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.

One day in late February, I met up with journalist Jon Mooallem for a stroll up Bernal Hill, a gentle dome bordering the southern end of San Francisco that turns a brilliant lime at that time of year. I was eager to hear about Wild Ones, his new book, which comes out on May 16, but our small talk quickly turned to a coyote rumored to live on the hill. It would have had to weave its way through a sea of houses and busy streets to reach this blip of habitat. And while it had become quite a neighborhood character, “it wasn’t until really recently that I heard of someone seeing it,” Mooallem told me. “These stories about animals become local legends, almost like the underground noodle place with no sign that people talk about.”

Though Wild Ones has a picture of a polar bear on its cover, and features plenty of details about rare species, its central theme has more to do with the qualities we project onto animals than the creatures themselves.

Mooallem, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, grew interested in our perceptions of wild things just as his daughter, Isla, moved from infancy to toddlerhood and became immersed in a world of cartooned and stuffed puffins, rabbits, and wolves—even though, as he points out in this Times piece, she’d had little interaction with the animals themselves. In preparation for a family trip up to Manitoba to view polar bears in the town of Churchill, Mooallem shows Isla video clips of polar bears. But when the moment arises to see the real thing up close in the wild, the girl is fast asleep.

“The bottom line is that we now live in a country where it’s possible to become an internet celebrity and get booked on the Today show just by posting a YouTube video of an eagle, a fox, and a house cat sitting on your porch doing absolutely nothing,” Mooallem writes. Feeling like he was straddling the two animal worlds, the real and the mythological, he set out to reconcile them.

“Nature doesn’t know what outcome we want,” Mooallem says, “and it doesn’t care.”

In real life, the animals crawling all over the pages of his daughter’s picture books are faring quite poorly. Wild Ones centers on three of them: the iconic polar bears, driven south by warming temperatures and relentlessly pursued by camera-happy tourists; Lange’s metalmark butterfly, whose entire population resides in a small sliver of dunes in Antioch, California; and whooping cranes, now enrolled in flight lessons taught by people.

Conservationists go through great lengths to try and help these species, and Mooallem takes us on an entertaining ride along with them, recounting time spent obsessively catching individual butterflies to establish “peak count” and racing after the bumbling migrations orchestrated by “craniacs.” But their efforts often get choked in legal battles over semantics, or undermined by the politics of what project should get funding.

The animals, we quickly learn, are props in a dramatic tug-of-war over how people should protect natural places, and about which creatures most merit saving. While the numerous ironies are not lost on Mooallem, he manages to avoid becoming too cynical. “Nature doesn’t know what outcome we want, and it doesn’t care,” he writes. But he also clearly admires the pros and the volunteers who dedicate themselves to its preservation. “There’s something dignified in just being in the scramble,” he told me during our walk.

In the end, we’re left wondering if Mooallem’s titular “wild ones” are, in fact, us.

Despite moments of despair, the book contains plenty of humor and more than a few anecdotes about the bizarre ways in which animals have been loved, hunted, and anthropomorphized in American culture. Mooallem has delivered some of these snippets over the past few years at a live magazine event called Pop-Up. One notable one involved Billy Possum, a toy engineered by President William Taft as a challenger to the Teddy Bear—which came about as the result of a hunting escapade by his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt. The possum flopped, partly because it was ugly, but also, Mooallem writes, because the “possum’s back story was all wrong.” In the end, we’re left wondering if the titular “wild ones” are in fact us, as we bounce between eradicating our fellow creatures and desperately trying to bring them back.

Mooallem doesn’t seem quite ready to move on from his critter obsession just yet. If you follow him on Twitter, you’ll receive daily doses of wacky animal news, for instance: 

He also is writing a new column for Wired called “This Week’s Oddest Interactions Between Humans and Wild Animals,” which, with luck will lead to further long-form stories such as Mooallem’s widely shared piece about a monkey loose in Florida during election season. (And who can forget this one, which landed him a spot on The Colbert Report?)

Wild Ones, incidentally, inspired an offbeat EP by the Portland-based folk band Black Prairie, which you can stream and read about here. As for the author’s immediate agenda? He’s busy dealing with the latest creature in his life, a new daughter, Rose, born on May 4.

Proceed to page 2 for my Q&A with Mooallem, wherein he names his favorite animal—which is likely going through your garbage as we speak.

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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