Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Friends & Neighbors

Spring is here and, for many people living in the warmer regions of the United States, the changing weather means reptile encounters. I subscribe to several email newsgroups that deal with reptile and amphibian conservation. I'm regularly directed to articles, most published in local newspapers, describing “dangerous” meetings of man and cold-blooded beast. Sadly these encounters do not represent an increase in reptile populations, but rather further encroachment into reptile rich habitat by our own species. Each year, as the warmth draws the randy, hungry reptiles out of brumation (cold-blooded animals' period of dormancy), humans encounter them in garages and houses…even, Heaven forbid!, in our gated communities.

This morning, two articles. First, a blurb from southern Florida’s Sun-Sentinel tells of a US Fish & Wildlife agent bitten by an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) while trying to capture the animal in a Pompano Beach neighborhood. Two weeks ago, I read an article in the same paper (unfortunately, the article is too old to be accessed online) telling of another aggressive alligator caught in Weston, Florida. This hungry gator killed and consumed a dog in a “posh Weston community.” Below, I’ve excerpted some of the text from the article. (“Dog-killing Gator Caught,” by Andrew Ryan, 03/30/2005)
“Once the animal is under control, the hunter takes it to a processing plant where it is killed and turned into gator nuggets, wallets and other products. Officials say if they were to release the animal in the middle of the Everglades it might simply come back…As development pushes further into the Everglades, clashes with gators have increased. Since the state began keeping statistics in 1948, there have been 342 alligator attacks, killing 15 people…Wildlife officers field 15,000 calls about nuisance alligators each year, and Weston, on the edge of the Everglades, is a hot spot.”
On the edge of the Everglades? Hmmm… It seems to me folks who want to live in such locales should consider their own transgressions and come to terms with their neighbors. Of course this is rarely the case. Whether dealing with wildlife and human settlement conflicts or the gentrification of minority neighborhoods in urban areas, development usually wins out over balance or integration. The one encouraging spot in Ryan’s Sun-Sentinel piece was a sensible comment made by Florida wildlife commission spokesman Jorge Pino. "We are standing in an area that used to be Everglades. We have to find a happy medium." Are we ready to do so?

The second article is pulled from the Desert Dispatch, in southern California. It describes a similar problem in the town of Victorville. Instead of alligators, though, the locals are plagued by snakes, Mojave rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus), in particular. Alligators may stumble into settlement on occasion, but snakes are often attracted to development as they follow their keen smell to an abundance of prey. This winter, good rains have contributed to a banner year for vegetation and, in turn, rodents and lizards. Complicating matters, Victorville is experiencing a development boom. "Within the next year there will be 15,000 new homes up here, and when they are breaking ground they are breaking habitat and the snakes are coming out," said Vicki Telford, an amateur herpetologist.

Unfortunately, wildlife/human conflicts are not restricted to warm regions and cold-blooded creatures. Our continued sprawl forces suburbanites into close proximity with mountain lions (Puma concolor), black bears (Ursus americanus), grey wolves (Canis lupus), and many other predatory species looking for an easy meal at the fringe of human settlement.

This brings me to this article (“The Cat Came Back: Alpha predators and the New Wilderness,” by Peter Canby, Harper’s Magazine, March 2005), which I have been meaning to post for some time. Ostensibly a book review, the piece does more than offer straightforward critique. It pries intelligently into the contradictions and blind Romanticism of “wilderness” concepts, while simultaneously raising fair questions about our own exuberance.

Though I find myself more in David Quammen’s camp – his book, Monster of God, is reviewed – than in David Baron’s, both arguments are valid. Baron, in his book, The Beast in the Garden, focuses on contemporary humanity’s misunderstanding of Nature, suggesting we need to become a keystone species once again, taking responsibility for the lands we occupy. While I agree with this assessment, I find Baron patronizes conservation-minded individuals. Canby seems similarly irked by Baron and turns, as I do myself, to a better, more thoughtful proponent of meaningful re-integration, Bill Cronon.
“The theme of the artificiality of the wilderness around Boulder runs throughout The Beast in the Garden, as does the idea that by romanticizing this artificial wilderness and its supposed ‘naturalness,’ Boulder's citizens were shirking their responsibility to manage it properly and were refusing to understand their role in creating the conditions that had led to the return of cougars. But Baron seems so intent on maintaining his contrarian tone, so intent on gaining points at the expense of Boulder's ‘stuck in the sixties’ lifestyle, that the reader is advised to turn to William Cronon, one of Baron's sources, where these ideas are better developed.”
As I have mentioned in the past, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Cronon’s writing and conservation philosophy. Throwing grenades at mountain lions, beheading snakes, and shooting alligators that approach homes are temporary solutions that ignore the root cause of the conflict. As Cronon has repeatedly made clear, it is high-time we re-examine our priorities and consider what best balances the equation. Increasingly, zones of concentrated human settlement – urban, not suburban – and zones of well-managed, connected “wildlands” seem the best solution.

