Animal Stories


We don’t often see a lot of wild animals in these precincts, but somehow our Summer issue is bursting with them. From the twin grizzlies on our cover to the vanishing rhinos in our Letter from South Africa to the sandhill cranes in choreographed migration in our feature well to the sentient fish swimming in our book-review section, all we’re missing is that yellow border out front. We’ve even sprung for some fine National Geographic photographs.

But why should that estimable magazine have a lock on subjects it presents so well: wild animals and the natural world, our species’ relationship to the rest of Nature, and our place on Earth? In his cover story for us, “The Taming of the Wild,” environmental writer David Gessner celebrates the 100th anniversary of America’s national parks with a meditation on this last point. With the glorious exception of sandhill cranes, which in their hundreds of thousands have chosen for millennia to use a riverbank in Nebraska as a migratory rest stop—a far better choice, as it turns out, than a certain island at the mouth of the Hudson—other species seem to be paying the price for our strong sense that we are Earth’s stewards, if not masters.

The most exasperating examples of our failures in this regard do not include the biggest one—if we don’t wise up in time to slow global warming, at least we will suffer alongside our fellow creatures—but those based on cultural cravings that should have expired long ago. Rhinos face extinction because a market exists in China and Vietnam for their horns, which, when ground, are worth more than gold. (Similarly, a recent story in The New York Times reports that the dried swim bladder of a large fish called the totoaba, also endangered, is worth $5,000 a pound in China, where it is considered a delicacy. This whim endangers the last members of a species of small porpoises, the vaquitas, which drown when caught in totoaba nets.) The exasperating part is how often greed wins out, even when governments try to do the right thing. In the United States, our modest success in protecting grizzlies is threatened by those who feel the urge to hunt them, something the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might soon permit in Yellowstone. In its wisdom, the National Park Service has recently objected.

Which brings us back to Gessner. His theme is not only our responsibilities as humans or our capacity to fulfill those responsibilities, but also the more serious question of what the Earth is for. What if it wasn’t created for us? What if fish, which might turn out to have feelings, have an equal or greater claim?  What if the Earth isn’t really for anything—what if it simply is? What if, as Gessner suggests, the best thing we can do as a species is stand down, and permit the world to continue to evolve?

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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