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When wild animals in our midst become celebrities

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
4 min read
A brown and white owl sitting on a branch, looking at the camera.
A barred owl photographed in Maine, similar to the famous New York barred owl, Barry. Credit: Fyn Kynd via a CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence.

The latter days of summer are here and The Nature Gatherer is taking what I would argue is a well-earned break. There shall be no more new newsletters until September but I have some interesting stuff in the works for you all, so please stay tuned!

A short piece for you this week, inspired by the story of Barry the owl, a much-loved and nonchalant female barred owl from Central Park in New York. Sadly, Barry was killed by a collision with a truck in the park earlier this month, which prompted an outpouring of tributes from her fans.

The Financial Times published a thoughtful piece about Barry last week by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. It's about how her story reveals our peculiar human responses to the wild animals that occasionally enter "our" territories and become conspicuous.

Sometimes these creatures, unwittingly, become pseudo-celebrities. We project ourselves onto them. Come up with narratives that rationlise them. That says more about us than wild animals but I think it's a phenomenon worth thinking about.

I was particularly interested in Edgecliffe-Johnson’s suggestion that Barry achieved something humans rarely do: she brought people together across a variety of social divides. “In an age when social media tribes have scant understanding of each other, nature can offer some common ground,” he wrote.

Some discussions about nature on social media have depressed me a bit lately – so often they are ultra-negative or overly combative. People slugging it out over what conservation project is the most effective, which attitude the most righteous, whose rewilding plan the most worthy… It’s nice to think that nature can transcend our human tendency to disagree with one another. Sometimes.

And while anthropomorphism is problematic in many ways, I can’t help but feel that when people suddenly become interested in an animal that has wandered into our midst, there’s an opportunity to bring people together through that – and also to educate them about the ecological reality facing the animal in question.

A bronze-coloured statue of a dolphin pictured on a harbour.
A recent example of an animal celebrity is Fungie the dolphin, whose statue is now a landmark in Dingle, Ireland. Credit: Ron Cogswell Credit: Fyn Kynd via a CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence.

Barry the owl is far from the only such opportunity. Take Fungie the dolphin, or Wally the walrus (we always seem to give these creatures such twee nicknames!). The latter has recently made appearances in Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, France and now Ireland again. He’s attracted attention due to his habit of lolling in and capsizing small boats in various harbours.

A quirky tabloid story at best, you might think, but it is surely also a chance to consider the extraordinary journeys that animals like this sometimes make, as well as the fact that we can still be confronted – and surprised by – wildness, even here in western Europe. If your aim is, for example, the reintroduction of wolves, then the discussion around that sort of thing could be valuable to you.

More importantly, by getting to know the startling variety of animals that sometimes intersect with us or the places where we live, people might become more motivated to look after them.

When I wrote about the exceptionally rare sighting of a beluga whale in the Thames a few years ago, I was intrigued by the various ways in which locals had attempted to protect the creature. This included the port authority broadcasting alerts to ships, encouraging them to navigate the river with care. The local council even cancelled its annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display, so as not to disturb the whale with all the noise.

We’ve changed so much of the planet, largely irrevocably. But wild animals have the power to remind us that we can see the world differently.

Noticing them is the first step.

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It’s not just humans who have culture, you know. Many different animal species are thought to retain cultural behaviours and memories, as discussed in this great piece by Zoe Kean in The Guardian.

Kean reports on efforts to understand the cultural knowledge about feeding grounds that might be shared among groups of North Atlantic right whales, which are critically endangered. As the whales’ population dwindles (there are fewer than 400 left in the wild), their culture is at risk of becoming severely fragmented, too.

Speaking of lasting cultural knowledge, Hakai Magazine published a fascinating story about the fact that grizzly bears in British Columbia can be separated into distinct genetic groups – and each of these groups is associated, geographically, with a particular indigenous human language. These languages have long been spoken in the region:

“Because bears and people have shared food and space for millennia, it follows that people might respond to the environment in a similar way, allowing for a rich diversity of languages to evolve in parallel.”

I also recommend having a read of this feature in National Geographic about the controversial “dolphin therapy” industry. Can these cetaceans really be used to treat autism and depression?

And finally, Yale Environment 360 has a beautiful short film about the mussel-harvesting Sokhulu women of South African, who were forcibly relocated away from coastal areas during apartheid. Now they’re back.

AnimalsUrban

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.