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Writers on Writers: Douglas McGray and Jon Mooallem Go Birding at the Ballpark

Douglas McGray | June 5, 2013 | Story Profiles

One warm evening in early April, Jon Mooallem met me on Market Street to walk to the ballpark, as we’ve done often enough that we no longer need to pick an intersection. But we were showing some early-season rust. He waited for me at Second Street; I waited for him at New Montgomery. “We should have done some spring training,” I say when we are finally on our way. “I almost forgot to bring a jacket.”

I met Jon a few years ago after someone stole 128 beehives from a Central Valley farm. I wondered how you steal a truckload of bees. And why bees, unless you have ruled out literally every other thing you could steal? I ended up on the phone with an agricultural-crime expert in Florida. He told me that a New York Times Magazine writer named Jon Mooallem had already called, asking similar questions. I got Jon’s phone number from a friend and found out, one, that he was way ahead of me, and two, that he lived in my neighborhood.

I know a lot of writers. I don’t know anyone who writes better than Jon. He has a way of taking an unlikely topic, like the presliced-apple industry or the migration of whooping cranes or the history of the high five, and telling a funny, epic story that reveals something profound about people—why we think what we think and do what we do. He is a literary Pablo Sandoval, hitting neck-high fastballs into the bleachers.

We get to the ballpark. Hot dogs, check. Beers, check. “How are you feeling about the season so far?” I ask as we settle into a pair of seats behind home plate.

“I’m a little…OK, I don’t want to say I’m worried,” Jon replies. Over the weekend, Matt Cain had given up nine runs, and everyone seemed to be struggling at the plate. “I’m optimistic, but I’m grounded.”

“What do you think about the Bruce Lee news?” I ask.

Bruce Lee was a red-tailed hawk brought in by the Giants last year to scare away the seagulls that descend on the ballpark in the late innings, hunting for leftover nachos and garlic fries. The Chronicle had just reported that the hawk had moved on. Apparently, he was ambivalent about his upper-deck nesting box. And, in any event, the seagulls still came.

“Look at all this,” Jon says. Thousands of people are screaming. The sound system is blasting “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” “The seagulls got used to this. I don’t see why they couldn’t get used to a hawk.”

Jon and I have been talking about the seagulls—why they seem to arrive at the same point late in the game, day or night—for as long as we’ve been coming to the ballpark together. This sort of thing came up especially often with Jon over the last few years as he traveled around the country gathering stories for his brilliant first book, just out—Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

“I remember we once talked about whether the seagulls knew ‘Jump Around’ because that was Brian Wilson’s song, right?” Jon says. The Giants played it whenever their former star closer took the mound in the ninth inning. “That was a credible theory,” I say.

“That was a very credible theory,” Jon replies, laughing. “But now I feel like they come much earlier.”

“They still never come before the seventh inning.”

“You’re right. But who knows, maybe in a year they’ll be here earlier,” he says. “It’s an evolutionary thing. We’re training seagulls to be better ballpark scavengers. So, five, six years from now, who knows? Seagulls might land right in front of you and eat your hot dog.”

I kind of want another hot dog.

The innings have been moving quickly since the Giants opened with a three-run first. The crowd is antsy, ready to cheer for something.

“When I lived in New York, I’d go to Yankees games,” Jon says. “This one time, a squirrel started running up and down the foul pole. For whatever reason, everyone just knew it would be awesome if the squirrel made it to the top of the foul pole.” The squirrel ran up, and people would cheer. Then it would turn around, and people would moan. “People started chanting,” Jon says, “the whole ballpark. Let’s go, squir-rel! Let’s go, squir-rel!

"Do you think about this stuff differently now that you’ve written a book about it?” I ask. “Wild animals in our midst?”

“I definitely notice them more. I also started noticing representations of them,” Jon says. “I came to a Giants game, and Aubrey Huff had become the Water Buffalo. And there’s the Baby Giraffe [Brandon Belt], the Panda [Sandoval], Crazy Horse [Angel Pagan], the White Shark [Gregor Blanco]. As soon as I had my eyes open, animals were everywhere.”

It was Jon’s story for the Times about whooping cranes—a species so ill-suited to modern life that conservationists dress in bird disguises, breed chicks in captivity, and then teach them to migrate behind ultralight airplanes—that first got him thinking about endangered animals. But Wild Ones is not really a nature book. Jon is most interested in people. When he goes to see polar bears outside a small Canadian town, he witnesses a dramatic hunt on the tundra—but it’s a conservation group chasing Martha Stewart and her film crew, trying to make sure that a television segment spins bear issues the right way. The watering hole he observes is a local bakery, where right-leaning, small-time tour operators complain about corporate conservation tours that present these badass bears as victims and climate change as a real thing.

Page two: Otters on the Kiss Cam

Jon mines the past, too, finding funny, revealing stories about people and animals from America’s earliest years—like Thomas Jefferson’s feud with a French pseudoscientist who had managed to persuade much of Europe that American animals were all weak and small. (Jefferson was convinced that there were still woolly mammoths roaming the unexplored West.) Jon describes Jefferson, in this episode, as “an early American George Costanza, a seething nebbish quick to take umbrage but never quite able to respond convincingly.” In an effort to prove his point, Jefferson actually had a moose killed, stuffed, and shipped to his rival in Paris.

America was an abundantly wild place in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it isn’t anymore. But Jon is less interested in wringing his hands over what we’ve lost than in considering how our ideas about animals have changed—how we live among them, and how they live among us. Massive herds of buff alo used to block railroad tracks and delay trains for hours, and that was expected, even accepted. Now, we expect to manage the number of seagulls circling above a waterfront ballpark full of food scraps.

“For some reason, I find people most fascinating when they’re dealing with animals,” Jon says. “We can sit around and talk about what the seagulls are doing, how we’re going to stop the seagulls. And the seagulls will keep doing their thing. They can never answer back. They’re good raw material to make meaning out of. There’s a famous quote by Claude Lévi-Strauss: ‘Animals are good to think with.’ I think that’s true.”
The night grows cool, as it does. We zip up our jackets. Jon gets hot chocolate. I pull on gloves.

“Look at the Kiss Cam,” Jon says, pointing. “Otters.” Two pairs of cuddling otters frame the scoreboard’s footage of kissing fans. I laugh. I hadn’t noticed the otters.

“You know what I do see?” I ask.

“It is the seventh inning,” Jon answers.

The seagulls gather like smoke at the edge of the upper deck, turning slow circles in an updraft. They pass low over the cove, weaving between sailboat masts, and lazily buzz the arcade. Three of them, in tight formation, glide across the outfield, bank left at the scoreboard, and set out across the bay.

The Giants hold on to win, 4–2.

Douglas McGray is the editor of Pop-Up Magazine. He has written for the New Yorker, This American Life, and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Noe Valley.

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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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