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TED2014

Jon Mooallem: How the teddy bear taught us compassion

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In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt legendarily spared the life of a black bear -- and prompted a plush toy craze for so-called "teddy bears." Writer Jon Mooallem digs into this toy story and asks us to consider how the tales we tell about wild animals have real consequences for a species' chance of survival -- and the natural world at large.

- Writer
Jon Mooallem is the author of "Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America." Full bio

So it was the fall of 1902,
00:12
and President Theodore Roosevelt
00:15
needed a little break from the White House,
00:17
so he took a train to Mississippi
00:19
to do a little black bear hunting outside of a town
00:21
called Smedes.
00:23
The first day of the hunt,
they didn't see a single bear,
00:25
so it was a big bummer for everyone,
00:27
but the second day, the dogs cornered one
00:29
after a really long chase, but by that point,
00:32
the president had given up
00:34
and gone back to camp for lunch,
00:36
so his hunting guide cracked the animal
00:37
on the top of the head with the butt of his rifle,
00:40
and then tied it up to a tree
00:43
and started tooting away on his bugle
00:44
to call Roosevelt back so he could have the honor
00:47
of shooting it.
00:49
The bear was a female.
00:51
It was dazed, injured,
00:53
severely underweight, a little mangy-looking,
00:56
and when Roosevelt saw this animal
00:59
tied up to the tree,
01:01
he just couldn't bring himself to fire at it.
01:03
He felt like that would go against his code
01:05
as a sportsman.
01:07
A few days later, the scene was memorialized
01:09
in a political cartoon back in Washington.
01:11
It was called "Drawing a Line in Mississippi,"
01:14
and it showed Roosevelt with
his gun down and his arm out,
01:17
sparing the bear's life,
01:19
and the bear was sitting on its hind legs
01:21
with these two big, frightened, wide eyes
01:22
and little ears pricked up at the top of its head.
01:24
It looked really helpless, like you just wanted to
01:26
sweep it up into your arms
01:28
and reassure it.
01:30
It wouldn't have looked familiar at the time,
01:31
but if you go looking for the cartoon now,
01:32
you recognize the animal right away:
01:34
It's a teddy bear.
01:37
And this is how the teddy bear was born.
01:39
Essentially, toymakers took
the bear from the cartoon,
01:41
turned it into a plush toy, and then named it
01:43
after President Roosevelt -- Teddy's bear.
01:45
And I do feel a little ridiculous
01:48
that I'm up here on this stage
01:50
and I'm choosing to use my time
01:53
to tell you about a 100-year-old story
01:54
about the invention of a squishy kid's toy,
01:57
but I'd argue that the invention of the teddy bear,
02:00
inside that story is a more important story,
02:04
a story about how dramatically our ideas
02:07
about nature can change,
02:09
and also about how, on the planet right now,
02:11
the stories that we tell
02:14
are dramatically changing nature.
02:16
Because think about the teddy bear.
02:18
For us, in retrospect, it feels like an obvious fit,
02:20
because bears are so cute and cuddly,
02:22
and who wouldn't want to give
one to their kids to play with,
02:24
but the truth is that in 1902,
02:26
bears weren't cute and cuddly.
02:29
I mean, they looked the same,
02:30
but no one thought of them that way.
02:32
In 1902, bears were monsters.
02:33
Bears were something that frickin' terrified kids.
02:36
For generations at that point,
02:39
the bear had been a shorthand for all the danger
02:41
that people were encountering on the frontier,
02:44
and the federal government was actually
02:46
systematically exterminating bears
02:47
and lots of other predators too,
02:49
like coyotes and wolves.
02:51
These animals, they were being demonized.
02:52
They were called murderers
02:54
because they killed people's livestock.
02:56
One government biologist, he explained this
02:58
war on animals like the bear by saying
03:00
that they no longer had a place
03:02
in our advancing civilization,
03:05
and so we were just clearing them out of the way.
03:07
In one 10-year period, close to half a million wolves
03:11
had been slaughtered.
03:15
The grizzly would soon be wiped out
03:16
from 95 percent of its original territory,
03:18
and whereas once there had been 30 million bison
03:21
moving across the plains, and you would have
03:24
these stories of trains having to stop
03:26
