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Eager: The fall and rise of the North American beaver

Pity the keystone species.

Those animals upon which the health of so many ecosystems depend — wolves and jaguars, sharks and sea otters, to name just a few.

Due in large part to their outsized impact on our planet, they are often blamed for getting in our way. Wolves take our cows and sheep. Sea otters take our seafood. And jaguars and sharks take away our sense of comfort on land and in water.

Beavers are also a keystone species and, not surprisingly, no friend to many city managers or land owners. They create chaos with our human-built rivers and drains. And, because they are the member of a family with few human friends — the rodent family — we tend to view them as just another invasive species.

But what if beavers are not the sharp-toothed Beelzebubs we make them out to be?

What if beavers are actually a solution to many of the environmental crises we face today (crises brought about in part because we have done such a good job of getting rid of beavers in the first place)?

As author Ben Goldfarb makes engagingly clear in the timely book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter the eradication of the beaver across the United States over the past several centuries has had a significant and negative impact on water quality and supply, fish populations, riparian vegetation and the countless creatures that depend on those millions of ponds that once dotted continental North America.

And why did we lose the beavers?

Blame it on a hat, the beaver hat. This European fashion craze brought about their near extermination. Eager takes us back to the 1500s when Europeans began trading pelts with the natives until the fur gold rush attracted fortune hunters from far and wide. The killing was so complete that it was widely assumed by those who settled in California in the 1800s that beavers had never lived in much of the state (when in fact they once blanketed the state). But researchers and historians are finally and gratefully setting the record straight. And they are making clear that beavers played a critical role in building not just dams but in conserving water for dry summer months, providing nesting places for other animals, and breeding waters for fish.

Fortunately, we’re starting to relearn what was forgotten so long ago — that beavers are essential to healthy ecosystems. And there is a growing chorus of “beaver believers” who are spreading the word about their many benefits of these animals. These believers stand up in city hall meetings and write letters and letter our cities know that there are people who do not want to see beavers killed. Besides, one does not easily eradicate beavers. City leaders are learning that it’s far wiser to learn to coexist with beavers than try to kill them, because when you create a vacuum you only encourage new residents to set up shop. And there are businesses now that will help you build flow-through tunnels that allow beavers to have their dams while also maintaining human-built infrastructure.

It’s not often I feel inspired after reading books about animals these days. Everywhere I turn I find another species in rapid decline (and it’s partly my fault because I’m drawn to endangered species).

And yet we have the beaver, a species that despite our best efforts continues to survive and, in many parts of the world, thrive.

Thankfully, a growing number of scientists, citizens and ranchers now see that beavers not only have much to offer this land, but may in fact play a essential role in saving it.

Out here in the west, water can never be taken for granted. Once the snow melt goes dry so too do the valleys, unless we dam enough of the snow melt along the way, which we’ve done. But beavers do it better, in staggered steps, in ways that not only collect water but recharge the water table, provide nesting sites for birds (sandhill cranes in particular), filter the water that passed through and over the dams, providing the perfect spawning ponds for salmon. We talk a lot in the Pacific Northwest about removing human-built dams to save the salmon, but we also need to talk about allowing beavers back to building some of their dams, which will also help salmon rebound.

It’s nice to read examples of old-school ranchers who would have once shot a beaver on site now working to protect them (a handful of ranchers had been doing this way back in the early 1900s). To protect beavers is to embrace a degree of chaos. But the fact is, the more we try to manage nature the less manageable it becomes.

And I’ll leave you with a photo of a beaver from my neck of the woods, spotted just a few weeks ago here in Southern Oregon…

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Chelsea Green Publishing

 

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American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

In 2006, a wolf was born in Yellowstone National Park. Named O-Six, she would grow into a fierce fighter, doting mother, and merciful leader. She’d be beloved by the park’s wolf watchers and a favorite of tourists who flocked to the park hoping to catch sight of her. Upon her death, she would be celebrated in the New York Times as “the most famous wolf in the world.”

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by award-winning journalist Nate Blakeslee is a riveting account of O-Six’s life and untimely death. It is also the story of humanity’s timeless attempt to bend nature to its will, no matter the cost.

The backdrop of American Wolf is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, beginning in the mid-1990s. It was a move heralded by scientists and conservationists and loathed by the hunters and ranchers who hunt and farm in the communities surrounding the park. In a case of unintended consequences, the reintroduction project was made necessary by a campaign begun in the 1800s, to kill off the country’s wolves, a campaign so successful that by the 1920s, the wolf population in the continental United States had been decimated. The last two pups believed to be born in Yellowstone were killed by park rangers in 1926.

