Wild New World

Dan Flores / W. W. Norton / 448 pages

Dan Flores’ Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals and People in America presents the story of extirpation in the United States—or more precisely, of humanity’s insatiable thirst for animals (and animal habitat).

Presented in roughly chronological order, Flores’s sweeping and comprehensive tome begins with prehistory and looks at how a wide range of megafauna (e.g., saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths) vanished from the North American continent. In modern times, we’ve eliminated the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon—the latter of which once numbered in the billions.

Of course, no account of extinction or near extinction in the United States would be complete without examining our society’s relentless assault on predators—wolves in particular—with an enormous assist from the federal government: The Bureau of Biological Survey and Eradication Methods Laboratory detailed in the book morphed into Animal Damage Control and eventually into the benign-sounding Wildlife Services—the federal program that even today routinely eradicates millions of animals each year in the name of “managing problems caused by wildlife.”

Flores does a commendable job of conveying the intense longing that so many now feel for a lost world that was far richer in biodiversity. As the author notes in the epilogue, while there is still potential to stem the tide, humanity as a whole habitually regards “living creatures as mere resources” and tends to frame losses in terms of “big abstractions… things beyond our control” when, more often than not, we were the perpetrators directly responsible for pushing species to (and over) the brink. As Flores bluntly notes, “since 1500, we Americans have managed to commit the largest single destruction of wild animals discoverable in modern history.” Ultimately, the book is an exhortation to rethink our relationship with wildlife lest we continue this destructive legacy.

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