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  • So it was the fall of 1902,

  • and President Theodore Roosevelt

  • needed a little break from the White House,

  • so he took a train to Mississippi

  • to do a little black bear hunting outside of a town

  • called Smedes.

  • The first day of the hunt, they didn't see a single bear,

  • so it was a big bummer for everyone,

  • but the second day, the dogs cornered one

  • after a really long chase, but by that point,

  • the president had given up

  • and gone back to camp for lunch,

  • so his hunting guide cracked the animal

  • on the top of the head with the butt of his rifle,

  • and then tied it up to a tree

  • and started tooting away on his bugle

  • to call Roosevelt back so he could have the honor

  • of shooting it.

  • The bear was a female.

  • It was dazed, injured,

  • severely underweight, a little mangy-looking,

  • and when Roosevelt saw this animal

  • tied up to the tree,

  • he just couldn't bring himself to fire at it.

  • He felt like that would go against his code

  • as a sportsman.

  • A few days later, the scene was memorialized

  • in a political cartoon back in Washington.

  • It was called "Drawing a Line in Mississippi,"

  • and it showed Roosevelt with his gun down and his arm out,

  • sparing the bear's life,

  • and the bear was sitting on its hind legs

  • with these two big, frightened, wide eyes

  • and little ears pricked up at the top of its head.

  • It looked really helpless, like you just wanted to

  • sweep it up into your arms

  • and reassure it.

  • It wouldn't have looked familiar at the time,

  • but if you go looking for the cartoon now,

  • you recognize the animal right away:

  • It's a teddy bear.

  • And this is how the teddy bear was born.

  • Essentially, toymakers took the bear from the cartoon,

  • turned it into a plush toy, and then named it

  • after President Roosevelt -- Teddy's bear.

  • And I do feel a little ridiculous

  • that I'm up here on this stage

  • and I'm choosing to use my time

  • to tell you about a 100-year-old story

  • about the invention of a squishy kid's toy,

  • but I'd argue that the invention of the teddy bear,

  • inside that story is a more important story,

  • a story about how dramatically our ideas

  • about nature can change,

  • and also about how, on the planet right now,

  • the stories that we tell

  • are dramatically changing nature.

  • Because think about the teddy bear.

  • For us, in retrospect, it feels like an obvious fit,

  • because bears are so cute and cuddly,

  • and who wouldn't want to give one to their kids to play with,

  • but the truth is that in 1902,

  • bears weren't cute and cuddly.

  • I mean, they looked the same,

  • but no one thought of them that way.

  • In 1902, bears were monsters.

  • Bears were something that frickin' terrified kids.

  • For generations at that point,

  • the bear had been a shorthand for all the danger

  • that people were encountering on the frontier,

  • and the federal government was actually

  • systematically exterminating bears

  • and lots of other predators too,

  • like coyotes and wolves.

  • These animals, they were being demonized.

  • They were called murderers

  • because they killed people's livestock.

  • One government biologist, he explained this

  • war on animals like the bear by saying

  • that they no longer had a place

  • in our advancing civilization,

  • and so we were just clearing them out of the way.

  • In one 10-year period, close to half a million wolves

  • had been slaughtered.

  • The grizzly would soon be wiped out

  • from 95 percent of its original territory,

  • and whereas once there had been 30 million bison

  • moving across the plains, and you would have

  • these stories of trains having to stop

  • for four or five hours so that these thick,

  • living rivers of the animals could pour over the tracks,

  • now, by 1902, there were maybe less than 100 left in the wild.

  • And so what I'm saying is, the teddy bear was born

  • into the middle of this great spasm of extermination,

  • and you can see it as a sign that

  • maybe some people deep down

  • were starting to feel conflicted about all that killing.

  • America still hated the bear and feared it,

  • but all of a sudden, America also wanted

  • to give the bear a great big hug.

  • So this is something that I've been really curious about in the last few years.

  • How do we imagine animals,

  • how do we think and feel about them,

  • and how do their reputations get written

  • and then rewritten in our minds?

  • We're here living in the eye of a great storm

  • of extinction where half the species on the planet

  • could be gone by the end of the century,

  • and so why is it that we come to care about

  • some of those species and not others?

  • Well, there's a new field, a relatively new field

  • of social science that started looking at

  • these questions and trying to unpack the powerful

  • and sometimes pretty schizophrenic relationships

  • that we have to animals,

  • and I spent a lot of time looking through

  • their academic journals,

  • and all I can really say is that their findings

  • are astonishingly wide-ranging.

  • So some of my favorites include that

  • the more television a person watches in Upstate New York,

  • the more he or she is afraid

  • of being attacked by a black bear.

  • If you show a tiger to an American,

  • they're much more likely to assume that it's female

  • and not male.

