Where the Wild Things Were

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Title: Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Release Date: June 23, 2009
Pages: 304
ISBN13: 978-1596916241


It wasn't so long ago that wolves and great cats, monstrous fish and flying raptors ruled the peak of nature's food pyramid. Not so anymore. All but exterminated, these predators of the not-too-distant past have been reduced to minor players of the modern era.

‘So what?' asks wildlife journalist Will Stolzenburg, who follows in the wake of nature's topmost carnivores, and finds in their absence a world of chaos. As the great predators go missing, an emerging cadre of concerned scientists is uncovering trouble in the biosphere at large.

From obscure jungles of Venezuela to stormy North Pacific coasts, hallowed vistas of Yellowstone to the back yards of suburban America, Stolzenburg traverses aberrant empires of pest and plague, a new world order of murderous deer and rogue raccoons, pathological monkeys and exploding urchins. Here is a startling tour through dying forests and barren seascapes, through nightmarish landscapes starving for those missing masters of the hunt. For anyone who has seldom given thought to the meat-eating beasts so recently lacking from the web of life, here is a world of reason to think again.


“Science writing at its best. Big, fierce animals have a noble champion in William Stolzenburg.”
Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

"Stolzenburg narrates these cautionary tales with a conservationist's attention to ecological detail and a childlike reverence for flesh-tearing beasts. His infectious enthusiasm should spark even in bug-wary urbanites a renewed appreciation for nature's complexity."
Alex Altman, Time magazine

“With a lucid and sparkling voice, William Stolzenburg explains clearly why we need the wolf, tiger, and other predators, large and small, to maintain a healthy environment.”
George B. Schaller, Vice President of Science and Exploration, Wildlife Conservation Society

“It's gripping, important, and a helluva good read. The characters jump right off the page. A home run.”
Scott Weidensaul, Naturalist, author, and Pulitzer-Prize finalist

“In dazzling descriptions…rich in dramatic accounts of life and death in the wild …[Where the Wild Things Were] is powerful and compelling.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A powerful, important book"
Library Journal, Best Books 2008

“A passionately rendered update on our faltering environmental stability.”
Kirkus Reviews

“I want to say this thoughtfully: Where the Wild Things Were is one of the most fascinating and well-written books I have read in years. It is wonderful. I can't believe anyone interested in nature or wild places would find it otherwise. It kept me turning from tale to tale, from one compelling personality to the next, and saddened by coming to the end. A beautiful book.”
Michael L. Andrews, Vice President and Senior Conservation Fellow, The Nature Conservancy

"[A] brilliant melding of biography, natural history, and scientific experiment…If wolves in Manhattan sounds terrifying, Stolzenburg makes clear that a world without carnivores is actually much scarier."
Seed magazine

“It’s been a long time since I’ve read something about ecology as enlightening and thought provoking. I’ll be referring to this book— and rereading it— for many years to come. This is a masterpiece.”
—Mark S. Garland, Naturalist and columnist, Birder’s Bookshelf

“A profoundly thoughtful account of the importance of native carnivores—and the consequences that follow their loss. A must read for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the importance of wildlife conservation.”
—Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies Wolf Conservation Specialist, Defenders of Wildlife

“Remarkably engaging.”
—Bill McKibben, Boston Globe

"So eloquently, creatively, and provocatively conveyed. It’s not often that I feel compelled to read aloud passages, but with The Wild Things I did this many times."
—Karen Anspacher-Meyer, Executive Director, Green Fire Productions

"The captivating prose will introduce readers to species of animals they've never heard of, as well as give a greater awareness and appreciation for the complexity of the world in which we live. Highly recommended."
—Kyrille Goldbeck, Library Journal (starred review)

"Consider this one essential."
Powells.com staff pick

"An absorbing and delightful work of natural history. One of those rare books that provide not just an enriching story, but a new, clarifying lens through which to understand the world around us."
—Thomas Hayden, Christian Science Monitor

"The stories are fascinating and Stolzenburg makes the tales come to life. Part history, part mystery, part philosophical treatise, Where the Wild Things Were is an important book in the field of conservation, but also as a history of our species and our relationship with the others with which we share the planet."
—Scott Edward Anderson, The Green Skeptic

"Example after example, many of them cinematic, all of them engrossing."
Anthony Doerr, The Boston Globe

"Beautiful — and haunting."
—Juliet Eilperin, National Public Radio, Living on Earth

"Based upon the work of the scientists chronicled here, it seems clear that the largest of those wild things are something that none of us can live without."
—Bert Gambini, WBFO (87.7FM), Buffalo

