This book asks uncomfortable, troubling questions. It made me wonder, when is it worth saving a species from the gaping maw of extinction? What is the actual goal? Is the goal just to have the species exist so that we don’t have to add another name to the long roll call of human-caused exile? Is the goal to prop them up long enough for us to figure out a way to make the populations self-sustaining again? Is the goal to restore them to a level where they can function as a key player in the ecosystem? It also strikes me that this is a very anthropocentric view, where we decide what species is important and what is not, often based on completely random (to say nothing of incomplete) criteria. Taking a species by species view seems futile in a large sense. We attempt to fix one piece in isolation of an entire structure. But people rally behind an icon, not an ecosystem.
There are monumental, cumulative forces that drive extinction. It takes heroic, relentless, painstaking acts to prevent a species slipping over into the abyss. At one point, in the 1950s, there were only twenty-one whooping cranes on Earth (Mooallem, 200). “The situation looked hopeless. The New York Times blamed the species’ looming extinction on its own ‘lack of cooperation.’ ” (Ibid) At that point, humans seemed to have little nostalgia for rare species. I am always puzzled by the fact that we idolize rare species, while resenting species that thrive in the environments we have created. It is only when a situation is bleak that we seem to get interested. Canadian geese, deer, pigeons–I find it remarkable that they have become ubiquitous (at least where I live). As Mooallem says, “It’s a thin and erratic line we draw between the wilderness that awes us and the wilderness that annoys us” (258).
Operation Migration, among others, have done extraordinary work in trying to re-establish whooping crane populations. Mooallem details their dedication and the madness to their (relative, precarious, hard-earned) success. Humans teaching birds to fly without making them tame is a remarkable feat, to state the obvious. I support the effort, because I’m a bleeding heart who thinks every individual animal values its own life as much as I value mine, and because I hate that we are tossing aside biodiversity like a cartoon character frantically pawing through a pile of garbage to find one thing worth saving. And I know we lose something irreplaceable every time we lose a species.
I’ll end with this jewel from Mooallem. (Again, read this book.)
“In the end, I can’t say I’m optimistic about the future of wildlife. The stories of the polar bear, the [Lange’s metalmark] butterfly, and the whooping crane, had, at times, even lowered my confidence in our ability to see the problem clearly. There’s a fluidity to nature that’s not easy to recognize or accept, and climate change will only accelerate and distort such changes. There’s also a fluidity to how we feel about nature–the way our baselines subjectively reset and will keep resetting far into the future, while, in the background, the empirical damage piles up.
These are destabilizing thoughts. I still don’t know what to do with them. But neither does anyone else, it seems, and so their weight has a way of compressing conservation down into a nearsighted exercise–one that can be pursued only by focusing on the little picture of the present and by blocking out the yawning uncertainty that the moment is adrift in.” (292)
From this video: “But we had to try.”
About the flock in Texas