsighted, and firing panicky musket shots at any rustling in the woods.”

Lastly, this book is worth buying if for no other reason to learn where teddy bears come from — a marketing triumph barely rooted in a “true story” about Teddy Roosevelt.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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