The Woman Who Counted Fish: Conservation, Domestication and the Future of the Animal Kingdom

Jon Mooallem | Wild Ones, Penguin Press | May 2013 | 11 minutes (2,605 words)

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Below is the opening chapter of Jon Mooallem’s book Wild Ones, as recommended by Maria Popova, who is currently featuring it as one of her favorite books in a new installation at the New York Public Library. Mooallem also is appearing in a series of shows with the band Black Prairie starting Sept. 11. Thanks to Jon for sharing it with the Longreads community. 

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My daughter’s world, like the world of most American four-year-olds, has overflowed with wild animals since it first came into focus: lionesses, puffins, hippos, bison, sparrows, rabbits, narwhals, and wolves. They are plush and whittled. Knitted, batik, and bean-stuffed. Appliquéd on onesies and embroidered into the ankles of her socks.

I don’t remember buying most of them. It feels as if they just appeared—like some Carnival Cruise Lines–esque Ark had docked outside our apartment and this wave of gaudy, grinning tourists came ashore. Before long, they were foraging on the pages of every bedtime story, and my daughter was sleeping in polar bear pajamas under a butterfly mobile with a downy snow owl clutched to her chin. Her comb handle was a fish. Her toothbrush handle was a whale. She cut her first tooth on a rubber giraffe.

Our world is different, zoologically speaking—less straightforward and more grisly. We are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction, on a planet hemorrhaging living things so fast that half of its nine million species could be gone by the end of the century. At my place, the teddy bears and giggling penguins kept coming. But I didn’t realize the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep some semblance of actual wildlife in the world. As our own species has taken over, we’ve tried to retain space for at least some of the others being pushed aside, shoring up their chances of survival. But the threats against them keep multiplying and escalating. Gradually, America’s management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art.

We train condors not to perch on power lines. We slip plague vaccine to ferrets. We shoot barred owls to make room in the forest for spotted owls. We monitor pygmy rabbits with infrared cameras and military drones. We carry migrating salamanders across busy roads in our palms. On the Gulf Coast of Alabama every summer, volunteers wait up all night for tiny sea turtle hatchlings to clamber out of their nests in the sand, then direct them safely into the surf, through a trench shoveled down the beach and walled off with tarps to block out the disorienting lights of the condos behind them. And on the Columbia River, at the Washington-Oregon border, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lifts endangered salmon out of the water and trucks them around the Bonneville Dam, or barges them through the locks. Sea lions that swim upriver to eat the fish have been hazed with rubber bullets, shipped off to aquariums, and finally just killed; an entire colony of seabirds that had been picking off the juvenile salmon were trapped and relocated; and, at the furthest, most mundane reaches of this almost incomprehensibly sprawling program to protect the fish, the government has even hired ordinary Americans—retirees, housewives, at least one moonlighting concert clarinetist—to work as census takers in a cramped office inside the dam, several stories down, staring through an underwater window to count each and every fish that swims past the glass, an average of 4.5 million fish every year. On the morning I visited, a rail-thin woman named Janet was sitting at an old-fashioned metal desk, six hours into her eight-hour shift, scrunching her eyes with unshakable concentration as fish dribbled by the window one at a time, or swarmed through in rapid-fire mobs. Janet frequently dreams about counting fish, she told me. Once, she sat straight up in bed next to her husband and screamed, “Did you see the size of that one?”

There are many successes. Some aren’t as picturesque as we’d like to imagine. American crocodiles, once nearly extinct, have rebounded in Florida largely by colonizing 168 miles of canals dug to cool a nuclear-power plant. And peregrine falcons circle overhead again, thanks in part to ornithologists at Cornell University who, dedicated to collecting new genetic material and reviving the species, put on a specially made leather receptacle they called the “copulation hat” and coaxed captive falcons—one was named Beer Can—to ejaculate on their heads several times a day, every day, for much of the 1970s. Environmentalists are always shouting at America to care more about our planet’s many, pressing calamities. But we seem to care deeply enough about our wild animals to strap on the proverbial copulation hat again and again and again.


