The birth of the teddy bear, inspired by a well-publicized incident during President Theodore Roosevelt’s black bear-hunting trip to Mississippi in 1902, was an idiosyncratic signal of a larger shift in the United States’ imaginative relationship with bears and other predators at the turn of the 20th century: Americans feared and exterminated bears, but all of a sudden, they also wanted to give a bear a hug. Seven years later, supporters of President-elect William Howard Taft promoted the incoming administration’s answer to the teddy bear: the Billy Possum. The toy was not a success. It was creepy-looking. Nobody liked it.
These two case studies, set alongside contemporary parallels and research in the humanities about people’s attitudes toward animals, are used to explore the biological and purely cultural dimensions of how Americans think and feel about wild animals: how the meanings of those animals may shift and float in and out of fashion over time.
Jon Mooallem has been a Contributing Writer to the New York Times Magazine since 2006 and is also writer at large for Pop-Up Magazine. He has contributed to This American Life, Harper’s, Wired, The New Yorker, Radiolab and many other magazines and radio shows. Jon Mooallem will present this lecture, which is co-sponsored by the School of Life Sciences, as part of the Institute for Humanities Research Andrew W. Mellon Foundation /Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes funded “Humanities for the Environment” project. Jon Mooallem will be participating in the second of three workshops entitled “Imagining Communities in the Anthropocene: Multi-species Relationships.” The Humanities for the Environment (HfE) project is concerned with various aspects of environmental humanities and will be animated by questions about the role of the humanities in the age of the Anthropocene. Mooallem’s recent book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America will be available for purchase prior to his lecture just outside of the Marston Exploration Theater where light refreshments will be served and Mooallem will be available to sign books.