for four or five hours so that these thick,
03:28
living rivers of the animals could pour over the tracks,
03:30
now, by 1902, there were maybe
less than 100 left in the wild.
03:33
And so what I'm saying is, the teddy bear was born
03:38
into the middle of this great spasm of extermination,
03:41
and you can see it as a sign that
03:45
maybe some people deep down
03:46
were starting to feel conflicted about all that killing.
03:48
America still hated the bear and feared it,
03:52
but all of a sudden, America also wanted
03:55
to give the bear a great big hug.
03:57
So this is something that I've been really
curious about in the last few years.
04:00
How do we imagine animals,
04:02
how do we think and feel about them,
04:03
and how do their reputations get written
04:05
and then rewritten in our minds?
04:08
We're here living in the eye of a great storm
04:10
of extinction where half the species on the planet
04:13
could be gone by the end of the century,
04:16
and so why is it that we come to care about
04:18
some of those species and not others?
04:19
Well, there's a new field, a relatively new field
04:22
of social science that started looking at
04:24
these questions and trying to unpack the powerful
04:26
and sometimes pretty schizophrenic relationships
04:28
that we have to animals,
04:30
and I spent a lot of time looking through
04:32
their academic journals,
04:33
and all I can really say is that their findings
04:35
are astonishingly wide-ranging.
04:37
So some of my favorites include that
04:39
the more television a person
watches in Upstate New York,
04:41
the more he or she is afraid
04:43
of being attacked by a black bear.
04:45
If you show a tiger to an American,
04:47
they're much more likely to assume that it's female
04:50
and not male.
04:52
In a study where a fake snake
04:53
and a fake turtle were put on the side of the road,
04:55
drivers hit the snake much
more often than the turtle,
04:57
and about three percent of
drivers who hit the fake animals
04:59
seemed to do it on purpose.
05:01
Women are more likely than men to get a
05:03
"magical feeling" when they see dolphins in the surf.
05:06
Sixty-eight percent of mothers with
05:09
"high feelings of entitlement and self-esteem"
05:11
identified with the dancing cats
05:14
in a commercial for Purina. (Laughter)
05:16
Americans consider lobsters
05:18
more important than pigeons
05:20
but also much, much stupider.
05:21
Wild turkeys are seen as only slightly
more dangerous than sea otters,
05:23
and pandas are twice as lovable as ladybugs.
05:26
So some of this is physical, right?
05:32
We tend to sympathize more
with animals that look like us,
05:33
and especially that resemble human babies,
05:36
so with big, forward-facing eyes
05:37
and circular faces,
05:39
kind of a roly-poly posture.
05:40
This is why, if you get a Christmas card from, like,
05:42
your great aunt in Minnesota,
05:44
there's usually a fuzzy penguin chick on it,
05:45
and not something like a Glacier Bay wolf spider.
05:46
But it's not all physical, right?
05:49
There's a cultural dimension to
how we think about animals,
05:52
and we're telling stories about these animals,
05:55
and like all stories,
05:57
they are shaped by the times and the places
05:58
in which we're telling them.
06:00
So think about that moment
06:01
back in 1902 again where a ferocious bear
06:03
became a teddy bear.
06:06
What was the context?
Well, America was urbanizing.
06:07
For the first time, nearly a
majority of people lived in cities,
06:10
so there was a growing distance
between us and nature.
06:13
There was a safe space where we could
06:15
reconsider the bear and romanticize it.
06:17
Nature could only start to
seem this pure and adorable
06:20
because we didn't have to be afraid of it anymore.
06:22
And you can see that cycle playing out
06:25
again and again with all kinds of animals.
06:27
It seems like we're always stuck between
06:29
demonizing a species and wanting to wipe it out,
06:31
and then when we get very close to doing that,
06:33
empathizing with it as an underdog
06:35
and wanting to show it compassion.
06:37
So we exert our power,
06:40
but then we're unsettled
06:42
by how powerful we are.
06:43
So for example, this is one of
06:46
probably thousands of letters and drawings
06:48
that kids sent to the Bush administration,
06:51
begging it to protect the polar bear
06:52
under the Endangered Species Act,
06:54
and these were sent back in the mid-2000s,
06:55
when awareness of climate
change was suddenly surging.
06:58
We kept seeing that image of a polar bear
07:00
stranded on a little ice floe
07:01
