A Wilder World

Author Millie Kerr has had a love for nature and wildlife since she was a child spending time on her grandparents’ ranch, a home to scimitar-horned oryx, rheas, zebras, and other foreign species they began introducing to their property in the 1970s. Her book, Wilder, published in August by Bloomsbury, takes readers from Rwanda to Argentina, and all the way back to that ranch in San Antonio, exploring wildlife reintroductions and ecosystem restoration projects picking up steam around the world.  

Part memoir, part scientific guide, the book poses more questions than it answers, and brings attention to some of the most exciting rewilding projects happening around the globe today. In a time of rapid climate change and bleak forecasts, Wilder paints a compelling and optimistic view of the future. 

Kerr, JD ’07, took a circuitous route to conservation storytelling, studying law at The University of Texas before pivoting to environmental journalism in 2010. She now lives in England and reported the lion’s share of her first nonfiction title from home due to travel restrictions during the pandemic. 

The Alcalde spoke with Kerr about the importance of rewilding, her Texas roots, and how everyday people can play a role in protecting the earth and its animals. 

Rewilding is broadly described as a conservation practice that involves restoring land to its natural state and reintroducing native wild animals that have been driven out or exterminated.  What is rewilding’s importance in 2022? 

Because rewilding is a powerful tool for reversing environmental declines, it has become an urgent priority. At the same time, rewilding is steadily gaining traction among conservationists and the public. In the U.K., where I live, most people already know about rewilding, and awareness is growing around the world. We seem to be at a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change and species extinctions, one in which people are either galvanized or paralyzed. Given rewilding’s boldness, the practice can inspire hope while restoring entire ecosystems.   

You engaged more deeply with rewilding history because of the pandemic affecting your on-the-ground reporting plans. Was it disappointing to not be able to visit the places you were writing about?  

I was extremely disappointed, but I got over it. What was far more difficult to overcome was the challenge of writing the book I wanted—one built around personal stories and vivid anecdotes—without being able to meet rewilders in person. I eventually accepted these limitations and found creative ways to move forward. The tenor of my work didn’t change much, but the structure of my storytelling did; I included more “characters” and narratives than I would have otherwise. For instance, my chapter on New Zealand would have been a travelogue with a few key “characters,” whereas the chapter I wrote jumps around in time and relies on archival materials to paint vivid pictures of past events.  

What is the best way to get involved in rewilding for those of us not directly involved in conservation?   

Passive rewilding is the more feasible approach for people like you and me. We can, for instance, rewild our backyards by removing invasive plants, planting native ones, and making choices about how we manage our land with wildlife in mind. For example, you could mow your lawn less and seed wildflowers to create a small wildflower meadow or patch that will attract pollinators. There are also city and region-wide initiatives worth checking out. It’s important, however, to do your research and speak to experts before taking any actions that could have negative unintended consequences. 

You wrote that when ecosystems become self-sustaining, conservationists must at least “slacken the reins.” Has that ever happened? Is it possible for ecosystems to become self-sustaining again in our lifetimes? 

There are many cases where rewilders have begun to step back, even in the projects I write about. In New Zealand, rewilders often move endangered, ground-dwelling birds to islands that have been cleared of invasive predators. Initially, translocated birds are closely monitored and given a helping hand via tools like automated feeding stations that dispense supplemental food. While many of New Zealand’s rewilded birds continue to receive this type of support, other populations are doing well enough that conservationists are leaving them to their own devices. 

Entire ecosystems have also come back to life thanks to dedicated rewilding. South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve comes to mind. As far as I know, Phinda has welcomed back all of the species that went locally extinct because of human pressures, and its wildlife is thriving.  

At the same time, most rewilding projects are in their infancy, so it’s too early, in my opinion, to talk about human involvement completely ceasing. I’m not making the rewilding rules, but my personal feeling is that progress is what counts. By that I mean, rewilders should improve environmental health and slowly slacken the reins over time when doing so is possible. 

In your book, you dig into your Texas upbringing. What does it mean to you to be from this specific part of the world?   

Even though I live in England, I’m extremely attached to Texas and my hometown of San Antonio. There’s a lot to love about Texas, including its diverse landscapes and wildlife. It’s also a place where many people are attuned to nature, but Texans don’t like being told how to manage their private property—and 95 percent of the state’s land is privately owned. All of this makes Texans’ environmental attitudes and stewardship complex, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I always try to write about conservation non-judgmentally, in part because I have friends and family who are passionate about protecting the environment yet hunt, distrust the federal government, etc. I have plenty of opinions about these issues, but conversations about the environment should be inclusive and open-minded. 

How do you feel about your family’s role in bringing wildlife to Texas?  

I’m definitely conflicted about my grandparents’ decision to place non- 
native wild animals on the family ranch. Their intentions were pure, but private citizens should never, in my opinion, own wild animals; and wild animals should only be taken from the wild for legitimate scientific purposes. The reason I’m conflicted, however, is that my passion for wildlife conservation probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the ranch’s “exotic game pasture,” and that passion is the most important part of me. Take it away, and I’m not sure I exist! And, whether it’s accurate or not, I like to think that my career offsets some of the mistakes made in the past.  

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

CREDIT: Christopher Skyes


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