Review: Wild Souls by Emma Marris

Wild Souls begins like many a book about animals or conservation, with author Emma Marris flying off to Hawai’i to see what it takes to conserve a highly endangered species. In this case the species is the ‘akikiki, a “puffball” of a bird confined to the mountains of Kaua’i thanks to the introduction of avian malaria and now threatened by rats. Like many island species, the ‘akikiki is exquisitely vulnerable. But Marris is struck not by a glimpse of a critically endangered bird, which fails to give her the “Big Feeling” she expected, but the extraordinary violence of the method used to exterminate the rats, tiny versions of the bolt guns used in slaughter houses. So begins a profound and erudite interrogation of how far we will go to protect nature.

The first problem to solve is what even is natural? As Marris explores, the boundary between “us” and the wild is porous, and getting more so. She walks us through the latest science on animal sentience, which is revealing that we share a planet with untold more-than-human selves, and traces how philosophers recent and ancient have wrestled with what duties we owe the non-human. She considers how the global changes we are wreaking on the planet mean no animal is truly untouched by human influence anymore, which provides even more pressing reason to intervene. Besides, as Marris explains, most ideals about “wildness” and “wilderness” are an artificial legacy of colonisation and genocide, a frozen moment in landscapes that were otherwise dynamic and cared for by Indigenous peoples on every continent. Wildness, Marris argues, is a concept that has passed its used by date. Much more important is that individual animals are enabled to flourish, which includes the autonomy to make their own decisions.

After wrestling with the philosophical and scientific foundations, Marris turns her attention to some of the thorny scenarios of conservation: zoos, captive breeding, feeding wild animals, hunting. Often conservation has perverse outcomes. The delousing of California Condors when they were brought into captivity in a last-ditch attempt to save the species caused the extinction of the California Condor Louse. The zoos chapter is particularly eye-opening. I will not forget easily Marris’s portrait of an unhappy and restless female gorilla who wasn’t participating in a conservation program. After being drugged, “instead of fighting off the big male, as she had been, she allowed him to mate with her, and – to the delight of the zookeepers – she had a baby”. “There’s no unambiguous evidence that zoos are making visitors care more about conservation of take any action to support it,” Marris writes with typical pithiness, “After all, 200 million people visit a zoo every year and biodiversity is still in decline”. Eventually Marris returns to conservation challenges she began with: what to do about the alien species that are munching their way through island ecosystems, considering the Galapagos, New Zealand and Australia in turn, including the recent field of “compassionate conservation”, which would see the abandonment of killing any alien species, no matter the risk of extinction to others.

For anyone interested in conservation or the environment, much of this will be familiar ground, and Marris’s propositions for resolving conservation dilemmas feel straightforward, even common sense (of course it’s one thing to be common sense, another to see them applied). Even so, along the way there are a number of startling and useful ideas. I was particularly struck by the idea of treating animals and their communities as “nations with a right to sovereignty”, which might lead us to assist them in times of crisis as we would through “foreign aid”. Or her writing of hunting as “a reciprocal practice”. “There is no way to fully opt out of ecological existence,” she writes. Where Marris succeeds superbly is elucidating and revealing the logic behind complex conservation decisions. I felt a renewed clarity and surety thanks to her ability to cut through technical and academic concepts.

Like Helen Macdonald, Marris has a rare talent for capturing the essence of people, place and animals. In the Galapagos, “almost pure geology and biology”, she encounters Waved Albatross, “scanning the sea with wet eyes like black tapioca balls”. The Australian desert is “a red wilderness so vast and empty it made my molars hurt”. She is particularly good at evoking the selves of individual animals, even if they must always remain somewhat mysterious to us.


While visiting New Zealand Marris describes a kokako “a grey bird with a black mask, a violent waddle, and soulful minor-key song”. Black mask and song checks out, but a “violent waddle”? Not having seen the birds in the flesh I have no idea if this is true or not (they’re forest birds usually found at the tops of trees), but I do know that one of their defining features is a violet wattle. Coincidence? Or an all-time great typo to make it into a book?

Gay rating: not gay.

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