Jon Mooallem: Why Do We Care About Some Animals More Than Others? Writer Jon Mooallem tells the story of the teddy bear, and considers how the tales we tell about wild animals have real consequences for a species' chance of survival — and the natural world at large.
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Why Do We Care About Some Animals More Than Others?

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Why Do We Care About Some Animals More Than Others?

Why Do We Care About Some Animals More Than Others?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, animals and us - ideas about the way we interact and how those interactions define us. And one of the things that really started to change the way we think about animals happened a little more than 100 years ago. It involved a U.S. president, a bear, a cartoonist and a group of savvy toymakers. Writer John Mooallem told the story on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

JOHN MOOALLEM: So it was the fall of 1902, and President Theodore Roosevelt needed a little break from the White House. So he took a train to Mississippi to do a little black bear hunting outside of a town called Smedes.

The first day of the hunt, they didn't see a single bear. So it was a big bummer for everyone. But the second day, the dogs cornered one after a really long chase. But by that point, the president had given up and gone back to camp for lunch. So his hunting guide cracked the animal on the top of the head with the butt of his rifle and then tied it up to a tree and started tooting away on his bugle to call Roosevelt back so he could have the honor of shooting it.

The bear was a female. It was dazed, injured, severely underweight, a little mangy looking. And when Roosevelt saw this animal tied up to the tree, he just couldn't bring himself to fire at it. He felt like that would go against his code as a sportsman.

RAZ: Wow. What an awesome dude. I mean, he's just like - he's like, I'm not going to shoot it.

MOOALLEM: Yeah, he says, no, thanks. Well, actually, that's sort of how we remember the story. Actually what he says...

RAZ: Aha.

MOOALLEM: ...Is, no, thank you. And then he turns to his friend, and he says, put it out of its misery.

RAZ: Oh.

MOOALLEM: And his friend takes a Japanese hunting knife and slashes it open in the gut. And they carry it back to camp, and they eat it.

RAZ: That didn't really happen?

MOOALLEM: No, that really happened. And...

RAZ: That really happened? They ate the bear?

MOOALLEM: They ate the bear. I mean, you have to think - I mean, Roosevelt is a hunter. You know, he's not a PETA activist. So that was merciful, you know, in his mind. But it just involved cutting the bear's gut open with a knife.

RAZ: And a few days later, the scene was memorialized in a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman in The Washington Post - not the knife moment, but the moment where Roosevelt decides not to shoot the bear. And the cartoon was called "Drawing A Line In Mississippi."

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MOOALLEM: And it showed Roosevelt with his gun down and his arm out, sparing the bear's life. And the bear was sitting on its hind legs with these two, big, frightened, wide eyes and little ears pricked up at the top of its head. It looked really helpless, like you just wanted to kind of sweep it up into your arms and reassure it.

It wouldn't have looked familiar at the time, but if you go looking for the cartoon now, you sort of recognize the animal right away. It's a teddy bear. And this is how the teddy bear was born. Essentially, toymakers took the bear from the cartoon, turned it into a plush toy and then named it after President Roosevelt, Teddy's bear.

And you can really trace that bear in the cartoon to the teddy bear, that sort of anthropomorphized, very cuddly looking, somewhat pathetic-looking creature from Berryman's cartoon.

RAZ: Wow.

MOOALLEM: It became the teddy bear.

RAZ: Meanwhile, he's eating bear filet mignon in his tent.

MOOALLEM: Yeah, the last day they had roasted bear paws, I think...

RAZ: Man.

MOOALLEM: ...Was the last thing they had.

RAZ: You did not learn that at the toy store.

MOOALLEM: No...

RAZ: That was left out...

MOOALLEM: ...And that's the point. I think it's - cutting a bear open with a knife and, quote, "putting it out of its misery" does not seem sympathetic now, although it did at the time.

RAZ: So before all this happened, it didn't occur to anyone to make, like, a cute, cuddly bear toy?

MOOALLEM: Right. You know, you didn't have bear toys unless the bears were these kind of scary monsters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MOOALLEM: Even though it didn't really take long after Roosevelt's hunt in 1902 for the toy to become a full-blown craze, most people figured it was a fad; it was sort of a silly, political novelty item, and it would go away once the president left office. And so by 1909, when Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, was getting ready to be inaugurated, the toy industry was on the hunt for the next big thing. They didn't do too well.

That January, Taft was the guest of honor at a banquet in Atlanta, and for days in advance, the big news was the menu. They were going to be serving him a Southern specialty, a delicacy really, called possum and taters. So you'd have a whole opossum roasted on a bed of sweet potatoes, and then sometimes they'd leave the big, you know, tail on it like a big, meaty noodle. The one they brought to Taft's table weighed 18 pounds.

So after dinner, the orchestra started to play, and the guests burst into song. And all of a sudden, Taft was surprised with the presentation of a gift from a group of local supporters. And this was a stuffed opossum toy, all beady-eyed and bald-eared. And it was a new product they were putting forward to be the William Taft presidency's answer to Teddy Roosevelt's teddy bear. They were calling it the Billy Possum.

So this really became a mascot for the Taft administration for, you know, a couple of months. And as he started traveling the country, frequently people gave him live opossums in cages.

RAZ: Wow.

MOOALLEM: So...

RAZ: I wonder how he felt about that. I mean, he's like, oh, another possum. Thank you.

