Honey, We Shrunk the Animals

Shrinkage in the natural world

The other day, I saw a bald eagle’s nest. Masterfully crafted in the tallest tree in a two-mile radius, it summoned images of leathery pterodactyls. This massive, strong structure seemed anachronistic in today’s natural world—a world where nature is fragile and delicate. Yet its architect, the icon of freedom, had somehow persisted through the ages. The bald eagle had survived man.

Few megafaunas remain on Earth. Bald eagles and bison once lived amongst a litany of great beasts in North America. Creatures not unlike those that inhabit Africa today. Unless aliens planted fossils to deceive us, the western camel and the American lion once roamed this continent. The dire wolf wasn’t just a figment of GRR’s imagination. The mastodon, iconoclast of the ice age, clubbed away saber-tooth tigers with seventeen-foot tusks. Don’t forget the giant ground sloth, woolly rhinoceros, and short-nosed bear. How cool would it be to see these beasts of yesteryear? In most cases, terrifying. In all cases, awesome.

Other than their capacity to decimate us, the beasts’ ability to engineer their environment is fascinating. Humankind’s most impactful tendency has been our ability to configure habitats. But beasts like this also manipulated their surroundings. They knocked down trees. Overturned rocks. Tossed carcasses into rivers. These activities enabled other events down the food chain. When these large-scale engineers fell out of the picture, the impact cascaded down the food chain. These ripple effects are nothing new in earth’s history, but it’s stunning how a single species could have such an impact on our planet.

For the majority of human history, man was obsessed with beast-slaying. Thousands of years ago, as we struggled to create civilization, defeating “monsters” was table stakes for survival. On our journey to the top of the food chain, we worshipped stories like Beowulf because they exemplified strength and hope. But once bad habits start, it’s difficult to put on the brakes before they crash us into terrible things. White men almost killed all bison in the Texas grasslands to defeat the Comanche. A disgusting and unnecessary measure. The very activities that enabled us to become the dominant species had become our undoing. Wilderness is chaos and that chaos scared us for centuries.

To feel in control, we exert power over our environment. And those that share it. If we’re not directly slaughtering a beast, we have a tendency to shrink them. We’ve twisted our planet to eliminate megafauna and shrink the niches of everything else. It’s no news that polar bears—the largest land carnivore on the planet—are dwindling. And those that remain aren’t measuring up to previous generations. Yet, 20-millimeter frogs in Borneo are thriving. To exist in man’s world, animals sink or shrink.

An odd phenomenon occurs. Despite the shrinkage of these animals—both in size, diversity, and population—their presence in our lives becomes the opposite. We worship their “cuteness.” We have more videos of lions and elephants than ever before. Background photos of giraffes. Stuffed zebras. We see these species each day, surely there must be many, right? According to a global study, 9 out of the 10 most beloved animals are on the “red list” of endangered species. Our voyeuristic obsession with cuteness creates this faux-abundance effect, blinding us to the grim truth. We shrunk the animals.

Do we care? We seem to enjoy little creatures. Remember Spy Kids 2, when people fawned over miniature zoos? Or that 2010 commercial in which a wealthy man stroked a lap giraffe? Sokoblovsky Farms—the breeder of the fictitious giraffe—generated millions of pageviews on its live stream. Small things aren’t threatening (sans the fish that swims up your genitals), they’re cute! But what happens when awe turns to aww? Something is lost. Perhaps the shift in power dynamic? The primal thrill of seeing something larger than ourselves? I personally desire this. Perhaps as a modern man in the Western world whose life was never truly threatened by nature, I have no frame of reference to respect its terror? But I can’t help but think that activities like hunting and domination are shameful today. There’s no utility. Like beating a three-year-old in chess over and over again. We have so fully conquered nature, further acts of control are oppressive and, frankly, pathetic.

Maybe it’s our turn to get shrunk? Matt Damon’s Downsizing (2017) explored this concept. When people are struggling to purchase homes and population growth threatens Earth’s resources, the shrinking of people becomes a viable solution. What the film lacks in cinematic depth it makes up for in provocative thought. A miniature human species could sustain population growth while affording high quality of life and lessening the burden on our planet. But would our downsizing enable the resurgence of megafauna?

Only if we could resurrect those beasts of yesteryear. We thought about this with dinosaurs: Jurassic Park was the Black Mirror of genetic engineering. While tampering with genetics certainly has ethical implications and risks, I believe in its capacity for good. A few weeks ago, I learned about Elizabeth Ann, a black-footed ferret. EA’s not just a ferret; she’s the first clone of her species. An endangered species. A harbinger of hope, she offers a chance to introduce genetic diversity to this fragile population. Who’s to say if this process could apply to other populations or resurrect extinct species. One could argue that species loss is like balding. Once the hair is gone, it’s gone. No amount of medication, hair plugs, or electrotherapy is going to bring it back.

Stabilizing the majestic beasts that still roam might be the best and only path. As humans have demonstrated for millennia: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The bald eagle is one such example. Moving from “threatened with extinction” in 1940 to “least concerned” in 2007, the population stabilized across North America. Anecdotally, I’ve seen bald eagles many times over the past five years in South Carolina, Michigan, and Washington State. Always majestic. One day, I hope they’ll stop being so majestic. Their existence would be commonplace, signifying a restoration of our natural ecosystem. If we can support the top of the food chain, maybe there’s hope for beasts of all sizes? To me, the bald eagle is that hope.