Grazing peacefully through shallow waterways, the Florida manatee is one of the state’s most beloved creatures. Due to a multitude of compounding, human-caused crises, the last couple years have been some of the deadliest on record for manatees. Years of worsening water quality from Florida’s unfettered agricultural pollution and real estate development have resulted in increased toxic algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching the seagrass meadows upon which the manatees depend. In 2021, Florida’s manatees died in massive numbers, with a record 1,100 manatees – more than 12 percent of the state’s total manatee population – perishing. Most died by starvation. In this episode, we speak with aquatic biologist Patrick Rose, the ‘MVP of manatee protection,’ who has worked for more than four decades to propel manatees to public prominence and to translate manatees’ popularity into enforced protections for these animals and their habitat. Rose, the executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, tells us about the heartbreaking cost to these gentle giants of human derelictions, the critical importance of cleaning up Florida’s waterways, and what it is about manatees that has inspired Rose and countless others to fight tirelessly for their future.
The fossil record acts as both a memorial to life’s spectacular possibilities and as a warning to humanity about how fast dominance can become forgotten history, according to our guest, Scottish paleobiologist Dr. Thomas Halliday. Halliday’s research investigates long-term patterns in the fossil record, particularly in mammals. In his magnificent and daring new book “Otherlands: A Journey through Earth’s Extinct Worlds,” Halliday translates cutting-edge science into vivid portraits of sixteen fossil sites and their inhabitants extending back 550 million years. We speak with Halliday about his travel guide to the history of multicellular life on Earth, how an animal fossil can be read as a character description, how entire extinct worlds are reconstructed from remnants in the Earth’s crust, and the importance of realizing that our lives and the worlds we know were preceded by hundreds of millions of years of other life and other worlds, “simultaneously fabulous yet familiar.”
In 1995, the U.S. government took unprecedented actions to restore the wolf population of Yellowstone National Park, which it had brutally destroyed seventy years prior. More than thirty wolves from multiple packs were captured in Canada, transported to the park, and released in a grand experiment that would become the most successful wildlife reintroduction effort in history. Our guest, the legendary wolf expert Rick McIntyre, has dedicated his life to those wolves. For the past 26 years, he has observed the park’s wolves nearly every single day, accumulating more than 100,000 sightings. After retiring from the park service, McIntyre – who still watches the wolves daily – penned a gripping series of biographies of Yellowstone’s greatest wolf leaders: Wolf 08, one of the first reintroduced wolves who grew from a runt into a powerful pack leader; his adopted and brave son, Wolf 21, known for his long and successful reign as king of the park’s Druid Peak pack, his deep devotion to his mate, and his unusual benevolence to his defeated rivals; and 21’s nephew, Wolf 302, who started life as an irresponsible Casanova who stole food from pups and slept during battles, but transformed his character and died as a heroic father. In this episode, McIntyre describes the wolves’ unique personalities, the packs’ dynastic dramas, and the exuberant joy that he’s seen through his spotting scope, and explains why federal action is urgently needed to protect these wolves, who are at risk of being massacred once again due to draconian new state laws.
Hedgehogs, despite being consistently voted the most beloved mammal in the United Kingdom, have suffered great population losses as industrial agriculture and other human impacts destroy their hedgerow habitats. Our latest guest, Hugh Warwick, has studied, celebrated, written about, and fought to protect hedgehogs for more than 30 years, leading a groundswell of local and individual action to protect the small animal. We spoke with Warwick about his role as the spokesperson for the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, his writings on the impact of manmade lines on the ability of wild animals to thrive, and the environmental importance of loving your hedgehog.
