Nov 3, 2010

Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg

Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg

William Stolzenburg’s Where the Wild Things Were is a passionate and very accessible account of the devastating ecological impact of the disappearance of big predators – be it killer whales on the seas, sea stars in small rock ecosystem, or wolves, bears and mountain lions on land.

Stolzenburg’s book combines natural history and cautionary environmental writing with several case studies that illustrate Hairston, Smith and Slobodkin’s Green World Hypothesis, known today as trophic cascade. According to this hypothesis, the balance between predator and prey is crucial for biodiversity. To put it simply, the only reason why terrestrial herbivores don’t consume entire forests is because predators are there to keep them in check. Once these predators disappear, the whole ecosystem is tipped out of balance. The forests themselves begin to be at risk, as they can no longer support the increasing herbivore population, and as a result the many other life forms they support are threatened too.

Humankind has been directly and indirectly responsible for the disappearance of great predators for centuries now, and Stolzenburg describes the consequences this had had on several parts of the world. When Hairston, Smith and Slobodkin first presented their hypothesis in 1960, there wasn’t enough experimental evidence available to make it more than a conjecture, but as Stolzenburg shows us, this has long since ceased to be the case. Where The Wild Things Were presents a series of examples, all of which illustrate the same point - but don’t worry, this doesn’t make it a repetitive book in the least. Stolzenburg’s powerful writing and the dire reality of what he’s describing make this as gripping and unsettling as a nature thriller – but unfortunately, it’s all true.

Wolf
Photo Credit

The point Where The Wild Things Were is trying to make does need a lot of illustrating, as unfortunately, even as the evidence piles up, the idea that we need predators still meets with an incredible amount of resistance. I’m sure there are many reasons for this – fear, convenience, financial or political interests, and the fact that a large portion of humankind has yet to accept the fact that we aren’t and will never be in full control of nature – but sadly the consequences are the same regardless of people’s intentions or motivations. As predators disappear, so do countless other species, and a lot of the time this loss of biodiversity is irreversible.

As you can imagine, Where The Wild Things Were is quite an upsetting book, but it also has moments of great beauty: William Stolzenburg writes with passion, enthusiasm, and a deep respect for nature in all its complexity. His love for predators goes beyond their role in maintaining biodiversity: even if we disregard their ecological impact, there’s no denying that wolves, tigers, lions or grizzly bears have a deep hold on our imagination. We fear them, we are fascinated by them, and we know how much they enrich the world.

Bear
Photo Credit

If Where The Wild Things Were repeatedly made me want to cry, it wasn’t only because it made me aware of the rate at which species are disappearing, or of how much we have already lost. It was also because it made me realise that the mere existence of these animals moves me, and that I don’t want to live in a world from which they are gone.

Favourite bits:
As the lianas gained control, they spread atop the canopies, blocking the light, smothering the trees. The seedlings and saplings of the Guri forests were dying faster than they could be replaced. No more monkeys, no more ants, no more trees. “The end point of this process,” Terborgh and his colleagues would later write, “is a nearly treeless island buried under an impenetrable tangle of liana stems.”
Said Freely, “I wish everyone could go to Guri. Because I think our message would be crystal clear then, if they were actually able to see this place.”

“We can now say,” Martin continued, “that limiting predators has costs—costs to forestry, and costs to wildlife. If you want to protect land without wolves, you risk losing birds, plants, et cetera. Wolves can thus be management tools. That may sound shocking, but the more one examines our work, the more we can say that this could be a solution, the only solution in some areas, to the problem caused by overabundance of deer.”

Not only does the slime rise, but over time it actually begins to look good. Slime has become the norm in many young minds (among them young conservation biologists). And the younger the observer, the more acceptable the slime. It is the phenomenon made known by the marine biologist Daniel Pauly as the shifting-baseline syndrome. The world as first seen by the child becomes his lifelong standard of excellent, mindless of the fact he is admiring the ruins of his parents. Generation to generation, the world decays and the ratchet of perception tightens. Gradually, imperceptibly, big sharks give way to small sharks, small sharks to baitfish, baitfish to jellyfish to slime. On land, the big cats and wolves become feral house cats and coyotes. The wild standard sinks even lower and becomes even heavier to raise. Few notice, few care. Eventually, nobody remembers that wolves not long ago freely roamed the Adirondaracks, and hence there is mad howling over the suggestion of returning them to their homeland.
Reviewed at: nothing of importance, Words by Annie

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29 comments:

  1. Oh Ana, thank you so much for this wonderful review! I don't have to tell you how much this topic means to me, and the fact that you can bring your beautiful writing and passion to reviewing this book just makes me so happy and grateful. You really are the best, my dear!

