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The strange story of the teddy bear: Jon Mooallem at TED2014

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Jon Moallem. Photo James Duncan Davidson

Jon Moallem. Photo James Duncan Davidson

In 1902, bears in the United States were symbols of all the dangers of the frontier. Bears were called “murderers” for their tendency to attack livestock, and they were being systematically killed by the federal government. That was, until President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Mississippi on a hunting trip. Roosevelt had finished for the day, but when the party’s dogs cornered a bear, a well-meaning member of the party clocked it on the head, tied it to a tree and called for Roosevelt to come shoot it. But when Roosevelt saw this female bear—dazed, injured and all tied up—he refused. “He felt that would go against his code as a sportsman to shoot it,” says journalist Jon Mooallem.

The moment was memorialized in a cartoon, which showed a not-very-intimidating bear tied to a tree and the president holding up his hand, sparing its life. “Toymakers took that bear from that cartoon, turned it into a plush toy and gave it Roosevelt’s name,” says Mooallem. “If you go looking at the cartoon now, you recognize the animal right away: the teddy bear.”

Mooallem, author of the book Wild Onestells this story to illustrate a point: that the way we think and feel about animals can change, and drastically. “The teddy bear was born into this spasm of extermination. Close to half a million wolves were slaughtered in this time, and the grizzly bear was wiped out of 90% of its original territory,” says Mooallem. “Perhaps some people were feeling conflicted about all that killing.”

Mooallem tries to understand why we sympathize with some species and vilify others. For example, he asks, why is it that—when Americans are shown an image of a tiger— they tend to assume that it’s female? Why do people feel less guilty about hitting a snake in the road than they do about hitting a turtle? Why do Americans consider lobsters more important than pigeons? And why do we consider panda bears to be twice as lovable as lady bugs?

Some of this is about appearance—we tend to favor animals that look more like us. But more than that, our favor rides on the stories we tell about different animals. Mooallem points out that these stories are  naturally “shaped by our time.” And they get “written and rewritten.”

In the case of the bear, what changed was that, for the first time, Americans were moving into cities. They were living in urban landscapes, and had a comfortable distance that allowed them to romanticize wild animals. Couple that with this incredible moment with the then-president, and a ferocious bear became a cuddly stuffed animal.

“There was something ominous if the survival of even an animal like that was up to us now,” says Mooallem. “We’re stuck between demonizing a species and beating it back, and then empathizing with it as an underdog.”

We can see this again with the example of the polar bears, which were once viewed by explorers as the ultimate terror and now have become the stuff of Coca-Cola commercials. “We saw these bears as mysterious and terrifying lords of the arctic. And now it’s a delicate, drowning victim. Climate change has flipped our thinking on polar bears,” he says.

The discomfort we feel over our role in the destruction of species is so much more intense now than it was in 1902, says Mooallem. Because of the extent to which we’ve changed animal habitats and the climate at large, we now have to help many animals survive. “Most endangered species are only going to survive if we’re in the landscape rigging the world in their favor,” says Mooallem. “We’ve gone from annihilating species to micromanaging their lives indefinitely — or at least the ones we’ve decided ought to stick around.”

He ends his talk with a striking thought. “In a world of conservation reliance, the stories we tell have very real consequences. How we feel about an animal affects its survival. Our imagination has become an ecological force,” he says. “The legend of Teddy Roosevelt and that bear in Mississippi was an allegory for this great responsibility that society was just beginning to face up to then.”