Q&A: "Wild Ones" Author Jon Mooallem
Every good story needs hope.
That’s what an editor once told me when I asked how to broach a somber and potentially depressing article I was working on. "Find the hope."
Dark green stories — inside baseball for environmental pieces that are serious, are scary, and can make you feel sad — sometimes only offer readers a sort of conscious-tithing solace in having taken the effort to read them. Infusing a little hope can make hard truths go down easier.
Journalist Jon Mooallem, 34, doesn’t manufacture a bright side; his lovely, lucid prose reveals that perhaps grasping for a silver lining is intrinsic to being human. Mooallem’s debut book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, came out this May. It's the latest and longest in Mooallem’s oeuvre of wildlife reportage that’s revelatory about the human condition. See “Who Would Kill a Monk Seal?” in the New York Times Magazine and “The Last Buffalo Hunt” in Slate for a sense.
Wild Ones could have been very dark green. Mooallem investigates the plights of the polar bear, the Lange’s metalmark butterfly, and the whooping crane — all endangered — as well as the humans working to save them. Many anecdotes are heartbreaking. A pilot with the whooping crane conservation group Operation Migration admits he has wished he didn’t have his daughter, disillusionment with the world's trajectory weighing on him.
Mooallem’s daughter Isla, around age 2 as he worked on the book, actually inspired her dad's interest in the state of the animals printed all over her pajamas. She often accompanied Mooallem during his reporting, swaddled or strapped to him on buggy rides to spot polar bears in Alaska or hikes to net butterflies in a sand dune. Her presence sweetens and saddens a bleak portrait of our scrambling to preserve what's left of nature.
“I don’t have a totally sunny outlook on these things,” Mooallem told me during a recent interview. “As a parent, I worry about what the world’s gonna be like. That’s why I started this book. I actually thought it would be really kinda cool and important. I’d like my daughter to see some of these species that may not be around.”
Mooallem witnesses a tranquilized polar bear get towed from a holding cell (formally the “polar bear holding compound,” unofficially the “polar bear jail”), hoisted into a net that’s attached to a helicopter, then airlifted and deposited outside town — protocol for handling bears that wander into Churchill, Alaska. A visiting TV crew and executives from an international conservation organization are allowed to follow the bear to its second location. A few of them pose for pictures with the unconscious bear’s head in their laps. The image feels viscerally wrong.
It’s also absurd.
Operation Migration staff stay mute and wear giant bird costumes while interacting with the whooping cranes, even as they pilot the ultralight planes that guide the cranes along their migration route. The whole conservation effort involves breeding the birds in captivity and teaching them to fly along a route from Wisconsin to Florida, a journey that can take, in fits and starts, three months.
As for the butterflies, found almost exclusively in a wildlife refuge outside of San Francisco, preservation mostly means combatting the nonnative plants that are overtaking their natural habitat, hunting and yanking them out of the ground and spraying herbicides. Some of the herbicides, Mooallem learned, are killing the butterfly larvae.
Given just the facts, the hope seems far-fetched. Mooallem, though, taps into a tragicomic marveling at the tenacity of human animals. You can read hope in all of these humans’ quests to make the world a better place, or perhaps Mooallem just shines a light on the dogged pursuit of it.
We sat down recently to sort this whole human thing out.
Q. Is it a newer idea to anthropomorphize or generate empathy for animals?
A. I don’t know if it’s a new idea. I think it’s definitely much more pronounced now, and the polar bear was a big part of that. I mean, here was an animal just undeniably adorable. At the same time, the thing that’s driving it extinct is probably the most abstract problem, environmental problem, that we have — and the hardest to get your head around. So when you can link a very abstract and horrible problem to a very immediate, cuddly, relatable thing, I think a lot of environmentalists sort of saw that as gold. That was a way to finally give the emotional response that’s missing when you think about climate change in the abstract. There are problems with that, too. It’s not a foolproof strategy, because you can get so wrapped up in the animal or in the symbol that you lose sight of the problem. I think that's what you’re seeing now with a lot of these arguments about, “Well, how many polar bears were there in the 1970s? Are there really fewer now?” There are all these side debates that are eating up a lot of the media’s attention and a lot of people’s attention, which really doesn’t make sense in terms of climate change. They’re really just arguments about polar bears. We’re having all these fights about the symbol and have lost sight of the problem.
Q. Some of the ardent conservationists you encountered, like '70s save-the-whales activist Joan McIntyre, ostensibly gave up their work.
A. Well, it’s hard, right? I think this is the problem with any kind of idealistic work. It doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing; it just means that that ideal gets confronted against the sloppiness of everyday life. You see that all the time in the book, with people — even the animals themselves — have a way of complicating our plans for them.
