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Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America


Edited by Ann Godoff

Field notes from an age of extinction, tracking the ever-shifting meaning of America’s animals throughout history to understand the current moment.

Journalist Jon Mooallem has watched his little daughter’s world overflow with animals—butterfly pajamas, appliquéd owls—while the actual world she’s inheriting slides into a great storm of extinction. Half of all species could disappear by the end of the century, and scientists now concede that most of America’s endangered animals will survive only if conservationists keep rigging the world around them in their favor. So Mooallem ventures into the field, often taking his daughter with him, to move beyond childlike fascination and make those creatures feel more real.

Wild Ones is a tour through our environmental moment and the eccentric cultural history of people and wild animals in America that inflects it—from Thomas Jefferson’s celebrations of early abundance to the turn-of-the-last-century origins of the teddy bear to the whale-loving hippies of the 1970s. In America, Wild Ones discovers, wildlife has always inhabited the terrain of our imagination as much as the actual land. The journey is framed by the stories of three modern-day endangered species: the polar bear, victimized by climate change and ogled by tourists outside a remote, northern town; the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly, foundering on a shred of industrialized land near San Francisco; and the whooping crane as it’s led on a months-long migration by costumed men in ultralight airplanes.

The wilderness that Wild Ones navigates is a scrappy, disorderly place where amateur conservationists do grueling, sometimes preposterous looking work; where a marketer maneuvers to control the polar bear’s image; and Martha Stewart turns up to film those beasts for her show on the Hallmark Channel. Our most comforting ideas about nature unravel. In their place, Mooallem forges a new and affirming vision of the human animal and the wild ones as kindred creatures on an imperfect planet.

With propulsive curiosity and searing wit, and without the easy moralizing and nature worship of environmental journalism’s older guard, Wild Ones merges reportage, science, and history into a humane and endearing meditation on what it means to live in, and bring a life into, a broken world.

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Praise

“[An] ambitious and fascinating first book… [Mooallem] seamlessly blends reportage from the front lines of wildlife conservation with a lively cultural history of animals in America, telling stories of people past and present whose concern for animals makes them act in ways that are sometimes unexpected, sometimes heroic, and occasionally absurd.” The New York Times Book Review

“A thoughtful parable of Americans’ complicated relations with conservationists and the wildlife they protect.” The New Yorker

“Hundreds of books, maybe thousands, have been written about American wildlife, usually celebrating the grandeur of large mammals and lamenting their demise while often ignoring similar works that have come before. Thankfully, Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones is not one of those books.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Wild Ones heightens one’s awareness of the precipitous position of so many of our animal species, but it’s also filled with curiosity and hope. The men and women that Mooallem tails are dreamers, but you wind up rooting for them to keep on dreaming.” Smithsonian Magazine

“There is, in short, ridiculously lots to love about Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones—starting with its thoughtful and troubling observation that our increasingly extravagant effort at species conservation is a corollary to, as much as a solution for, our habit of rendering wild animals extinct.” New York Magazine

“Mooallem argues conservation is and always has been about fulfilling people’s need for nostalgic wildness, however contrived and fictitious it may be. Every generation strives to return the Earth to some idealized former state. Although his journey is sobering, Mooallem’s conclusion is upbeat: Even small conservation victories matter.” Discover

“If I could write this review entirely in smiley faces and majestic animal emojis, I would: Wild Ones is easily one of the best books I’ve come across this year. It’s more readable than most novels, stuffed with more fascinating, offbeat trivia than the last three issues of The New Yorker combined….It’s incredibly well-researched, relevant, challenging stuff.” Portland Mercury

“Mooallem manages to pinpoint something peculiar yet poignant about being human, and as a result, reading his pieces often feels like being tricked by an approachable wink masking a sharp jab to the gut… Be prepared to be surprise-gutted.” East Bay Express

“A clear-eyed look at our coy relationship with endangered animals.” Nature

“‘If we choose to help [polar bears] survive,’ Mooallem writes, ‘it will require a kind of narrow, hands-on management—like getting out there and feeding them.’ Among a lot of environmentalists, those are fighting words. All respect to Mooallem for having the guts to say them.” Outside Magazine

“[A] stupefying account of our historic inability to stop meddling with everything under the sun… It is written with a vernacularly light touch, shot through with compassion and wit, not to mention open amazement, the only apt response to the story of our monumental hubris… Busy though we may be in ecology’s intersection, look out. Some big trucks approach. They appear to have no brakes.” —Daily Beast