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  2. Debi, *I*'m the one who's grateful, because if it weren't for you I'd not only not own this book, but I would probably not have heard of it. Thank you again <3.

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  3. oh this sounds great ,I do like the occasional nature based book ,this seems to have a good point behind it ,all the best stu

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  4. Wow Ana, sounds like a really fantastic and important book. Now, if only we could get all those skeptics to read it! Definitely going on my wish list.

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  5. These books are always so sad! I have read a couple of books by David Quammen on the same subject - he is a very good science writer - and I still think about the poor Dodo all the time!

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  6. Great review and important book. It's sad to think that just the next generation younger will not see the same world we have.

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  7. Great review and important book. It's sad to think that just the next generation younger will not see the same world we have.

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  8. This is one of those books where you have to hide your emotions and read it and deal with it. I really want to read this now. I think we all should.

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  9. This sounds very affecting. Does Stolzenburg offer anything that the scientific community or even the layperson can do to help predators, or are we too far gone for that?

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  10. I have really been into nature writing as of late, but admit that I have never read a book about this subject. It sounds fascinating and also very sad. I am going to have to give this book a try, as it seems like it would be a good fit for me. I am so glad that you loved it, and hope that I feel the same!

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  11. This sounds like a must-read for me. I haven't heard of anything quite like this since Douglas Adams' Last Chance To See.

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  12. Sounds like a fascinating, if sad, read.
    How is it that you always manage to review books I discover I want to read :)

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  13. wow (and woe), sounds like an amazing book.

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  14. This book sounds excellent, and yes, predators are essential to an ecosystem. Where I live, deer overgraze the land because we've killed and driven off virtually all their natural predators. And people still haven't learned. A few years ago, our government was paying bounties for killing coyotes. It is a horrible situation.

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  15. I've been tempted by a number of books on this or similar subjects recently, but they just sound so sad! I keep putting them off :/

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  16. I find the concept of balance so very intriguing whether ecologically, emotionally, etc. This sounds like a fascinating book.

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  17. I hadn't seen this book before, but it looks like something I would like to read. I learned about some efforts to help big predators when I discovered Rewilding the World by Caroline Fraser, a book I think you would appreciate.

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  18. This sounds intense but fascinating. It's interesting to hear the public prejudices against the preservation of big predators, because an acquaintance of mine is doing preservation work on the other, equally important side - bugs and microorganisms who are endangered due to habitat disruption, but which don't have the charisma or name recognition of big cats, bears or wolves. As you say, the big predators do exert a pull over the collective imagination. My acquaintance grouses that you can always get people to donate money to save pandas or jaguars, but somehow species of algae just don't get the same response. :-P Anyway, this sounds like a very worthwhile read.

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  19. Stu, I hope you enjoy this one if you get around to picking it up :)

    Amy: I know! Sadly the people who need to read it the most probably never weill. As great as these books are, they unfortunately always seem to preach to the choir.

    Jill: Will look up Quammen asap!

    Beth: I know :\ We're losing so much, all the time.

    Vivienne: I agree; as heartbreaking as it is we all should.

    Clare: Stolzenburg is not optimistic, but not hopeless either. One of the things he keeps recommending is that people involved in conservation efforts remember that to support predators in particular, conservation areas can't be too small. It's no good having two large chunks of land side by side if they're cut by a highway - most of the times the animals will not cross over, or if they do, they'll be hit by cars - which kind of defeats the whole purpose :\

    Zibilee, I hope you do too!

    Jeanne: I LOVED Last Chance to See. Stolzenburg isn't quite the writer Douglas Adams was, but then again, who is?

    Fence: I steal all my reading ideas from other bloggers :P

    Katherine Langrish: Woe indeed :(

    Stephanie: Stolzenburg mentions countless examples just like that :\ It's so frustrating.

    Emily Jane: I can't blame you, as they certainly don't make for cheerful reading :\

    Trisha: It's difficult to achieve - and sometimes it's difficult for people to even grasp why it matters so much! But we need to, or else it will be too late.

