The whole thing started when I encountered Waldrapp Shorty on Facebook. This bird is part of a zoological project, but on Facebook it looked like a joke. First I thought it was fake—an ugly bird with its own Facebook account? Can’t be … Then I realized step by step that this was no joke, but a very, very serious development. Serious for the bird, serious for the people trying to reintroduce nearly extinct Waldrapps into the European wilderness—which is, by the way, a tough job—and even more serious for the social media followers who spent days and days with Shorty, taking and posting photos, commenting on his behavior and so on. I understood that there was a big story behind this individual bird tagged with a sensor—a story which had the power to change the notion of “nature” and to transform the human approach to animals and plants. I started to research and wrote a big article for one of Germany’s most popular monthly magazines, Cicero. This became the first chapter of the book.
What were some of the most fascinating stories you investigated for Animal Internet? What were the most memorable of the locations you visited and the animals you saw?
Some years ago a big brown bear turned up in the village where I live. He came from Italy, crossed two borders and some highways and started to ramble around in the Bavarian Prealps. People weren’t amused because this bear, dubbed Bruno by the media, killed sheep, ate honey and strolled through the streets at dawn. Finally he was killed by hunters because nobody was able to catch him. Today Bruno stands as a trophy in a Munich museum. The whole affair was a big scandal because it showed the distance between people and nature in modern Europe. In the book I retell the story and ask: What would have happened if Bruno had been tagged? What would be the attitude of the public if it could follow this predator in real-time on Facebook and YouTube? Some other fascinating stories were the rescue of the Saiga-Antilopes in Kazakhstan—this mammal holds the sad record of being the mammal to go extinct the fastest (this was due to the political breakdown of the Soviet Union and the ensuing anarchy)—and the way Californian and Australian oceanographers are protecting surfers and divers from the great white shark by a sort of digital warning system that’s connected to Twitter. But these are only a few of the many fascinating animal stories ranging from tagged butterflies to whales which I tell in the book. With the Animal Internet nature is telling it’s own story.
Were you putting on a brave face in the book, or do you really believe that the digitization of animals is our only hope to save them?
Let me put it this way: I am a huge fan of the real wilderness. I live in the mountains (okay, the Bavarian Alps are not the Rockies, Munich is only 100 miles away, but my wife who used to live in Paris thinks that we live in the wilderness), I like hiking and skiing, and when I’m out in nature I hate people playing around with their stupid smartphones. I am very much analogue out there. This was my starting point. But when I started talking to experts, park rangers and zoologists who really cared about their animals, I gradually understood that the mysterious opacity of nature which we hold up as romantic ideal actually is killing animals. Because you can’t protect what you do not know. You’re even less like to care about animals or to donate to a rescue fund if you are not able to follow the story of their lives. So, at the end of the process of writing the book, I came to the conclusion which is pretty much backed up by famous and influential scientists like Professor Martin Wikelski (who is the successor of Konrad Lorenz) and Professor Josef Reichholf, that analogue and digital must merge in order to create a new space of nature in which the positive, empathic, loving relationship between mankind and creation is the most important condition for the survival of most of the species. And the Internet is the key to this new space. So, theologically speaking, one could say (as has been done before by media thinkers): It looks like the Internet is God.
You speak a bit about climate change in Animal Internet; in your view, is that the greatest threat facing animals today? And will any amount of digitization and tracking be enough to stop humans from polluting the earth into extinction?
No, I don’t think so. Climate change will only transform the structure of the world’s fauna. Some species will disappear, others are benefiting from climate change and global warming. Nature reconstructed itself after the ice age. Creation is resilient. I see a much bigger and much more direct risk in man’s ineffable urge for growth, in the mental structure of our modern societies which has them hurtling towards the destruction of the environment. Climate change will not kill gorillas or orangutans, but deforestation will. Digital tracking is a feeble measure against this global bulldozer. So the book definitely has a melancholy note.
You have a chapter in your book that deals with house pets—we love our dogs and cats more than ever, and spend billions of dollars a year on pet-related products. Do you think that the increasing closeness of humans to our pets obscures our views of animals in the wild, to the detriment of the latter?
That is definitely so. We look at house pets more as family members, as parts of a social structure than as animals. Every dog species once had a duty, at least in old Europe. Dalmatians escorted stagecoaches, Schnauzers protected breweries, Rottweilers cleaned up stockyards. This is all long gone. Today we choose a dog not because of his abilities (agility excepted) but because of his shape, color and so on. We make an aesthetic decision—as if we are picking out a new table or TV set. This has nothing to do with the substance and essence of nature which used to be present in the way people looked at farm and working animals all through history up to the beginning of World War Two. Then came technology, and it was all was gone.
You mention the popularity of bird watching in the book. Several prominent American authors—Jonathan Franzen, James Wolcott, Jonathan Rosen among them—are avid birders and like apprising their readers about their sightings, making it seem like bird watching has replaced baseball as the eggheads’ favorite sport. What’s going on here?
Birding is an old discipline. It started with Aristotle and used to be an aristocratic pastime especially in Great Britain. So there are two ways to explain the current fashion for sitting still and gazing at water birds who all look identical through $2,000 binoculars: The first is that we are bored with postmodern abstraction and want to go back to basics; we want to reconcile with our ancient roots (Aristotle). The other explanation would be: Americans especially are bored with democratic mass civilization and want to turn into real Englishman again with Barbour jackets and gumboots. Like: “My inner self is actually Sean Connery!” or “Make America English Again!” This seems to me the background and significance of these eggheads crawling through the wilderness and counting ducks. And this might also explain the shift from baseball to birding (B2B): Birding is as much impregnated with statistics as baseball. You count, you make lists, you share your numbers. And Birding versus Baseball has an added benefit: It’s healthier for the egghead.
You’re a German author whose book has now appeared in English. Do you have a sense at this point about the differences in how the tracking of animals is received in the United States versus Europe?
Sure. Very much. Europeans are technophobes. Americans are technophiles. In Germany we are curbing our use of nuclear power and going back to the Middle Ages in terms of energy production. The European equation reads like this: technology = risks. The U.S. equation reads: technology = chances. So it’s no wonder that the leading guy, even the “inventor” of the Animal Internet (the term stems from me, the technology from him), Martin Wikelski, used to work at American universities before coming to the Max Planck Institute. That’s where he developed his vision of a new zoological discipline of monitoring animals from outer space by GPS. He has a lot of trouble with German colleagues and environmentalists who believe that the new transparency of nature represents more of a risk than of a chance. And then there is the European obsession with data security. We are already talking about data protection for individual animals. All this is patent nonsense because why should we care about the data set of a sea turtle which our ignorance has killed? I would recommend these ecological conservatives read Animal Internet. There they will find the future of humanity and nature.