This mass slaughter occurred in the name of wildlife management, a science that, Blakeslee writes, was in its infancy at the turn of the twentieth century. Park officials believed—inaccurately it turned out—that killing the wolves would preserve the park’s prey population. “They didn’t realize that wolves and elk had coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run just as fast as the wolf but no faster… The massive size of the moose, the nimbleness of the white-tailed deer, the uncanny balance of the bighorn sheep—the architect of these and countless other marvels was the wolf.”

With wolves absent from Yellowstone, the park’s ecosystem was thrown off balance. “[The] ungulate population in the park exploded, and the quality of the range quickly began to deteriorate. Over grazed hillsides eroded, and stream banks denuded of woody shrubs began to crumble, damaging prime trout habitat. Elk browsing at their leisure, undisturbed by predators, decimated stands of young aspen and willow. Too many animals on the landscape brought starvation and disease.”

The goal of the Wolf Project was to restore the park’s ecosystem, and it has—beyond even its most ardent advocates’ expectations. But through the years, the debate over the wolves’ presence hasn’t abated. It has grown more vitriolic as wolves, wandering beyond Yellowstone’s borders, prey on ranchers’ livestock and kill the elk hunters prize. Wolves, Blakeslee writes, had become “one of those polarizing issues like abortion or gun control or war in the Middle East, about which the country [can] not seem to reach a consensus.”

It is in this hostile environment we meet O-Six and the wolf watchers who, dawn to dusk, 365-days a year, chronicle the lives of Yellowstone’s wolves. Among the watchers is naturalist Rick McIntyre, the park’s unofficial wolf expert and the person who has likely watched more wolves than “anybody in the history of humanity.”

McIntyre, along with several other wolf watchers, shared with Blakeslee more than a decade’s worth of notes on generations of Yellowstone’s wolves, notes that capture every aspect of wolves’ lives from their personalities to their way of life—a way of life that, McIntyre has come to believe, makes wolves more like humans than any other species on earth. From these notes, and dozens of interviews with people on every side of the issue—including the hunter who would come face-to-face with O-Six in 2012—Blakeslee has crafted a sweeping multigenerational narrative that will have readers holding their breath, reaching for tissues, and rooting for the wolves.

***

Readers who would like to see photographs of O-Six and many of the wolves whose stories are recounted in American Wolf, are encouraged to visit the website of award-winning wildlife photographer Jimmy Jones.

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Return of the Sea Otter: The story of a resilient species and its many human friends

The sea otter should have been extinct by now.

We, as in human civilization, did our very best to eliminate the species — not because we saw it as a pest but because its pelts were among the most desirable. And so hundreds of thousands of these sea mammals were killed because they happened to posses the densest fur coats of any animal on this planet.

But the sea otter somehow managed to survive the slaughter. Handfuls of otters in Russia and the coasts of Alaska and California escaped, and, over time, their populations grew. Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast, by Todd McLeish, tells their comeback story — but with a caveat:  their comeback is not without its challenges.

Such as, sea otters are now considered pests. The fishing industry would like to see them eradicated or “managed” and this has led to much conflict and numerous accounts of sea otter attacks by boat and by gun. We simply do not know how many of these animals are killed by fisherman who deem them fair game, along with seals.

McLeish takes us with him as he visits researchers in Monterey, Alaska, British Columbia. We learn how sea otters are tracked and how the injured are nursed back to life. We watch them in the wild as they eat and play and use tools to pry open their shelled food — one of the few mammal to do so.

And we learn that their comeback story is geographically uneven. While they are doing better along the central California coast, there are vast areas along Alaska’s coast where they have declined. They are still missing from the coast of my home state of Oregon, where they were once numerous.

I always find it unfortunate when we must make the case for saving a species based on its value to us or the ecosystem. But the fact is, sea otters are considered keystone species of the coasts — and, as we are now learning, even estuaries. Sea otters love to exist among kelp and they feed on the creatures that would feed on kelp. By protecting the kelp they protect the countless other species that depend on kelp for their survival. Similarly, scientists have found that when sea otters live in estuaries, the grasses do far better, which in turn makes for healthier environments.

Of course, by eating sea urchins, fisherman have lost a key part of their industry. So, naturally, they say that sea otters must go.

It’s a tired story, but one that will play again and again as our oceans become increasingly depleted by, who else, the fishing industry. And make no mistake. The fishing industry is not the victim here. It’s time we as a society realize that there is no such thing as sustainable fisheries. We may want to believe they are possible, but they’re not. And you don’t have to look far to see atrocities taking place under the guise of sustainable fishing.

But I digress.

I enjoyed this book. And not only am I inspired by the stubbornness of this species, I’m equally inspired by the many researchers and volunteers and citizen scientists who do their parts to defend it.

You’ll come away knowing so much more about this amazing animal and, like me, desperate to go to the coast in search of seeing one (or a raft of them) in the wild.

Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal That Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast

Sasquatch Press

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BirdNote: Chirp-sized bird stories from the popular radio show

Here in Ashland, Oregon, I listen to our local radio station KSKQ. And for the past several years I’ve enjoyed the weekly, two-minute BirdNote programs.

So I was excited to find that there is now a BirdNote book. What the book lacks in audio, it makes up for in very high print production values; it is beautifully designed, with full-color illustrations and a handy bookmark tassel.

This will make an excellent gift for the would-be birder in your family. And even veteran birders will enjoy it. While I’d like to think I’ve learned a fair amount about birds over the years spent gazing upwards, I still learned plenty, such as:

  • The Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker rely heavily on ants that bore through the trees. A Norther Flicker was known to consume 5,000 ants in one sitting (or perching).
  • The Green Heron may use a “bait” of twigs, feathers or insects to attract fish within reach of their bills.
  • A barn swallow eats up to 850 insects a day — making this a wonderful bird to have around not just a barn, but any yard.
  • There is a crow roost in Illinois that is home to 100,000 crows. I would love to hear that.
  • The cardinal (who I sorely miss out here in the Oregon) was named after the red hats and robes of the Roman cardinals.
  • And speaking of red, cars this color are most often targeted by birds doing their business, according to a study. Green cars are least likely to be targeted.
  • And the much-maligned starling gets some deserved love. I find their symphony of sounds to be truly remarkable. And I was not alone; turns out Mozart had a pet starling that he wrote a poem about after it passed on.

My only complaint is that it would have been nice to see longer, more informative notes. A number of notes come in at just a few paragraphs.

Also, while some chapters do explain why certain species are threatened, such as the California Condor, I would have liked to see more of this, such as regarding the many species of albatross now under threat.

Quibbles aside, I recommend this book to anyone who loves birds (or anyone you think should love birds).

PS: All BirdNotes can be listened to online here

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

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Book Review: Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Big Cats by Andrew Loveridge

In Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Big Cats, lion researcher Andrew Loveridge recounts his work studying prides of lions living in Zimbabwe. From his initial research on jackals, to the inception and evolution of the lion research project to assess the impact hunting has on lion populations, this is a great exploration of Loveridge’s work over the years. I highly recommend it to lion lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. I caution readers not to be misled by the title though. Do not read this book expecting all of it to focus on Cecil. Cecil is introduced in the prologue, but he is not mentioned again until page 191. This book is more about Loveridge’s lion research, which is fascinating. It has made me reconsider what I thought I knew about lion conservation and the role hunters play in it.

Lion hunting is legal in Zimbabwe when you have the right permit. This is made clear right from the beginning. Lion hunts bring in a lot of money. Unfortunately, the distribution of the money to locals to support the economy and relieve the impacts of lions living and hunting around their communities, does not often happen. Conservation organizations do not see much, if any, of that money either. Which raises the question of whether hunting really does help conserve animals. During his research, Loveridge lost many of his study animals to hunters and the impact of their death was felt deeply. “To the hunter, no matter how exciting the hunt, this is just another lion. He would have no idea, as we did, of this animal’s amazing life story” (p. 88).

Loveridge discusses his time exploring the trophy hunting industry while attending a hunting conference in the United States where he hoped to persuade hunters of the importance of saving lions. “As much as conservation is promoted, the industry is really about business and money, and the buying and selling of animals. It is a hugely lucrative industry that believes its own propaganda on the primacy of hunting in conservation. It does not want to change” (p.100).

The show involved in conducting lion hunts was not something I had considered previously, from getting a hunter to purchase a hunt at large hunting shows to the reality of a hunt. “It seems obscene that an animal should die just to bolster the ego of a rich Westerner who wishes to adorn his home with a woodenly taxidermied replica of a creature that was once lithe and vibrant. Lion hunting is not particularly challenging or dangerous. Big cats are commonly shot by luring them with bait and shooting while they feed” (p. 243-244). The people who guide the hunters to the lions help play it up for them and celebrate kills. Videos can be made as well. But can hunters who shoot a lion that is eating really feel like they have accomplished an heroic kill?

Loveridge emphasized the impact of the loss of a lion on its pride throughout the book. Whether it is a male or a female it can be huge. When males are killed the group of females are left open to a take-over by another male. When a new male arrives it kills all the young lions in a pride. Frequent turn-over of the male lions due to hunting creates a situation where it is really hard to raise young lions to maturity and can cause prides to shrink as older lions die.

There were several aspects of the book that I found distracting, in addition to the focus on Cecil in the title. The book starts with some attention grabbing stories about the immense force of lions and crocodiles and the terror they can cause, which seemed out of place considering the focus on lion conservation. It made me wonder if the intent was to draw in readers by playing into the public’s interest in ferocious beasts. Later stories, discussed within the context of lion behavior when lions move close to villages, melded well with Loveridge’s research, and showed their force without playing into the ferocious beast mentality. These stories were not as distracting since they flowed with the context of the book.