  • In a study where a fake snake

  • and a fake turtle were put on the side of the road,

  • drivers hit the snake much more often than the turtle,

  • and about three percent of drivers who hit the fake animals

  • seemed to do it on purpose.

  • Women are more likely than men to get a

  • "magical feeling" when they see dolphins in the surf.

  • Sixty-eight percent of mothers with

  • "high feelings of entitlement and self-esteem"

  • identified with the dancing cats

  • in a commercial for Purina. (Laughter)

  • Americans consider lobsters

  • more important than pigeons

  • but also much, much stupider.

  • Wild turkeys are seen as only slightly more dangerous than sea otters,

  • and pandas are twice as lovable as ladybugs.

  • So some of this is physical, right?

  • We tend to sympathize more with animals that look like us,

  • and especially that resemble human babies,

  • so with big, forward-facing eyes

  • and circular faces,

  • kind of a roly-poly posture.

  • This is why, if you get a Christmas card from, like,

  • your great aunt in Minnesota,

  • there's usually a fuzzy penguin chick on it,

  • and not something like a Glacier Bay wolf spider.

  • But it's not all physical, right?

  • There's a cultural dimension to how we think about animals,

  • and we're telling stories about these animals,

  • and like all stories,

  • they are shaped by the times and the places

  • in which we're telling them.

  • So think about that moment

  • back in 1902 again where a ferocious bear

  • became a teddy bear.

  • What was the context? Well, America was urbanizing.

  • For the first time, nearly a majority of people lived in cities,

  • so there was a growing distance between us and nature.

  • There was a safe space where we could

  • reconsider the bear and romanticize it.

  • Nature could only start to seem this pure and adorable

  • because we didn't have to be afraid of it anymore.

  • And you can see that cycle playing out

  • again and again with all kinds of animals.

  • It seems like we're always stuck between

  • demonizing a species and wanting to wipe it out,

  • and then when we get very close to doing that,

  • empathizing with it as an underdog

  • and wanting to show it compassion.

  • So we exert our power,

  • but then we're unsettled

  • by how powerful we are.

  • So for example, this is one of

  • probably thousands of letters and drawings

  • that kids sent to the Bush administration,

  • begging it to protect the polar bear

  • under the Endangered Species Act,

  • and these were sent back in the mid-2000s,

  • when awareness of climate change was suddenly surging.

  • We kept seeing that image of a polar bear

  • stranded on a little ice floe

  • looking really morose.

  • I spent days looking through these files.

  • I really love them. This one's my favorite.

  • If you can see, it's a polar bear that's drowning

  • and then it's also being eaten simultaneously

  • by a lobster and a shark.

  • This one came from a kid named Fritz,

  • and he's actually got a solution to climate change.

  • He's got it all worked out to an ethanol-based solution.

  • He says, "I feel bad about the polar bears.

  • I like polar bears.

  • Everyone can use corn juice for cars. From Fritz."

  • So 200 years ago, you would have Arctic explorers

  • writing about polar bears leaping into their boats

  • and trying to devour them,

  • even if they lit the bear on fire,

  • but these kids don't see the polar bear that way,

  • and actually they don't even see the polar bear

  • the way that I did back in the '80s.

  • I mean, we thought of these animals

  • as mysterious and terrifying lords of the Arctic.

  • But look now how quickly that climate change

  • has flipped the image of the animal in our minds.

  • It's gone from that bloodthirsty man-killer

  • to this delicate, drowning victim,

  • and when you think about it, that's kind of

  • the conclusion to the story

  • that the teddy bear started telling back in 1902,

  • because back then, America had more or less

  • conquered its share of the continent.

  • We were just getting around to

  • polishing off these last wild predators.

  • Now, society's reach has expanded

  • all the way to the top of the world,

  • and it's made even these, the most remote,

  • the most powerful bears on the planet,

  • seem like adorable and blameless victims.

  • But you know, there's also a postscript to the teddy bear story

  • that not a lot of people talk about.

  • We're going to talk about it,

  • because even though it didn't really take long

  • after Roosevelt's hunt in 1902

  • for the toy to become a full-blown craze,

  • most people figured it was a fad,

  • it was a sort of silly political novelty item

  • and it would go away once the president left office,

  • and so by 1909, when Roosevelt's successor,

  • William Howard Taft,

  • was getting ready to be inaugurated,

  • the toy industry was on the hunt

  • for the next big thing.

  • They didn't do too well.

  • That January, Taft was the guest of honor

  • at a banquet in Atlanta,

  • and for days in advance,

  • the big news was the menu.

  • They were going to be serving him

  • a Southern specialty, a delicacy, really,

  • called possum and taters.

  • So you would have a whole opossum

  • roasted on a bed of sweet potatoes,

  • and then sometimes they'd leave

  • the big tail on it like a big, meaty noodle.

  • The one brought to Taft's table

  • weighed 18 pounds.