"When the nation was founded, it didn't have a Sistine Chapel or any Great Books. It had coastlines gushing with oysters and crustaceans, forests crammed with deer and wolves and, out on the frontier, some thirty million buffalo rumbling over the plains as a single, shifting spectacle." So writes Jon Mooallem in the introduction to his book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (The Penguin Press).
While America may no longer teem with wildlife in quite the same way, Mooallem has dedicated much of his writingto documenting how humans interact with those species that remain. As a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and writer-at-large for San Francisco's beloved cult sensation Pop-Up Magazine, Mooallem has covered everything from a wild monkey in Tampa to "gay" birds in Hawaii and baby turtles suffering after the BP oil spill. And he hasn't ignored humans: Here he is on the history of the high five and the magic of long-lost wallets.
You get the sense from Wild Ones that the animal stories are Mooallem's passion, but that they aren't always easy to write, especially since, as he puts it, "The wild animals always have no comment."
We asked Mooallem a bit more about his book and the many species—humans among them—he met during the course of writing it.
You went all over North America in search of places where people are interacting—in some cases in very odd ways—with endangered animals. What was the most interesting place to you as a writer and as a tourist?
Jon Mooallem: I spent some time traveling with a non-profit called Operation Migration, which teaches endangered whooping cranes how to migrate by training them to fly behind ultralight airplanes. They travel with the birds from Wisconsin to Florida. It’s a big swath of America that we tend to dismiss as Flyover Country, and they’re flying directly through it, very slowly, stopping for the night every 25 or 50 miles.
For the safety of the birds, Operation Migration purposefully stops in small, rural communities, far off the Interstates, and it was surprisingly fun to hang around in these places for a while. Each town became more fascinating the longer I was there. Since the pilots often wind up grounded by weather at stopover points for days at a time, they have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the local attractions. In Necedah, Wisconsin, for example, I visited a strange and gorgeous shrine called "Queen of the Holy Rosary, Mediatrix of Peace," for a local woman who claimed the Virgin Mary visited her backyard in 1949. In Alabama, one of the pilots kept telling me about a nearby cemetery for raccoon-hunting dogs—about how moved he always gets by the tender inscriptions the hunters put on their dogs’ headstones. I never made it to that one, unfortunately.
For many of your research trips, you brought your young daughter with you. Sometimes she seemed really into it, like when you went polar bear spotting in Manitoba, and sometimes she seemed bored. (Butterfly counting in Northern California was clearly not her thing.) What did you learn about traveling with a kid?
Traveling with children can be terrible—I'm not going to pretend otherwise, and we had our moments. But I also found myself constantly underestimating my daughter: not just about how well she'd tolerate long flights or behave in certain situations, but also about what sorts of things would impress and engage her. Little kids have a knack for finding wonder in unpredictable places—for finding a bit of joy and grabbing it tight. That's the essence of a good travel companion, I'd say. So no, my daughter didn't care much for the tiny endangered butterflies but she had an awesome time on that trip flinging mud around with a stick.
How strange is that one species (humans) goes to such great lengths merely to observe other species? What does it say about us that we're willing to go literally to the ends of the earth—on safaris, whale- or bird-watching expeditions, or to places like the Galapagos Islands—just to glimpse some of these creatures?
I’m not sure it’s any stranger than traveling to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, or Venice to see the canals. Often, I think we travel not in search of the unfamiliar but to put ourselves in closer proximity to what’s already vaguely familiar—to experience, first hand, things we’ve only seen on television or in pictures.
There are signs that we’re starting to think of native wildlife as one more authentic element of a place. While I was working on the book, my family stayed at a pretty upscale resort on Sanibel Island, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and the binder in our hotel room had a page titled "Our True Residents." It was a list of all the wildlife species that lived on the property—herons, manatees, sea turtles, etc. These critters were presented as attractions and amenities, alongside info about the fitness center and spa.
There's a scene in your book in which you describe the feeling of being locked in a "kind of reverse zoo," a fortified school bus sitting deep in the tundra of Manitoba, as you waited for polar bears to emerge. Did you get the sense that the bears were just as curious about you as you and your fellow bear gawkers were about them?
Polar bears live in a landscape that’s essentially all-white, mostly flat, relatively silent and extends in all directions for hundreds of miles. So, yes, when this massive vehicle full of tourists comes rolling by on monster truck tires—and its inside smells like cocoa and human flesh and sandwiches (not to mention the onboard toilet)— the bears do seem eager to check it out. Polar bears are even known to rear up and paw the sides of the vehicles, sniffing at the open windows, trying to get a closer look. As one local put it to me, "those bears are bored stupid." Frankly, the tedium of polar bear existence must be excruciating. I’m really glad I’m not a polar bear.
Anyone who spends any time on the Internet knows that a lot of people are obsessed with animals, whether through cat slideshows or viral videos of raccoons walking on electrical lines. I was reminded of this in your chapter about the crane that "fell in love" with one of her zoologists, eventually landing him on The Tonight Show where he was the object of some fun for their overly close relationship. Does framing animals in a humorous way bring us closer to them, or are we somehow making them even more abstract?
I’m not sure whether it makes us more disconnected from animals, but it’s definitely a symptom of our disconnectedness. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s easier to laugh at a predator like the honey badger (note: audio NSFW) when you’ve never been cornered by one in the wild.
Think of it: many of us live our lives completely apart from actual animals, and that’s a relatively recent development in human history. I’d argue that the fervor for animals on the Internet is our strange way of coping with it. Here we are, modern and industrialized, eating rubbery, take-out panini in our fluorescently-lit cubicles—i.e. ripped completely out of our species’ ecological context, without any recognizable signs of nature around. Part of us must feel unsettled here—must crave the presence of other life. It’s why offices used to have fish tanks or potted plants. Now we watch YouTube videos of farting hippos.
Watch a trailer for Wild Ones here.