In October 1985, a forty-foot-long whale dubbed Humphrey the Humpback (later determined to be female), entered San Francisco Bay “with great purposefulness, as if it knew where it was going and was running late.” Various attempts to turn Humphrey around failed, and the whale eventually ended up in a shallow canal miles inland where her demise seemed imminent. When she was eventually lured back to sea by whale recordings broadcast from a fishing boat it seemed like a victory the public, which had quickly rallied around Humphrey’s cause, could feel unequivocally good about.
Yet saving this single celebrity animal would have the unintended consequence of jeopardizing an entire species. In their fervour to witness Humphrey’s rescue, five thousand supporters had trampled a local wildlife refuge, dealing a major blow to the critically endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly whose sole remaining habitat it was.
Paradoxes like this one, writer Jon Mooallem suggests in this thoughtful, searching book, have turned animal conservation “into a surreal kind of performance art.” The latter certainly seems an apt description of Ontario-based Operation Migration’s ultralight pilots who, for over a decade, have been teaching the once near-extinct whooping crane how to migrate while dressed in crane costumes.
The pervasiveness of animal images on children’s toys, storybooks and clothing—to say nothing of corporate and sports logos—does little to suggest that we’re living, as Mooallem puts it, “in the eye of a great storm of extinction.” Though it may be telling that a typical British eight year old can identify 120 Pokémon species but only 50 native plants and animals.
The very notion of extinction wasn’t accepted until the early 19th century. When it was, strategies for dealing with it were mixed. In the 1880s, a prominent taxidermist named William Hornaday learned, to his horror, that fewer than 300 buffalo remained on the Great Plains. Determined to “preserve” the beasts for posterity, he did what seemed obvious and went out West to kill several dozen more. Twenty years later Hornaday would reverse his approach when he joined an effort to resuscitate the buffalo by breeding them in captivity then shipping them out to Montana on the same trains from which they had once been shot almost to annihilation.
With half the world’s nine million species predicted to go extinct by the end of the century, many have been come conservation-reliant, meaning that we, like bouncers at a nightclub, choose who slips past the velvet rope and who doesn’t. Emotion and personal agendas have often played a key role in our priorities. Though insects comprise half of the earth’s species, for instance, they tend to face obstacles empathy-wise.
A case in point is the polar bear. Historically perceived as a ruthless man-eater, the polar bear has become one of today’s most visible mammalian cause célèbres. Though Churchill, Manitoba’s famous bears will almost certainly be the first of the species’ remaining populations to be wiped out by climate change, the region has nevertheless become ground zero for the fight to “save” them (meaning: save some of them). Playing into the mix is the fact that polar bear tourism has been Churchill’s main industry since the 1950s.
Our attitudes to animals can also be fickle, contradictory. Once lamented for its presumed extinction, the Canada Goose is now cursed for its ubiquity (unless it takes the form of a $600 coat, that is).
Our capriciousness stems partly from an abiding uncertainty about our species’ role in the natural world: are we custodians, bystanders or engineers? Full of well-curated, satisfyingly weird detail, Wild Ones is a gem of a book that opens the doors for some timely collective soul-searching. It is published (a-hem) by Penguin.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor