In late February I went panther tracking in southern Florida, flying in a Cessna 182 with Darrell Land, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Service guy who has been working with the highly endangered population of Florida panthers for some 35 years. In addition to monitoring radio-collared panthers from the air, Land’s time is spent mitigating the interactions between the roughly 150 panthers alive today in southern Florida and humans. To date, there has never been a death or even an attack by a panther in the state. “We’re not a sought after food item, we’re completely off the list,” Land explained. But he likes to point to a photograph in his office of a vital, tawny colored panther sitting assertively next to a birdbath in a backyard. “That’s the future of panthers,” he said. “Most people love them. They watch Animal Planet and NatGeo on TV and think they’re neat and cool. If next to that birdbath there was a sandbox with their three-year-old in it, they would have a different view.” Panthers, Land believes, will only succeed if people can tolerate seeing them in their landscape. Recently, this tolerance has been in short supply. For five years in a row, a panther has been shot and killed, a felony offense in Florida. One hunter was fined and sentenced to jail-time for killing a panther with his bow and arrow in 2011. “I don’t like those damn things,” he said. “Down here, it’s been a begrudging acceptance,” said Land. “It was fine when there was twenty or thirty. But now there’s a lot more.”
There is a well-known video in conservation circles that shows the last known Thylacine in Australia. Captured in black and white, the now-extinct animal with a blockish head and striped hindquarters appears strange to modern eyes, pacing a cage and sniffing the air anxiously as though he were transported from a different world. I was reminded of that footage recently when I came across the video above, which shows one of the last, wild Mexican grey wolves. Rick LoBello, an education curator at the El Paso Zoo, shot the film in the late 1970s with an 8 mm camera in Alpine, Texas, but the animal was captured by an infamous American hunter and tracker by the name of Roy McBride. I've been writing about McBride and his involvement with a different species, the Florida panther, over the last few months, but his work with Mexican gray wolves is at least, if not even more, fascinating.
When Cormac McCarthy was writing the second book in his Border Trilogy series, The Crossing, he found inspiration for the story of a haunted sixteen-year-old boy trying to catch a she-wolf in McBride, who once spent eleven months trying to hunt and kill a single Mexican gray wolf in the Durango-Zacatecas border. Among the circle of hunters and naturalists in the American southwest, the story has become the stuff of legend. The male wolf was known as "Las Margaritas," and he was missing two toes from his left front foot, the result of an encounter with a metal trap that he managed to escape from. In the late 1960s, Las Margaritas was killing dozens of yearling steers and heifers on Mexican ranches. “The wolf seldom used the same trail twice and if he came into a pasture by a log road, he left by a cow trail,” wrote McBride in a 1980 government report. “I was sure I could catch Las Margaritas, but I couldn’t get him near a trap.” McBride tried baited traps and blind traps, traps boiled in oak leaves, and traps concealed in carefully sifted dirt. None worked. After months of intensive effort, McBride had managed to get the wolf close to a trap just four times. During that time he traveled thousands of miles on horseback trying to understand the animal’s uncanny ability to elude him. “Almost a year had passed and I was now convinced that I would never catch this wolf,” he wrote. “At times, however, I had noticed where Margaritas had investigated a campfire along the road where log-truck drivers had stopped along the way to cook. I set a trap near a road that the wolf was sure to come down if it continued to kill in the area, built a fire over the trap and let it burn itself out.” McBride put a piece of dried skunk hide in the ashes and waited. One day in March, the wolf caught wind of the ashes and went to investigate. The trap caught him by his crippled foot. “Just how the wolf could tell the traps were there is something I cannot comprehend to this date,” wrote McBride.
Wolf lovers and conservationists will shudder at the story of a man hunting down what we now know was one of the few remaining individuals of the Mexican gray wolf species left in the wild. But McBride’s legacy is more complicated than that. In 1976 the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Endangered Species hired McBride to find out whether any of the same wolves the government had previously hired him to kill, had survived in Mexico. He traveled around the country and found some twelve wolves in the state of Durango and half a dozen in the state of Chihuahua. In all, McBride estimated as many as fifty individuals in all of Mexico might still be living, but the possibility of the species being saved in the wild was impossible. The next year the government hired him to trap six gray wolves, two in Sierra del Nido in Chihuahua and four near Coneto in Durango and deliver them for a captive breeding program in Tucson, Arizona. The resulting Mexican gray wolf conservation program was defined by years of political controversy, bureaucratic turmoil and a population of animals that fluctuated perilously close to extinction. But today, around 80 Mexican gray wolves roam the southwest, more than any time since the government reintroduced them to the wild in 1998. The population descends from just seven individuals representing three captive lineages; the Aragon, Ghost Ranch and McBride. “I think I had the best job anybody ever had,” said McBride once. “It was worth it to get to see those tracks and the things they did. I had no idea we could ever get rid of them. There just wasn’t any support to try and preserve them. Or if there was, you didn’t know who they were.”
Hummingbirds, owls and finches are some of the 130,000 bird specimens preserved at University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. The 125-year-old museum continues to preserve whole specimens but it increasingly focuses on its Genetic Resources Collection, one of the largest in the country. Today the museum maintains tissue samples from some 50,000 birds that are cryogenically frozen and kept in deep freezers. I've been visiting, reading and researching "frozen zoo" initiatives around the world and one of the best perspectives I've found on them comes from the anthropologist Tracey Heatherington. Here's an quick excerpt from her essay, "From Ecocide to Genocide: Can Technoscience Save the Wild?"
"Mundane monitoring of population health and protection of habitats is necessarily the mainstay of wildlife management for most biodiversity conservation programs. Yet the moral terrain of extinction is tremendously evocative for the genetic imagination, defining the frontiers of capital investment in both technoscience and biodiversity."
"Once in a very great while, a species that is thought extinct is rediscovered, long before another heaven and another earth have passed. Sometimes it is utter serendipity..." --The Ghost With Trembling Wings
Back in Albuquerque, I finally found a 1st edition of a book I've been searching for the last year, River of Traps by writer William deBuys and photographer Alex Harris. When it came out in 1990, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize but both author and photographer weren't very well-known. deBuys had written one other New Mexico-centric book, Enchantment and Exploitation, and Harris had just founded the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University after years of photographing native Alaskans and living in New Mexico. Today, deBuys has published widely on the topic of desertification and conservation and Harris' work is in collections like MOMA and the Getty.
River of Traps has become something of a quiet cult classic (it was reissued in 2008) because it is so unusual: loosely-connected observations about a New Mexico farmer, Jacobo Romero, who was a neighbor to deBuys and and Harris on their own farm in northern New Mexico, accompanied by black and white photographs. Much of the book follows Romero through his fields and village as he cryptically explains the complexities of irrigation or fence-making. He didn't necessarily have revolutionary ideas or major accomplishments to his name. He wasn't even well-known during his lifetime beyond his small village. It's just that over time, he has become a representation of a way of life and a kind of deeply-indigenous knowledge--the product of generations of stewardship of the land--that has become so rare it is nearly extinct, even in New Mexico. His significance has become clearer and more urgent over the years. .
I think some of the best passages from River of Traps are descriptions of Romero's brutally pragmatic relationship to death, an attitude born of survival and utilitarianism, even when it was the passing of a horse that had carried and toiled for him for over 30 years only to die in a fairly tragic fashion during a flood.
"Alex never photographed the red horse, and the red horse never had a name. Like much else in the history of small places, the horse epitomized something basic about the land that nourished it. It was an embodiment, literally, of the valley's grass and water, and a relic of its weather. LIving, it had been a definition of local horsiness, ridden by an old man and plodding as slowly as the change of seasons down the dusty village road. The red horse passed its years, stalwart and unique, then dropped from sight, and eventually will drop from memory too, as slowly, without it, the place changes... The virtue of namelessness was that it made the unforgettable easier to avoid. Jacobo never mentioned the red horse. Nor did anyone. As the dead had no name, no one spoke of the dead, and its presence could not intrude, unwanted in conversation. Memories were locked away. Jacbobo's sense of loss--and everyone's--became as personal as fingerprints."
One more on the subject of death:
"In the mountains the touch of death was never far away. An animal died or was killed somewhere in the valley nearly every day. You shot the cow, or in the old-fashioned way, clubbed it with an ax or a maul, you did it with dispatch. But never with grace. No cow or hog ever fell in the right position, and the aftermath of its death, the turning and bleeding and lugging around, was invariably messy and difficult. Killing a sheep was different. A sheep does not struggle or even protest its own death and accordingly does not merit a bullet. YOu straddle its back, grasp it by the lower jaw, pull back the head and slice the throat deeply with a knife, cutting to the spine if you can to be sure of severing the arteries. A chicken's death, meanwhile, was scarcely noticed; you simply swung it round by the head, casually, like a toy."
Out west there is a train route for almost any journey. I needed to get from Seattle, Washington to Santa Fe, New Mexico and so over the coarse of seven days I took four trains 2,227 miles--from Douglas firs and wild Pacific Ocean into the heart of desert bordering the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It could have been done by plane in a day but I had some time to spare and could afford to absorb the transition from grey-blue skies to sun-soaked earth at an average speed of 40 mph.
The New Mexico landscape is the backdrop for Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a novel that is full of long, grueling journeys by horseback, wagon and train. Towards the end of the book, the Navajo Eusabio mused to Father Latour: "Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things."
I've got a new piece out in Salon laying out some of the ethical territory when it comes to de-extinction.
