Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals and People in America is Dan Flores’s latest natural history book about the wild animals of the past, present and future. With some overlapping of his wonderful book American Serengeti, Wild New World starts at the beginning of our current understanding of human history. In many ways, the human-animal relationship is a paradox. Humans are animals, specifically they are mammals. Yet only humans are capable of contemplating conservation issues and doing something about it. (Other animals definitely make ecosystems better, see Ben Goldfarb’s excellent book, Eager – The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter on beavers specifically.)
The first part of the book is an amazing history of science’s best knowledge of pre-Homo Sapiens. Starting in Africa, our long ago ancestors over many generations spread out to nearly every place on the globe. Flores uses the term “biological first contact” to describe how these ancestral migrations would discover new animals and be able to easily kill them. At first. Thus, as these humans reached North America, the large now extinct animals were mostly unafraid of the new visitors. This seems most visible on islands (see the Great Auk).
As the book progresses, Pilgrims arrive on what will become the United States. They are met with “natives” as well as an abundance of wildlife. Flores explains that much of this abundance was relatively new. Disease accidentally brought on from previous explorers had wiped out large numbers of people, letting animal numbers increase dramatically. It is difficult to determine how many of what species could theoretically populate various ecosystems, especially as humans have settled in nearly every locale.
Speaking of humans, there is an ongoing background thread of “overpopulation” in Wild New World. Humans take the blame for Pleistocene extinctions (mostly true, but not for all species) and certainly are to blame for Anthropocene (current/recent) extinctions. But this is where we get into a sticky situation. On one hand, humans are simply another mammal species, a part of natural selection and hardly any different from a coyote. Yet, we somehow then sit outside of this family tree as something greater and responsible for fixing all past mistakes.
America’s Recent Extinctions
Wild New World covers nearly all of America’s recent extinctions and extremely close calls. As heartbreaking as it is to read these accounts, it is Flores at his best. Species like the colorful Carolina Parakeet (which most people probably never even heard of) to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Great Auk, and of course, the Passenger Pigeon.
I’ve read about the Passenger Pigeon’s plight dozens of times and it still seems fantastical. From literally billions of birds to absolute zero, it is ridiculous that this bird went extinct. Even more disgusting is that people saw this happen and did nothing to stop it or other extinctions after. Sadly, despite all the knowledge and science, this is still an issue today.
Large animals like bison and predators like wolves, coyotes, grizzly bears, and mountain lions all faced (and still face) extermination. Bison are mostly protected but highly managed and coyotes figured out how to deal with people. (See my favorite Flores’s book, Coyote America.) But so many species of animals endure ongoing threats.
Market hunting of the past destroyed a lot. And Flores does point out that Native Americans contributed to some animal depopulation in this new trade economy. This doesn’t compare to the atrocities of fur trappers and those hunting bison from trains. And has no comparison for the rabid desire to exterminate predators, specifically wolves and coyotes. Overall, people were fooled and foolish by the perceived endless supply of animals and uncaring even when they could see in front of them obvious population declines.
Wild New World introduces many to incredible scientists and naturalists of the past. Common figures like Charles Darwin, Aldo Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt (always) are present. But some that may be lesser known make a grand appearance. Olaus and Adolph Murie were brother scientists that studied predator-prey relationships, starting with coyotes and later wolves. There unbiased results showed that coyotes had minimal effect on elk and other herbivore populations, contrary to popular beliefs. They directly observed and recorded a true balance of nature.
This contrasts greatly with many current scientists that are more interested in knee-jerk reactions to current events in order to score political points. This is most blatant in the pandemic response and climate change*.
The book concludes with some more modern conservationists like Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) as well as the unfortunately controversial release of wolves into places like Yellowstone National Park. If history is our guide, it will take something beyond current political parties to ensure a future full of animal diversity. Clearly not even the left, that often claims to be the party of the environment, has a clear (or viable) idea on what should be done.
Whatever the future holds for animals, including humans, there can be only two ways to go. One, we give up and live in a diminishing, ugly world full of consumerism, division and hate. Or two, we actually come together and start caring for the natural world. This means and end to partisan hate and the obsession of the past regressions. An end to pointless bickering and a move forward with real ideas that blend conservation and capitalism into something that works for animals.
The American Prairie, which is introduced but does not get as much attention as it deserves in Wild New World is already providing a blueprint for real solutions. It might take longer than we want and face difficult obstacles, but this is the sort of big picture conservation that we need more of.
Note: Birdfreak.com received a copy of Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals and People in America to review.
*In order to avoid any attempts at calling me a “climate denier”, a nonsense term (who denies the climate?), I must state that I believe climate change is real and that humans directly are impacting it. I also believe that much of the science to correct it is terrible and unworkable.