How the Polar Bear Lost Its Power, and Other Animal Tales

"I don't know whether you saw the YouTube video that Obama put out to accompany his big climate speech in June, but I was surprised: there wasn't a single polar bear image in it."

"Gradually, America's management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art," reflects Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

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Detail from the cover of Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones

This is a surprisingly generous statement, considering that Mooallem has spent the last few years researching a harrowing litany of accidental extinctions and unintended consequences--including a surreal day spent chasing ex-convict Martha Stewart as she and her film crew pursued polar bears across the Arctic tundra--in order to untangle the complicated legal and emotional forces that shape America's relationship with wildlife.

Despite the humor, the stakes are high: half the world's nine million species are expected to be extinct by the end of this century, and, as Mooallem explains, many of those that do survive will only hang on as a result of humans' own increasingly bizarre interventions, blurring the line between conservation and domestication to the point of meaninglessness.

On a foggy morning in San Francisco, Venue met Mooallem for coffee and a conversation that ranged from tortoise kidnappings to polar bear politics. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

• • •
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The polar bear tourism industry in Churchill, Manitoba, relies on a dozen specially built vehicles called Tundra Buggies that take tourists and their cameras out to see the world's southernmost bear population. (Polar Bears International)

Geoff Manaugh: In the book, you've chosen to focus on two very charismatic, photogenic, and popular animals: the whooping crane and the polar bear.

Jon Mooallem: They're the celebrities of the wildlife world.

Manaugh: Exactly. But there's a third example, in the middle section of the book, which is a butterfly. It's not only a very obscure species in its own right, but it's also found only in a very obscure Bay Area preserve that most people, even in Northern California, have never heard of. What was it about the story of that butterfly, in particular, that made you want to tell it?

Mooallem: I thought it would be really interesting to go from the polar bear, which is the mega-celebrity of the animal kingdom, to its complete opposite--to something no one really cared about--and to see what was at stake in a story where the general public doesn't really care about the animal in question at all. It turned out that there was a hell of a lot at stake for the people working on that butterfly.

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Lange's Metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei). Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

It's called the Lange's Metalmark butterfly, and it's about the size of a quarter. As you said, it only lives in this one place called Antioch Dunes, which is about sixty-seven acres in total. It is surrounded by a waste-transfer station, a sewage treatment plant, and a biker bar, and there's a gypsum factory right in the middle that makes wallboard. You can't even walk across the preserve, actually, because of this giant industrial facility in the middle of it.

In fact, the outbuilding where Jaycee Dugard, the kidnapping victim, was held is just round the corner.

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Counting butterflies at Antioch Dunes (Jon Mooallem)

It's a forgotten place. It's not the sort of place you'd expect to spend a lot of time in if you're writing a book about wildlife in America.

On top of all that, not only is the butterfly the animal in the book that people won't have heard of, or that they won't know much about, but it's also the one that I didn't know very much about, going in. Looking back on it, it was somewhat audacious to say in my book proposal that a third of the book was going to be the story of this butterfly, because I really knew almost nothing about it! But it ended up being by far the most fascinating story, for me. That's at least partly because I had the sense that I was looking at things that no one had ever looked at and talking to people who no one had ever talked to before.

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Jana Johnson leads a captive breeding project for the Lange's Metalmark from inside America's Teaching Zoo, where students in Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training and Management degree program learn their trade. (top: Jason Redmond, Ventura County Star; bottom: Louis Terrazzas, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

It also seemed as though, when you're working in an environment like that on a species that doesn't get a lot of support or interest, you're confronting a lot of the fundamental questions of environmentalism in a much more dramatic way. You have to work harder to sort through them, because it's difficult to make simple assumptions about what you're doing--that what you're doing is worthwhile and good--when you don't have anyone telling you that, and when it looks as hopeless as it looks with the Lange's Metalmark.

Maybe hopeless is too strong a word--but you can't transpose romantic ideas about wilderness and animals onto the situation, because it's just so glaringly unromantic. You can't stand in Antioch Dunes and take a deep breath of fresh air and feel like you're in some primordial wilderness. You don't have that luxury.

The other thing that was interesting about the butterfly story was the fact that it was happening on such a small scale. The butterfly's always just lived in this one spot--it's the only place it lives on earth--so you could look at what happened to this small patch of land over a hundred years and meet all the people who came in & out of the butterfly's story. It was quite self-contained. It was almost like a stage for a play to happen on.

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Butterflies on display in cases at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Venue)

Manaugh: Harry Lange, for whom the butterfly is named, has a great line that seems to sum up so much of the sadness and stupidity in the human relationship with wild animals. He said, after exterminating the very last of the Xerces Blue butterfly: "I always thought there would be more..."

Presented by

Geoff Manaugh & Nicola Twilley

Geoff Manaugh writes at BLDGBLOG. Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography. In 2012-13, they are traveling to sites around the United States with their portable-media project, Venue.

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