From tiny cowries to giant clams, seashells have gripped human imaginations since time immemorial. In her magnificent new book, The Sound of the Sea, journalist Cynthia Barnett tells the epic history of humanity’s interactions with shells and the soft-bodied animals who make them. These stories of how we have treasured, traded, plundered, and coveted shells reveal much about who we are and who we’ve been, both good and bad. Barnett’s deep research ranges from the awe-inspiring “great cities of shell” of the Calusa people in Florida, to the use of cowrie shells as currency in the Atlantic slave trade, to the decimation of mollusk populations due to climate change and over-harvesting. In this episode, we speak with Barnett about what she describes as our “world of shell,” what shells can tell us about our past, how they have shaped our present, and how the future of shells and their animal makers is tied to our own.
In “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction,” science journalist Michelle Nijhuis chronicles the history of the wildlife conservation movement through the stories of the extraordinary people — both legendary experts and passionate amateurs — who shaped its evolution and expanding ambitions. Nijhuis introduces us to the Swedish scientists who devised the system of naming and grouping species that endures today, the rebel taxidermist who led the fight to save the American bison from extinction, the New York City socialite who demanded that the Audubon Society stop ignoring the gunning down of game birds by sportsmen, and more. These inspiring, dogged, and often flawed characters transformed both the ecological communities and ideas that we inherited. In this episode, we speak with Nijhuis about what we can learn from the stories of conservationists and their efforts to protect the wild animals that they loved, and the possibilities within a more equitable, inclusive fight to defend life.
Are plants intelligent? Can they think? Can they hear, see, feel, smell and taste? Throughout history, most Western philosophers and scientists answered those questions with a resounding “no.” Plants have long been treated as passive, inanimate objects that form the backdrop to our active lives, rather than highly sensitive organisms with intelligence and agency of their own. But on the cutting edge of modern science, this orthodoxy is being questioned by a group of daring and imaginative scientists — including our guest, Monica Gagliano — who think that plants are radically more sophisticated and sensitive than we’ve been giving them credit for. Gagliano pioneered the field of “plant bioacoustics,” the study of sounds produced by and affecting plants. The results of her groundbreaking experiments suggest that plants may perceive, solve problems, remember, and learn via mechanisms that differ from our own. In this episode, we speak with Gagliano about the profound implications of her discoveries and how listening to plants changed her understanding of the world.
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.
The repercussions of the international wildlife trade, which is a primary driver of our planet’s biodiversity crisis, have recently hit close to home. With the society-altering impacts of Covid-19, which scientists think originated in wild animals, and the cultural storm around the Netflix hit “Tiger King,” the true cost of the wildlife trade and the U.S.’s role in driving it have become topics of national concern. In this episode, we speak with Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Attorney Zak Smith, who has fought for years to protect at-risk wildlife from exploitation. Smith discusses his work leveraging international, federal, and state and local mechanisms to safeguard some of our planet’s most iconic species — such as vaquitas, giraffes, and elephants — and his vision for a more sustainable, equitable world.
In her acclaimed first book, “Floating Coast,” historian Bathsheba Demuth explores how capitalism, communism and ecology have clashed for over 150 years in the remote region of Beringia, the Arctic lands and waters stretching between Russia and Canada. Demuth trekked through the landscape and historical archives in search of answers to questions such as: How did whales become known through the labor of their killing? What happened when human ideas of “progress” were subject to the pressures of arctic life? Why did the superpowers’ grand attempts to cultivate a reindeer farming industry fail? In this episode, we speak with Demuth about these questions and about how creatures like bowheads whales were understood, imagined, and treated vastly differently by three distinct groups of hunters over the past two centuries — indigenous Yupik and Inupiaq whalers, capitalist whalers, and communist whalers — and the fundamental role animals themselves played in how its history unfolded.
Nonhuman beings, and the passionate people who study them, animate Ed Yong’s vast, award-winning and kaleidoscopically varied body of journalism. His vivid stories explore the lives of scientists, the origins of life, social policy, whale hearts, the sixth extinction, the individuals we lose when a species vanishes or populations shrink, and the communities of tiny microbial beings that make us ourselves. To be at all, Yong demonstrates, is to be in partnership with other animals. In this episode, we speak with Yong about the wonders and burdens of telling stories about the animal world.
Professors Doug Kysar and Jonathan Lovvorn are the Faculty Co-Directors of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School. Launched in fall 2019, LEAP is a multidisciplinary “think-and-do” tank dedicated to empowering Yale scholars and students to produce positive legal and political change for animals, people and the environment upon which they depend.
Kysar is Deputy Dean and Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and a leading scholar in the fields of environmental law, torts, climate change, products liability, and risk regulation. In addition to his roles at Yale Law School, Lovvorn is Chief Counsel and Senior Vice President for Animal Protection Litigation at the Humane Society of the United States, where he built and manages the nation’s largest animal protection litigation program.
In this episode, Kysar and Lovvorn speak about how animal law, industrialized cruelty, and climate change are inextricably entwined; why advocates and academics must focus on “animal destruction” laws in addition to “animal protection” laws; the deep questions animals raise about our country’s larger legal structure; and the profundity of the Monsters of Folk song, “The Right Place.”
Film director and producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite did not set out to make a film that would force a national moral reckoning over how we keep whales in captivity, slash the profits of Sea World, and make her the unexpected enemy number one of a multi-billion dollar industry. But that’s what happened. Her acclaimed film Blackfish tells the thrilling and heartbreaking story of Tilikum, an orca whale who killed three people while in captivity. Shot on a budget of just $76,000 and released in 2010, Blackfish has been viewed by more than 60 million people and has become one of the most impactful documentary films of all time. In the six years since its release, Sea World has ended its orca breeding program and pledged to phase out orca shows all together by the end of 2019. We speak with Gabriela about the making of Blackfish, the hazards of keeping cetaceans captive, and how her film catapulted her to the frontier of marine animal activism.
During his travels in South America at the close of the 18th century, the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt came upon a parrot speaking the words of a lost Indian tribe. The encounter inspired our guest, acclaimed author and New York Times Magazine writer Charles Siebert, to imagine the echoes of human language that might persist, in nonhuman voices, once we are gone. We speak with Siebert about his reporting on humans’ wonder for and wounding of animals, the reach of metaphor, and what he discovered in the gaze of a chimpanzee named Roger.