The plights of polar bears, Lange's metalmark butterflies and whooping cranes frame this discussion of humankind's relations with the animal kingdom, the environment and itself.
In his debut, New York Times Magazine contributing writer Mooallem contrasts the perilous circumstances threatening some species with the conflicts that arise among sentiment, commerce and environmental science—e.g., over the polar bears that migrate through the town of Churchill, Manitoba, many of which starve and can't feed their cubs, and the quarter-sized butterflies that are on the verge of extinction. Neither of these cases, writes the author, is as simple as it appears. The polar bears have become pawns in an ongoing discussion involving the commercial livelihood of the Churchill residents and the interests of international tourists. In a similar situation, the butterflies in the Antioch Dunes Wildlife Refuge are losing the habitat that sustained them. For the bears, longer periods of ice-free conditions increase the length of time they must survive without the diet staple their seal hunting provides. The metalmark butterflies lost out to bulldozers, but more species are now found on the dunes than before. Mooallem compares these cases to the crane-reintroduction project Operation Migration, which is attempting to rebuild whooping crane populations by helping the birds learn to do what they are unable to do on their own—e.g., assisting their first-time migrations while preserving their fear of humans. The author profiles the protagonists in each of these three situations and presents current scientific work in the context of a broader historical discussion in which many well-known figures have significant roles, including Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.
An engaging nature/environment book that goes beyond simple-minded sloganeering.