Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Fashionable Water Rat

Perhaps, post-Christmas exchange of sensible socks and underwear, you feel cheated out of bling. An NPR story points the way to a remedy both practical and posh: purchasing a wrap made from an invasive species. Elizabeth Shogren reported this week on the promotion of nutria pelts as a way to wear one's fur and save the environment too.

I had heard of nutria before this story and seen a few, which at first I mistook for a river otter, a very unappealing river otter. (Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the above close-up.) The nutria, or coypu, looks like a cross between a beaver and a wolverine, with the wolverine winning the looks contest. The nutria seems to have a lollipop stuck in its mouth--its oversize orange incisors. It's a South American rodent introduced to other parts of the New and Old World for its fur. But a nutria stole never gained the cache of silver fox, mink, or ermine.  However, nutria have been very successful at crowding out other animals and destroying water plants. It's even thought that they contributed to the pre-Katrina damaging of Louisiana's water levees. In that state, there's a bounty on their heads--or tails. Back in 2002, the state hoped to kill about 400,000 (Richard Stewart, "Nutria Bounty a Boon for Longtime Trappers," Houston Chronicle 15 December 2002).
Too many nutria are still at large, in the view of environmentalists, and the bounty has increased from four to five dollars for an adult's tail. Biologist Edmond Mouton, quoted in the NPR story, believes that since 2002 about 20,000 acres of wetland have become open water. The beneficial marshlands have been gnawed away by those orange teeth. However, Mouton believes that the bounty program, with its take of 300,000 annually, has led to a "ninety percent reduction in damage by nutria."
Not that everyone is happy about eco-fur. I've seen no comment yet from cruelty-free designer Stella McCartney.
Online responses to these and other stories about nutria demonstrate the schism in human thinking about problem animals. Trappers stress the efficiency of traps and the quick death of a shot to the head; animal rights proponents emphasize that no leg trap is without suffering and that killing remains the "go-to" answer for problem animals. Like many rodents, nutria seem to be very effective breeders, so management of their numbers remains an ongoing challenge.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, fur was about the only way to keep warm in Northern climates. Then, not so very long ago in the eras of Rembrandt, Maria Antoinette, and Mad Men, it was de rigueur. (If you're a Marxist in a recycled coat, you could say oppression/exploitation of the underclasses, treated like rats, was also de rigueur.)  Rachel Carson, the prescient author of Silent Spring, purchased a mink coat as a rare indulgence during her struggles with negative publicity and with cancer. (It takes somewhere between 30 and 50 animals to make a mink coat.)

Feeling sexy with the soft brush of nutria against bare shoulders requires a suspension of disbelief. How cozy could you feel in Water Rat designs?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, Birds, and Cats

Christmas Eve on the Northern Mississippi--a snowy image, with two eagles. The bold black-and-white of eagles hardly seems like camouflage until you see their winter landscape.

It's the holidays, and my posts will be few. As promised, however, a review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom follows, a long review for a long book--please read at your leisure. Birds are featured in the novel, as are cats. For a happy holiday view of cats, see the link below, though you may already be familiar with the YouTube instructions, "How to Wrap a Cat for Christmas":