Many chapters also started with one story, and then told another story or two before coming back to finish the first story and end the chapter. I found this a little confusing for two reasons. First, as a mom I cannot always read a whole chapter in one sitting, so by the time I get to the end of the chapter I needed to review some of the material from the beginning of the chapter to refresh my memory. This was also distracting because there are a lot of lions that Loveridge has studied, over 700, and many people who have worked with him, so remembering all the names and relations gets confusing if you break up a story with another story.

The book ends with the details of Cecil’s death, clarifying multiple points the media got wrong, and analyzing why the death of that lion, as opposed to many previous lions, received so much attention. Loveridge even questions how Cecil’s name contributed to this. It made me wonder about the similarities between Cecil’s death and that of Harambe the following year at the Cincinnati Zoo. When the death of an animal causes so much outrage, we need to harness that energy to save the animals still living in the wild that need help now. For lions, Loveridge suggests it may come down to reducing human-wildlife conflicts and ensuring lions have access to enough uninhabited areas, and areas that are unobstructed so they can travel between those open spaces.

Overall, I found the book to be very interesting. I learned a lot about lion behavior, as well as lion hunting and the trophy hunting industry. I encourage you to read the book and find your own way to get involved in lion conservation. Visit the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit website to learn more about Loveridge and other conservation work they are doing.

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Book Review: The Animals’ Agenda by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is an important and timely book that examines the human relationship with — or, more accurately, examines the many ways in which humans use — animals and how this relationship needs to evolve. This book asks readers to rethink how we see animals and to adopt more compassionate practices toward them, from animals used for food and entertainment to those in the wild.

If this book has one message that we all need to hear, it’s that animals in our society suffer abuses that we currently accept as normal — the hope is that one day we will all see these practices as barbaric instead of acceptable or necessary. The authors argue that humans are indeed aware, on some level, of these abuses but are not taking steps toward actually preventing them. Most people still eat animals, still visit zoos, still hunt and fish. “We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about ‘cage-free chickens’ and ‘naturalistic zoo enclosures.’ But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge, because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior…Many animals live impoverished lives because of our desires or our lack of awareness.”

The Animals’ Agenda shows how, despite studies that prove the intelligence and emotional sensitivity of animals, nothing will change until humans accept this suffering and choose to stop supporting it — by not attending zoos, for example, or by not eating or wearing animal products. They compare the reality of standard, accepted animal suffering to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”

The book is organized in sections that tackle the ways in which animals are at the mercy of humans, including farmed animals, animals in labs, pets, and wild animals. Among the most important points the authors make is that so-called improvements in the treatment of animals as a result of animal welfare studies actually do more harm than good because they let people off the hook by allowing them to believe the animals don’t suffer as much as they actually do. One powerful example is in the work of Temple Grandin, who “is hailed as a compassionate helper of animals while at the same time working within a venue in which billions of animals are harmed and killed…she has done more than anyone else to deflect attention from real freedom for animals. Even if a few animals are getting a ‘better life,’ it surely is not a good life.”

And this is the main point of The Animals’ Agenda: that non-human animals deserve the freedoms we human animals enjoy. And yet no non-human species comes even close. Even farmed animals who are fed and housed (allowing people to believe they are “cared for”) have no freedom whatsoever: “They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained…They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments.” Most of their diets are so unnatural to them that the animals feel hungry all the time, even when they are fed. And lest you think that “free-range” animals have it better, read on; as the authors show, “Humane is a dirty little lie.” Methods of castration, for example, that are “animal welfare approved” by the United States do not require anesthesia. And readers will be shocked to read of the terrible conditions and abuses that occur at AZA-accredited zoos.

One chapter of the book is devoted to companion animals and points out “how little research has been directed at the welfare of animals kept as pets, either in the home environment or in pet stores and breeding facilities.” Yet instead of focusing on ways to end the breeding and sale of animals, the authors focus on “exploring freedom and preferences in relation to our most common animal companions — dogs and cats” — despite their acknowledgment of the dearth of research. There are many good points in this chapter — the ills of the wholesale pet industry, the lack of knowledge most humans have about the needs of their pets — but by advocating for greater freedoms for companion animals, the authors do a disservice to shelter pets and their humans. While they acknowledge that “as companions of dogs, we can do our best to balance necessary constraints against as full a measure of freedom as possible,” they actually advise against keeping cats indoors (not mentioning exceptions for such circumstances as FIV-positive or declawed cats): “Depending on location, cats may have to contend with busy roads, with predators such as coyotes or cougars, with humans who have bad intentions, and with the possibility of injury or disease. But as with our children, we cannot protect them from all risk…Letting cats outside may be what ethicist Bill Lynn calls ‘a sad good,’ a good that involves an element of moral risk and harm.”

