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Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act

image of Elizabeth Hess
Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act, by Joe Roman

Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act

Joe Roman

Harvard University Press
360 pages, $27.95

During the 1960s, most of us never made connections between civil and environmental rights, much less animal rights. But while we marched, Joe Roman, author of Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species, began paying attention to the burgeoning eco-crisis and tracking missing flora and fauna. According to Roman, a conservation biologist, not only is the wild disappearing, but our backyards are turning into graveyards, paved over by politicians with corporate ambitions and short-term vision.

Evil politicians and the might of greedy corporations are nothing new. But Roman brings a refreshing perspective to the current situation, where humans are just another species in danger, albeit a dominant and dangerous one. His central narrative is the fascinating history of the Endangered Species Act, in the course of which he asks: does the landmark law, passed in 1973, actually work? In other words, does listing a species as endangered prevent it from becoming extinct? And if so, why are the numbers of extinct species going up instead of down? To answer this question, the author introduces us to fish, bison, woodpeckers, whales, wolves, panthers, and a variety of plants in need of protection, turning what might have been an academic book into one inhabited by a wealth of characters. The trees and birds we meet in Listed are charming ambassadors for the cause.

Take the notorious snail darter. It’s a three-inch-long fish that made it all the way to the Supreme Court in a dramatic legal drama that kicked off the fight for the original act in the 1970s. If our laws can protect the snail darter, shouldn’t they be able to protect dwindling populations of polar bears? The point is to save these animals by protecting their habitats before they become extinct. And that’s precisely the problem. In Roman’s tales, we learn how the process works -- and fails. Listing polar bears, for instance, as endangered, might not save them in a world where climate change is melting the ground beneath their feet. Roman asks us to consider habitat, local politics, climate change, and how our views of the bears have been constructed more by their lives in captivity than in the wild.

Obviously eco-politics, like everything else, are far from simple, and Roman understands the high art of compromise. He’s a thorough reporter and an ethical scientist, emphasizing the inherent conflicts and contradictions between the needs of humans and non-humans. There is also much to learn from his wealth of knowledge about all living things. For example, it's the mice, not the deer, that are the culprits spreading lyme disease. And were it not for the decline of a now extinct passenger pigeon, abundant in wooded terrain and once the main predator of ticks, the current plague of tick diseases would not have come to pass.

Now and then Roman interrupts his more scientific explanations to simply explain, from his view, what it's like to be a crane or the precise value of a wild bee. Ever wonder who does the dirty work for scientists studying whales? Dogs have been trained to plunge into the water and fetch foul-smelling whale scat. These more personal and moving passages reveal the author’s genuine compassion for his subjects, which is exactly what makes Listed a great read.

Beyond the politics of global warming and species welfare, Roman examines our role as tourists in the animal kingdom, asking us to consider our moral responsibility toward plants and animals. Most of us, myself included, are clueless regarding the huge number of both that have become extinct or will over the next decades. It’s time to wake up. Imagine a world where animals exist mainly in zoos, captive and bred for historical reference and gawking visitors. The rest will be pets, bred for their docility and willingness to please.

Roman remains optimistic as he enlists our help. As an advocate -- and a scientist -- his honesty is refreshing. His message is neither original nor simple, but it bears repeating: we must protect rather than plunder the planet's manifold gifts. At one point he catches the eye of a woodpecker and notes the memorable connection he feels across a wide taxonomic divide. Listed goes a long way toward filling this Grand Canyon of a gap.

image of Elizabeth Hess
Elizabeth Hess writes about animals. She is the author of Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human (Random House; 2008) and Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter (Harcourt; 1998). She is currently writing a soci... READ MORE >
Perhaps we all should buckle up to save the endangered species like you mentioned in your article. Very nice writing, it was worth reading your article Elizabeth
What this article eludes to is ecosystem conservation rather than species conservation. This will help the entire biosphere and not just the hapless organisms who are maladapted to anthropogenic impact.