looking really morose.
07:02
I spent days looking through these files.
07:04
I really love them. This one's my favorite.
07:06
If you can see, it's a polar bear that's drowning
07:08
and then it's also being eaten simultaneously
07:10
by a lobster and a shark.
07:12
This one came from a kid named Fritz,
07:15
and he's actually got a solution to climate change.
07:17
He's got it all worked out to an ethanol-based solution.
07:18
He says, "I feel bad about the polar bears.
07:20
I like polar bears.
07:23
Everyone can use corn juice for cars. From Fritz."
07:25
So 200 years ago, you would have Arctic explorers
07:31
writing about polar bears leaping into their boats
07:34
and trying to devour them,
07:36
even if they lit the bear on fire,
07:37
but these kids don't see the polar bear that way,
07:39
and actually they don't even see the polar bear
07:41
the way that I did back in the '80s.
07:43
I mean, we thought of these animals
07:45
as mysterious and terrifying lords of the Arctic.
07:46
But look now how quickly that climate change
07:49
has flipped the image of the animal in our minds.
07:51
It's gone from that bloodthirsty man-killer
07:54
to this delicate, drowning victim,
07:56
and when you think about it, that's kind of
07:59
the conclusion to the story
08:01
that the teddy bear started telling back in 1902,
08:03
because back then, America had more or less
08:06
conquered its share of the continent.
08:09
We were just getting around to
08:10
polishing off these last wild predators.
08:12
Now, society's reach has expanded
08:14
all the way to the top of the world,
08:16
and it's made even these, the most remote,
08:18
the most powerful bears on the planet,
08:21
seem like adorable and blameless victims.
08:23
But you know, there's also a
postscript to the teddy bear story
08:26
that not a lot of people talk about.
08:29
We're going to talk about it,
08:31
because even though it didn't really take long
08:33
after Roosevelt's hunt in 1902
08:35
for the toy to become a full-blown craze,
08:36
most people figured it was a fad,
08:38
it was a sort of silly political novelty item
08:41
and it would go away once the president left office,
08:43
and so by 1909, when Roosevelt's successor,
08:45
William Howard Taft,
08:49
was getting ready to be inaugurated,
08:51
the toy industry was on the hunt
08:52
for the next big thing.
08:54
They didn't do too well.
08:57
That January, Taft was the guest of honor
08:59
at a banquet in Atlanta,
09:02
and for days in advance,
09:03
the big news was the menu.
09:05
They were going to be serving him
09:06
a Southern specialty, a delicacy, really,
09:08
called possum and taters.
09:10
So you would have a whole opossum
09:12
roasted on a bed of sweet potatoes,
09:15
and then sometimes they'd leave
09:16
the big tail on it like a big, meaty noodle.
09:18
The one brought to Taft's table
09:21
weighed 18 pounds.
09:23
So after dinner, the orchestra started to play,
09:26
and the guests burst into song,
09:29
and all of a sudden, Taft was surprised
09:31
with the presentation of a gift
09:32
from a group of local supporters,
09:34
and this was a stuffed opossum toy,
09:36
all beady-eyed and bald-eared,
09:38
and it was a new product they were putting forward
09:41
to be the William Taft presidency's answer
09:43
to Teddy Roosevelt's teddy bear.
09:46
They were calling it the "billy possum."
09:50
Within 24 hours, the Georgia Billy Possum Company
09:54
was up and running, brokering deals
09:58
for these things nationwide,
09:59
and the Los Angeles Times announced,
10:01
very confidently, "The teddy bear
10:03
has been relegated to a seat in the rear,
10:05
and for four years, possibly eight,
10:07
the children of the United States
10:10
will play with billy possum."
10:12
So from that point, there was a fit of opossum fever.
10:15
There were billy possum postcards, billy possum pins,
10:17
billy possum pitchers for your cream at coffee time.
10:20
There were smaller billy possums on a stick
10:22
that kids could wave around like flags.
10:23
But even with all this marketing,
10:26
the life of the billy possum
10:28
turned out to be just pathetically brief.
10:30
The toy was an absolute flop,
10:34
and it was almost completely forgotten
10:36
by the end of the year,
10:37
and what that means is that the billy possum
10:38
didn't even make it to Christmastime,
10:41
which when you think about it is
10:42
a special sort of tragedy for a toy.
10:43
So we can explain that failure two ways.
10:47
The first, well, it's pretty obvious.
10:49
I'm going to go ahead and say it out loud anyway:
10:51