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (

“In the end, he rants against feral cats.” A colleague’s remark embarked me on the very long journey of reading Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel, Freedom.  Though the number of pages that actually mention animals may be 30 out of 562, the book’s jacket prominently features a cerulean warbler against the backdrop of a tree-rimmed lake.  So considering Freedom a book involving animal issues is at least plausible.
The lake depicted is presumably in northern Minnesota (my current home state), and the main characters, Patty and Walter Berglund, spend much of their married life in St. Paul.  Also very present is Walter’s Macalester College roommate, Richard Katz, an indie musician with the hots for nearly every woman he meets, including Patty whom he introduced to Walter. While there are direct references to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and echoes of Thoreau’s Walden, Franzen most often refers to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an invocation that could be more tongue-in-cheek. The context for Freedom is the post 9/11 world, and as in Tolstoy, there are unhappy families, individuals with penchants for marrying—or at least lusting after—the wrong person, social class tension, a seemingly unending clash of empires, and in Walter a Pierre-like hope for a better world.  A significant different between the Napoleonic war versus the war against terrorism is that characters in Franzen’s novel never go on a long march nor see battle: they are, however, wounded by economic and moral shrapnel—perhaps an accurate perception of many Americans’ connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Still, personal conflicts drive the novel. Franzen attempts to integrate the discontents of Patty, Richard, and Walter with large issues like consumerism, environmentalism, corporate influence on government, and population control.  Richard represents a counter-culture so alienated that it (or he) cares about little. For Richard, sexual tension dominates, though Walter pushes him to be a Bono-like charismatic artist inspiring others to act. With Patty, a star college athlete with an intense, intimidating drive, Franzen, in a post-feminist way, presents the failures of parenting. Patty’s parents, rather like several in Dickens’ novels, are too concerned with the outer world to attend to the family, to the point of brushing over their daughter’s date rape.
            The core of the novel is lust interwoven with the burden of being middle class.  If you’re free from poverty and oppression, what should you do? Become a shallow consumer? Surrender freedom to alcoholism, depression, or nihilism? It seems we’ve been free to endanger all other life on the planet.  In a rant (and this novel has rants) during an interview granted to a male teen fan only to get close to the fan’s sultry female acquaintance, Richard replies to the question about musicians as role models: “Me me me, buy buy buy, party party party. Sit in your own little world, rocking, with your eyes closed. What I’ve been trying to say is that we already are perfect Republican role models” (202). Walter, Minnesota-nice Walter (but lacking the comic self-deprecation of Keillor’s Minnesotans), works for the Nature Conservancy. He then becomes involved in a “trust” that would work to save an oil-magnate’s Favorite species, the cerulean warbler.  Throughout his life, Walter has been frustrated by his alcoholic father’s ne’er-do-well passivity, his wife’s depression that increases through their years of marriage, and his son’s inclination to become a rich young conservative. Like Katz (and Thoreau), he rants against the hollowness of middle-class aspiration.  In trying to draw Katz into a conservation scheme and keep this friend-rival distracted from his assistant’s prettiness, Walter takes off on one of his rants: “It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. [. . .] All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off.”  The worst thing about contemporary people seems to be that they breed so prolifically that even changing American-style consumption patterns will not help: “The final cause is the root of pretty much every problem we have. The final cause is too many damn people on the planet”; “but if the population keeps increasing, nothing else we do is going to matter. And yet nobody is talking about the problem publicly. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s killing us” (219, 220). Another issue plagues Walter—can a guy be nice and sexy?  At least Walter isn’t stuck in a Hemingway novel where the answer would definitely be “no.”
            Some might consider Walter’s Cassandra-like warning about human breeding another of the book’s misanthropic elements: to save people, you must stop them from coming into existence. (This section also refers to the Sierra Club dropping a population-control emphasis because it was construed as racist.) Yet the novel portrays prepubescent children as genuine delights.  Nonetheless, Walter’s obsession with population touches on a chasm between the human and the other. We humans are justifiably upset at non-volitional population control. There’s an echo of Nazism’s racial purity and there’s Western society’s discomfort with China’s one-child policy, accompanied by a discomfort over the power that China can wield with the world’s largest population.  Meanwhile, the idea of “saving” a species by controlling reproduction is a familiar and central concept with animal shelter and humane organizations. Since the 1970s, spay and neuter campaigns for dogs and cats have helped reduce euthanasia numbers by the millions.  If you love cats and dogs, you keep them from breeding.  With pet species, more is not better. It seems Walter wants to drive that message home about Homo sapiens.
In Freedom’s pursuit of the good fight to save the planet and middle-class happiness, War and Peace isn’t the only work that lingers in the background.  There are echoes of  Emerson (Patty’s patronymic), Thoreau at Walden Pond, The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy (averted) , Bob Dylan, and perhaps Bleak House with its litigious fixation on inheritance.  Most of all, the characterizations make me think of Jonathan Swift and a magnified view of humanity’s warty failings; people become yahoos governed by self-interest—only these yahoos aren’t controlled by horse-like houyhnhnms but dominate to destroy nonhuman life.
Which brings us to animals. Walter hopes to save a migration corridor and bird habitat by working with a billionaire cozy with the Republican president and an advocate of warblers and his coal mining interests. In a Swiftian modest proposal, a “trust” would permit mountaintop removal for mining and then finance “science-based” reclamation. In other words, to save the mountain you must first destroy it. It is dangerous to correlate Franzen’s views too closely with Walter’s, but this section does tease us. Idealistic, no-compromise environmentalists can get in their own way and thwart actionable progress; however, the extractive industries have provided few grounds for “trust.” Also, abstract arguments for preservation fall on deaf ears, while love of a charismatic species can motivate conservation efforts.
The plotting of the “trust” and the characters plays itself out in some unexpected ways, though I had to push myself rather unwillingly through the first half of the book, perhaps because I prefer to keep a few warming illusions about human nature.  Franzen’s Swiftian outlook reduces nearly every impulse to a selfish desire or a reflex explained by social conditioning:  one is reduced to the “mean-ness” of one’s demographic. When Walter’s daughter offers advice, “it was clear that she’d gone to an expensive college and learned to speak her mind in seminars” (360). The air is squeezed out of the book by white liberal middle-class guilt and frustration (sexual and ideological).  I found myself most attracted by the perspective of Joey, the venal son seduced at a very tender age by a girl and capitalism. Despite the graphic and scatological detail of his bodily functions, Joey’s perspective had a momentum, a sense of possible happiness and pleasure. Intentionally or not, Franzen may explain a generation’s attraction to conservatism which focuses on what you can do, not on what you can’t.  Also appealingly portrayed, for the most part, is Walter’s assistant Lalitha. An American of Indian heritage, she (as young women often do in older men’s minds) offers a receptive hope, all while committed to zero population growth—she is the closest to being idealized, and  in a sense, she is sacrificed, as the cerulean warbler could be to human consumption.  
Back to the animals again.  Not only do special interest groups threaten the life of the planet, so do feral cats. Like Melville in Moby Dick, Franzen works natural history and zoology into the mélange of the novel. Franzen is a bird watcher, and there his sympathies probably lie with Walter who “had never liked cats. They seemed to him the sociopaths of the pet world, a species domesticated as an evil necessary for the control of rodents and subsequently fetishized the way unhappy countries fetishize their militaries” (548).  Walter confirms his status as eccentric nature hermit when he passes out neoprene bibs to cat owners—a cat in a bib cannot catch the bird. In his plea to owners of outdoor cats, Walter provided “the low-end estimate of songbirds daily murdered by cats in the United States was one million, i.e., 365,000,000 per year” (545). The novel then works from conflicts over cats back to conflicts in relationships.
The novel’s emphatic anti-cat rant is meant to resonate beyond fiction. Those who follow animal issues know that conservation biologists and animal shelter workers agree that pet cats should be kept indoors or otherwise enclosed for the cat’s sake and the sake of wildlife. However, free-roaming and feral cats inspire conflict.  Many organizations like Alley Cat Allies ( promote TNR (trap-neuter-release) programs, and claim studies show outdoor cats forage on items other than bird—they might challenge Walter/Franzen’s “murder” statistics. Meanwhile, organizations like Audubon ( assert that TNR programs have had little impact on a U.S. cat population which, including pets and ferals, amounts to about 152 million. (These numbers combine pet and feral statistics from the American Veterinary Association* and  National Geographic News**.) I remember hearing of a study done decades ago in Great Britain in which mums let their kitties outside and then collected the fur and feathers that the cats brought back as offerings. Islands off Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa have had ecosystems altered when cats arrived with people.  In a recent case, however, reducing the number of cats, an introduced species, led to flora destruction by another introduced species—rabbits. (See “Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island” in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology.)  In terms of suburban American backyards, cats are a commensal species. In other words, they live and spread where humans live and set the table, sometimes with birdfeeders. So the more people there are, the more cats there will be either attached to a household or abandoned. And the abandoned are directly or indirectly fed and sheltered nearby.

