By Elliott Kennerson
Let’s play a game. Name an endangered species from San Diego.
Anyone say vernal pool fairy shrimp? Doubtful, because when you think of San Diego, you don’t usually think of a one-inch long crustacean that you can’t even eat.
You said panda, right?
Though San Diego is the most biologically diverse county in the nation, according to the Nature Conservancy, with 200 or so threatened or endangered species, (the fairy shrimp among them), this town is much more famous for its beloved Zoo and our lately less beloved Sea World, animal parks that host tons of diversity, of course, most of it exotic.
The county’s numerous native species of toads, fish, insects, small birds, and plants on the endangered or threatened list are pretty missable compared to Bai Yun getting her tooth fixed.
San Diego’s rich native biodiversity surprises people, because the natural landscape here seems, as one curator at the San Diego Natural History Museum put it to me, with some irony, “mostly brown.” The museum, by the way, is building a wonderful new permanent exhibit, “Coast to Cactus,” to fill this gap.
Our endangered species, except for the ones in the Zoo, seem to make the news when they stand in the way of progress. “Tiny Critter Could Slow Trolley Expansion,” lamented one U-T headline last May. The fairy shrimp strike again. Unfortunately for SANDAG in the short term, and the shrimp in the long term, some of the seasonal pools where the fairy shrimp live lay along the path of the proposed Mid-Coast Line.
Once, such pools cropped up yearly throughout San Diego, supporting not only fairy shrimp but a delicate web of bird and plant life. Actually called vernal (“spring”) pools, these inconspicuous seasonal watering holes appear where impermeable clay holds the water during San Diego’s normal wet season.
After years of drought and disregard, more than an estimated 98% of vernal pool locales have been destroyed. Efforts to preserve them have continually run afoul of local development plans since the Feds laid down the law on the fairy shrimp in 2007.
Such controversies are not a new thing in San Diego. Since the 1930s, two San Diegos have vied for supremacy on the nature question: the so-called “smokestacks,” promoting growth, industry, and development, and the “geraniums,” who take the leave-it-as-it-is view, and embrace a slower economy based on tourism, retirement living, and the Navy. (Jim Miller, Kelly Mayhew & Mike Davis’s “Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See” gives the seminal account.)
Today, it seems to this observer that these two once opposing camps are coming to terms. The smokestacks seem ascendant, though the actual smokestacks have become bulldozers and backhoes. A geranium spirit abides, however, in our highly touted natural attractions for the tourist, the new resident, and the retiree. We’re building our own version of nature, then selling access to it, even as we pave over the vernal pools. Smokestacks and geraniums alike have rallied around a unified view of nature as commodity.
Who loses? Not the pandas.
And not only the fairy shrimp. San Diego has numerous wildlife species, not endangered globally, who’ve been eradicated from the county or pushed to its fringes, even across the international border, as we build our piece of paradise.
Geographers call the line between our world and the animals’ the “urban edge.” It’s a line we draw in the sand against the encroachment of nature when we widen the circumference of the human sphere. For many animals, the urban edge is an invisible tripwire they cross at their peril.
The edge can be a distinct line, like a freeway, or a soft one. The line can advance and retreat. In many parts of East County, for example, the limits of ranching constituted the urban edge a generation ago. Today some of this land has been reclaimed as open space. The animals are returning, but the land retains scars where the urban edge used to be, as if it had been burned by a wildfire. In the case of former ranchlands, those scars are the imported grasses that formerly fed livestock, now growing too tall to support the species that used to live there.
When I was a kid growing up in Del Mar, we lived right on the urban edge, but the animals had missed the memo. Our house sat in a new subdivision beside the Torrey Pines State reserve, where, to paraphrase my favorite poet at the time, the sidewalk ended. I remember the time we had a family of foxes living under our deck, and especially the day a fluffy red litter ventured from the den to explore our patio. Deer strolled down our suburban street, Brewer’s blackbirds picked the seed from our lawns, and the smell of skunks hung in the air every summer night. Today, when I visit my family in the same house, these animals have dwindled. The urban edge has moved further afield.
What happens to animals that stumble over the urban edge in San Diego today? It could be a job for the city’s DAR (dead animal removal) service, which clears animal carcasses from the road. If the animal survives, but winds up injured or sick, a commercial pest control company can only put it down, they’re not licensed for anything else. If it gets lucky, someone brings it in one of the two wildlife rehabilitation centers in San Diego, The Fund for Animals or Project Wildlife.
For the last two years, I have been filming a documentary series with these two organizations for KPBS called “Animal R&R.” Inspired by what I saw in my backyard as a kid, the series focuses on the struggle of local wildlife to survive along the urban edge in San Diego. We follow some of the animal patients that people bring into these centers, watch them nursed back to health, and film their release (hopefully) back into nature, hale and hearty.
The “R&R” of the title doesn’t stand for “rest and relaxation,” of course, it stands for “rehabilitation and release,” irony intended. For both the rehabilitators and the animals, it can be a grueling process of uncertain outcome. (Disclosure: The show is sponsored in part by a grant from KPBS and in part by funds I’ve personally raised, mainly from my family, with no money coming from the rehabilitation centers.)
I use the animals’ “personal” narratives—how they wound up in “rehab,” as it were—to talk about the concept of the urban edge in San Diego, and some of its corollaries, such as the legacy of DDT pesticide, the notion of urban adaptation, and the introduction of non-native species. The animal characters in Season One included a striped skunk, a peregrine falcon, two opossums, an Anna’s hummingbird, a red-tailed and a red-shouldered hawk, and a screech and burrowing owl.
For Season Two, we’re watching an osprey, yuma bats, two coyote pups, and a black bear cub. The series furthermore takes you to visit some of the habitats where the animals live today, borderlands of the urban edge, including the Ramona Grasslands, the Torrey Pines State Reserve, and San Diego’s downtown airport.
My goal with “Animal R&R” has been to work against the utter commodification of nature in San Diego, reminding everyone that the most humble of our local creatures deserve life. I use the tools of the filmmaker, mainly visual appeal, or what I call the darn-cuteness factor, and story, in the form of the drama of rehabilitation, to engage the audience and open them to the idea.
What I’ve discovered is that everyone has their own nature story. The series becomes an occasion for communal chatter. People want to bring up that time the raccoon broke a window, the robin made a nest in the balcony, or the skunk came through the cat door.
Good or bad, these experiences constitute people’s actual, unmediated contact with the natural world, distinct from the experience you get in a theme park. What’s more, people tell their stories joyfully.
And if you can get psyched about a skunk in your living room, you can certainly care about a fairy shrimp.
In fact, I am currently running a Kickstarter campaign until Oct. 6 to fund the next phase of the show. You can pledge here to help me make it happen: http://bit.ly/AnimalRR
Elliott Kennerson is an independent television producer. “Animal R&R” premiered on KPBS in May 2014Animal R&R lives here: http://video.kpbs.org/program/