Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Popularizing Wildlife

Now that I'm 60, occasionally this blog will be written by a guest blogger, the Grouchy Geezer. This is the transcript of tomorrow's For the Birds.
Black-capped Chickadee

Ever since I started using the Internet in the 90s, people have been uploading and sharing photos and videos of animals. Many show wild baby animals in zoos or rehab facilities. Naturally, these little creatures are adorable, and the videos do inspire people to donate to important and underfunded organizations, but in my mind it’s tragic that most people’s only understanding of baby sloths comes from watching them eating from baby bottles, and their only understanding of baby pandas comes from watching a tiny baby sneezing or doing other cute things in a big concrete and metal enclosure.

In the past month alone, I bet at least 100 people have sent me links to YouTube owl videos. There seem to be two kinds of popular ones. Most show captive owls in unnatural settings doing what appear to be cute things—pouncing on a moving light the way cats pounce on laser pointers, preening, turning or moving their head side to side in a funky way, fluffing up, and things like that. Many of these videos show owls from other continents, and most were made in other countries. The second kind of video shows owls in what appear to be wild settings, usually in flight or hunting. One really popular one shows an Eagle Owl flying directly toward the camera. This owl appears to me to be a captive bird trained to fly in for food, though you can’t see what is enticing it behind the camera. If you look closely in many of the others, of actual wild birds, you see that their prey animal isn’t wild, but some hapless gerbil or pet store mouse that has been tossed out to be ripped apart in a photo op.

Our human world has grown ever and ever more disconnected from the natural world. In one respect, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Thoreau was absolutely right that in wildness is the preservation of the world, but in the long run, concentrating our ever burgeoning numbers of humans into cities is the only way we can possibly save the ever dwindling pockets of natural habitat. So in a very real sense, in cities is the preservation of wildness. That’s the very reason Russ and I chose to live in a settled neighborhood of Duluth rather than carving our own little piece of heaven out of the surrounding natural habitat.

So I both understand and appreciate that more and more people are distanced from wildness. But there is excellent nature to be observed even in densely populated cities—my list of birds seen in the Chicago area alone includes a couple dozen species of warblers and a few owls, including a Snowy Owl that flew above my head as Russ and I walked along Lake Shore Drive. And my own backyard list of birds includes 175 species. But fewer and fewer people seem to notice the wild animals in their immediate surroundings except to complain about them or to try to tame them. And more and more people expect their encounters with animals to be accompanied by a soundtrack and edited to be more exciting or cute, and completely, and artificially, anthropomorphized. Interest in parrots involves the birds learning human speech, not how they communicate within their family and flocks. Few people would be interested in learning about manakin lekking, either on a video or by traveling to the right habitat in the tropics, but millions will click on a YouTube video showing a bird (few seem to care what species it is) doing what’s hyped as a Michael Jackson Moon Walk. Few people realize or care that owls have 14 neck vertebrae—twice as many as we have—and that their eyes are fixed in the sockets, but millions will click on a YouTube video showing an owl moving its head in what appears to be a comical way.

I’m also frustrated that more and more photos and videos of wild animals are based on unethical and potentially dangerous techniques on the part of the photographers. Feeding them rodents from pet shops habituates owls to people, which can be very dangerous for them when they approach people expecting a meal. It also exposes the birds to salmonella. And many photographers don’t even bother to lug their equipment far from their cars, so they increase the danger by feeding these birds too close to roadsides.

Over my lifetime, I’ve watched as children and adults in our culture have grown more sexualized, more violent, and more vain. When I watch TV ads for nature programming, the emphasis is always on momentary acts of mating and killing prey, or on animated or excessively edited features distorting reality to give animals an artificial cuteness or strangeness, as if their natural features aren’t enough. Sex, violence, and artificial physical enhancements are our obsessions, not the rich panoply of natural behaviors and natural looks that reflect real human beings and real animals. Something valuable is being lost right before our eyes.