The fact that this book advocates so strongly for animals in other ways makes this chapter on pets a liability, as it risks derailing the book’s entire message: If readers think it’s okay to allow their cats to face injury, disease, and death from traffic or predators, why should they attempt to avoid causing such harm when it comes to farmed animals or captive animals in zoos? Many animal-rights activists would agree that keeping pets is something that humans should eventually give up — but until every last animal shelter is empty, these animals need to be adopted, loved, and protected. Companion animals deserve freedom the same way dairy cows do, but whereas the life of a dairy cow is a daily torture, most pets are not being tortured simply by being kept inside homes or behind fences for their own safety. Even a free dairy cow would presumably fenced in at a sanctuary, not left out on her own. It’s this chapter, in an otherwise stellar book, that may make it hard for non-activists to embrace the idea of animal freedom.

The Animals’ Agenda goes on to note the ways in which even wild animals, on both land and in oceans, suffer due to our influence — from habitat loss to our noise to our trash — and that even conservation work, such as capturing and tagging animals, has its own negative effects. Education is key here, and the authors’ message is clear: “a great number of things we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachment on wildlife.”

While Bekoff and Pierce detail the good science that is happening regarding animal welfare, they also note that we must “close the knowledge-translation gap”; in the end, much of this knowledge primarily serves the industries that abuse animals. For things to improve, for us to put “what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves,” it will take nothing less than a compassionate society to adopt a mindset of true animal freedom. A very good first step toward that is reading this book.

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An interview with NO WORD FOR WILDERNESS author Roger Thompson

If you were asked where the rarest bears on earth lived, would your first guess be an hour’s drive outside of Rome?

That wasn’t our first guess, either — but it’s the truth, and these bears are fighting to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. Author Roger Thompson has documented their struggle in his fascinating new book, No Word for Wilderness: Italy’s Grizzlies and the Race to Save the Rarest Bears on Earth.

In Italian, there is no word for wilderness. Yet in the mountains of Italy, brown bears not only exist, they are fighting to survive amid encroaching development, local and international politics, and the mafia.

This meticulously researched and eye-opening book tells the incredible stories of two special populations of bears in Italy—one the last vestige of a former time that persists against all odds, the other a great experiment in rewilding that, if successful, promises to change how we see not only Italy but all of Europe.

The Abruzzo bears of central Italy have survived amid one of the oldest civilizations on earth—but now, with numbers estimated at as low as fifty individuals, they face a critical future as multiple forces, from farmers to the mob, collide within their territory. The Slovenian bears of northern Italy, brought to the Alps at the turn of the century, have sparked controversy among local and international interests alike.

The stories of these bears take readers on a spectacular journey across Italy, where we come face-to-face not only with these fascinating species but with embattled park directors, heroic environmentalists, innovative scientists, and a public that is coming to terms with the importance of Italy’s rich natural history.

“Full of drama, adventure, tragedy, and heroes fighting against the most daunting of odds, No Word for Wilderness shows us what nature writing can be.” — J. Scott Bryson, author of The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry

Award-winning author Roger Thompson has traveled throughout Italy documenting the history and current crises of these bears, and the result is an engaging and in-depth examination that resonates across all endangered species and offers invaluable insights into the ever-evolving relationships between human and non-human animals in a rapidly changing world.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how long did it take you to write it? Did you have a special routine or place in which you wrote?

A: The initial idea for the book came after I first visited Abruzzo to find out about the bears. After being in Italy and hearing their story from people there, I felt the story needed to be told. The book, though, has changed during the process of researching and writing it. It has been a project that has shifted and changed over a six-year period, but the actual first draft I wrote in six months. I’ve done most of the writing at home, but I did do a fair bit in Italy as well as in Minnesota at a cabin where my family has vacationed since I was a child.

Q: Why should we care about these particular bears?

A: We should care because unlike most grizzlies, these particular brown bears have evolved alongside people, growing with communities over a millennia, and thus have adapted to life with man — and locals in Italy have adapted to the bears as well. The result is a remarkably symbiotic and peaceful relationship — a thousand years and no attacks.

Q: How many are there, and why are you concerned about them?

A: The best estimate is between 40 and 50. Some say it may be down to 30. Others say it may be higher. One former park director insists that until recently, there were at least 100, but there is no credible evidence of that. It’s clear that these bears are at a pivotal juncture because of new pressure on their habitat.

Q: What kind of pressure?

A: It’s mixed, but at the heart of it is organized criminal activity — some believe (and I think it likely) that it is mob activity. The bears live in a region that is highly valued for its agricultural potential — specifically, it’s valued because it presents great opportunity for cattle grazing. While that may not seem important, cattle grazing in Italy enjoys significant subsidies from the EU. Those subsidies are what organized crime is interested in. The bears, though, are in the way.

Q: How are they in the way?

A: The bear population lives primarily in Italy’s national parks in Abruzzo. Those parks have prime grazing lands. They also have almost no resources for enforcement of park rules and regulations. So, mafia can essentially underwrite people to come in and graze cattle on the parkland. As they do so, they come into contact with the bears.

Q: What happens with that contact? Is it dangerous?

A: No. Hardly, anyway. There are few, if any credible, reports of bears attacking cattle. There are no attacks on humans. These bears have an almost 100 percent vegetarian diet. And yet, the new land grazing interests have a habit of poaching and poisoning the bears.

Q: How is this being combatted?

A: Well, the key thing right now is that scientists are amassing huge volumes of data to demonstrate definitively how special these bears are and why they should be protected more aggressively. That data is the foundation of activism by a group of conservationists and scientists. It is, however, a race against time. Without international pressure, these peaceful bears and their local advocates have little chance in preserving the animals.

Learn more about No Word for Wilderness here

Roger Thompson is an award-winning nonfiction writer and director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. A former wilderness canoe guide for a Minnesota camp and the founder and director of an environmental program in Banff, AB, he currently lives in New York with his wife and son. No Word for Wilderness is now available; visit Roger’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and events.

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The best environmental books we’ve read in 2017

It’s that time of year again, a time to reflect on the books that have left their mark on us.

Books that will, over time and with luck, leave their mark on society as well.

I polled our contributors to see what books they’ll remember best from 2017. And here we have it — a selection of children’s books and adult fiction and nonfiction — some of which we’ve reviewed and some of which we hope to still.

A word of thanks — to our contributors, for reading and reviewing books that make a difference; to the authors of these books that inspire us to make the world a better place; and to the readers who make what we do worthwhile.

See you in 2018…

 

Anna Monders

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King. 2017.

Obe Devlin is a sixth grader who loves being out in the woods, identifying animal tracks, and cleaning up the creek. But housing developments are going in where there used to be fields and trees. When Obe discovers a new animal by the creek—one that eats only plastic—he wants to keep it safe from the new neighbors and his former-best-friend-turned-bully. (Middle-grade fiction)

Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas. 2017.

Author and wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas spent three years living on the Masai Mara wildlife reserve in Kenya. While there, she was foster mom for an orphaned serval kitten, raising him until he could survive on his own in the wild. Splendid photographs and good conservation information. (Nonfiction, grades 2-5.)

Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of by Martin Brown. 2017.

This is not an animal book about elephants, tigers, giraffes, or pandas. Instead, readers are introduced to zorillas (stinkier than skunks), banded linsangs (slinky like snakes), sand cats (cats that like…sand), and gaurs (twice the size of an average cow), among others. An unusual—and funny—biodiversity book with great illustrations. (Nonfiction, grades 2-5.)

 

Midge Raymond 

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe

It’s difficult to think of a title more important to the oceans—and therefore to the earth’s entire ecosystem—than Jonathan Balcombe’s New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows. Not only does Balcombe introduce us to the fascinating, complex lives of these sentient creatures, he shows us how devastatingly we are treating them, to the point of endangerment and extinction. Each section in this book is more interesting and engaging than the last, with information on the habits, abilities, and perceptions of many of the 30,000 species of fishes in our waters. What a Fish Knows is a powerful, accessible book that will ensure that we never look at a fish the same way again.

 

Jacki Skole

What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns
At the heart of neuroscientist Gregory Berns’ newest book is this question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The answer, garnered through ground-breaking studies of the brains of domestic and wild animals, should fundamentally reshape how we think about—and treat—animals.

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby
If you felt like your life was breaking apart, where would you go to try to put it back together?
If you’re thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling, you’d go to the South Pole. For a year. Gosling is the central character in this wry, compelling story of relationships, art, science, climate change, and life at the bottom of the earth.

 

John Yunker

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a passion for cephalopods, And by the end of this book I suspect most readers will as well.

The Dig Tree: A True Story of Bravery, Insanity, and the Race to Discover Australia’s Wild Frontier by Sarah Murgatroyd

The tragic true story of early Australian hubris and the outback. Spoiler alert: The outback wins.

 

 

Center for Humans and Nature

Best Books of 2017

Wildness: Relations of People and Place coedited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer, University of Chicago Press

Published in association with the Center for Humans and Nature, this collection of essays explores how people can become attuned to the wild community of life and also contribute to the well-being of the wild places in which we live, work, and play. With this book, we gain insight into what wildness is and could be, as well as how it might be recovered in our lives—and with it, how we might unearth a more profound, wilder understanding of what it means to be human.