No one imagined it would come to this. And no one can say how far it will go. In a recent scientific paper, a group led by the government biologist J. Michael Scott conceded that a fundamental belief behind so much conservation—that we can “save” a species by solving a particular problem it faces, then walk away and watch it thrive—is largely a delusion. “Right now,” Scott says, “nature is unable to stand on its own.” We’ve entered what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene—a new geologic epoch in which human activity, more than any other force, steers change on the planet. Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. Scott and his colleagues gave those creatures’ condition a name: conservation-reliant. It means that, from here on out, we will increasingly be forced to cultivate the species we want, in places we protect and police just for them, perpetually rejiggering some asymmetrical balance to keep each one from sliding into extinction. We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred. Obviously, there’s no hint of all this manual labor in the bedtime stories I’ve been reading to my daughter. Her animals seem to be getting along fine, in a wilderness that has nothing to do with us. The coyote pups nuzzle. The skunks learn important lessons. There once was a woman who counted fish may sound like the start of a simple children’s story. But why that actual woman is counting them is too tortuously complicated to ever explain.

This book is about finding yourself straddling those two animal worlds—a little kid’s and the actual one—and trying to understand both. Or at least it’s about me trying to understand them, at first naively and with vague unease, and, eventually, with a mostly futile compulsion to reconcile the two. One of those worlds is real. One is imaginary. But, frankly, for most of us, they both may as well be abstractions.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, where I loved watching nature shows like Wild America but had little to no experience with actual wildlife. (Once, two ducks landed in our backyard and sat in the shade for an entire afternoon. My mother called Animal Control.) And the truth is, as for a lot of adults, my ideas about wild animals probably aren’t as different as I’d like to think from the typical toddler’s. Once I started looking around, I noticed the same kind of secondhand fauna that surrounds my daughter embellishing the grown-up world, too—not just the conspicuous bald eagle on flagpoles and currency, or the big-cat and raptor names we give sports teams and computer operating systems, but the whale inexplicably breaching in the life-insurance commercial, the glass dolphin dangling from a rearview mirror, the owl sitting on the rump of a wild boar silk-screened on a hipster’s tote bag. I spotted wolf after wolf airbrushed on the sides of old vans, and another wolf, painted against a full moon on purple velvet, greeting me over the toilet in a Mexican restaurant bathroom.


Lately, wild animals have become objects of quiet fascination. And, whatever they might mean, the bottom line is that we now live in a country where it’s possible to become an Internet celebrity and get booked on the Today show just by posting a YouTube video of an eagle, a fox, and a house cat sitting on your porch doing absolutely nothing. (Last time I checked, Pam Aus’s video, titled “An eagle, a fox and my cat all getting along fine on my porch,” had close to three million views.) Somehow, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by just the idea of them—all these autonomous and unknowable neighbors who just happen to live here, too, on the other side of a fence we only occasionally see over. As the naturalist Henry Beston wrote in 1928, “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

What I’m saying is, maybe we never outgrow the imaginary animal kingdom of childhood. Maybe it’s the one we are trying to save.

I decided to go see three endangered species in North America for myself: a bear, a butterfly, and a bird. I figured I’d look closely, ask around, and compare those field notes to the bestiary in my mind.

As it happens, those three animals occupy three different points on a continuum of conservation reliance: over time, humans have manually overridden the machinery of their wildness to different degrees. In the case of the polar bear, conservationists are only starting to ask what we can, and should, do to prop up those animals in a changing climate. With the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly, we stepped in to resuscitate the species decades ago, hooking ourselves to it like life support and keeping a sometimes ambivalent vigil ever since. And with the whooping crane, we’ve been on the job even longer, entangling ourselves in the bird’s fate more strangely and persistently than anyone could have imagined.

I didn’t know any of this at the outset. This isn’t a textbook; these three species may not give a fair overview of how modern conservation operates or the range of its accomplishments. I’m not even convinced that their preservation is that important in the bigger, and bleaker, ecological picture. I gravitated to them only because they seemed to have good stories to tell, with a captivating cast of human characters bound up in them. Wherever I went, I found a different crowd of idealists and bystanders encircling the animals—squinting, as though into a furious fire, trying in earnest to see and understand. And, gradually, I found myself squinting at the people squinting at those animals, with the same curiosity. They weren’t all government biologists or canonized Jane Goodall types—not even mostly. Instead, I met ranks of impassioned hobbyists, or hobbyists who’d surprised themselves by becoming professionals—many of whom were still trying to justify or refine their own imaginative relationships to those animals and their impulses to help. They were asking the same questions that I was asking as a journalist, and living with the same creeping disquiet about the future that I’d only started to feel as a father.

