Thursday, June 12, 2014

Thom van Dooren's "Flight Ways"

Thom van Dooren is an environmental philosopher and anthropologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia. His research is situated in the interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, and reported the following:
A reader opening to page 99 of Flight Ways would find themselves in the thick of a discussion about the ethics and practicalities of ‘imprinting’ birds on people in endangered species conservation.

I was led into this topic by a strange encounter. In June 2012 I visited the Patuxent wildlife research center in Maryland, one of the two main facilities in the USA that house whooping cranes (Grus americana). With their bright white feathers and vibrant red crowns, they are striking and highly charismatic birds. Unfortunately, they are also highly endangered. Reduced to fewer than 20 individuals in the first part of the 20th century, in the 1960s a complex program of egg collection and captive breeding was initiated to hold the species back from the edge of extinction.

During my visit to Patuxent I was initiated into the strange world that has been built around these birds. Here, staff dress up like cranes putting on white costumes and hats and visors to cover their human forms. Where appropriate they carry a long puppet: a stick with a model whooping crane head on the end. Staff are also required to be completely silent around birds; although in some cases they wear small audio devices that play comforting crane vocalisations. As a visitor to Patuxent, I was required to follow these same dress standards.

Perhaps the obvious question at this point is why? Why go to all this trouble when interacting with cranes? It is this question that is being answered on p. 99. In simple terms, without these precautions, cranes raised by people in captivity often go on to become slightly odd birds. They aren’t quite sure who they are. They seek out people for company after they’re released. When it comes time to reproduce they also don’t seem quite sure who they should be approaching (having ‘imprinted’ on people). Costumes are a means of dealing with these issues: In the captive breeding of cranes
humans keepers are required to be intimately involved in the daily lives of young birds, teaching them to look for food and encouraging the walking and swimming necessary for healthy development. But humans must somehow be present without becoming the object of imprinting. They must not only cover over their own human form to prevent birds from imprinting on it, but at the same time produce the form of an adult Whooping Crane, so that birds can imprint on it. (page 99).
This somewhat strange interaction with endangered cranes is one of many such encounters discussed in Flight Ways. From Indian vultures to urban penguins, this book offers a set of tales of entangled people and birds in an effort to explore what life is like for those who must live it at the edge of extinction. How, in practical terms, do we keep these species in the world and at what cost to whom? What are the ethical stakes for the many whooping cranes who will spend their lives laying eggs for release but who themselves will never see the outside world? What about those birds subjected to invasive forms of artificial insemination to keep the species going? In short, page 99 offers a glimpse into the much larger question that animates this book: What kinds of human/bird relationships are taking shape at the edge of extinction and how might we re-imagine what is possible here?
Learn more about the book and author at Thom van Dooren's website and the Columbia University Press.

--Marshal Zeringue