MOOALLEM: Yeah. I mean, there were...

RAZ: Thank you. Thank you very...

MOOALLEM: There really were, like, stories in The New York Times that were like, the president was given another possum in Dallas yesterday.

RAZ: (Laughter).

MOOALLEM: But even with all this marketing, the life of the Billy Possum turned out to be just pathetically brief. The toy was an absolute flop and it was almost completely forgotten by the end of the year. And what that means is that the Billy Possum didn't even make it to Christmas time which, when you think about it, is a special sort of tragedy for a toy.

(LAUGHTER)

MOOALLEM: So we can explain that failure two ways. The first - well, it's pretty obvious. I'm going to go ahead and say it out loud anyway. Opossums are hideous.

(LAUGHTER)

MOOALLEM: But maybe more importantly is that the story of the Billy Possum was all wrong, especially compared to the back story of the teddy bear. Think about it. For most of human's evolutionary history, what's made bears impressive to us has been their complete independence from us. It's that they live these parallel lives as menaces and competitors.

By the time Roosevelt went hunting in Mississippi, that stature was being crushed. And the animal that he had roped to a tree really was a symbol for all bears. Whether those animals lived or died now was entirely up to the compassion or the indifference of people.

(MUSIC)

MOOALLEM: I'd argue that the invention of the teddy bear - inside that story is a more important story - a story about how more dramatically our ideas about nature can change and also about how on the planet right now the stories that we tell are dramatically changing nature. Because think about the teddy bear - for us in retrospect, it feels like an obvious hit because bears are so cute and cuddly. And who wouldn't want to give one to their kids to play with. But the truth is that in 1902, bears weren't cute and cuddly. I mean, they looked the same, but no one thought of them that way. In 1902, bears were monsters. Bears were something that freaking terrified kids.

For generations at that point, the bear had been a shorthand for all the danger that people were encountering on the frontier. And the federal government was actually systematically exterminating bears and lots of other predators, too, like coyotes and wolves. These animals - they were being demonized. They were called murderers because they killed people's livestock. And so what I'm saying is the teddy bear was born into the middle of this great spasm of extermination. And you can see it as a sign that maybe some people deep down were starting to feel conflicted about all that killing.

America still hated the bear and feared it. But all of a sudden, America also wanted to give the bear a great, big hug. Nature could only start to seem this pure and adorable because we didn't have to be afraid of it anymore. And you can see that cycle playing out again and again with all kinds of animals. It seems like we're always stuck between demonizing a species and wanting to wipe it out. And then when we get very close to doing that, empathizing with it as an underdog and wanting to show it compassion. So we exert our power. But then we're unsettled by how powerful we are.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: We're like a really bad boyfriend - humans - when it comes to animals. Like, it's a totally schizophrenic relationship.

MOOALLEM: It absolutely is. And I think it's hard to - at the same time, I think it's really hard to be very critical of it, for me at least, because it's understandable on both sides. You know, when we're really afraid of things, that's absolutely understandable. I don't want, you know, wild wolves racing through the city. I think a lot of kind of conservation-minded regular folk - we have this idea that we just - we want some animals out there. And that number is really hard to peg down and imagine how we're going to live with that number of animals. So it makes sense that it would be constantly back and forth - this kind of flux of, you know, getting what we want and then not really being sure why we wanted it anymore.

RAZ: What do you think the stories that we tell about animals and the ones that we pick to tell stories about, what do they say about humans?

MOOALLEM: I think they say all sorts of different things. I mean, we use these animals to say what we need to say sometimes. So I think that, you know, animals are these kind of convenient props to work out a lot of kind of deeper emotions and questions. I mean, I think it's the reason why when you look at a lot of children's books, they all have animal characters, even if the stories themselves have nothing to do with animals.

I mean, we have like a book where a sort of ungainly pig that wants to be a figure skater. And she tries really hard and she makes it. And, you know, that has nothing to do with pigs. It could have been a girl. But I think somehow creating these stories that involve animals, these lessons become more digestible somehow. And I think we do that all the time as adults, too. I mean, I think when we talk about the need to save the bald eagle from DDT and other pollutants, you know, it's partly maybe because we think bald eagles are awesome and we want to see them flying around. But I think it's also partly a way to talk about our shame or our uncertainty about what we're doing to the planet.

(MUSIC)

MOOALLEM: The stories that we tell about wild animals are so subjective they can be irrational or romanticized or sensationalized. Sometimes they just have nothing to do with the facts. But in a world of conservation reliance, those stories have very real consequences, because now how we feel about an animal affects its survival more than anything that you read about in ecology textbooks. Storytelling matters now. Emotion matters. Our imagination has become an ecological force. And so maybe the teddy bear worked in part because the legend of Roosevelt and that bear in Mississippi was kind of like an allegory of this great responsibility that society was just beginning to face up to back then.

It would be another 71 years before the Endangered Species Act was passed. But really, I mean, here is its whole ethos boiled down into something like a scene you'd see in a stained-glass window. The bear is a helpless victim tied to a tree and the president of the United States decided to show it some mercy. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Jon Mooallem - his latest book is called "Wild Ones." Check out his full talk at ted.npr.org.

(MUSIC)

RAZ: Our show today - Animals And Us - ideas about the way we relate to them and what it says about us. I'm Guy Raz. Stay with us. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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