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Memories of Michael Soulé

Since the passing of our cofounder and ‘Father of Conservation Biology’ Michael E. Soulé, we’ve seen and received countless stories and remembrances of Michael’s spirit and his work from the across the continent—and around the globe. Here we capture some of the anecdotes and thoughtful words from our own community and beyond. If you would like to contribute your own story or memory, please email danielle@wildlandsnetwork.org.

“Michael’s unwavering and fierce commitment to wildlands, waters and creatures will live on. Those who were privileged to know him as a friend sorely miss him. Floating the rivers of the Southwest deserts will never be the same.”  
– David Johns, Wildlands Network Board Member Emeritus

Simultaneously across four different time zones, Wildlands Network staff offered a collective howl in honor of Michael. “It was Michael’s custom to finish our Wildway meetings asking every at the meeting to howl, honoring the wolf and to let go of all the tension that might have built up throughout the meeting,” explains Mexico and Borderlands Program Director Juan Carlos Bravo.

“El día de ayer perdimos al padre de la biología de la conservación, sin duda, muchos no estaríamos donde estamos si no fuera por él, y por supuesto que continuaremos su legado! 🙌🏻🙌🏻 Gracias Michael por todo! 💕🐺”
Cecilia Aguilar, Ecóloga de Carreteras del Programa México de Wildlands Network, Mexico Program Road Ecologist

Motivated by our shared love of nature and its creatures, Michael and I gravitated to one another, becoming deep friends, friends who have dropped all defenses to plumb the depths of each other’s psyches. Michael is thus special to me. Knowing he is there has been a source of solace and comfort, even if I am unable to see him more than occasionally, for I know he shares and supports the values I hold most dearly. Michael’s vision of a better world in which nature holds a central place, has been an inspiration for me and for countless others around the world.  

I remember one incident, more than any other, that made me appreciate Michael’s humanity as an individual and his genius as a communicator. We were both invited to give talks to the Second Brazilian Parks Congress, a major event held in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso, that attracted 2000 attendees. (Imagine a conference on parks doing that here!) It was in November, 2000, at the fateful time of the U. S. election. I gave my talk first. It emphasized all the things Brazil wasn’t doing that it could to do conserve its almost unrivaled biodiversity. The tone was deservedly critical, but that is not what wins hearts and minds, if only because people do not feel ownership of policies enacted by politicians they did not help elect. Michael got it right. He talked from his heart on a personal level, saying how much he valued nature, how much it mattered to the quality of his life in so many ways, and how much pain it inflicted on him to bear witness to nature’s destruction. When he finished, there was hardly a dry eye in the hall. That was Michael. He could touch strangers with what he felt so deeply. 

John Terbourgh, Wildlands Network Board Member Emeritus, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences

“In the early 90’s we took notes in his classes on then-novel concepts
like, ‘corridors and connectivity are essential for maintaining
biodiversity…,’ and now these have practically become household words.”
Myles Traphagen, Wildlands Network Borderland Program Coordinator

Wildlands Network was holding a planning meeting at Disney World in Florida, an unlikely locale but an AZA member offered their space for free so we all headed to Orlando. I landed in the late afternoon and made my way through the airport to the maze-like Disney World bus transport area. There, waiting in a long line, I ran into Michael. We eventually boarded a bus and were sitting chatting when a woman a couple of rows in front of us shrieked when she saw a large and beautiful winged insect on the inside window of the bus. She swiftly removed her sandal and smashed it against the glass with her heel. Michael leaned forward and said loudly, “Do you know what you just did?” She turned around and glared at him. Just after, they began a cheery promotional video carrying a voiceover that referred to the marsh they built the park on as a wasteland, good for nothing. In fact, according to Michael, it was quite good habitat for many living beings, included an endangered box turtle. At the end of the video, Michael stood up from his seat, turned and lectured the riding vacationers about how the poor box turtles were doomed when they paved for construction. The turtles had buried their eggs underground, the paving happened, then the eggs hatched and he described, with hand gestures, the way the newborns dug their way toward the surface only to find a concrete lid. They all perished. Needless to say, it was a very quiet crowd after Michael completed his lecture.I remember sitting next to him as we rode on, we looked at each other and smiled. I’ll never forget the look on his face, one of of fierce compassion, which is how I will always remember him.

Anne Tillery, Managing Partner, Pyramid Communications

“It was his 1989 book, ‘Research Priorities for Conservation Biology’ that helped changed how I viewed my career going forward.  It was an honor and privilege to meet Michael and John Terborgh when I came to the Wildlands Network Board.  To hear those two talk about the natural world was a treat that every conservationist should be lucky enough to witness. ”
Steve Olson, President, Wildlands Network Board of Directors, Director of Governmental Affairs, Association of Zoos and Aquariums

“To me, Michael was the spark that inspired a generation of conservation biologists to believe that a scientific discipline could be a full partner to advocacy and policy. That idea has never been more true—or needed—than today.  RIP Michael Soulé.”
Fred Koontz, Wildlands Network Board Member, Retired Vice President of Field Conservation Woodland Park Zoo

One thought on “Memories of Michael Soulé

  1. I took a class on conservation biology with Michael at the University of Michigan in 1986, I think it was. Very exciting, because it was such a new discipline that resonated with eager young people like me who wanted to save the planet. But what I remember most is the day Michael came in, hoarse voice, looking very tired, but smiling, clearly very happy. He told us he had been at the Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert the night before, and lost his voice singing and dancing. He loved life.

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