"Required reading for every citizen."
—Josh Donlan, Founder and Director, Advanced Conservation Strategies

"Challenging and provocative. A humbling yet hopeful book."
—Discover Great New Writers, Barnes & Noble

"Where the Wild Things Were may sound like an elegy, but it reads like a mystery. While skeptics wonder if we can afford to welcome top predators back into the fold, Stolzenburg asks if we can afford not to."
—Jennifer Winger, Nature Conservancy magazine

"With the tension of a mystery novel…Where the Wild Things Were makes a thought-provoking argument that the top predators who capture our imagination also ensure that the planet teems with life."
—Angie Drobnic Holan, St. Petersburg Times

"A deft and engaging exploration of the ecological power of predation."
—Michelle Nijhuis, High Country News

"While the history behind the plummeting numbers of the world’s most feared flesh-eaters would make Stolzenburg’s book well worth its weight in pages, his vivid and animated portraits of the evolutionary biologists whose passion and meticulous scholarship drives the book are even more captivating."
—Eric Larson, Conscious Choice magazine

"Where the Wild Things Were is everything that’s good in a science book: clear, understandable prose; a reasoned, logical argument and a subject that is both compelling and fascinating. It’s well worth your time."
—James Neal Webb, Quincy Public Library


from Prologue. The Grizzly in the Room

Anyone who writes a book of science about great, flesh-eating beasts, should be required up front to disclose their bias. Here is mine.

The second week of June 2000, on the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula, nearly a thousand professional biologists and advanced students had gathered for the 14th annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology. As a science writer covering that conference, it was my task to navigate the chaos of some four hundred presentations—going off eight at a time, thirty-two to the hour, three days straight, in various locations about campus. My strategy for covering all, honed to questionable success with years of practice, was to scramble hither and yon in manic pursuit of the most captivating titles, the next great thing in conservation, as one might try fielding an exploding batch of popcorn.

Within fifteen minutes of the first day’s opening sessions, that strategy had been scrapped for an infinitely more alluring one. I had found a seat in a symposium called The Role of Top Predators in Ecological Communities and Biological Conservation, and for the next three hours I made no pretenses of needing to be anywhere else.

Because here were stories of lions, hyenas, and leopards, battling cheetahs and wild dogs over bloody carcasses on the African plains. Here were wolves raising the neck hairs on moose in Alaska, rogue killer whales gobbling sea otters in the Aleutians, even coyotes chasing house cats in California suburbs. Here, one after the next, were legitimately visceral alternatives to filing yet another pale report on habitat fragmentation, population viability analyses, or microsatellite loci.

The faces materializing at the podium, the names appearing on the papers, included some of the icons and iconoclasts of conservation biology. There was James Estes, pioneering marine biologist whose observations in the Aleutians twenty years earlier had revealed the sea otter as resurrected guardian angel of the vibrant Pacific kelp forest. Estes was back from yet another season in the cold northern waters, with a bizarre new twist in the otter’s comeback story—a twist involving otter-eating killer whales, whose punchline still has the marine science community feuding.

Estes also brought message from his co-author John Terborgh, a legendary tropical ecologist with nightmarish news from a surreal, predator-free archipelago in Venezuela, whose forests in the absence of harpy eagles and jaguars were being eaten to the ground. There was Joel Berger, noted authority on large hoofed animals, diagnosing a strange case of moose amnesia in the Grand Teton range of Wyoming, where the moose had forgotten certain essential fears—an unfortunately lethal lapse now with wolves recently reclaiming lost ground in the Tetons.

The next day brought more on the science of predators and predation, as increasingly vital matters in conserving life’s diversity. A progress report from Yellowstone National Park, then five years into a bold experiment turning gray wolves loose after a seventy-year hiatus, suggested the sanctuary had been decidedly shortchanged in the wolves’ absence. The reinstated top predator, reported lead researcher Douglas Smith, was turning the park into a banquet of elk carrion, with a slew of scavenging species reaping the leftovers. It would turn out these were the rumblings of bigger tremors to come; Smith and colleagues were sitting cautiously on preliminary findings of a wholesale revival of Yellowstone’s compromised ecosystem, courtesy of the wolf.

Next door to Yellowstone, in Grand Teton National Park, Joel Berger was back, this time with his colleague Peter Stacey, revealing more wounds of missing predators. Streamside birds of the Grand Teton had disappeared, in a chain reaction eventually tracing back to the mountains’ missing wolves and grizzlies.

Talk after talk, northern seas to tropical jungles, the conclusions rang in accord, as with a gavel: Big predators were not just missing, they were sorely missed. It brought to mind a medical phenomenon haunting many amputees, in the phantom pains of a missing limb. These top predators—these missing limbs—were still deeply felt.

