Given the changes in our climate and the growth of the human population, animals are increasingly being forced to adapt to human behavior in unexpected ways. Whether it’s crocodiles using pool noodles as flotation devices, coyotes becoming more nocturnal to avoid people or a huddle of walruses sinking a research vessel that invaded their territory, animals are figuring out how to navigate the world we have created. I’ve created an artist’s book, the Field Guide to Animal Adaptation, which identifies and illustrates 16 examples of this phenomenon, providing both hope and despair for the coexistence of people and animals in the future. I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of a limited edition.
The idea for this book started when I stumbled across an article about mountain goats in Olympic National Park being airlifted to a less populated area because they had become addicted to hikers’ urine. The goats threatened park visitors in their quest for that precious salty liquid. It seemed both ridiculous and tragic to me that the National Park Service thought that spending several millions of dollars to relocate these animals would be more successful than expecting people not to pee in the woods. I found more absurd and sad examples of these human-animal interactions, and so the idea for this field guide was born.
As an artist, I’m interested in how images can—or can’t—communicate scientific ideas to the general public. Today climate scientists are recognizing the ability of art to communicate complex scientific information and possibly influence behavior to mitigate the effects of climate change. As one recent study put it, art can “elicit visceral, emotional responses and engage the imagination in ways that prompt action or behavior change” that purely scientific, fact-based or cognitive approaches don’t seem to evoke. Can stories and images of individual animals prompt reactions and, hopefully, action around animal conservation?
As a layperson, I struggle with understanding the patterns and impact of climate change on a large scale and the implications of being in the midst of mass extinction. Like too many, I get some of my information from clickbait interpretations of scientific reports. The urgency comes when I think about the these global changes’ impact on my child or see images of my favorite animals starving or dead—in other words, when the global is made personal and emotional.
Art is a vehicle to develop empathy. Art encourages understanding because the process of comprehending art is an emotional reasoning that, in the words of visual artist and a cultural anthropologist Lydia Nakashima Degarrod, “is neither purely cognitive and imaginative nor purely emotional, but is a combination of both.” As an artist, I aim to translate complex concepts into images that people respond to viscerally and emotionally but also consider intellectually.
My goal is that my images of absurdity, such as a coconut octopus using a plastic cup as a shelter, get people to think about their own consumption habits. The image creates an uncanny disconnect between our static or ahistorical expectations of the natural world (coconut octopuses sheltering in materials from their “natural” surroundings) and the reality of animals adapting to an ecosystem polluted by humans (the abundance of single-use plastics in the ocean), which jolts us into considering these stories in a new light.
In 2016 and 2018 I participated in exhibition projects created by Creature Conserve, an organization that brings artists and scientists together to foster informed and sustained support for animal conservation. I talked with a shark veterinarian and made a short animation about the effects of the trade of shark fins on whale sharks. I corresponded with a bat researcher and created images about the resilience of the animals’ bone structure. These pieces and the works of many other artists were exhibited at Rhode Island School of Design and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. After these experiences, I wanted to create another project that moved these animal stories out of gallery spaces and brought them to people in a more intimate way: a book.
Physical books create a connection. Books are held less than a few feet away from our eyes, we have to touch them to turn the page, and we can look at each individual page and image for as long as we want. The Field Guide to Animal Adaptation is modeled after popular field guides in size and structure. The animal adaptation stories and illustrations are organized by theme, with range maps and species information. There is a section on how to create one’s own field notes and resources for ways people can get involved in animal conservation. W. John Koolage, a professor of philosophy at Eastern Michigan University, is writing an introduction that explores the positioning of humans and animals in scientific classification systems.
My selection of animal adaptation stories is also intended to give some historical context to today’s extinction crisis. The introduction of invasive species, whether deliberate or accidental, has been a part of the human story since the beginning. Rats, for example, have successfully adapted to almost every part of the planet and have frequently hitched a ride to new territories on human vessels. Some species will react favorably, in the short term, to changes in their ecosystem. Australian gray nurse sharks, for example, may be able to connect two of their populations with the warming ocean, but that accomplishment doesn’t mean the species as a whole will survive massive temperature changes. My image depicts two sharks almost touching but superimposed over a stylized and artificial wave background.
While mostly about individual animals or small groups, the selected animal adaptation stories in my book have taken place all over the world. A vast majority of species have to adapt to the effects of human behavior and encroachment to some degree. These individual stories serve as a microcosm of global trends. While I have no measurable way to know if this book will have a direct effect on its audience, my hope is that it will be one of the many voices that inspire people to take action on animal conservation.