Subtitles and Transcript
0:11 So it was the fall of 1902, and President Theodore Roosevelt needed a little break from the White House, so he took a train to Mississippi to do a little black bear hunting outside of a town called Smedes. The first day of the hunt, they didn't see a single bear, so it was a big bummer for everyone, but the second day, the dogs cornered one after a really long chase, but by that point, the president had given up and gone back to camp for lunch, so his hunting guide cracked the animal on the top of the head with the butt of his rifle, and then tied it up to a tree and started tooting away on his bugle to call Roosevelt back so he could have the honor of shooting it. The bear was a female. It was dazed, injured, severely underweight, a little mangy-looking, and when Roosevelt saw this animal tied up to the tree, he just couldn't bring himself to fire at it. He felt like that would go against his code as a sportsman.
1:08 A few days later, the scene was memorialized in a political cartoon back in Washington. It was called "Drawing a Line in Mississippi," and it showed Roosevelt with his gun down and his arm out, sparing the bear's life, and the bear was sitting on its hind legs with these two big, frightened, wide eyes and little ears pricked up at the top of its head. It looked really helpless, like you just wanted to sweep it up into your arms and reassure it. It wouldn't have looked familiar at the time, but if you go looking for the cartoon now, you recognize the animal right away: It's a teddy bear. And this is how the teddy bear was born. Essentially, toymakers took the bear from the cartoon, turned it into a plush toy, and then named it after President Roosevelt — Teddy's bear.
1:47 And I do feel a little ridiculous that I'm up here on this stage and I'm choosing to use my time to tell you about a 100-year-old story about the invention of a squishy kid's toy, but I'd argue that the invention of the teddy bear, inside that story is a more important story, a story about how dramatically our ideas about nature can change, and also about how, on the planet right now, the stories that we tell are dramatically changing nature.
2:17 Because think about the teddy bear. For us, in retrospect, it feels like an obvious fit, because bears are so cute and cuddly, and who wouldn't want to give one to their kids to play with, but the truth is that in 1902, bears weren't cute and cuddly. I mean, they looked the same, but no one thought of them that way. In 1902, bears were monsters. Bears were something that frickin' terrified kids. For generations at that point, the bear had been a shorthand for all the danger that people were encountering on the frontier, and the federal government was actually systematically exterminating bears and lots of other predators too, like coyotes and wolves. These animals, they were being demonized. They were called murderers because they killed people's livestock. One government biologist, he explained this war on animals like the bear by saying that they no longer had a place in our advancing civilization, and so we were just clearing them out of the way. In one 10-year period, close to half a million wolves had been slaughtered. The grizzly would soon be wiped out from 95 percent of its original territory, and whereas once there had been 30 million bison moving across the plains, and you would have these stories of trains having to stop for four or five hours so that these thick, living rivers of the animals could pour over the tracks, now, by 1902, there were maybe less than 100 left in the wild. And so what I'm saying is, the teddy bear was born into the middle of this great spasm of extermination, and you can see it as a sign that maybe some people deep down were starting to feel conflicted about all that killing. America still hated the bear and feared it, but all of a sudden, America also wanted to give the bear a great big hug.
3:59 So this is something that I've been really curious about in the last few years. How do we imagine animals, how do we think and feel about them, and how do their reputations get written and then rewritten in our minds? We're here living in the eye of a great storm of extinction where half the species on the planet could be gone by the end of the century, and so why is it that we come to care about some of those species and not others? Well, there's a new field, a relatively new field of social science that started looking at these questions and trying to unpack the powerful and sometimes pretty schizophrenic relationships that we have to animals, and I spent a lot of time looking through their academic journals, and all I can really say is that their findings are astonishingly wide-ranging. So some of my favorites include that the more television a person watches in Upstate New York, the more he or she is afraid of being attacked by a black bear. If you show a tiger to an American, they're much more likely to assume that it's female and not male. In a study where a fake snake and a fake turtle were put on the side of the road, drivers hit the snake much more often than the turtle, and about three percent of drivers who hit the fake animals seemed to do it on purpose. Women are more likely than men to get a "magical feeling" when they see dolphins in the surf. Sixty-eight percent of mothers with "high feelings of entitlement and self-esteem" identified with the dancing cats in a commercial for Purina. (Laughter) Americans consider lobsters more important than pigeons but also much, much stupider. Wild turkeys are seen as only slightly more dangerous than sea otters, and pandas are twice as lovable as ladybugs.
5:31 So some of this is physical, right? We tend to sympathize more with animals that look like us, and especially that resemble human babies, so with big, forward-facing eyes and circular faces, kind of a roly-poly posture. This is why, if you get a Christmas card from, like, your great aunt in Minnesota, there's usually a fuzzy penguin chick on it, and not something like a Glacier Bay wolf spider. But it's not all physical, right? There's a cultural dimension to how we think about animals, and we're telling stories about these animals, and like all stories, they are shaped by the times and the places in which we're telling them. So think about that moment back in 1902 again where a ferocious bear became a teddy bear. What was the context? Well, America was urbanizing. For the first time, nearly a majority of people lived in cities, so there was a growing distance between us and nature. There was a safe space where we could reconsider the bear and romanticize it. Nature could only start to seem this pure and adorable because we didn't have to be afraid of it anymore. And you can see that cycle playing out again and again with all kinds of animals. It seems like we're always stuck between demonizing a species and wanting to wipe it out, and then when we get very close to doing that, empathizing with it as an underdog and wanting to show it compassion. So we exert our power, but then we're unsettled by how powerful we are.