The Driftless Reader coedited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley, University of Wisconsin Press

The Driftless Reader gathers writings, paintings, photographs, and maps that highlight the unique natural and cultural history, landscape, and literature of the Driftless Area—a region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. Through texts by Black Hawk, Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frank Lloyd Wright, Aldo Leopold, and many others, the book reveals the transformative power of the land and its capacity to make our lives more meaningful.

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams, W.W. Norton & Company

For centuries, poets and philosophers extolled the benefits of a walk in the woods. Intrigued by our storied renewal in the natural world, Florence Williams sets out to uncover the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into new research, she uncovers the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships.

Henry David Thoreau:  A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, University of Chicago Press

Thoreau has long needed a fresh portrait that looks beyond both mythology and simplistic myth-bashing and recontextualizes him for our time.  Walls, a former fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and one of our finest interdisciplinary scholars, provides it in this meticulously researched biography.

Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming by Benjamin R. Barber, Yale University Press

A follow-up to his earlier book, If Mayors Ruled the World, Barber’s proposals for transnational governance of climate change have taken on a new importance and urgency now that the American national government is under the control of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. Responsible action now falls to other levels of government and to the private sector. Acting in concert, cities can have global leverage.

Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming by William E. Connolly, Duke University Press

A wide-ranging discussion of advanced thinking in ontology, ecology, evolutionary theory, and more by a noted political theorist. What Blake referred to as “Newton’s sleep” is over. Connolly is a demanding but rewarding guide to the new age.

Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene by Clive Hamilton, Polity Press

Vintage Hamilton. Trenchant, widely-informed, unconcerned about stepping on toes. This book shows the danger of interpreting the Human Epoch once more in anthropocentric terms.

Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity by Jeremy J. Schmidt, New York University Press

An original and sophisticated study of how thinking about water as a resource to be managed was constructed by the disciplines of geology and anthropology beginning in the nineteenth century. His critique offers a new philosophy of water and a rich way of understanding the formation of knowledge-systems more generally as well.

Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene coedited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan, University of Minnesota Press

There are many ways to read this graphically and intellectually innovative book. It offers creative tools for living in a more-than-human Anthropocene. One half is devoted to landscapes injured by humans in the modern age—Ghosts of the Anthropocene. One half is devoted to essays on interspecies and intraspecies entanglements—Monsters of the Anthropocene.

 

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Book Review: What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

I am forever wondering what my dog, Galen, is thinking. Sometimes I go nose to nose with her, stare into her brown eyes, and ponder what’s happening in that little brain of hers. In those moments, I presume she thinks either, “Why have you thrust your face in mine?” or “How about you give me a cookie?” I’m embarrassed to say for how many years this ritual has persisted and how many times a day it’s repeated. But it is this longing to get into Galen’s head that attracted me to the pioneering work of neuroscientist Gregory Berns, much of whose research involves going inside a dog’s mind.

Berns, an Emory University professor and founding member of the Society for Neuroeconomics, is the scientist who, in 2011, came up with the radical notion that dogs could be trained to enter an MRI machine and remain still long enough to have their brains scanned and thus, studied. How Berns turned his controversial idea into groundbreaking science is the story at the center of his 2013 book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Now Berns is out with What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, which picks up where How Dogs Love Us leaves off.

For those unfamiliar with Berns’ work with dogs, the introduction to What It’s Like to Be a Dog provides a condensed account of how he and his team trained a host of dogs—starting with Berns’ own rescue, Callie—to don ear muffs and “shimmy” into loud, hulking MRI machines.

Berns and his rescue, Callie.

It is an extraordinary chronicle of patience, determination, and above all, respect for the dogs that would participate in the studies. Berns writes that three principles guided the team’s research: do no harm to the dogs, do not restrain them, and give the dogs “the right of self-determination.” That meant the dogs “had the same fundamental privilege as humans participating in research: the right to refuse.” Being dogs, refuse is sometimes what they did. Fortunately, more of the time (and for treats aplenty), they did not.

Callie in the MRI machine

Berns has long been fascinated by the brain. He began studying humans’ brains, turned next to those of dogs, and as telegraphed by the subtitle of this newest work—And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience—is extending his brain imaging research into the broader animal kingdom. This is important for readers to note because those expecting What It’s Like to Be a Dog to be a wholly dog-centric read will be disappointed. (I presume the title was chosen to entice dog lovers, and I admit, it’s what initially drew me.)

At its core, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is Berns’ first-person account of his attempt to answer the question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The science in the book—Berns provides primers on the evolution of the brain and its structure—is written for the lay reader, and it is what underlies the non-dog narratives that drive the story. These narratives revolve around Berns’ adventures tracking down and studying the brains of sea lions, dolphins, and the now-extinct thylacine, a tiger-like marsupial native to Australia.

What Berns finds, through the myriad imaging studies he performs, is that there are enough similarities in the architecture of human and animal brains to extrapolate that animals have feelings much like humans do. “Our results have shown,” he writes, “no matter which animal’s brain we examined, that if it has a cortex, the animal is very likely sentient, and that its subjective experience can be understood by degrees of similarity to ours.”