America has been working out its feelings about wild animals this way since before it was officially America, using them to contemplate its own character. Every country has wildlife, of course, but it’s always been different here somehow. When the nation was founded, it didn’t have a Sistine Chapel or any Great Books. It had coastlines gushing with oysters and crustaceans, forests crammed with deer and wolves and, out on the frontier, some thirty million buffalo rumbling over the plains as a single, shifting spectacle. Some of the first European travelers to the continent had literally swept up fish with brooms, and letters describing that abundance—how stocked America’s pantry was—sped back home as de facto marketing materials to bring over more colonists. In the Old World, wildlife and the right to hunt it were controlled by an uptight aristocracy. But here, as one early traveler boasted, anyone with “strength, sense and health” could gather up enough to live on with minimal effort, no matter how rich or poor. It was a crisp articulation of what we now know as the American Dream.

It never dawned on anyone that those species could be driven extinct. But by the late nineteenth century, it was clear that America was overdrawing its natural wealth, and some took the ongoing extermination as a troubling gauge of where the industrializing nation was heading. The rapid disappearance of wild animals, one early conservationist wrote, was a blight on the “reputation of American citizenship.”

From then on, the story of American wildlife would become a story of an infinitely receding Eden. By the 1970s, when the Endangered Species Act made securing those animals in place a national priority, our sense of what was at stake enlarged yet again, beyond simple patriotism or even science, tilting toward mushier questions of morality or mysticism.

I found the anxieties and longings of all three of these eras, each roughly a century apart, stitched erratically inside the stories I was following on the ground today. Little by little, they gathered into a kind of cultural history of wild animals in America. In retrospect, I was drawn especially to moments when conservation and popular culture collided, and to historical heroes who were even more idiosyncratic than the folks I was encountering now: Thomas Jefferson, an early American president with a very dorky hobby; William Temple Hornaday, a prideful and paradoxical turn-of-the-century taxidermist; and Joan McIntyre, a Berkeley hippie with a disarming interest in whale sex.

They’re not giants of American conservation—they failed quite a lot, in fact. But each seems to have added a new dimension to the meaning of that work, inflecting the ways we’ve thought and felt about wildlife ever since, and about the consequences of its loss. From the very beginning, America’s wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination just as much as they‘ve inhabited the actual land. They are free-roaming Rorschachs, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them. The wild animals always have no comment.

I turned thirty the year my daughter, Isla, was born. I’m part of a generation that seems especially resigned to watching things we encountered in childhood disappear: landline telephones, newspapers, fossil fuels. But leaving your kids a world without wild animals feels like a special tragedy, even if it’s hard to rationalize why it should.

The truth is that most of us will never experience the Earth’s endangered animals as anything more than beautiful ideas. They are figments of our shared imagination, recognizable from TV, but stalking places—places out there—to which we have no intention of going. I wondered how that imaginative connection to wildlife might fray or recalibrate as we’re forced to take more responsibility for its wildness.

It also occurred to me early on that all three endangered species I was getting to know could be gone by the time Isla is my age. It’s possible that, thirty years from now, they’ll have receded into the realm of dinosaurs, or the realm of Pokémon, for that matter—fantastical creatures whose names and diets little kids memorize from books. And it’s possible, too, I realized, that it might not even make a difference, that there would still be polar bears on footsy pajamas and sea turtle–shaped gummy vitamins—that there could be so much actual destruction without ever meaningfully upsetting the ecosystems in our minds.

That was the most disturbing part somehow—the disconnection. So I decided to bring Isla with me on some of my trips. Even if she didn’t remember any of it later, I figured, maybe knowing that she’d seen those actual animals in the wild would make them feel more real. I never predicted, however, that having her with me would change what I saw.

All I wanted was to bring her out there. I wanted us to see some wild ones.

From Wild Ones, copyright 2013 Jon Mooallem, Penguin Press.


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