Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Giving the Big Bad Wolf a Break! Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction by Nancy F. Castaldo

We are not alone on this great spinning planet. Alongside us are countless creatures with whom we share the earth's space and resources.

Each of the species in this book has played a critical role in the environment and each has reached the brink of extinction. The big bad wolf has long been the villain of many a story. That large, shaggy "apex predator" has long seemed a fearsome enemy of man. But we have only recently learned that in his natural habitat, the wolf keeps other species--deer, elk, and rabbits, for example--under control, animals whose overgrazing has adversely affected mountain, prairie, and desert ecologies. When the wolves were restored to Yellowstone, grasslands and trees reappeared. Soil and water were retained; native birds reappeared and beavers returned to dam streams where other animals found ready homes. The land returned to its natural balance of life.

Nancy F. Castaldo's forthcoming Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) tells the story of the return of the wolf, the American alligator, the whooping crane, bald eagles, American bison, and California condors to our waters, lands, and sky. Some species are quite resilient and return when their slaughter is outlawed: the tough and ancient alligator merely needed controls on their killing to return them to sustaining numbers, and the the bald eagle and brown pelicans only required the banning of some pesticides to return to the skies.

But some species require active rescue. The numbers of whooping cranes, once flourishing in flocks from the Arctic to Mexico, had dropped to only sixteen birds, victims of the feathered hat craze of the Victorian age and loss of habitat in the 20th century. But when their only nesting site was discovered in 1954, conservationists mounted a movement to save the species, collecting abandoned eggs and raising chicks by hand. Zoos desperately tried to breed the whoopers, but only one chick, named Tex, survived. Although Tex was imprinted to believe she was a human, one of her eggs produced a live male chick, named Gee Whiz, who seems to have saved the species, siring 20 whooping cranes, 97 grand-cranes, and to date 22 great-grand whoopers. But in order to breed with other cranes, these young whooping cranes have to learn to migrate. Some were placed for adoption with flocks of their cousins, the sandhill cranes, and the rest were taught to migrate to Florida by human "parents" in ultra-light aircraft, guiding them in an 115-day migration to winter homes in Florida. Imagine the sight of the ultra-light leading young whooping cranes with wingspans of 7.5 feet through the skies from Wisconsin to Florida!

Similar rescues have returned some wild-born California condors, with a wingspread of ten feet, to the skies over the Pacific coast mountains. The Galapagos tortoises are being carefully curated so that they don't suffer the same fate as Lonesome George (see my review here), and true bison (buffalo), once down to only 24 living animals, are now tilling and fertilizing areas of western grassland again as they did before being hunted to near extinction.

Author Castaldo offers an extensive appendix offering a glossary, bibliography, index, and lists of organizations and websites with information for the student researcher on rescue of endangered species. Animals like these are the birthright of our children, part of the American story and the richness of the world they should inherit.

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