Some writers you feel you should read in order to be well-versed in a particular field. And others you want to read, because they weave magic with words. Will Stolzenburg is the rare breed of writer who falls into both categories. His prose is seamless, his research exhaustive and his books are gems. Whenever I read something he has written, I invariably shake my head head and say, “God, this dude can write like a mofo.” 😛 So, without further delay here’s my Q&A with Will.
1. How did you become interested in wildlife in general and predators in particular?
Like a lot of kids who wound up hooked on animals, I grew up playing with plastic dinosaurs, turning over logs for snakes, chasing frogs at the pond, and watching Wild Kingdom and National Geographic on TV. I was also drawn to athletics, including running, which might explain my eventual focus on predators, particularly those that rely on speed or endurance for a living.
2. Your website mentions your Master’s in wildlife where you “explored the science of predator control.” What did your studies reveal to you and how did they impact your life as a writer?
I probably should edit my website. Because one thing I’ve learned is that the science of predator control is an oxymoron. There really isn’t much science involved in predator control as it’s generally practiced. We’re still randomly gunning coyotes and wolves from airplanes, we’re still mining the range with M-44 cyanide charges, we’re still paying bounties for the hides of innocent predators—all practices that have been proven dumb for decades, never mind their massive and immoral waste of life.
Though I’ve written on a broad array of wildlife, from slugs to whales, I’ve found the big predators to stir the psyche like no other, and to suffer some of the gravest injustices of all our fellow creatures. Our relentless persecution of the great carnivores is looking to be one of the saddest chapters of the human saga. That’s another reason I’ve come to focus on them. They’re so symbolic of humanity’s struggle to salvage a sense of wildness in our hearts.
3. How do you explain people who have a visceral hatred of predators? I’m referring to people who warn about children being killed by wolves while waiting for the bus or who revel in sharing gory online photos of predatory acts.
That hatred is too easily summed up as fear fed by ignorance, though those two are certainly common factors. Yet there’s also an innate—if outdated—fear of those creatures that once preyed more regularly on our early ancestors. There once was a time, long ago in our species’ infancy, when we really did have to worry about creatures regularly stalking us as meat. And we shouldn’t expect to simply wish away those lingering reflexes. But we’re lazy for not re-examining our rationale and facing those fears, especially in light of what we’re coming to learn about the big predator’s irreplaceable role in the web of life itself.
4. What is your opinion of the recent deaths of high-profile wolves from Yellowstone National Park?
The shootings come as a cold splash to those who might have imagined Yellowstone as sacrosanct wilderness, when it’s really more a zoo lacking bars. And when an animal escapes the zoo, there’s a fairly predictable outcome: People on the outside quite often shoot and kill it. Despite what we may hear about the miraculous comebacks of the wolf and the cougar—though there are some truly encouraging islands of co-existence—for much of those great expanses beyond the park boundaries, it’s still a shooting gallery out there. I’m not suggesting that wolves don’t occasionally cause hardship for people living among them, or that those people shouldn’t be allowed to defend themselves. But much of the killing outside the Yellowstone border qualifies as neither defense nor sport. Much of the killing is rooted in blind hatred, not to mention a certain misplaced vengeance against those who orchestrated the wolves’ reintroduction against a certain minority’s will.
5. Along those lines, what are your thoughts about a. trophy hunting of top predators and b. reducing predator numbers to increase hunters’ chances of killing ungulates?
A. If predators are to be hunted, I’d like to see the odds evened. Never mind the guides and the hounds, the ATV’s, the helicopters and high-powered scopes and long-range howitzers. Why not track our quarry with our feet and wits, and bag our trophy with a close-up camera lens, or better yet, a tag of the hand?
B. I don’t understand deer hunters who wax philosophic about the thrill and challenge of the hunt, yet can’t abide a little competition from those predators that made their quarry so fast and elusive in the first place.
6. Your book Where the Wild Things Were is a favorite of mine and it details the surprising ways predators, especially top predators, impact ecosystems. In researching the book, what would you say was the most interesting thing you learned; the moment or nugget that just caused you to say “Wow, this is freaking amazing!”?
The most interesting thing I learned wasn’t one of the many amazing discoveries of the predators’ ecological powers; it was the petty sniping among scientists who seemed more beholden to defending their turf and preserving their egos than to advancing knowledge. I was also surprised by the cynicism of so many academics and even self-described conservationists to the notion of bringing back the big predators. They’ve accepted the plummeting baseline of nature, poor as it is. They’ve thrown in the towel. In the end, the naysayer’s gloomy pragmatism might well be justified, but my fear is in the self-fulfilling prophesy. Without hope we’ve got nothing.
7. In Rat Island (your follow-up book & another favorite), you examined island environments where an excess of introduced rodent predators have wreaked havoc on the indigenous wildlife, especially bird species. Do you think that projects that target introduced, non-charismatic predators (i.e. rats) are more likely to gain acceptance, than, say, killing coyotes to increase pronghorn calf survival?
I imagine for most people, killing rats might be an easier moral decision, no matter what the charge against them. Never mind their historical association with the plague, and with urban poverty, and their record at having extinguished hundreds of species of island life. Just look at them—pointy snouts, beady eyes, naked tails—not exactly the sort of visual cues that engender our most motherly instincts.
But still, between rats and coyotes, it’s hard to say who’s more universally reviled. Even though I might see the case for going after introduced rats that are obliterating island species by the score, I still see our native coyote—close cousin to our beloved dog—widely treated as vermin. Yet among those who’ve bothered to look a little closer, rats and coyotes are two of the most adaptable and admirable creatures in the menagerie. As for killing coyotes to produce more pronghorns, you have to question the logic, if not the hubris, of “managing” two creatures that have been getting along just fine for ages without our help.
8. Given the controversy over reintroducing potentially dangerous predators to areas they once roamed, do you see any future for apex predators outside of large protected areas?
The idealist in me says Yes, there’s plenty of room—and plenty of good moral and ecological reason—for wolves and lions to reoccupy vast swaths of their former range. The pessimist in me doubts whether society will evolve quickly enough to welcome them back before either the animals or their habitats are gone.
9. Speaking of conservation of large predators, what do you think is the most important thing individuals can do to help out these imperiled species?
Give them a break. There are so many ways we doom them out of willful blindness and laziness. If you’re driving Alligator Alley through the Florida panther’s home, slow down like the road signs ask. If you build your dream castle in the hills of wolf country, don’t expect the wolves to leave on your selfish account. (Better yet, buy the land, put it in a conservation easement, and move to town.) In short, don’t subsidize their destruction by plundering their habitat, or automatically calling in the hit squads at the first hint of inconvenience. If we really want our native predators to return, just give them a break. They’ll do the rest.
10. At the risk of sounding like Barbara Walters, do you have a favorite predator?
I have a new favorite predator every book I write. My current crush is for America’s lion.
11. What are you currently working on? Is there a new book in the pipeline?
As I’ve just hinted, my next book will be on mountain lions, and one magnificent individual that trekked two thousand hazardous miles across America in search of a mate.