Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison find love and a scientific partnership amidst some of the world’s most devastating ecological crises.
When Jane Gray Morrison and I met in 1986, I think it’s a safe scientific bet to say it was love instantly. I would argue plus or minus 30 seconds, perhaps. When we met, I was full-stream in a career encompassing five interrelated areas of passion: global ecological research, teaching, writing, filmmaking and exploration. Jane was in Vienna studying opera. On our first date I had Jane holding a newborn snow leopard cub behind the scenes at the San Francisco Zoo. This was a pivotal moment for us both. Snow leopards are a species numbering fewer than 4,000, and there is nothing quite like an encounter with the healthy cub of a (tragically) endangered species to win a woman’s heart.
I’ve always sworn to the fact that the soul speaks when it is spoken to. The cub, all sentient beings affect me, and Jane. I was born and raised in San Francisco and when I was about three years of age, my father took me down to the zoo one foggy morning where I witnessed a wolf in captivity for the first time. This Canadian gray wolf exhibited (what I later learned was called) stereotypies, a condition of desperate boredom and fatalism, resulting from being caged. In humans it is comparable to a range of neurological disorders. In captive animals, it is true suffering and can easily lead to premature death, after years of sheer torture.
I asked my father, “Why was this amazing animal in jail?” My Dad responded, “Welcome to the world, kid.”
I was horrified and the shock of that encounter, transformed me instantly into an animal rights activist, an ecologist, and a deeply distressed person. Once you encounter a horror-story in the form of a magnificent animal being trapped, stressed, and, in essence, tortured, by our species in the name of “environmental education” or, worse, “entertainment” – it is a deplorable discovery.
Ever since that epiphany with a wolf, I have researched the global ecological conditions of our species in the context of the tens-of-millions of other species; trying to understand the serious challenges we pose to the biosphere in an age of the Anthropocene, and looking towards pragmatic, urgent solutions to those problems.
Romance amidst the penguin guano and tragedy
Following our “date” with the snow leopard cub, I persuaded Jane that she might enjoy researching in ankle-deep guano the behavior of penguins. She wasn’t sure how “romantic” that would be, but judging by the success of our snow leopard outing, it was clear to me that Jane and the penguins would get along magnificently. I was not wrong.
At the Argentine Base Esperanza on the Western Peninsula of Antarctica, Jane and I hunkered down amid one of the largest Adélie penguin rookeries on the entire Antarctic continent, with some quarter-million breeding pairs.
One of three members of the Pygoscelis genus, dating to at least 19 million years ago as a species, the Adélie penguin at the time of our research, was in decline. Climate change, ozone depletion, even the veritable eruption of eco-tourism– all put in doubt the future viability of their kind. Adélie penguins are one of seventeen penguin species in the world and are best noted for their Chaplin-esque saunter.
We made several films in Antarctica, including a MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour (today called the PBS NewsHour) special on ozone depletion over Antarctica, as well as a one-hour PBS special entitled “Antarctica: The Last Continent,” which put eco-tourism, as well as the National Science Foundation on notice: Issues, including open dumping and burning at the bases – the smoke harmful to endemic species, among other things – were all vividly examined.
Two of the most graphic images in our “Antarctica: The Last Continent” film revealed an Adélie penguin struggling through an open-pit garbage dump at McMurdo Base. It just sat there, sprawling in a multiplicity of cast off metal junk, used barrels with leaking toxins, fencing material, sharp dangerous garbage right on the water’s edge. It was insane and to film a penguin trapped in that was beyond heartbreaking.
At the Argentine Base, having heard a rumor that something equally sinister was occurring, I placed our film crew in a line-of-sight position and sure enough, one morning “it” happened again: an Argentine military helicopter crew, from the back of our ship, flew directly over a penguin rookery, unnecessarily very low, in a positively idiotic and sadistic effort to frighten the birds. As the cameras rolled we saw penguins fleeing down the rocky slope in a panic towards the water; their frantic dispersion resulting in the death of penguin chicks, crushed eggs, and young chicks left parentless and fully exposed to swooping Skuas (a large Antarctic seabird of the Genus Stercorarius that preys upon penguin chicks, alive or dead).
Apparently, one soldier had said this kind of thing was “fun.” Stupid and insane is a more appropriate description. Indeed, at another base in the Antarctic, tourists apparently overheard one group of base personnel describing how they had deliberately placed an explosive device at a penguin rookery and detonated the bomb “in order to see penguins fly.”
Such indications of human nature in the 20th-century, have only gotten more outrageous, which makes it rather awkward and uncomfortable discussing a love affair, or even presuming to share a smile in the face of a magnificent Earth that is under siege by our species. The dark underbellies of human behavior can be so rough, at times grotesque in its violence meted out to others, that research is tainted by the silence of pain; observations marred by the bias that comes from anger.
Both Jane and I have struggled with this, as do most ecologists we know throughout the world. Although our struggle has a kind of burden, we sometimes feel few share, namely, the belief system that not only are species and populations critical, but so is every individual, to the chain of life. And so we have truly had to cope with the fact we are both firmly committed, not only to conservation biology, but also to animal rights; to saving huge areas the size of national parks and wilderness areas, but also trying to save every living individual we can.
To Earth, with Love
When Jane and I returned from our Antarctic work we soon embarked on another, longer “date.” This time it was a ten-hour dramatic miniseries (starring William Shatner and the voice of Faye Dunaway) on the Gaia Hypothesis, the notion that the Earth is a living organism with its own destiny. Jane and I traveled throughout the world with film crews, documenting everything from examining pollution in Chesapeake Bay to exploring some of the earliest evidence for the origins of life on Earth on a glacier in Chamonix. The project encompassed two-dozen countries
In the process of these epic “dates,” Jane and I have fallen madly in love with this planet at levels that have continued to galvanize our passions for anthrozoology – the study of human life in the context of the remarkable biodiversity with whom we have the amazing privilege of sharing our time on this Earth.
Jane and I, the essence of our love affair and friendship with each other, has manifested a tandem torch-bearing volition to see more national parks and protected areas created; and to safeguard and liberate animals, to the extent possible. All those fabulous, sentient beings who find themselves trapped in a never ending cycle of captivity and exploitation.
In some of our films and books including the recent Springer book, Why Life Matters: Fifty Ecosystems of the Heart & Mind, and through our nearly 17-years running the Dancing Star Foundation, Jane and I have put our passion for one another out there into the world of our research, and environmental education, hoping to share our love of the Earth with everyone we meet, and can hopefully reach.
With the Pope’s latest Encyclical on the Environment, and a rising consciousness everywhere, we remain guardedly optimistic that humanity’s ability to love and celebrate nature and natural beauty may well be key to the thriving of all species on this planet.
When I reflect back to our first month of “dating” among snow leopards and penguins, it is characteristic of the nearly thirty years of subsequent collaborative work Jane, who would become my wife, and I would together embrace – and continue to do so to this day.
©Michael Charles Tobias, PhD
©Jane Gray Morrison