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Joel Berger, field biologist, Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana, and senior scientist of the Wildlife Conservation Society, has traveled the world from Alaska to the Russian Far East, across Africa and the Americas, traversing climate zones and continents in search of answers to fundamental questions about animal culture and survival in their interactions with the human species. As he witnessed elk in Yellowstone National Park placidly graze, as a pack of wolves approach them, then launch a bloody and brutal attack upon the herd, Berger was moved to the conclusion that the elk had simply forgotten to fear their natural enemies of hundreds of millennia, after only six short decades of their extinction from the park.
In The Better to Eat You With, Berger recounts the steps of his journeys across the remote landscapes of the world, investigating three questions that arose for him after having witnessed the elk attack: Can naïve animals avoid extinction when they encounter reintroduced carnivores? To what extent is fear culturally transmitted? How can a better understanding of predator and prey behaviors explicate past extinctions and inform future conservation efforts? In his personal but elegant style and familiar tone, he helps us to better understand predator-prey relationships. We come to see that animals too have "culture" and that their cultural learning, crucial to their survival, is quickly lost when humans interfere, environmental conditions change, and predator species go extinct.
Berger demonstrates that humans play a delicate role in the balance of nature and the survival of animal species. As human population on the planet has multiplied, human tolerance for animal life, and especially for large carnivores, has dwindled, resulting in the ongoing global decline and extinction of many large carnivore species. Conservationists labor to have species reintroduced to remote areas to counter their pending extinction, only to find that, even those well-intended human interventions have troubling implications for other animal species. Where animals have been reintroduced, such as was done with wolves in Yellowstone, extirpated in the 1930s and reintroduced in 1995, prey species (such as the unsuspecting elk in Berger's story) have been hard hit by their arrival. This fact raises compelling questions about animal (and human) relationships and the role of fear in maintaining the balance among differing species. Where fear drives humans to intolerance of large carnivore predators, lack of fear seems to promote in animal kinds a level of acceptance that can be lethal for the species.
This book raises not only interesting, but important, questions that demand our attention, as ever-expanding human populations and critical climate changes spread across the globe, eating up or dramatically altering living conditions in pristine areas where animals make their homes. The book is beautifully, if urgently, written. We feel that we are right there at Berger's side in his field expeditions, shuddering from the brutal cold as we await the morning coffee, struggling desperately to stay afloat as the icy lake gives way beneath our snow shoes, thrilled and terrified as we suddenly find ourselves face to face with an angry mother moose, or a bison, or a grizzly. The abundant photos complete the experience, rendering our imaginary journey quite real.
In this book, Berger is not simply selling us the tired platitudes of conservation; he is painting us a vision of an Eden reclaimed by more enlightened human beings. He is mapping a recipe for its recreation--broader attitudes about whose planet we live on, and the role of public officials and democratic citizens in effecting changes in the way that humans influence their planet and animal life--before it is too late.
Every once in a while, one encounters a book that does not simply drive the scholar to meditation upon diverse philosophical theories, but speaks to her very mode of being-in-the-world, her practice of being human. Every once in a long while, one reads a book that changes how we see the world. This is one of those rare books. As Berger so eloquently phrases his core message, "the question is not about wild or captive, animal or human. It is about all of us--living beings together in one place, on a single planet" (p. 281).
© 2009 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., SAC (Dip.), North Carolina A&T State University