"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.