    Gavin: Thank you so much for the recommendation! Stolzenburg does mention the rewilding movement, and it really saddened me to read about the opposition it met with (which included death threats to advocates :\).

    Emily: Yep, as badly of as large predators are, it's certainly much easier to get sympathy and support for them than for microorganisms! I don't envy your poor acquaintance the task of trying to convince people that they also matter.

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  20. I would love to read this book. Thanks so much for writing about it. I've been aware of the need for predators to balance the prey populations, and it's been mentioned in many nature books I read, but never actually the focus of any of them. It sounds fascinating (if sad).

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  21. Wonderful review Ana, this sounds like a very powerful book. Thanks.

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  22. Wonderful review about an upsetting but important subject. I always feel such guilt for how we humans have managed to mess up the lives of animals and plants and such.

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  23. Jeane: I'd never read anything where it was the main focus either. It was interesting to explore the idea in detail for once - but so sad too :\

    Mariel, I've no doubt you'd love it!

    Jenners: Me too :\

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  24. Thanks so much for this wonderful review, Ana! It is really sad that development has destroyed many forests, which in turn has reduced the number of predators. I am a big fan of big cats and I knew for sometime now that the number of tigers in the wild is very low. But recently, while reading something on lions and other big cats I was surprised to discover that the number of big cats in general is very low and they are still poached and hunted and if sufficient practical measures are not taken by governments, they might become extinct soon. It is a really sad state of affairs. Stolzenburg's book looks quite fascinating from your review, and I will add it to my 'TBR' list.

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  25. I've never thought about the role predators play in keeping the world in balance. It makes sense, though--without predators to keep prey in check, the balance is disrupted.

    Where the Wild Things Were sounds like a beautiful and important book. I don't read as much nonfiction as I would like and am always on the lookout for good recommendations.

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  26. What a wonderful review of a great book! Wild life is a subject that is close to my heart. I am a supporter of WWF.

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  27. This sounds like an excellent book. I have thought a lot about big predators since getting my first cat of my own last year. Watching the way he moves and stalks, thinking about how terrifying he would be if he were bigger than me. And noticing how much big cats in nature films now remind me of my own cat, in their postures and little tics. That doesn't make me want to think of wild things as cute pets, it makes me just want them to *be* there, being the gorgeous things they are. At the same time, I've heard a lot of scary true stories of local cougars stalking and killing livestock and sometimes humans. They're doing very well parts of the northwest US. There's this push and pull. Reintroduction to compromised habitats, and populations that balloon and then need human "management" never work out as well as the original balance. I like Rhapsodyinbooks's comment. It all starts with the algae! Catch it at the algae stage! Maybe it would help if people kept pet algae...

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  28. Vishy: Tigers are my favourite animals, and it really depresses me that they're still being poached even though they're so near extinction :( And the same goes for so many other species. I wonder if in 3 or 4 generations it will be too late, and if so, what will our descends think of us?

    Erin: This one will likely make my nonfiction list of favourites of the year - it was incredibly sad, but so good.

    Alice: I've donated to them in the past and need to do it again!

    Trapunto: I've often had similar thoughts when watching my cats (I miss them! Sniff). Predators are not cute or cuddly, but I want them to exist somewhere out there. Not only because they're necessary for ecological balance, but because they make the world a more interesting place. Still, as you say it's complicated to have them live side by side with people. Stolzenburg mentions a few cases of attacks, and if on the one hand the media attention they get makes them seem more frequent than they actually are, on the other hand one life lost is one too many :\

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  29. "If Where The Wild Things Were repeatedly made me want to cry, it wasn’t only because it made me aware of the rate at which species are disappearing, or of how much we have already lost. It was also because it made me realise that the mere existence of these animals moves me, and that I don’t want to live in a world from which they are gone"

    yeah, I had the same feeling when I went to visit the natural history museum (aka the dead zoo) recently. So many species have disappeared or are on the verge of disappearing and it's incredibly sad to know that we were and are responsible. I stared for ages at a stuffed Irish wolf, from a time when Irish wolves still existed before the last one was shot at the end of the 18th century.
    I love all animals, regardless of their role in the food chain, and thinking about what mankind has done to them makes me sad and angry. That's why I probably couldn't read books like this one :/

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