A lively multispecies menagerie gathered at the infamous Mountain Mermaid Inn in Topanga Canyon recently to celebrate the publication of a new book that makes the case that wildlife is not something out there, but rather close to home: wild animals are now our neighbors.
In the garden outside the entrance to the former country club, gambling hall, and gay night spot, dozens of caterpillars chomped on milkweed and fennel, and butterflies frolicked among the flowers. Around the pool below the main building, guests oohed and aahed over a red-tailed hawk, a kestrel, a red fox, a prairie dog, and a very pettable Flemish giant rabbit.
Upstairs in the timbered main hall, a guest cradled a young possum as a crowd of wildlife lovers listened to Beth Pratt-Bergstrom read from When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: People and Wildlife Working It Out in California.
The book tells the story of LA's most eligible bachelor puma, P-22, along with stories about the return of harbor porpoises to the San Francisco Bay, and the family of gray foxes that became social media celebrities when they took up residence on Facebook's Silicon Valley campus. It traces the incredible journey of the first wolf to return to California, OR-7, the wolf pack that followed, and shows how humans have learned to live with bears in Yosemite, in the process teaching bears how to be wild again. Interspersed with these stories are dozens of short vignettes, windows on the wide variety of ways that Californians are "working it out" with wildlife, from "Meatball," the notorious Glendale bear, to the "charismatic microfauna" of bugs being cataloged by the gregarious Lila Higgins and colleagues at LA's Natural History Museum, and farmers in the Central Valley sharing their rice fields with sandhill cranes.
One comes away from the book with a feeling of domesticity, mostly content that California seems to be one big happy multispecies family, but with underlying concerns, of course, as in any modern family. The similarities with another book on pets that I picked up in Mexico City recently were uncanny, and I mean that in the fullest weird sense of that word. El libro de las mascotas is a beautiful coffee-table book with 57 portraits of pets in Santa María La Ribera, a neighborhood in the city. It was produced by inSite, a famous, long-running borderlands art project that has embedded itself in recent years in Casa Gallina, a home in the barrio, in a multiyear project experimenting with art practices to engage deeply in a changing low-income neighborhood.
The book is filled with wonderful, idiosyncratic portraits by photographer Eunice Adorno of dogs as well as cats, but also canaries, zebra finches, turtles, parrots, guinea pigs, a ferret, a duck, a rooster, an iguana, a tarantula, and even an ajolote, the strange amphibian with mystical significance that thrived in Lake Tlatelolco, but is severely endangered now that the valley is covered by the biggest city in the Americas. Each portrait is accompanied by an intimate short profile by writer Bernardo Esquinca. Together they form a compelling portrait of a multispecies neighborhood, of people's lives connected through their connections with animals.
There's an evocative, emotional continuum here from the wild to the domestic. I know it from the menagerie in my own home, which I share with my girlfriend, Ursula K. Heise, and her rescue animals, three tortoises, three cockatiels, and two green-cheeked Amazon parrots, which are endangered in their native habitat in northeastern Mexico, but thrive in Southern California, as a result of escaped pets breeding happily in eucalyptus groves in Pasadena. And I know it from talking with other animal lovers. For many people, it's a deeply personal connection to a pet that is close to the font of concern for all wildlife.
But there's still something uncanny about it for me. While I was contemplating these two new books--both of which I highly recommend--I was reminded by the powerful new movie "Embrace of the Serpent" of how some shamanic cultures share stories of "the owner of animals," a godlike figure who must grant permission for hunters to kill their prey, in the course of which the hunter may also take the form of one animal to stalk another.
The owner of animals, even if we grant that it is a human notion, is a kind of check and balance on the hunter's hubris. It is the source of an ethos outside of ourselves.
What happens when we are the owner of animals and all wildlife are pets?
This is what we are learning now.
When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors: People and Wildlife Working It Out in California, by Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, is published by Heyday Books. El libro de las mascotas: Un tejido barrial de afectos en Santa María La Ribera, by Eunice Adorno and Bernardo Esquinca, is published by inSite/Casa Gallina.
Photo: Mollie Hogan of Nature of Wildworks with Dragon the red-tailed hawk.