Animal Planet

07.25.14

Mississippi Hippos, Teddy Bears, and Other Strange Beasts

Jon Mooallem talks to The Daily Beast (who else?) about whooping crane suits, hippos in the Mississippi, and the transformative power of Teddy Bears.

Jon Mooallem, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, become a sort of endangered-species whisperer with his colorful, often wrenching book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, a whirlwind story of three species—the polar bear, the metalmark butterfly, and the whooping crane—and the extraordinary efforts some groups are making to save them from extinction.

Mooallem also just sold the rights to his fantastical-but-true e-book American Hippopotamus, which details—and I’m not kidding here—the concerted efforts of two sworn enemies (they were trying to kill each other) to bring African hippos to the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century.

Mooallem spoke with The Daily Beast about polar bears, Teddy Bears, African hippos, assorted other beasts, and the recent paperback publication of Wild Ones.

Where do you live?

San Francisco.

What animals do you see the most in your usual routine?

Nothing too sexy. We live right by Bernal Hill, so we see a lot of hawks and other raptors up there. A lot of mourning doves. The usual stuff. Squirrels. The occasional raccoon is very exciting. Just your run-of-the-mill urban wildlife.

How did you start writing about animals?

One of the first stories I ever did for The Times Magazine was about pigeon control “Pigeon Wars.” I was following some very innovative solutions, and I just really found it interesting the way animals create certain problems that are almost impossible to solve but where we’re determined to solve them.

Did you write Wild Ones from a place of “hey, wake up, entire species are dying!” or did the stories just interest you as a journalist?

I’ve never had a real activist’s ambition as a writer or really as a person. I started from a place of real worry, I think. Not so much to sound the alarm for other people and shake people into action so much as to understand what was going on and try to come to some clear feeling about it rather than just dreading these problems in an abstract way.

In Wild Ones, you talk about the dwindling numbers of several species. Have things gotten better for any of them?

In some sense, the situation with the whooping cranes has gotten better because [researchers] have done more migrations and introduced more birds. The whole goal was to slowly bring up the number of birds. Really, there’s been no huge advance in any of the main animals that I wrote about.

If I look hard enough online, will I find video of you in one of those whooping crane suits?

No! I did wear one of the suits once, but [researchers] wouldn’t let me around the birds. They’re very strict about who gets around the birds. And for good reasons, I think. I had heard many stories about inexperienced people putting on the suit and getting near the birds and the birds recognizing their body language as being weak and the birds would just attack them.

What’s the point of the suits?

This is a project run by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. A group called Operation Migration is breeding whooping cranes in captivity—a lot in Maryland—and then bring them to Wisconsin to release them. But they need to teach the birds to migrate and don’t want to be so intimately involved with the birds in training them to migrate and how to be whooping cranes that the birds become comfortable around people. So they disguise themselves in these big white suits that are something like cross between a KKK outfit and a beekeeping suit. They fly in front of the birds in ultralight planes from Wisconsin to Florida wearing these suits.

Have you gotten a strong response to Wild Ones from any particular groups—pet people, extinction advocates, or the scientific community?

There’s two groups of people: One is people like myself—parents, frankly. Once you’re a parent, you think about things in a new way. There are different layers of worry that sink in when you think about the problems we’re facing, and it’s been great to hear from people who say they’ve had the same questions and worries.

The other is conservationists. I was frankly worried that a lot of people who work in conservation would be upset by the book. I air out a lot of the really troubling questions that are facing conservationists right now. Most of the time when you read about conservationists, it’s in simple, heroic terms. My sense is that people doing the work appreciate the portrayal of how complicated it is—that they put in all the effort even amidst that uncertainty.

American Hippopotamus has such a weird underlying premise that I almost don’t believe it. Can you describe briefly what it’s about?

It’s a true story about a plan in 1910 to import hippopotamuses from Africa to the Gulf Coast of the United States to ranch them as meat in the middle of a meat shortage. A plan reached Congress, there were hearings about it, there were New York Times editorials about it. It was a promising idea at the time and was the brainchild of two spies who had been sworn enemies who were trying to kill each other.

So why don’t we have gulf hippos today?

That’s what I tried to figure out. The idea had great momentum for a long time, and ultimately it didn’t happen for two reasons. One was administrative difficulty. There was a lobbying group set up, and these two spies had trouble getting their act together and getting on the same page. And the other reason is it was a little bit weird to people. We wound up turning swamps into fields and putting cows on them.

So the idea was that hippos would just swim up and down the Mississippi River?

Yeah—all over the swamps of the Gulf Coast. At the time, it was seen as a win-win because there was an infestation of invasive plants that the hippos would eat up and turn the problem of these plants that were choking the river from cargo ships and the fishing industry. They were going to suck up this problem and turn into the solution to the other problem, which was the meat shortage.

How did you come across that?

When I was writing Wild Ones, I got really obsessed with this taxidermist from the early 1900s named William Temple Hornaday, who became one of the nation’s first conservationists. I read a book he wrote in 1913 where he railed against how America squandered all of its wildlife. He had a line that said, “We can’t be trusted with hippos; look what we did to the bison!” I didn’t know what that meant, so I started looking into it.

And you just sold the film rights?

Yes! The film rights were sold to Edward Norton and Brett Ratner. Maybe nothing will come of that, or maybe it will be a movie eventually.

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‘Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America’ by Jon Mooallem. 352 p. Penguin Books. $19.56. ()

Your recent TED Talk (500,000 views and counting) is on the Teddy Bear. That’s about how the lovable, cuddly Teddy Roosevelt became the American mascot?

It’s from the part of Wild Ones where I talk about the origins of the Teddy Bear and also the Billy Possum [a William Howard Taft version of the Teddy Bear]—which didn’t really work—and started looking at how historical context shapes our perception of animals. How we can see a bear at one moment being a really fierce, terrible predator and then at another moment see it as this kind of cute, adorable victim.

Did you set out to be Animal Guy, or have you just had a lot of opportunities come your way because you’ve written about animals in the past?

(Laughs.) It wasn’t a conscious choice. I’ve always been interested in animals but not particularly knowledgeable about them. I still don’t think I’m super knowledgeable about the natural history of various animals. I see birds all the time and I don’t know what they are. I’ve always been drawn to stories where people gather around a problem that looks unsolvable and try to do the right thing. And I think more often than not I find that those problems are animals. There doesn’t seem to be an end to those kinds of stories.