Ethical implications flow from Berns’ findings, and this is the territory in which he closes the book. If animals are indeed sentient, a rethinking of how we treat them in agriculture, in laboratories, in our homes, in our every encounter, is not simply long overdue, it is imperative.

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Book Review: Wildlife Spectacles by Vladimir Dinets

 

Wildlife Spectacles: Mass Migrations, Mating Rituals, and Other Fascinating Animal Behaviors by Vladimir Dinets is a gorgeous book that takes readers on an unforgettable journey into the lives of some of our planet’s most magnificent creatures, from muskoxen to moths, with spectacular photographs and incredible stories.

Wildlife Spectacles is divided into three major sections: Great Migrations (migrating animals on land and in air and water), Spectacles of Love (breeding habits and mating rituals), and Everyday Spectacles (how animals hunt, play, and otherwise spend their days).

Author and photographer Vladimir Dinets has focused Wildlife Spectacles on the wild animals of North America, noting: “Some of the most amazing wildlife spectacles in the world, such as mass migrations, mating dances, and predator-prey interactions, occur in North America, but the information on them is often scattered and difficult to find, and many are virtually unknown to nonspecialists.” Dinets not only offers information about and insights into these incredible events—such as the section “How Do Birds Know Where to Fly?”—but he also includes “Viewing Tips” at the end of each section for readers who wish to seek out and witness these spectacles for themselves. The tips include such details as location and the best time of year to visit.

As Dinets notes in his introduction, “North America has seen its share of horrible abuses of the environment, and there are still powerful political forces bent on sacrificing every last living thing to so-called business interests, which is a politically correct euphemism for greed.” In so many ways, this book makes a powerful argument for protecting the wildness we still have left. The desolate beauty of many of Dinets’ photographs make it possible to imagine “a time when the world was free of fences, highways, sprawling cities, pesticide-laden farms, shipping lanes, dams, and miles-long driftnets”—and certainly will inspire readers toward conservation, if they are not conservation-minded already.

In the first section—alongside photographs and maps showing the migrations of animals by land, sea, and air—are fascinating facts and anecdotes about various creatures. Once, Dinets witnessed a pack of orcas attempting to attack a sea lion herd when they were interrupted by humpback whales who surfaced between them, trumpeting and spouting—three different times, the whales interfered as the orcas tried to attach different packs of sea lions. In addition to such stories are the more depressing facts of human impacts on wildlife, beginning with the very first humans and gaining momentum in the eighteenth century, when “modern technologies and market-oriented hunting arrived in North America, and massive slaughters of everything that moved began anew.”

From the oceans (whose animals, even though better protected from overfishing, are still killed by boats, fishing gear, plastic, and climate change) to the plains (where only fifteen thousand years ago roamed such animals as mammoths, mastadons, camels, giant sloths, and wild yaks) are stories of species gone extinct and otherwise suffering at the hands of humans—and perhaps this is what makes those creatures who still exist so important to witness. Dinets photographs and writes about the migrations of animals from bison and elk to the tiny Mormon cricket and the montane vole. His descriptions add so much to the photos, as if to invite readers into the scene; of the sounds of caribou herds, he writes, “They make a lot of noises, but the most unusual and persistent one is the loud clicking of their knee and elbow joints.”

No animal is too small to be included here. Among the more unusual migrations covered are those of butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, and ladybugs. No book on waterway migrations would be complete without mentioning salmon, but also mentioned here are grunion, turtles, frogs, toads, salamanders, eels, and crabs.

Similarly, in the next two sections of the book, Dinets showcases not only the mating and predatory rituals of large animals like seals, sea lions, and elk but also those of termites, ants, and fireflies. The book is peppered with wonderful details about courtship rituals; for example, birds are not the only species to sing while courting: so do insects, whales, alligators, and crocodiles. Among those to use dancing to attract mates are birds, fish, butterflies, spiders, and slugs.

And despite the challenges of living in today’s world—“Diseases, predators, and particularly parasites often make it totally miserable…the amount of innocent suffering in nature is impossible to fathom”—animals do play, and “watching them can be pure joy.” Polar bears, elephant seals, crocodiles, fishes, and even insects are among those who have been observed in play—and species have even been seen mingling in play, such as fox cubs playing with domestic kittens, or an alligator with a river otter. Crows and ravens are “uncommonly playful.”

Wildlife Spectacles opens our eyes to the worlds we don’t see often enough, if ever, in North America, and it’s a book that engages not only visually but emotionally and intellectually. A wonderful gift book for anyone who loves animals and nature, it’s also a book that we should all have on our shelves to remind us how precious—and how vulnerable—our wild places are.