Q. So where's the hope?
A. I think the hope for me is that there’s a kind of unsquashable spirit in a lot of people to tackle these problems. And they’re all coming at it from different ways. Some of them are being thwarted, and some of them are getting really depressed about it, and some of them are having their work backfire, or whatever it is, but nothing seems to be able to squash the spirit to try. I mean, it’d be great if every conservation effort just worked out and everyone was happy and it was extremely easy and we had it all mathematically streamlined so that we could go into any situation and say, “Here’s what we’d like to save. Here’s how you do it. Here are the steps." But that’s not gonna happen. So the second best thing, I would think, would be to have an innate human capacity to keep trying, no matter how hard it gets or how futile it might look. So that’s, for me, the most hopeful thing — to be in a world where that exists is pretty stirring.
Q. At the end of the book, you ask what seems to be the core of everything, really: "How, on Earth, should we human animals live?"
A. I think that’s the basic question … All this energy is being gathered around that very basic … [and] really noble question. It’s a question about morality and what are our places in nature and in the world and in relation to all these other animals. We don’t have to think about all that, but we chose to, and I think that’s kind of beautiful. Even if we don’t know what the answers are, the fact that we’re asking those kinds of questions — and not just asking them, but a lot of people really feel them in their hearts. This is one of the most important things to figure out on planet Earth. That’s kind of beautiful. I mean, it can be beautiful and it can still fail a lot of the time.
Q. You're writing about an innate altruism in human animals, it seems.
A. It’s altruistic, but it’s also just a kind of self-consciousness that wants to know, that realizes, “OK, our existence is threatening the existence of something else. Is that right? Well, what should we do about it?” Altruism is sort of the result of the impulse that I’m talking about. The impulse that I’m talking about is just to kind of realize and understand and want to find an answer. And if the answer is that we should do everything we can to save this turtle, then the answer is altruistic.
Q. You write about animals a lot, but as a reflection of ourselves. How did you start looking at animals in this way?
A. I think the first story I ever did about animals was about pigeon control —like the pest management industry. And when you talk about people and animals in relation to pigeons, you think about it in a completely different way as you do when you talk about it [in relation] to endangered species. The pigeons are just sort of out there, and they’re causing problems. And we’re trying to figure out how to get rid of the problem. Really, extinction’s sort of the same way. The animals are doing something we don’t want them to do — they’re dying. It presents this problem where we have to go back in and reengineer nature. Once I did that pigeon story, it set me up to think about people-animal relations in a different way than I think a lot of other people thinking about conservation do. I guess that was sort of the window in.
Q. You use other animals to show what weird animals we are.
A. We can do whatever we want, and the animals just reflect back something at us. We try to engineer the habitat, and there’s a consequence to those actions, and it’s not always what we think it’s going to be, and we will never really know exactly what’s going on out there. It’s sort of an interesting mirror in that way. It’s not like a conversation between two people, where you can get both sides. We only know what we think, and then what happens. There’s a lot of imaginative space to try to connect the two—you know, why did that happen?
Q. That touches on the environmental movement—and just being alive. You never know if you're doing the right thing.
A. That’s all we can do: try to throw solutions at the problem. But you have to wait for that response back from nature to find out how it’s going.
Q. Your Twitter feed is consumed with animals. I particularly liked your tweet, "Wearing a narwhal T-shirt, walked by a guy in a jellyfish T-shirt, thought we'd have a moment but nothing happened, not even eye contact."
A. They’re just taken for granted, I think. I started taking pictures of representations of animals, and they’re everywhere. They don’t make sense—like a mural of sea lions on the side of the building, with no explanation. For a while there was either a church or hair salon right at the foot of my neighborhood where they had a painting in the window of a polar bear and a glass of lemonade. I don’t know why. There was no text to say. It was just a pretty picture. There’s something subconscious happening where we’re sort of grasping to bring these animals back into our life, because they’re everywhere. Sports teams are named after animals. We nicknamed a player the "Panda"— the Giants' third baseman [Pablo Sandoval]. Wolves are airbrushed on the side of vans. It’s almost a kind of cliché. Pixar is chock full of animals. They’re everywhere. I’m not sure why, I can’t figure it out, but I’d just like to point it out. I’m trying to point it out and be like, whether you know it or not, you are curious about these things. There is some space in your brain that is reserved for acknowledging all these animals around us.
Mackenzie Mount is an editorial intern at Sierra. She's cleaned toilets at Yellowstone National Park and studied sustainable cooking at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.