“Mooallem grapples with the complex realities of conservation by looking at polar bears in Manitoba, butterflies near San Francisco, and the supervised migration of whooping cranes between Wisconsin and Florida…This is a wise approach to a troubling subject, and Mooallem’s words do give us something to hold on to as we continue to struggle with what it means to save the planet.” Booklist

“An engaging nature/environment book that goes beyond simple-minded sloganeering.” Kirkus Reviews

“It is impossible to express, within the tiny game-park confines of a back cover, how amazing I find this book. I love it line by perfect, carefully crafted line, and I love it for the freshness and intelligent humanity of its ideas. As literary nonfiction, as essay, as reportage, Wild Ones is, to my mind, about as good as writing gets.” —Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Gulp

“I love Jon Mooallem and I love animals, but this book is even better than the sum of its parts. Mooallem makes a persuasive case that wild animals are America’s cultural heritage—our Sistine Chapel and our Great Books—and the story he tells is an archetypal American one. Even as the animals are being destroyed by unthinking, unconscious corporate forces, they are also being rescued through the tremendous energy and ingenuity of individuals, men and women who wear whooping-crane costumes, cohabitate with dolphins, and encourage condors to ejaculate on their heads. Wild Ones made me proud to be American.” —Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed

“Part harrowing arctic adventure, part crazy airborne travelogue, and often funny family trek, Wild Ones shows us that while saving species might be of debatable value to some, it is maybe in our genes, and definitely in our hearts. Mooallem’s analysis of our various environmental movements has the breadth and penetrating clarity of Michael Pollan, but more importantly he makes us wonder even more about a world that is in desperate need of more wonder.” —Robert Sullivan, author of Rats and My American Revolution

“During the course of his three expeditions, Jon Mooallem collects in the specimen jars of his elegant paragraphs enough ironies, curiosities, insights, and revelations—enough life, wild and otherwise—to stock a mind-altering museum, one unlike any other, in which Martha Stewart has wandered into the polar bear exhibit, and the Hall of North American Animals turns out also to be a hall of mirrors. With Mooallem as your nature guide, you won’t look at wild animals—or at Homo americanus—quite the same way again.” —Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck 

Author Q&A

Excerpt

One afternoon in August, a Fish and Wildlife Service employee named Louis Terrazas was showing a group of volunteers a blown-up aerial photo of the Antioch Dunes giving us a lay of the land. We’d assembled on the refuge’s eastern half, downwind of the drywall factory and across the street from the sewage treatment plant, to count butterflies. Louis brought cookies and sunscreen for everyone. As we helped ourselves, he leaned the photo against the torso of Steve, a squat, slightly thuggish guy in camouflage shorts, using him like an easel. When I’d asked Steve what brought him out to count butterflies, he told me: “I’m here because I was a bad, bad boy.” It was a long story, which I couldn’t really follow, having to do with Steve’s tendency to run stop signs while doing a paper route at three in the morning. The upshot was that a judge finally got tired of slapping Steve on the wrist and sentenced him to some whopping number of community service hours. Steve was handed a list of possible jobs. Louis was the only guy on the list who called him back.

We were here to count a specific kind of butterfly: the Lange’s metalmark, a little-known but very critically endangered species that lives only at Antioch Dunes. The butterfly was flirting with extinction, Louis explained. Peak count the previous summer was only forty-six. “So I wouldn’t see them in my backyard?” asked an older woman in a faded baseball cap. She’d adjusted her voice midsentence so that, by the end, she was clearly answering, more than asking, a question.

There were sixteen of us volunteers. With the exception of Steve, we were all here because we wanted to be—for the butterfly’s benefit, or our own benefit, or some inscrutable intertwinement of the two. Butterflies occupy a special place in our imaginative wildernesses, transcending their status as bugs. They don’t sting, bite, buzz in your ear, or scamper across your kitchen floor. If you woke up to find one had alighted on your nose you’d lie perfectly still, puzzling out whatever beneficent message the cosmos must be communicating to you. You wouldn’t do this if you woke up with a banana slug on your nose, or a cockroach. We see butterflies as delicate, uncorrupted—which is probably why we paint them on our little daughters’ cheeks at birthday parties. We had to invent unicorns and fairies to keep little girls company. But we let the butterflies in too, just as nature made them.

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