Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Los Angeles, CA
We all grew up with stories of wild animals. In our younger years we slept with stuffed animals; we use them in illustrations for our children’s books, often having the wild animal teach the moral lesson. But what is actually going on out there in the wild?
A story told by Jon Mooallem, author of the book Wild Ones, wonderfully expresses our current state of conservation. It goes like this:
I remember right after I started working on this book, my daughter was two years old, and she was sitting in her highchair having a fit. There was a bowl of food in front of her and she threw it on the floor. It smashed, food spilled everywhere, and she suddenly shut up. I don’t know what she was thinking but it seemed pretty clear to me that she was astonished at the kind of wreckage she had created, the power she had exerted. She was just staring at this thing she had broken. I think that’s where we’re at.
Now that we’ve realized the damage we’ve done, we’re going to great lengths to try to fix it. Let’s pause for a moment and consider how we got to this point.
Before Lewis and Clark and the great expansion, before the exploration of our earth from Pole to Pole, extinction was inconceivable. During this time the common belief was in the “Great Chain of Being” – everything imaginable fits into the chain somewhere giving order and meaning to the universe (from bugs to slugs to angels). The thought that an animal could become extinct was both illogical and sacrilegious. If pioneers saw a disappearance of wolves or deer they assumed the animal had moved onward into this infinite space.
It was during this time that Jefferson was attempting to debunk the “Theory of American Degeneracy” – the belief that the animal life in the New World was smaller, weaker and less spectacular than that of the Old World – that the Mammoth fossil had been unearthed. Following the “Great Chain of Being” philosophy, Jefferson had a great belief that a living Mammoth would be encountered in the yet unexplored regions. While all Americans were encouraged to keep their eye out for the Mammoth, scientific evidence mounted toward accepting the concept of extinction.
While the acceptance of extinction undermined the belief in “The Great Chain of Being”, it was replaced with the central myth that the mammoth was purged so that the young nation could spread out and absorb the empty continent ahead of it. Pioneer Americans could get behind this type extinction. Not anymore.
Throughout our world we now have remarkable people doing remarkable actions in their effort to keep our wild animals wild. Here are brief accounts of some of them.
At the Bonneville Dam, we worry about the Chinook salmon. In fact, we worry about them enough to hire people full-time to sit and stare through an underwater window counting every one of the 4.5 million fish that swim past the glass every year. Adult salmon are able to travel upstream through the dam’s built-in fish ladders when there is adequate water flow. The US Army Corps of Engineers monitors water levels multiple times a day, and if the flow differs even 1/10 of a foot, they will make adjustments. Juveniles may need additional help navigating the dam, so the engineers lift endangered salmon out of the water and truck them around the Bonneville Dam or put them on a barge and barge them through the locks. Thanks to these measures, the fish counters have recorded greater numbers of salmon and greater proportions of wild salmon.
Buddhist monks have joined the fight to save the snow leopards. A Chinese PhD research project observed that snow leopard ranges corresponded very close to where Buddhist monasteries are. This is because the monks routinely patrol sacred areas around each of the Buddhist monasteries to ensure people respect nature and to keep people from harming any animals. Additionally the monks are given a bit of extra training and are now helping with snow leopard monitoring and educating the villagers. The monks have even gone a step further and, with their own money and effort, instituted a livestock insurance program to combat “retaliatory” killing of snow leopards.
How does a Kenyan boy go from herding his father’s cattle to making peace with the lions? In the Masai community where cattle are all important, 12-year-old Richard’s chore was to keep the cattle safe from the lions. His first try: fire torch. Turns out that lions are not afraid of fire. Second try: scarecrow. The first night the scarecrow worked but the 2nd night the lion came and realized that the scarecrow was not moving, and she killed a cow. 3rd try: moving lights. Richard was walking around the cowshed with his torch and noticed that the lions did not come as long as he was moving. He concluded they were afraid of moving lights. So he took apart his mother’s new radio and learned electronics. He invented a string of solar operated lights. He strung his “moving” lights around the cowshed and the lions thought he was on patrol. Instead, he was sleeping! In the two years since his invention, they have not experienced a problem with lions. Richard is now stringing the lion lights for his neighbors and the neighboring villages. A 12 year old showed his village how to preserve their livelihood without killing the lions and this idea has now blossomed and expanded and is now being used all over Kenya to scare other predators away from farms.
Anna Fenninger, a gold medalist skier, spotlighted the cheetahs’ plight on the Olympic world stage using her helmet with a cheetah pattern. Her helmet provided a new and different story for the commentators and in a short period of time, the fragile existence of the cheetah was brought into the homes of millions.
Sometimes it feels impossible, but without hope we have nothing. The above stories aren’t the only success stories that involve mankind’s extraordinary efforts to help threatened and endangered animals.
We can enjoy the successful comeback of the peregrine falcons. By 1970 the peregrine falcon was near extinction in America and completely extinct in the eastern U.S. The successful comeback was made possible because of the ban on DDT but also in part because of the willingness of dedicated ornithologists wearing a “copulation cap” that enabled captive breeding by enticing male falcons to ejaculate into a receptacle on top of the ornithologists’ heads.
We can marvel at the dedication of the volunteers who for two months fly ultra light planes that teach the whooping cranes their annual 1,200 mile migration route.
And, most importantly we docents and volunteers, as parents and as teachers, can learn and be inspired by extraordinary conservation efforts and convey this hope to our young, who can continue our quest to save these magnificent animals.
Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (Penguin Press HC, 2013).
Hope for Animals and Their World by Jane Goodall with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson (Grand Central Publishing 2009)
“My invention that made peace with lions”, TED Talks (Feb. 2013), http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_turere_a_peace_treaty_with_the_lions/transcript
“Buddhist Monks Help Save Snow Leopards,” Living on Earth (Oct. 4, 2013), http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=13-P13-00040&segmentID=7.
“Record Number of Fall Chinook Pass Through Bonneville Dame”, YouTube (Oct. 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paRHvtpNENY