Book Review: Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals
Tenacious Beasts reads like a best-selling thriller but don’t let the extraordinary writing fool you: You may never look at wildlife the same way again — and that’s a good thing.
Christopher Preston’s Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals (MIT Press, 2023) skyrockets off the opening pages more like a heart-pounding thriller than an academic treatise on the future of the planet. Preston’s prose makes it clear that the University of Montana wildlife philosophy professor is no ivory tower elitist writing about a real world he doesn’t actually know.
He is instead a boots-on-the-ground storyteller whose book opens with an account of a Dutch wolf killed by gunshots – prompting Holland’s government to strengthen its support for wolf recovery efforts. The whodunit leads to the first of many gauntlets the author throws down to us as readers, and as people who share the earth with wildlife.
“The challenge presented by the wolf in the Netherlands is a potent illustration of what many animal recoveries demand,” he writes. “To recover a wild animal, you don’t just need the right habitat, enough shelter, and sufficient prey. Nor is recovery simply a matter of better practices to allow humans and wildlife to coexist. You need to do more. You need to think differently about what the word wildlife really means.”
To think differently, though, you first have to learn to better see the world around you. Preston ultimately clicks through an eye doctor’s array of lenses to help us view the new ways we need to look at nonhuman creatures of all kinds.
“Whales, dolphins, and mountain gorillas are not alien forms of life,” he proffers. “They are kin with lessons to teach.”
Martin Drenthen, a Dutch philosophy professor working on the wolf mystery, echoes that sentiment.
“You have to take the animals seriously as beings with agency who have some kind of justified claim on space,” he tells the author.
The opening pages about wolf recovery efforts in Europe and the U.S. list several things we can learn from the species. Start with their famous system of what Preston calls “extended childcare” – the way that all pack members unite to care for the young.
But lest anyone get the idea that the 319 pages are going to be a warm and fuzzy romp through wildlife comeback stories, Preston quickly issues words of caution.
“This book is not designed to provide soothing reassurances about wildlife. Animal populations are not out of danger. Their outlook remains dire.”
The professor does see some “fragments of good news” – hope, even – and he’s quick to convey his own aspirations for how we consume his pages. He wants us to use them as “a roadmap to a future state of mind.”
Tenacious Beasts delves into wildlife recovery efforts that go well beyond the plight of wolves. It covers otters, whales, fish, bears and many others. The tales of bison recovery are spellbinding — from the animals’ importance in Native American cultures to the extraordinarily detailed account of the vital role bison play in the ecosystem — one animal responsible for performing so many critical tasks for many other plants and animals. Each wildlife recovery account documents the highs and lows of what they face, pulling no punches about our species’ horrific role in their demise and our responsibility to help them recover.
Make no mistake, though: Preston isn’t writing a late-night tear-jerker TV commercial targeting our selfless desire to save a species. When he’s extolling the virtues of why we should save the whales, for example, he drives home the point that the main reason isn’t altruistic.
“What’s in the whale’s interest is also in our own,” he writes.
That one sentence could serve as the perfect summary for the whole book. It’s also great strategic communications advice we can use to promote championing wildlife conservation to people who don’t share our values – and even with some who do share our love of animals but who suffer from a myopia of their own.
Especially when it comes to how wildlife of all stripes can serve as allies in the fight against climate change.
“Whales and sea otters exist in the same bewildering net of life and time as we do, living a splendor we can only glimpse during our short excursions beneath the waves and their short visits above. As their populations recover, they will join us firmly in the travail that is climate change. We would do well to appreciate our need for their company. There is a new way to think about their importance now. We need them not to turn their bodies into oil and fur coats to serve our insatiable desires. Nor are they merely something good to look at from the deck of a tour boat. We might think of them now is integral to our shared future, valuable partners in keeping the ravages of carbon at bay.”
Wild animals make all kinds of infinitely valuable contributions to human existence through a lexicon of terms including “ecosystem services”. This means they do things for us that carry monetary and ecological value. And they’re often things we humans don’t have the resources or the will to do.
The term “busy as a beaver” exists for a reason: They’re workaholics who constantly repair human-caused damage to the waters they live in.
Alexa Whipple, a project manager for the Methow Beaver Project in Washington state that helps landowners cope with the challenges of living with them, doesn’t need Internet job recruiting sites to find talent: Just hire some beavers to work on streams. “They’ll do in six months what would take more than a century to happen otherwise, if it happened at all.”
“You don’t need human engineers with graduate degrees to restore an eroded creek,” he concludes. “If you bring in two beavers, the wildlife will do the work for you. It’s cheap, reliable, and effective, and it comes with cute, furry critters thrown in for good measure.”
Each passage in the book seems to flip another one of the optometrist’s lenses, bringing the importance of each animal into sharper focus.
Ever thought of whales as trees?
But Preston and the experts he interviews have.
