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Wild Man: An Interview with Jon Mooallem

The author of "Wild Ones," a book about the wacky world of conservation, talks prosthetic flippers and spirit animals.

Mother Jones: Your new book, Wild Ones, explores our contradictory relationships with wildlife and the herculean efforts people put into saving creatures that might not even be savable. What inspired you to write it?

Jon Mooallem: I was doing some reporting about conservation, and I couldn't believe how intricate it all was and to what degree everything had escalated. Everywhere I looked there were these bizarre stories of feats that had to be accomplished on behalf of animals. It was right around that time that my daughter Isla was born and it really just hit home that the way we talk about it with kids—the happy little animals in the woods—how different that was from men in white suits flying planes to teach cranes to fly. It's just this mad scramble to save stuff, and you don't always know if you're heading in the right direction, but there's something dignified in just being in the scramble.

"The way we talk about it with kids—the happy little animals in the woods—how different that was from men in white suits flying planes to teach cranes to fly."

MJ:  Were you into any particular animal when you were younger?

JM: I've always liked raccoons. They're not the most glamorous ones. I don't think I have a spirit animal, if that's what you're asking. I should get one, though.

MJ: You write a bunch about shifting conservation baselines, this notion that whatever we happen to be doing now becomes the new normal.

JM: I was talking to a biologist and he was saying you could keep polar bears in San Diego if you really wanted to, if you had the right mobile air conditioning units. Helping a sea turtle dig a nest; maybe that will be the most completely normal thing in the world in 15 years. He started talking about William Temple Hornaday, this taxidermist. When he was writing in the early 1900s, he pretty much assumed there'd be no more deer in the northeast. Which is preposterous to us—I mean, I grew up in New Jersey and there are deer all over the place. That just really stuck with me, thinking about how this same kind of panic that a lot of us feel about endangered species now, it's always been felt, and it hasn't always been right.

MJ: How do we prioritize, with so many species in danger?

JM: It's relatively recently that we've gone from feeling like we should annihilate anything that's in our way to feeling like we might work incredibly hard to not annihilate it. That's a huge pivot. There's a lot of confusion about climate change, about what that means for things. And there are some really interesting conversations going on about just lifting up species and moving them somewhere else. It seems if we know anything, it's that there are a lot of unintended consequences. But there's something really noble and beautiful about working so hard to do something where you don't have all the answers.

MJ: In the book, you visit Churchill, Manitoba, where the local economy revolves around tourists traveling there to take pictures of polar bears. You even ran into Martha Stewart and her film crew.

JM: It did feel like two worlds were colliding. In Churchill, you've got a population basically living with polar bears that for the most part doesn't believe in climate change. Which is completely rattling; it was very idiosyncratic. They didn't believe in climate change because they didn't like the nonprofit that's operating in their town to inform people about climate change.

MJ: Any wild animal tales that didn't make the book?

JM: I'm finding new ones everyday. In Idaho, there were bears rubbing up against fiber optic cables and shorting out internet connections. I mention turtles that migrate across the runways at JFK—these little tiny turtles completely bringing flights to a halt. They gave a sea turtle a prosthetic flipper recently!

MJ: You talk a little about biophilia which is this idea that humans can connect or understand with animals just because of our biology. Do you think that humans need animals, or is it just that we have a need to understand what's around us?

"Animals do trigger something in us, and sometimes it's just this weird kind of glee."

JM: I don't know if I would go so far as to say we need animals in that sense, like in an emotional sense. But I would say that we as a species evolved in a world full of animals, so we're really tuned into them. Animals do trigger something in us, and sometimes it's just this weird kind of glee. Even infants a few days old, if you show them a pattern of flashing lights, they won't necessarily be interested. But if you actually put flashing flights around a moving chicken, and they're watching the lights that represent a chicken's movement, they would be more attentive to that.

MJ: You also write about how we anthropomorphize wild animals. Did you worry that you might be playing into that?

JM: I'm not very sentimental about them. I'm much more interested in the people. The animals just kind of set these interesting human dramas in motion. The weird truth is, I didn't interact with too many animals. The cranes were kept away from me. I got to spend some time with the butterflies. They were in little Styrofoam containers for the most part. We didn't really bond.

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