"There is the hope implicit in the possibility of de-extinction that it will help humanity avert the environmental apocalypse that extreme biodiversity loss threatens. De-extinction pioneers are eager to invest their efforts with a deeper moral purpose, one that suggests the power to bring back species could mitigate humanity’s liability in the ongoing Sixth Great Extinction, and even work to correct past crimes against the planet. “Humans have made a huge hole in nature, we have the ability, maybe the moral obligation, to repair that damage,” said environmentalist Stuart Brand, former editor of the 1960s back-to-the-land guide Whole Earth Catalog, and co-founder of the Revive and Restore Foundation.
To date, de-extinction has received a lot of breathless publicity but very little critical debate. The question that remains unanswered is whether it could become a useful conservation tool for the thousands of species that are endangered and facing extinction today. In fact, it is possible that these advances could have the opposite effect, putting endangered species at greater risk."
Read it here!
Between Aurora and Phinney Avenues just southwest of Green Lake in the heart of Seattle is the Woodland Park Zoo where from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. any day of the week you can pay $18.75 for the privilege of seeing one of the most enigmatic animals on the planet, Pantheria uncia, the snow leopard.
The Seattle zoo has had snow leopards since 1972 when a pair arrived from the Soviet Union and today it has two cats, Helen and Tom, as well as their one-year-old brood of three cubs. Over the last 12 months, these cubs have gone from frisky kittens to lackadaisical felines. When they aren’t pacing the confines of their fenced-in enclosure, they are sleeping with their charred-gray noses resting atop limp paws, majestic yet docile-looking as house cats.
The same year that the zoo in Seattle got its first snow leopards, 45-year-old Peter Matthiessen, writer and co-founder of The Paris Review, met zoologist George Schaller in Kathmandu to begin a 250 mile journey into the Himalayas that resulted in Matthiessen's famous natural history book, The Snow Leopard. At their first introduction in 1969, Schaller had told the writer that he knew of only two Westerners in 25 years who had spotted the Himalayan snow leopard. Schaller, in fact, was the first person to film the leopard in the wild.
“Not only is it rare…but it is wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it. Even those who know the mountains rarely take it by surprise: most sightings have been made by hunters lying still near a wild herd when a snow leopard happened to be stalking.”
For Matthiessen, a student of Buddhism, the opportunity to track the leopards and venture near the frontier of Tibet to where the “Crystal Monastery” is located was “a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.” When The Snow Leopard was published in 1979 it was not so much a plea for conservation of the cat as it is a rumination on the author’s physical and spiritual journey into the wild animal’s habitat and the nature of mind.
The worldwide population of snow leopards today is somewhere between four and seven thousand but since Matthiessen journeyed to the Himalayas, the captive population has increased significantly from perhaps less than one hundred to over 600, about 10 percent of the world’s population. The contrast between 1972 and today in this regard is remarkable: back then leopards were rare and enigmatic in the wild and virtually unseen by visitors to zoos. Today, the species is common to over 70 zoos in North America. It’s impossible to say that this genetically and demographically stable captive population—accessible to over 100 million visitors each year–is somehow not good. But I am also reminded while reading Matthiessen’s journey into snow leopard country by something that Holmes Rolston, the grandfather of the field of environmental ethics, recently said to me in an interview.
"You’re talking with someone who likes to see animals wild. I’m not keen on tigers in zoos. I was in India in March and saw tigers in the wild. That sends chills up and down my spine. If I go down to the Denver Zoo, I kind of pity the thing. Maybe it has got habitat enrichment but it can’t roam around or hunt. A tiger in a zoo isn’t really a tiger anymore. It’s not doing its thing.”
Fine art photographer Anne Berry has made primates a subject of her work in the collection "Behind Glass." Here she is on the meaning of the name and her motivation behind the beautiful black and white series :
"'Behind Glass' refers both to the glass or boundaries of an enclosure and to the glass of the camera lens. Often I find myself gazing into the eyes of a monkey, his hand touching the glass wall that separates our worlds. The animal’s candid stare, the reflection of glass, and the frame of a window are all elements that speak to issues of nature and captivity. My photographs are about the beauty of animals but, more importantly, about their plight. The pictorial quality of these images softens the shock, but the punch is there in the eyes and melancholy expressions of the animals. Primates especially are able to remind people of the undeniable connection between man and animal, and this feeling evokes a memory of a time when man was part of nature."
Around 2 million years of evolutionary history separate black and white rhinos according to mitochondrial DNA analysis. Were these two reminiscing? "I was photographing a White Rhino in Etosha National Park busy having a mud bath, when from the opposite side a Black Rhino appeared. Much to my astonishment the two rhinos walked towards each other and rubbed their horns in greeting. I could not believe what I saw, as normally they avoid and ignore each other... I've been a wildlife photographer for many years. Never seen anything like it."