Here in a country whose society had blown away all but a token remnant of its topmost competitors, was a force of top-flight ecologists exposing the campaign as a colossal case of shooting one’s own foot. Here was evidence that the biggest and scariest of carnivores were more dangerous by their absence. It was time, as Jim Estes addressed his audience, to rethink the way we look at the world, to consider the view from the top down—from the predators’ perspective.

From that day I began tracking this insurgent cadre of concerned scientists taking stock of Earth’s increasingly fangless kingdom. Theirs is the story of this book. In field sites spanning the biosphere, these ecologists are questioning the soundness of ecosystems recently devoid of their topmost predators, and discovering suspicious cracks in the foundation. They are flagging, in a sense, what the bard of ecology Aldo Leopold once described as “the marks of death in a community that believes itself well.” And I hope, if nothing else, through the following chronicle of their discoveries, that these unseen wounds and phantom pains whose source they are now bringing to light, may at least be made visible for all of us to deal with as we choose.

But again to that sticky business of bias. There is a reason these discoveries have been so late in coming and—as we’ll see—so warily received. The ecology of big predators remains the most intractable discipline in the most complex of all sciences. Its subjects are hard to find, and harder yet to hold still for study. The big predators are not only inherently rare—as ordained by their tiny perch atop the food pyramid—but fashionably rare, at the hands of a modern human society that slaughters them directly out of contempt and obliquely through wholesale destruction of their homes and livelihoods. These are animals that tend to roam too far for conventional observation, considering that a week’s jaunt by a lovelorn wolf may carry it across three large western states. The great carnivores, like lions melting into the tall grass, are also by nature enigmatic and stealthy, and dangerous when cornered. Their intimate study poses technical and psychological issues unknown to the deer or beetle biologist.

And therein lies one confounding variable that inescapably pervades this supposed book of fact and systematic inquiry. Over the thousands of millennia that our own lineage has spent in the company of killing beasts, competing with them for food, and running from them as food, the great meat-eaters have quite naturally etched themselves into the human persona. Long before people had perfected the art of exterminating their fellow predators, they were worshipping them. Thirty thousand years ago, Paleolithic artists were decorating cave walls with reverently painted murals of lions. To this day no human, scientist or otherwise, impassively witnesses the dismemberment of a living creature by the tearing jaws and claws of wild carnivores. No one impartially records the soul-jarring charge of a grizzly bear, or the mountain-hushing howl of the wolf.

The question hanging over that Missoula auditorium was palpable, and it has stalked this story to the end. All this talk of killing and fleeing and ecological chain reactions made for stirring copy, but was it legitimate? Were these the reports of good science, or the veiled advocacy of a few who had fallen prey to the predators’ mystique? More to the heart, what would it mean to the human animal to one day wake up and find itself in a world where the biggest, most threatening predator in the whole blessed menagerie was a coyote the size of a border collie? These were concerns pertinent not only to the predator ecologist advocating conservation, but to the journalist who would question their conclusions. Something more than science pervaded the discussions—something akin to the five-hundred-pound grizzly in the room.

Three days after my awakening in Missoula, I was standing alone at dusk just outside the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, atop an open knoll ringed on all horizons by ranges of the northern Rockies. Earlier in the day and far behind I had passed a sign at the trailhead reading "Warning: Grizzly Bears Are Active In This Area." And after reconnoitering the countryside, I had determined that this natural amphitheater would indeed be a good place to seek an answer or two about the objective nature of carnivore journalism.

As the skylight faded, I stood on the lonely knoll, slowly turning in circles. There was less faith than duty in my exercise, scanning the surrounding hillsides for bears I held no serious hopes of conjuring. Around I turned, drifting between distant mountain peaks and the purpling skies in the purest of silence. Duskdreaming. The trail heading back would soon be too dark to follow. Time to go. I turned one last quarter to the north, and there stood grizzlies.

A sow and two cubs had magically materialized on the hillside, two roundish nubs trailing behind a dark boulder of fur, placidly pawing through a seep on the edge of an aspen grove. I slowly raised my binoculars. I lowered them and looked to the lone pine standing about a seven-second sprint to my left, estimating its lowest branch at six feet high. I pulled out my field journal and scribbled some notes, ostensibly recording some key facet of natural history I pretended to be observing.

When I look at those notes today I see the jerky scratchings of an overexcited child. When I remember the heart-pounding presence those bears had imparted over the distance—a distance that could just as likely have measured a hundred paces as a half mile—I remember why this book, for all its inherent hazards, needed writing.