I can’t count the number of animal stories that appeared in my timelines this year with comments like, “Everything is garbage, so here’s this.” There was the cat who was reunited with her family after the Camp Fire, in California, and the parrot who was adopted after getting kicked out of an animal shelter for swearing too saltily. Among the bears preparing for hibernation at Katmai National Park, a female named Beadnose became famous for being the most gloriously round. There was the baby raccoon who scaled a skyscraper in St. Paul, “Mission Impossible” style, stopping occasionally for naps in window ledges along the way. (It was trapped, released, and promptly made the subject of a children’s book.) Stories from the animal world offer reliable moments of escapism—the ones we see in viral videos are usually cute, or tame, or strange and majestic, and glimpsed from a safe distance. But the animal stories that resonated most with me this year were the ones that hinted at a more ominous trend: that we humans are encroaching on nature in ways both glaring and subtle, putting the human and animal worlds into ever more intimate, and ever more fraught, contact.

The most influential animal of the year might be the unfortunate sea turtle who got a straw stuck—really, deeply, seriously stuck—up his nose. In an uncomfortable ten-minute video posted to YouTube, a marine biologist slowly extracts the straw, which is brown and crumpled and disgusting. The turtle’s nose bleeds, and throughout the ordeal, it opens its mouth as if to bite the biologist’s hand—or howl in pain. The video, filmed in 2015, in Costa Rica, became part of this year’s debate over plastic straws and was used by proponents of straw bans to show how such a small object, used and disposed of without a thought, can cause substantial suffering down the line.

A baby bear became an overnight Internet star when it was captured in a video that looked, at first, like a sweet inspirational tale. In aerial drone footage, the cub was shown repeatedly slipping down the side of a snowy ledge and trying mightily to make its way to the top, where its mother waited. Ultimately, the cub prevailed, and the video was embraced on social media as a tribute to the power of perseverance. But then drone operators and ecologists began weighing in: the drone that took the video had likely alarmed the bears; you can see the mother bear swatting the air as the drone flies closer. The machine’s operator, in chasing the bears for footage, had potentially driven them into a dangerous situation. Suddenly, the viral cub was transformed from a feel-good fable into a cautionary tale about how humans can imperil animals just by trying to get a good look at them.

The most devastating news from the animal kingdom came from Puget Sound, where a wild orca named Tahlequah carried the body of her dead calf for a total of seventeen days. Orcas, famously intelligent, have a long history of being captured, trained, and anthropomorphized. Their social groups are highly sophisticated, with older females living for decades, sometimes to the age of a hundred, training and leading multiple generations within their pods. The calf was born emaciated, without the blubber that orcas need to survive in cold waters—an emblem of the plight of the critically endangered Puget Sound orcas, who are threatened by a drop in the availability of the Chinook salmon that are their main food source. Orcas and their relatives have been known to carry the bodies of their dead, but such a long “grief tour” had never before been observed.

During a year that saw the stripping away of environmental protections, one legal victory for wilderness stands out. This fall, the first grizzly-bear hunt in the more than forty years was scheduled in the area around Yellowstone National Park. The local bears had been listed as endangered in the seventies, when there were around a hundred and twenty-five individuals living in and around the park. There are now around seven hundred. After the bears lost their protected status, in 2017, the states of Idaho and Wyoming scheduled trophy hunts for the fall of the 2018. But, as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Crow Indian tribe and a group of environmental organizations, the hunt was cancelled. The judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had used analysis that was “arbitrary and capricious” when it revoked the grizzlies’ status, and that the population needed to be left to continue to recover.

No member of the animal kingdom was fawned over in 2018 quite like the Mandarin duck, also known as the hot duck, Central Park’s avian celebrity (and, according to Naomi Fry, one of 2018’s notable good men). He has it all, really: a glamorous countenance with an array of jewel-tone feathers that his mallard peers can only dream of, a mysterious origin story suggesting hints of adventure (the species is native to East Asia and no local person or zoo has reported him missing), a lively troupe of admirers who track his movements, and, to top it all off, an ombre-purple crest. Some birders have expressed worries that the fans flocking to see him are disturbing the pond’s peace—the manager of a popular Twitter account for New York birders aroused ire by attempting to lure the duck with a soft pretzel, breaking with bird-watcher protocol. But with the many novel ways that humans have found to interfere with wild animals, I think we can leave offering snacks to ducks off the list. This fall, birders sometimes waited, nervous and disappointed, when he would disappear from the Central Park pond that had become his new habitat. All were relieved to discover that he was just going to New Jersey.

My favorite animal of all this year was a seal in New Zealand, who was caught on video slapping a kayaker in the face with the body of an octopus, in a truly riveting moment of marine-mammal sass. Sure, biologists have explained that seals sometimes fling octopuses against the water’s surface to sever their tentacles to eat, and that the kayaker’s slap was incidental. But I’d argue that, on a cosmic level, the seal was dishing out some well-deserved animal-kingdom justice, fair dues for what humans have done to that sea turtle and that bear cub, not to mention the rest of the planet.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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