National Zoo volunteer Bonnie Burgess loves that the tamarins wander cageless through the park. She’s awed by the speed and agility of the cheetahs. And she relishes that the great apes “recognize you every time you walk in.” “I’m coming around slowly,” she says, “but there are days when I want to let the animals out and throw the people in cages. [That’s] more rare these days, though.”
In 1995, Burgess had “sort of a standard midlife crisis—nothing felt quite right any more.” So the lifelong Washington-area resident decided to give up her career in marketing and communications to work with animals. Though she had no formal training in biology or zoology, Burgess was determined to find a way to change careers.
“Being a veterinarian didn’t make a lot of sense at that point in my life,” she says. “So I started working at the zoo.” Now, half a decade later, she’s still there, as one of a small group of hard-core volunteers, leading children and adults on tours as many as four days a week.
Burgess also decided to work toward a master’s degree in environmental science. As a part-time student at Johns Hopkins
University—where she now teaches a course in biodiversity and wildlife conservation—she began researching the Endangered Species Act; what started as a 10-page paper eventually mushroomed into Fate of the Wild: The Endangered Species Act and the Future of Biodiversity, published this summer by the University of Georgia Press.
With a level of detail that would impress the wonkiest expert, Burgess recaps the debate that surrounded the initial legislation, as well as Congress’ periodic updates of it. She also discusses the law’s shortcomings. Though Burgess is passionate about ensuring biodiversity, she argues that the 1973 law is so strong that federal regulators are left to choose between two unpalatable options: seriously crimping property owners’ rights or not enforcing the law’s provisions—a problem exacerbated by the difficulty of determining the value of land set aside to protect species.
The book is rigorously balanced, but Burgess isn’t afraid to show her own sympathies. “The evolution of my thinking has been the opposite of that experienced by many old-time scientists,” she says. “The more I understand about the environment, and the more I understand about life forms, the more I have to believe in the presence of God.” Indeed, a higher power, she says, guided her work on the book. “I don’t think I could have done this without someone kicking my butt all the time,” she says. “I’m speaking figuratively, of course.” —Louis Jacobson