Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Wild Ones’

by Joshua W. Jackson for High Country News

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

Jon Mooallem

328 pages, hardcover; $27.95

Penguin Press, 2013

San Francisco-based author Jon Mooallem asks some hard questions in “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.” Perhaps the hardest one, for those who love wildlife, is this: Why do we even bother? What are we saving when we save a threatened species? Why are we depressed by the notion of polar bear extinction, when most of us will never visit the Arctic or see a polar bear? Why spend decades fighting for a seemingly doomed butterfly subspecies that lives only on a tiny parcel of land next to a drywall plant, or go to surreal lengths to aid whooping crane migration, when climate change means the birds will soon lose the wetlands they need to survive, anyway?

Some readers may be frustrated by Mooallem’s approach; for one thing, he doesn’t appear to recognize any intrinsic value in animal life. He assumes conservationists aren’t out to save polar bears for the sake of the polar bears, but so that the bears can be “preserved like a keepsake.” At times, it also feels like Mooallem intentionally ignores the inconvenient truth that nearly all of the extraordinary things humans do to save animals are attempts to undo damage that humans are responsible for in the first place.

At its most fascinating, however, “Wild Ones” is a natural history, a history of the study of natural history, and an examination of the places wild animals hold in our collective imagination. It tackles subjects as disparate as the slaughter of buffalo in the American West, feuds between conservationists, and why “Billy Possum” — a stuffed animal created in honor of William Howard Taft — never grabbed public imagination the way the Teddy Bear did.

Mooallem ultimately makes a compelling case that, whatever the outcome, our drive for species conservation is an affirmation of human goodness, and something we should let guide us. Scientists believe half of all species may die out by the end of the century, but Mooallem contends there’s beauty and hope to be found in trying to save them — particularly in the “achingly imperfect people working to achieve something more moral than they are.”