the bigger picture

by Jim Fowler

After a lifetime of service to the preservation of wildlife, these days I have a standard reply when anyone asks me to predict the future of endangered species: Think bigger picture. The bigger picture is that our fate as humans is linked to the fate of the natural world, and that is where our attention must be focused. The goal of wildlife conservation is not to ensure that pretty animals will have a place to live; it is to ensure that we humans will have a place to live. We won’t be around much longer if we continue to destroy the planet at the rate we are going. What is at stake is not the survival of this or that animal species but the survival of the human race.

The brutal truth is that most people care very little about the natural world; they don’t see how it concerns them. People are concerned with going to work, paying their bills, and providing for their families, and those priorities do deserve our energies. Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that quality of life comes from some additional dimension of activity. For most of history, that other dimension was provided by the natural world and the inspiration that came from being immersed in her beauty. The natural world is disappearing, and we have invented very unnatural worlds to fulfill this other dimension of our being: shopping malls, the Internet, video games. There may be some quality of life in these activities, but speak with people who have had an up-close experience with a golden tabby tiger or a black leopard, and quality takes on a whole other meaning. Speak with people who have access to natural preserves and the beauty of nature: Quality, for them, has higher purpose than access to a mall. Recessions have less effect on families who preserve a river or a creek and enjoy picnics in such beautiful surroundings.

Ironically, this connection between the natural world, wildlife, and quality of life for humans has been obscured by poor communications from people inside the wildlife community. Many of my colleagues in conservation are good people. They know good science and possess volumes of information. Unfortunately, few of them know how to motivate the public to really care about preservation. In some instances, their very use of language has downgraded the public’s understanding of preservation. Environment is a negative term for many decision makers in business and industry because it has become synonymous with restrictions. Green is a term that many people equate with insulation and garbage disposal. So there is a job to be done—namely, educating educators how to effectively teach that wildlife conservation addresses quality of life for everyone.


How can we move people’s attention away from the unnatural worlds of shopping malls and digital technology and move them to become active in wildlife conservation? Over the past forty years, my experience in a wide range of venues—in schools, in government-policy circles, on television—has been that a live animal does more than anything else to attract people’s attention and touch their hearts. Bring the public into the presence of a live animal, and magic happens. People look into the eyes of a tiger or some other beautiful animal and connect, most of them for the first time, with what we mean by the natural world. More times than I can count, people have come up to me and said their interest in saving wildlife began when they attended a lecture where I brought out a species of animal they had never met before. Some organizations claim that there should be no such interaction between people and endangered animals such as tigers. They say that predators belong in the wild and that bringing big cats into captivity and permitting people to have unobstructed contact with them is dangerous. This is simply not true. When managed by properly trained staff, private preserves are not dangerous. In almost every instance, when an animal has escaped enclosure, it is because someone without proper training was left in charge. Newspapers and television exaggerate the statistics, play up the drama of the rare occasion when this happens, and arouse irrational fears. The instances of attack by a big cat are minuscule compared with, for instance, deaths from lawn mowers (two thousand in 2009) or from riding horses (eight hundred that same year). Television reports hype the few instances of escape by a big cat and rile up the public, who then demand legislation that ironically could drive big cats into extinction. That cycle can only be corrected when we come to value the vital role of private preserves.

Humans have lived with dangerous animals on this planet for a long time, yet we are so disconnected from them that we have lost the admiration, awe, and mutual respect that for centuries characterized our relationship with wildlife. Recently, I saw an article describing how grizzlies are getting more dangerous in Yellowstone National Park. The reporter said nothing about the important role they play in the park’s ecosystem or how inspiring it is to actually see grizzlies. Played up were the few instances when a grizzly came into a campground and hurt or killed someone.

When that side alone is represented in the press, then regulatory agencies step in to limit wild animals’ transportation from one venue to another, restrict their breeding, or prohibit their exhibition. Without a balanced picture, these agencies have only extreme cases on which to base their policies, and their actions often place onerous restrictions on preservation efforts. When a rich person irresponsibly takes a mountain lion for a ride in a convertible, risking the animal’s jumping out of the car, it is not the mountain lion population that should have to pay for such foolishness.