They absolutely view whales as partners in the climate-change challenge. Australian researcher Trish Lavery even calculated how much carbon sperm whales take out of the atmosphere by simply being whales and doing what they do naturally – boosting the production of carbon-absorbing phytoplankton and carrying it with them to the ocean floor when they die. She found that 12,000 sperm whales create a net carbon sink of 200,000 metric tons (nearly 441 MILLION pounds).
Adds Preston, “Sperm whales, in other words, are like rain forests in their ability to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. The reduction in sperm whale populations by whaling meant tons of carbon going into the atmosphere each year instead of sinking toward the ocean floor.”
Sea otters are climate change champs, too – contributing to our own survival by maintaining healthy kelp forests. Chris Wilmers, an environmental studies professor at UC Santa Cruz, calculates that sea otters provide hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of carbon sequestration services by voraciously consuming sea urchins — which in turn allows kelp forests to flourish and absorb carbon. Running the numbers a different way, he estimates that sea otters — through their consumption of sea urchins — are responsible for storing the equivalent of the annual emissions of up to five million cars.
More healthy and diverse animal populations, more continued existence for us.
“A cynic might wonder if it takes a looming existential crisis for humans to take the interests of other animals seriously,” Preston asks. “Sometimes, no doubt, it does. But there is a different way to think about this overlap of interests, one instructive for those seeking a shift in attitudes toward wildlife. We could think of whales as partners in the climate change struggle. We don’t, of course, get the chance to talk strategy with whales. Yet we clearly are on the same team.”
Want another mind-blowing statistic illustrating how all living things are connected?
Preston notes that more than 70 percent of the nitrogen in a coastal forest comes from fish – and that nutrients from salmon “are detectable in the uppermost needles of two-hundred-foot conifers.”
The philosophical questions he explores throughout the book are equally tantalizing, and also sometimes painful. Is it ethical for wildlife managers to shoot barred owls to save spotted owls? Is it right for people to prune apple trees to make it easier for bears to pluck the fruit? Does it matter that most bison recovering in the American west aren’t genetically pure? The answers aren’t as clearcut as they may seem, and Preston captures the pangs of cognitive dissonance striking wildlife professionals on all sides of the conundrums.
Wildlife ecologist Hugh Jansman, one of the people who investigated the dead wolf, looks at such queries from the opposite end of the telescope – away from animals.
“Wildlife management is really an application of people management,” he says.
That emphasis also directs the scope of Tenacious Beasts back to we the people. We’re the ones who need to change how we view and treat the animal world. We have to look at animals as family. We have to recognize they can teach us critical lessons and that they can be our partners in our shared survival.
Referring to a fish recovery effort, Preston also declares that we humans must find more inner political strength:
“This restoration also requires politics — the kind of politics that recognizes fish need clean, free-flowing water and plenty of it. It means a politics committed enough to force a utility to find alternative sources of power, to shut down the fishery for a decade, or to put a few extra cents on a utility bill if that’s what it takes. This type of change demands plenty of political will. But it is clear that moving from a system of human engineering and economy back to one of nature’s own design can create huge payoffs for wildlife. The animals already know what to do.”
It’s also mission critical for Homo sapiens to dig deep enough into our guts to find greater empathy for people on opposite sides of political and physical fences.
Preston cites numerous examples of initiatives that are bringing people together in ways that are generating more trust among humans and more success for recovering animals. Once such effort in Europe put farmers and wolf advocates together so that they could work “shoulder to shoulder” to build fences that protect the farmers’ livestock. The work is a perfect example of the field of “fence ecology” – which Preston defines as the practice of “keeping people and wildlife happy when their paths cross”.
Such trust is also the cornerstone of efforts by American Prairie to create a public-private partnership that creates a 3.5-million-acre refuge in Montana’s Great Plains. The vision is for it to become “the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.”
The notion of “for people and wildlife” reinforces Preston’s call for us to seek coexistence with wildlife instead of separation – an idea that seems to poke The Wilderness Act and those of us who love it right between the eyes, even without mentioning it by name.
“The fanatical separation between the wild and civilized that drove colonial powers – and then their environmentalism – must soften,” he writes at one juncture. In another, he states that a coupled system “is not just a different kind of management. It’s a whole different kind of ethic.”
It’s exactly that kind of boldness – Tenacious Beasts challenging even legislation that many people hold sacred – that makes the book a must read. Preston is determined to push all of us out of our comfort zones so that we might adopt that new code of ethics. A code we could use to weave his fragments of good news into a whole cloth.
“If wildlife are freed from the conditions that have suppressed them, if cultures that slaughtered animals have the humility to learn from those who kept them alive, if soils and woodlands are restored to ecological health and laws taking care of wildlife are enforced, then the century ahead could look dramatically different from the last. Wildlife will know what to do.”
Christopher Lancette is a Maryland-based freelance writer focused largely on nature, the environment, and books. He has written for more than 50 national and local publications ranging from Biography, DC Theater Arts and Entrepreneur to Fine Books & Collections, Salon, and the Washington Independent Review of Books. He has also served as a communications manager for The Trust for Public Land and a communications director at The Wilderness Society. He spends much of his time on his passion project at EyeOnSligoCreek.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrislancette.