Last fall, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs targeted badgers for slaughter – the selective killing of a species as a measure of population control.
Badgers are said to transmit bovine tuberculosis, a disease with a profound economic impact on farmers whose cows are positive. But a recent report by an independent panel leaked by the BBC said the killings had failed in efficiency and humanity. (Regarding: “Mr. Badger Should Worry: Britain Reflects Cull.”)
Proposed killings were also popular in the United States. Nature managers targeted bison in Montana and swans, geese and deer in New York City.
What causes these high-profile killer programs? Are they necessary? Can they be done ethically? And what is the core of the debate between their proponents and their critics?
We investigated the murder dispute with Mary Pearl, an ecologist at New York City University who previously served as president of the Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit organization now called the EcoHealth Alliance.
Animals about wild animals have been in the news lately. Is this a new practice?
I would say that nature in the past has been a taker of wild species. It still is. If an animal is overabundant in a limited habitat, they will have either starvation or some pathogen that will exploit their vulnerabilities. Then there is hunting of predators, including humans.
Today’s killing is an artifact of our transition from having a lot of open interconnected wilderness to having islands of wild habitats that then become almost like giant zoos. You have a finite exhibition area, and you can’t leave the population abundance unchecked.
There is also the effect of rapid global travel of wildlife that is either intentionally introduced to new locations or set off by plane or ship and moves from one part of the world to another. Newcomer species can become abundant in the absence of natural predators.
Bison were hunted almost to extinction before conservation efforts began. Now they are killed in Yellowstone National Park. Is removal a sign of success of the conservation movement?
Yes. You could also say that about the Canadian geese that were protected and are now overabundant. And the white-tailed deer, which were almost hunted to extinction as well.
Animals can be brought back. That’s a wonderful thing about conservation. Often, if they remain in good habitats, populations will reappear. The problem is that they can become victims of their own success and become so abundant that they then become a threat to the survival of other species and to their own populations.
Last year an excerpt from a book by Jim Sterba published in the Wall Street Journal said, “It is very likely that in the eastern United States today more people live in closer proximity to more wildlife than anywhere on Earth ever in history. “To what extent do we kill the result of increasing interaction between humans and wild animals?
Well, you could say, “It’s very likely that in the eastern United States today more people have toothache than ever before,” and that’s because there are more people.
The more interesting question would be about the relative abundance of wildlife per person, and I’m not sure that’s any different. There have always been people who lived with and followed herds of animals, such as the Native American groups traveling with the bison or the indigenous people in the Arctic Circle following reindeer herds.
The northeastern American landscape has changed dramatically. In the 1800s, New England and the mid-Atlantic forests were largely transformed into agricultural land, which eliminated many forest species. Now it’s overturned and we have 80 percent forest and 20 percent open land, and that has resulted in a large return of wildlife.
But it was selective. There are more white-tailed deer, but there is probably no more lynx. Deer are doing very well in the mosaic habitat of forested and open lands that we have created in suburbs. Animals that are human diners also abounded, such as raccoons and skunks.
In New York City, where you live, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently proposed killing swans, but a public outcry forced the agency to reconsider. What factors entered the limited supply?
First they are an exotic invasive species. They come from Europe. The introduced birds were rare before the 1960s. More recently their populations have grown dramatically in some areas.
The problem is, beyond their number, that they are huge birds with seven feet [two-meter] wing distances and great impact on the ecosystem. They eat between five and eight pounds [2.3 and 3.6 kilograms] of aquatic vegetation per day. And they are very aggressive. This means they will drive out endangered native birds. They can empty a five-acre pond so that other birds cannot nest there.
What factors contributed to the public opposition?
They are big and beautiful and they are not afraid of people, so people can nurture them and develop emotional affection. It’s a bit comical and romantic to see a big male swan chasing everyone to make his companion sit on the nest.
People connect with the romance of the pair of birds, and the little swans are so cute. They are charming.
A recent report in the United Kingdom concluded that a pilot killing program did not kill badgers humanely in many cases. What would you call an ethical killing?
It may surprise many people, but most animal ethicists consider the avoidance of suffering more important than the avoidance of death. For example, a shooter immediately removing an unintentional animal is most often preferable to prolonged and disruptive capture, with the accompanying fear and pain.
All contact with wildlife must be minimal and humane. And there must be an obvious rational elimination – not a wishful thinking, but a healthy plan where risks are anticipated and avoided, and the intended goal of disease reduction or achieving a sustainable population level is very likely and constantly monitored.
When bats are killed in South America to prevent rabies, for example, care must be taken to eliminate excessive vampire bats, rather than insectivorous bats, which typically do not interact with humans but play a positive role in pest reduction.
When West Nile virus first appeared in New York City, the city sprayed pesticide in the evening when those annoying mosquitoes that prefer humans come out. It turned out that the main transmitter of the virus was a diurnal mosquito that feeds mainly on birds, so the outbreak targeted the wrong species.
Nature managers have introduced killing as a balancing mechanism for ecosystems. Some conservationists have portrayed the practice as disruptive to ecosystems. Is this a debate about the definition of “natural”?
I think there are two strong tensions here that are confusing in our society. There are people who are really committed to wildlife conservation. This relates to maintaining the health of the most biodiverse habitats possible. And then there are animal rights advocates who believe that every animal is ethically considerate and should have the right to live.
I think these two camps sometimes overlap that wildlife conservationists want to find the most humane ways to manage ecosystems, but I believe the fairy is out of the bottle – we live in an artificial set of habitats that need to be managed, or we will lose biodiversity. . And then there are the animal rights people who say we’ll deal with that while we get to it, but we have to find a way to leave room for each animal to get into the ark.
That’s really not my perspective. If natural stewards do not kill, then nature kills, and we will see animals starving [and] habitat species that were previously vibrant and beautiful, consisting of very small numbers of species. That’s the ghost that scares wildlife conservationists, while I think those with the animal rights perspective feel that, ethically, we lose our souls if we can’t respect the divine spark in each individual animal.
The sad thing is that I think both sides really love nature. But they have a very different point of view to look at the future of nature on a planet overpopulated by humans.