In the long months we’ve all been confined to our homes, many people have become reacquainted with the vibrant life just outside their doors, finding unexpected joy, companionship, and hope through partaking in the cycles of love and loss that happen in the skies and yards around us. It is this wonder to be found in the natural world, from observing the habits of the nesting chipmunk family under her house, to watching a monarch butterfly break out of its chrysalis, that our guest, Margaret Renkl, captures so evocatively through her writing. In her book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, and in her weekly opinion columns for The New York Times, Renkl introduces readers to the profound joys and sorrows unfolding in the world around us. In stories about growing up in the South, the heartbreak of losing her parents, finding the perfect squirrel-proof finch feeder, and hearing the chattering of birds in her yard as they warn of a lurking snake, she grounds the extraordinary and uplifts the everyday. In this episode, we talk with Renkl about how loving nature and mourning it go hand in hand, how backyard nature can provide comfort during times of grief, the impetuousness of squirrels, and how she turned her Nashville backyard into a wildlife sanctuary.
In 2013, a sperm whale washed up dead on Spain’s southern coast. In its ruptured digestive tract, scientists found an entire flattened greenhouse that once grew wintertime tomatoes, complete with plastic tarps, hoses, two flower pots, and a spray canister. The whale also contained an ice cream tub, mattress parts, a carafe, and a coat hanger. And that was just the obvious human refuse. Our toxic chemicals build up in whale blubber over years such that the concentration of pollutants in some whale bodies now far exceeds that of the water surrounding them. In whales’ vastness, the reach of humanity’s destruction is magnified — but so too is the potential of our compassion. In her genius debut book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, writer Rebecca Giggs asks: Who are we to whales? What does it mean to pollute not just places, but animals? What can understanding our ecological crises through the perspectives of other creatures teach us about ourselves? In this episode, we speak with Giggs about the astonishing ways in which whales and humans live in each other’s wakes and the enormous power of the world’s largest mammals to expand our own moral capacity.
As Dr. Joseph Drew Lanham writes in his beautiful and deeply moving memoir, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, from his earliest days growing up in the piedmont forests and fields of Edgefield, South Carolina, he dreamed of flight. This fascination with the aerial journeys of the blue jays that stole his grandmother’s pecans and the crows that invaded his father’s cornfield sparked Dr. Lanham’s lifelong dedication to studying birds and to exploring what it means to be a “rare bird” himself: a Black man in a field that is overwhelmingly white and an ecologist finding freedom through wildness on land where his ancestors were enslaved. In addition to advancing scientific understanding of wild animals, Dr. Lanham has written extensively about the deep and often overlooked connections between how we treat nature and how we treat our fellow humans. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Lanham about how bird lives and Black lives intertwine in the story of the Carolina Parakeet, the language-defying joy of watching swallow-tailed kites, and why Emily Dickinson was right in declaring that “hope is the thing with feathers.”
Amid the systematic cruelties and alienating conditions which define our factory farm system, Farm Sanctuary stands out as an exemplar of human kindness. Over the past thirty years, Farm Sanctuary — co-founded and led by our guest, Gene Baur — has rescued thousands of farm animals from short, tortured lives in industrial confinement and allowed them to live out their days in comfort. There, these rescued cows, pigs, sheep and more serve as ambassadors, teaching millions of people — from schoolchildren to Hollywood stars — that farm animals are individuals with personalities and emotions and deserve to be treated as more than just widgets on an assembly line. In this episode, we speak with Baur about the origins and evolution of Farm Sanctuary, how animals who have suffered transform when they are treated with gentleness for the first time, and the globe wave of farm animal sanctuaries that his work inspired. From spur-of-the-moment calf rescues with celebrity supporters like Joaquin Phoenix to lawsuits against companies and government agencies, Baur has fought tirelessly to protect farm animals from cruelty and to promote a more compassionate world.
Roughly two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases — including COVID-19 and almost all recent epidemics — originate in the bodies of animals. Microbes have spilled over from animals to humans for time immemorial, but, as our species dominates the biosphere and transforms the frequency and nature of human-animal interactions, the rate at which microbes are jumping the species barrier is rapidly accelerating. In this episode, we speak with investigative journalist Sonia Shah, author of “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond,” about the history of viral infections and how our treatment of animals and the planet — via the burning of fossil fuels, biodiversity loss, deforestation, factory farming, the wildlife trade, and more — is fueling the eruption and spread of infectious diseases.