When science writer Jon Mooallem took a hard look at his daughter’s world, he noticed that his four-year-old brushed her teeth with a whale-shaped toothbrush and her hair with a fish-shaped comb. Kids, he realized, live in a world of idealized animals. The adult world, of course, is more complex. In Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (Penguin Press, $28), Mooallem examines the disconnect between our arcadian animal love and the shameful ways we treat real critters. In Churchill, Manitoba, he witnesses climate change’s effect on polar bears—and sees the absurdity of media-driven conservation when he finds himself trapped with a gang of scientists in a tundra buggy chasing Martha Stewart, who’s there shooting a segment.
At a California wildlife refuge that serves as the only remaining habitat of the Lange’s metalmark butterfly, a naturalist rips out invasive weeds and tells Mooallem, “This place will never run on its own.” This is the hard truth of 21st-century environmentalism: humans are now godlike garden tenders. “If we choose to help [polar bears] survive,” Mooallem writes, “it will require a kind of narrow, hands-on management—like getting out there and feeding them.” Among a lot of environmentalists, those are fighting words. All respect to Mooallem for having the guts to say them.