6:45 So for example, this is one of probably thousands of letters and drawings that kids sent to the Bush administration, begging it to protect the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, and these were sent back in the mid-2000s, when awareness of climate change was suddenly surging. We kept seeing that image of a polar bear stranded on a little ice floe looking really morose. I spent days looking through these files. I really love them. This one's my favorite. If you can see, it's a polar bear that's drowning and then it's also being eaten simultaneously by a lobster and a shark. This one came from a kid named Fritz, and he's actually got a solution to climate change. He's got it all worked out to an ethanol-based solution. He says, "I feel bad about the polar bears. I like polar bears. Everyone can use corn juice for cars. From Fritz." So 200 years ago, you would have Arctic explorers writing about polar bears leaping into their boats and trying to devour them, even if they lit the bear on fire, but these kids don't see the polar bear that way, and actually they don't even see the polar bear the way that I did back in the '80s. I mean, we thought of these animals as mysterious and terrifying lords of the Arctic. But look now how quickly that climate change has flipped the image of the animal in our minds. It's gone from that bloodthirsty man-killer to this delicate, drowning victim, and when you think about it, that's kind of the conclusion to the story that the teddy bear started telling back in 1902, because back then, America had more or less conquered its share of the continent. We were just getting around to polishing off these last wild predators. Now, society's reach has expanded all the way to the top of the world, and it's made even these, the most remote, the most powerful bears on the planet, seem like adorable and blameless victims.
8:25 But you know, there's also a postscript to the teddy bear story that not a lot of people talk about. We're going to talk about it, because even though it didn't really take long after Roosevelt's hunt in 1902 for the toy to become a full-blown craze, most people figured it was a fad, it was a sort of silly political novelty item and it would go away once the president left office, and so by 1909, when Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, was getting ready to be inaugurated, the toy industry was on the hunt for the next big thing. They didn't do too well.
8:58 That January, Taft was the guest of honor at a banquet in Atlanta, and for days in advance, the big news was the menu. They were going to be serving him a Southern specialty, a delicacy, really, called possum and taters. So you would have a whole opossum roasted on a bed of sweet potatoes, and then sometimes they'd leave the big tail on it like a big, meaty noodle. The one brought to Taft's table weighed 18 pounds. So after dinner, the orchestra started to play, and the guests burst into song, and all of a sudden, Taft was surprised with the presentation of a gift from a group of local supporters, and this was a stuffed opossum toy, all beady-eyed and bald-eared, and it was a new product they were putting forward to be the William Taft presidency's answer to Teddy Roosevelt's teddy bear. They were calling it the "billy possum." Within 24 hours, the Georgia Billy Possum Company was up and running, brokering deals for these things nationwide, and the Los Angeles Times announced, very confidently, "The teddy bear has been relegated to a seat in the rear, and for four years, possibly eight, the children of the United States will play with billy possum." So from that point, there was a fit of opossum fever. There were billy possum postcards, billy possum pins, billy possum pitchers for your cream at coffee time. There were smaller billy possums on a stick that kids could wave around like flags. But even with all this marketing, the life of the billy possum turned out to be just pathetically brief. The toy was an absolute flop, and it was almost completely forgotten by the end of the year, and what that means is that the billy possum didn't even make it to Christmastime, which when you think about it is a special sort of tragedy for a toy.
10:46 So we can explain that failure two ways. The first, well, it's pretty obvious. I'm going to go ahead and say it out loud anyway: Opossums are hideous. (Laughter) But maybe more importantly is that the story of the billy possum was all wrong, especially compared to the backstory of the teddy bear. Think about it: for most of human's evolutionary history, what's made bears impressive to us has been their complete independence from us. It's that they live these parallel lives as menaces and competitors. By the time Roosevelt went hunting in Mississippi, that stature was being crushed, and the animal that he had roped to a tree really was a symbol for all bears. Whether those animals lived or died now was entirely up to the compassion or the indifference of people. That said something really ominous about the future of bears, but it also said something very unsettling about who we'd become, if the survival of even an animal like that was up to us now. So now, a century later, if you're at all paying attention to what's happening in the environment, you feel that discomfort so much more intensely. We're living now in an age of what scientists have started to call "conservation reliance," and what that term means is that we've disrupted so much that nature can't possibly stand on its own anymore, and most endangered species are only going to survive if we stay out there in the landscape riggging the world around them in their favor. So we've gone hands-on and we can't ever take our hands off, and that's a hell of a lot of work. Right now, we're training condors not to perch on power lines. We teach whooping cranes to migrate south for the winter behind little ultra-light airplanes. We're out there feeding plague vaccine to ferrets. We monitor pygmy rabbits with drones. So we've gone from annihilating species to micromanaging the survival of a lot of species indefinitely, and which ones? Well, the ones that we've told compelling stories about, the ones we've decided ought to stick around. The line between conservation and domestication is blurred.
12:55 So what I've been saying is that the stories that we tell about wild animals are so subjective they can be irrational or romanticized or sensationalized. Sometimes they just have nothing to do with the facts. But in a world of conservation reliance, those stories have very real consequences, because now, how we feel about an animal affects its survival more than anything that you read about in ecology textbooks. Storytelling matters now. Emotion matters. Our imagination has become an ecological force. And so maybe the teddy bear worked in part because the legend of Roosevelt and that bear in Mississippi was kind of like an allegory of this great responsibility that society was just beginning to face up to back then. It would be another 71 years before the Endangered Species Act was passed, but really, here's its whole ethos boiled down into something like a scene you'd see in a stained glass window. The bear is a helpless victim tied to a tree, and the president of the United States decided to show it some mercy. Thank you. (Applause) [Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton]