Dystopian Thoughts

(Dystopia: n.; an imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.)

I can’t say I am a fan of the end-of-the-world genre or dystopian element stories, but I do have a special soft spot for movies like Children of Men and I Am Legend and the book Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. (Bird fact: The protagonist of the novel often discusses Alex, the African grey, in his narrative.)

The other night I was watching a commercial by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on polar bears. The polar bears’ survival is fraught in political controversy because it’s threatened with extinction due to climate change/global warming, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). On May 14, 2008, the United States Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The WWF asks for funds to help the polar bears, but based on news stories I’ve read, the bears are not able to adapt quickly enough to the changing climate. They are a giant white bear living in an icy world, but once the ice is gone, what will happen? I watched a nature program on how they do not know how to find food outside their own element. Not to mention, they are huge and white and built for swimming, so if they moved on to tundra and forest, they’d stick out like a sore thumb. Prey would see them from a mile off, and bears that encroach on human territories often get killed.

So what do we do? Can we really stop the ice from disappearing so late in the game? Do we take the polar bears in until their world comes back and they can be released?

But even that is problematic. Taking a wild animal in and getting it used to living with humans is bad. It won’t be used to having to provide for itself or it will develop social problems with others of its own kind.

This is something discussed in the book I am reading on Keiko, the orca (or killer whale) star of the movie Free Willy, and his rehabilitation process. It was an ambitious project: Take a (very sick) whale in Mexico that had been captive for nearly 20 years and move it to a facility in Oregon to start its rehabilitation. There, he became healthy and was taught how to hunt and eat on his own. From there, he would be moved to Iceland, where he was eventually released back into the wild.

The story has a sad ending. Orcas are social animals, living in large groups known as pods. Keiko couldn’t find any pod that would take him in and he was drawn to humans (possibly knowing that they provided food and, perhaps, social comfort). He lost a lot of weight, grew ill and died in 2003, 10 years after Free Willy was made.

Keiko’s story and the polar bears make me think of the Spix’s macaws. Extinct in the wild and inbred and suffering from PDD (proventricular dilation disease) in captivity, Spix’s macaws are Keiko and the polar bears’ struggles combined. Researchers and conservationists hope to re-release these birds back into their native habitat. But the situation is fraught with problems. One, since the population is so small, the Spix’s macaws are all inbred. As I discussed in my blog “Parrots, Pirates & Ghosts, Oh My!”  that is a problem with the small populations of rare species kept in captivity. Without a variety of DNA available in the gene pool, animals and parrots run the risk of becoming inbred. This increases the risk of genetic deformities, which can easily destroy the population.

Next, the Spix’s macaws are in human care and depend on humans for everything. Food, water, shelter, etc. When the time comes that they are released and have to fend for themselves, how will they know where to find food? They will know that humans provide food and go to them. Will food be set out for them? Or will poachers, one of the biggest causes of their extinction in the wild, nab the unsuspecting and naïve birds and sell them to the highest bidder?

And today, I read a study on the indirect effect of an extinct population. In Guam, where 10 of 12 native bird species are extinct (due to an invasive species), the native tree population is in decline. The researchers believed that those extinct birds help distribute 70 percent of the trees’ seeds, and without the birds, the trees can’t expand and grow.

While I probably won’t write a dystopian novel, sometimes I wonder what the world will be like in the future. Will all of the world’s endangered animals live in zoos or rehabilitation facilities? Will most of the world’s animals be extinct? Unlike the end-of-the-world scenarios in movies, will it actually be us that are all alone on the planet?

Once we take the wild from them, what happens to the wild in the animal? Once the wild animals are gone, what happens to us?

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