Read Franzen if you like to read Franzen. Meanwhile, I would like to hear more about who knows what the cat ate.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Welcome and Preview

The Random Animal

Welcome! This is a preview of “Random Animal,” a blog which reviews books (generally published within six months of the posting) that touch on animal issues. These may be nonfiction books specifically focused on human/animal relations, conservation biology, animals in culture, and so on. Or they can be fiction and poetry collections in which animals are significant. So you can look forward to reviews of Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, Melanie Joy’s similarly titled Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, and Derek Walcott’s Egrets. If I feature a book in which cats play a nefarious role, I may then turn to an account of a hero cat, like Vicki Myron’s Dewey. Occasionally I’ll comment on an animal issue in the news or present experiences from animal shelters or wildlife observations, such as Audubon’s Christmas bird count. A few odds and ends (fictional or otherwise) may slip in, like Moby Dick: The Glee Version and “Emily Dickinson tweets.”

The books are randomly selected by my roaming interests. (I receive no remuneration from publishers.) I have a Ph.D. in English literature and have taught courses on the representation of nature, landscape, and animals in art, photography, and literature. I grew up on a dairy farm in rural woodsy Maine and currently live in snow-bound Minnesota, having exchanged one cold “M” state for another. I have been involved with animal shelters and wildlife organizations. My publications include Abandoned New England: Landscape in the Works of Homer, Frost, Hopper, Wyeth, and Bishop and a children’s book Howard and The Sitter Surprise that, yes, has talking animals.

Looking for a long read over the winter holidays? Coming soon—a review of Franzen’s Freedom.