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Of Baby Eagles and Human Prospects

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Posted on Jun 25, 2014

By Lawrence Weschler

  Children stand in a multimedia installation in Rio de Janeiro about global warming’s effect on glaciers. AP /Victor R. Caivano

A curious convergence on the front page of The New York Times’ Sunday Review on June 22.

The lead piece, with its illustration taking up the vast preponderance of the page’s acreage, concerned the anguished public online response to the fate of a visibly ailing baby eagle whose Minnesota nest had, over the past two years, grown into the focus of a live online streaming video feed with literally millions of viewers. The other piece ... well, we’ll get to the other piece in a moment.

The eagle article was by Jon Mooallem, author as well of last year’s book “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America”—as this piece was, too: both sometimes dismaying and weirdly reassuring, and very nicely turned as well. It traced the rise and increasing popularity of these sorts of live streaming video nature feeds, and then told the story of this particular incident: how over the preceding months, the three baby eagle chicks in the Minnesota nest in question had started being referred to among their myriad fans as Snap, Crackle and Pop; and how one recent morning, people began to notice, with ever increasing alarm and desperation, that Snap was clearly in some sort of trouble: It (he? she?) couldn’t seem to get up to eat and was growing weaker and weaker.

It seemed, at least to some viewers, that the problem was simply one of its having gotten stuck to the muddy floor of the nest, such that all that would be required to save it would be for someone to go up and jiggle the nest. But the operators of the camera, the Nongame Wildlife Program, explained that they were maintaining a policy of noninterference (sort of a streaming video version of the Prime Directive), that the whole point of the exercise was to let nature play out as it will, albeit across the screens of millions of viewers. But this was not good enough for many of those viewers, and ever more urgent and emphatic emails began pouring in to the Nongame Wildlife Program, demands that Somebody Do Something. So, as Mooallem relates, “a decision was made: Within a couple of hours, two utility workers got into a bucket truck and gently lifted Snap out of the nest: The chick wasn’t stuck in the mud. It was badly injured—most likely trampled accidentally by one of its parents. It had a severely fractured wing and a systemic infection. There was no chance of recovery. Snap had to be euthanized.”

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The mood online in the wake of the incident, Mooallem went on to report, was mournful but respectful (frowny face emoji and bulging pink hearts and all manner of expressions of appreciation to the good folk at the Nongame Wildlife Program): “Fly high and fly free, little Snap,” as one poster eulogized. “You taught us humans so much.” For his part, Mooallem went on to ring all sorts of marvelous changes from the story: the way, for instance, nobody had seemed particularly put out, earlier in the live stream, when the chick trio’s parents had brought in a dead female pigeon to feed the kids, one that even proved, once everyone got into ripping the corpse to pieces, to have an egg inside, which was similarly torn to yokey pieces. Mooallem likewise pointed out that there was a time not that long ago when bald eagles had been seen as repellent and dangerous pests—how at the turn of the century papers regularly feasted their readers on horror stories of eagles kidnapping human babies right out of their prams, with consequent public outcry for the wholesale eradication of the winged vermin, so much so that “by the 1920s, all this vitriol and killing was pushing the bald eagle toward extinction.” Slowly, Mooallem reports, the public mood turned—in part owing to the bald eagle’s patriotic associations during World War II, later for the way its fate perfectly fitted it as a poster child for environmentalist concerns around the dangers of DDT and other pesticides—until seven years ago it was possible to take the bald eagle off the list of endangered species. (This despite the fact that the species remains highly regulated, so much so that whenever one dies, its corpse is supposed to be shipped to the National Eagle Repository, where, via meticulous controls and endless paperwork, its various feathers and other remains are to be distributed among Native Americans for religious use. That is precisely what happened with Snap.)

Mooallem concluded by noting that things probably were simpler and more straightforward when our relations with animals were viewed in more strictly utilitarian terms: which ones were useful to us, and which posed a threat to our various support systems. In a final twist, though, he noted how glomming on to certain animals the way we did with Snap may in fact still serve a useful purpose after all: “We have a destructive history when it comes to the natural world. ... Maybe we latch on to the species we’ve willfully not destroyed as proof of our compassion.”


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