There are three reasons to protect and maintain big cats and other endangered animals in private preserves. First, private preserves stock zoological parks. Many of the beautiful creatures living in our zoos were raised in these private preserves. Second, private preserves educate the public, often more effectively than zoological parks, most of which do not have educational-outreach programs or else limit what they teach to data: Here is an animal. This is where he comes from. This is what he eats. That kind of data may be accurate, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to inspire people or help save the natural world. On the other hand, many private facilities are run by people who have a passion for what I call the bigger picture, and it shows in the quality of care they provide the animals and in the quality of education they provide the public. Third, private preserves maintain genetic lines that zoos are not able to maintain. Zoos do a fine job with many smaller animals but often do not have the funds needed to maintain gene pools of larger animals such as tigers and elephants. That is a role admirably filled by the private facilities.


There is a noble but ill-informed idea that big cats and other endangered species should not be kept in captivity at all but should be allowed to live in the wild. Where is the wild? It’s gone. Natural habitats have been taken over by people, and preserves have become essential to the survival of many species. It is frustrating for a zoologist like me to hear people say that big cats should be allowed to roam free in places that no longer exist. People need to know that many endangered species are better cared for out of the wild than in the wild. In the wild, we humans shoot big cats. We cut down their homes and habitats and oblige them to seek food in places they should not go. Hands-on care in properly maintained facilities constitutes the best chance we have for keeping these beautiful creatures alive. We won’t succeed in saving the natural world just by having pretty animals in a movie. National Geographic specials are engaging, but they are no substitute for making a personal connection with wildlife. And in the absence of adequate natural habitats, preserves serve a life-saving function.


When I was a boy down in Georgia, my father used to take us on adventures through the wild areas down there. He introduced me to alligators and rattlesnakes and hundreds of varieties of trees and plants. I remember a creek that used to flow under Falls Church and down to Four Mile Run. The creek is covered up now, but back then I found a whole family of weasels living there. I used to build little dams along that creek and catch crawfish and all kinds of other local fish. Bullfrogs love the color red, and, as a ten-year-old, I used to take a bamboo pole and put a red piece of cloth on the end of it to catch them. Nobody got hurt, and it was great fun.

Later on, when I was with the Indians down in the Amazon, living in some pretty harsh conditions, I studied the giant harpy eagle. Harpies are the largest eagle in the world; they can eat a thirty-pound howler monkey. At one time, I raised them along with other rare birds, but I had to give that up. The reason is that legislation on the books forbids me from bringing a bird raised for hunting into an educational setting. Such restrictions are passed by politicians responding to public outcry. The public responds to sensationalist media reports, the policy makers respond to the public, and the ones who suffer are the animals and birds. The day when we are no longer able to interact with the breathtaking creatures of nature, when we can no longer see for ourselves how this Earth works and know our place in the natural world, will be the end of civilization as we know it.


The natural world is shrinking, and conflicts between human groupings often arise over the inaccessibility of natural resources. The have-nots envy the haves, and envy turns into hatred. We see the conflict in newspaper headlines every day: Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan. Yet it is only recently that studies have finally been released linking the lack of access to natural resources with issues of national security. Humans have never treated animals or each other very well, but it seems that only now have we begun to connect the two.

I am an animal-rights person: I believe with every fiber of my being that every animal has the right to live in the wild, and that if access to the wild is no longer available, every animal has the right to be taken care of. It is, nonetheless, my perception that not enough of my fellow animal-rights activists make the connection between how we behave toward animals and how we behave toward other humans. It is just as important to give humans access to natural resources as it is to give animals the right-size cage.

We humans are the biggest exploiters in history. We have always been expert at cutting down trees and transforming a cabin into a city and a path into a highway. Things have reached critical mass, a point of no return. If I were to be asked what will reverse the trend, my first response would be cynical but probably accurate: commercial interests. At least in recent years, the only thing that has proven itself effective at saving wildlife is the force of commercial tourism. It is why we still have wildlife preserves in Africa and elsewhere. Commercial interests constitute the most powerful force available for protecting whatever open spaces still remain. They are likely as well to be the most effective path to peace in areas where restricted access to natural resources has led to armed conflict.

Life on Earth operates by the interactions of diverse ecosystems. On every level, from microbes to elephants, one facet of life is linked to all the others. For example, when we overfarm the oceans by killing sharks and whales without limits, we upset a delicate system that provides most of our oxygen through bioplankton and the action of sunlight on chlorophyll. Our planet is a fragile balance of such biodiversity. We are still learning how it all works, but one thing has become painfully obvious: By jeopardizing the diversity of species, we jeopardize the complex and elegant systems that support human life on Earth. Seeing the bigger picture is the remedy that can ensure our future.