Opossums are hideous. (Laughter)
10:53
But maybe more importantly is that
10:56
the story of the billy possum was all wrong,
10:59
especially compared
11:01
to the backstory of the teddy bear.
11:03
Think about it: for most of
human's evolutionary history,
11:05
what's made bears impressive to us
11:07
has been their complete independence from us.
11:09
It's that they live these parallel lives
11:12
as menaces and competitors.
11:14
By the time Roosevelt went hunting in Mississippi,
11:17
that stature was being crushed,
11:19
and the animal that he had roped to a tree
11:21
really was a symbol for all bears.
11:23
Whether those animals lived or died now
11:26
was entirely up to the compassion
11:28
or the indifference of people.
11:31
That said something really ominous
11:33
about the future of bears,
11:35
but it also said something very
unsettling about who we'd become,
11:38
if the survival of even an animal like that
11:41
was up to us now.
11:43
So now, a century later, if you're at all
11:46
paying attention to what's
happening in the environment,
11:48
you feel that discomfort so much more intensely.
11:50
We're living now in an age of what scientists
11:54
have started to call "conservation reliance,"
11:57
and what that term means is that we've disrupted
11:59
so much that nature can't possibly
stand on its own anymore,
12:01
and most endangered species
12:04
are only going to survive
12:06
if we stay out there in the landscape
12:08
riggging the world around them in their favor.
12:10
So we've gone hands-on
12:12
and we can't ever take our hands off,
12:14
and that's a hell of a lot of work.
12:16
Right now, we're training condors
12:18
not to perch on power lines.
12:21
We teach whooping cranes
to migrate south for the winter
12:23
behind little ultra-light airplanes.
12:26
We're out there feeding plague vaccine to ferrets.
12:28
We monitor pygmy rabbits with drones.
12:32
So we've gone from annihilating species
12:36
to micromanaging the survival of a lot of species
12:39
indefinitely, and which ones?
12:43
Well, the ones that we've told
12:45
compelling stories about,
12:46
the ones we've decided ought to stick around.
12:48
The line between conservation and domestication
12:51
is blurred.
12:54
So what I've been saying is that the stories
12:56
that we tell about wild animals are so subjective
12:58
they can be irrational
13:01
or romanticized or sensationalized.
13:02
Sometimes they just have
nothing to do with the facts.
13:04
But in a world of conservation reliance,
13:07
those stories have very real consequences,
13:10
because now, how we feel about an animal
13:12
affects its survival
13:15
more than anything that you read about
13:17
in ecology textbooks.
13:19
Storytelling matters now.
13:21
Emotion matters.
13:23
Our imagination has become an ecological force.
13:25
And so maybe the teddy bear worked in part
13:31
because the legend of Roosevelt
13:32
and that bear in Mississippi
13:35
was kind of like an allegory
13:37
of this great responsibility that society
13:39
was just beginning to face up to back then.
13:41
It would be another 71 years
13:43
before the Endangered Species Act was passed,
13:46
but really, here's its whole ethos
13:48
boiled down into something like a scene
13:50
you'd see in a stained glass window.
13:52
The bear is a helpless victim tied to a tree,
13:54
and the president of the United States
13:57
decided to show it some mercy.
14:00
Thank you.
14:02
(Applause)
14:05
[Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton]
14:07

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About the Speaker:

Jon Mooallem - Writer
Jon Mooallem is the author of "Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America."

Why you should listen

What do we see when we look at wild animals -- do we respond to human-like traits, or thrill to the idea of their utter unfamiliarity? Jon Mooallem's book, Wild Ones , examines our relationship with wild animals both familiar and feral, telling stories of the North American environmental movement from its unlikely birth, and following three species who've come to symbolize our complicated relationship with whatever "nature" even means anymore.

Mooallem has written about everything from the murder of Hawaiian monk seals, to Idahoan utopians, to the world’s most famous ventriloquist, to the sad, secret history of the invention of the high five. A recent piece, "American Hippopotamus," was an Atavist story on, really, a plan in 1910 to jumpstart the hippopotamus ranching industry in America.

More profile about the speaker
Jon Mooallem | Speaker | TED.com