Photo credit: A. Yanosky


Devo said...

This post doesn't even BEGIN to address those morons I've dealt with for much of my life who move from the Big City to exurbia and find "all the cute deer" who mosey about their yards. Those deer are just so cute, the morons feel the need to feed them! They self-righteously denounce all hunters who maliciously predate the poor, cute, cuddwy deers and make their shiny new neighborhoods dangerous! They put out salt licks for the poor, cute, cuddwy deers. Then the deers start to make many many wittle baby deers. The baby deers grow up to make even MORE wittle baby deers. By now, the deers have no natural (or even artificial) predators left! Oh, and they have an inexhaustible source of food and shelter... so they spill out onto the roads and get mauled by excessive Hummers and Excursions and Expeditions... these poor, cute, cuddwy deers now have broken, gangrenous legs. They suffer for days, dragging their broken bodies for miles, trying to find food, but unable to digest because they are in trauma and shock.

A hunter might have made this very deer's journey into death short and painless. The ex-city dweller has made it brutal, slow, painful and unnecessary. Beyond that, the deer will most likely find a nice roadside to lay down and die on, rotting away, stinking up the gorgeous, pristine, thoroughly artificial utopia we now call exurbia.

The filth that reeks beneath the skin of our suburbs and exurbs is really really disturbing. The dichotomy you speak of, HH, is another that my old high school science teacher taught us about. He was an avid hunter, and a really smart man.

He also devised an ingenious idea whereby one could use the heat generated at the center of a compost pile or manure pile to supply energy to the household doing the composting. What an idea. We need more people like that guy, and you, good buddy. If only stupidity and ignorance didn't get in the way of innovation and clarity.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Oh, I'm well aware of the deer problem, as you know...I just didn't want to bite off more than I could chew. Plus, my heart rate increases if I even think of "those morons." Writing about them at any length may kill me.

I consider human hunters "natural predators," so there are still some natural controls in place. With a decling population of hunters, though, we must hope that the resurgence of mountain lions and grey wolves in the western United States will result in a balance (in those regions, anyway). Of course, such balance brings with it increased predator/human interaction. The deer will naturally congregate around human settlements (for all the reasons you describe) and so then will the predators. "Those morons" you mention will continue to make baby noises at the "cute" deer; they tend to cry foul when a mountain lion lands on their black lab or a black bear carries a baby away.

Your high school teacher sounds exceptional, a real inspiration to other biology teachers and those of us who dream of a more sustainable society. Interestingly, variations of his invention (though I fear he wasn't the first to patent the idea) are being used the world-over. Within the next week I hope to post about such energy sources, even highlighting some artists who are helping introduce the technology into environmentally unstable countries...oh, wait, wouldn't that be every country?

OGeorge said...

You certainly aren't going to reach "those morons" by calling them that, even though I agree with your assessment of their behavior.

From the other perspective, I have to put up with "avid" hunters every fall. I'm in "the woods" EVERY day of the year, and yet I have to change my behavior because some guy thinks he's Davy Crockett and wouldn't be there at all unless he could kill something. Over the years (50+ now)I've been yelled at, cursed out, and threatened just for being in places where I never see anyone outside of hunting season.

I'll believe the "avid" hunter gives a vervet monkey's blue balls about anything but their own "recreation" when they voluntarily change the hunting seasons to February and August. February to shoot the starving, lame and three-legged deer FIRST, and August when the meat really tastes good after the summer diet before the bucks start pumping adrenalin and raging rut hormones.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Your reminder is much appreciated, O'George.

I too often lose my patience with folks who refuse to accept attrition, be it via bullet or lion stalk. I remember all too clearly the general reaction to the nature documentaries shown in high school biology class. When a newborn lion cub appeared on screen, the room would fill with ohhs and ahhs. When the filmmakers moved on to the more brutal aspects of Nature, however, the general sounds changed to ughs or cries of, "That's just gross!"

There is an obvious unwillingness on the part of "first-worlders" to learn about the relationships around us, primarily, I worry, because of what such observations tell us about ourselves, about our own evolutionary development.

I find it interesting, for example, that Jared Diamond's tremendous "The Third Chimpanzee" received praise only within the scientific community, whereas his two books (also excellent) that examine less base aspects of human nature became popular success stories.

When dealing with such people in person, though, I try to make them understand my perspective without becoming frustrated. Sadly, most of them, friends included, just label me a weirdo or "redneck." It seems to be a losing battle. I wouldn't be surprised to see an increasing number of citizens who are totally unaware of what occurs outside the "city walls." A small percentage of the population will fulfill the role of wildlife/wilderness stewards as we become a more urban species. Part of me believes there is something almost pragmatic about this transition, but I still find it rather sad.

On the other hand, your local "avid" hunters sound all too familiar. Such hunters are good examples of what I think of as "trash" hunters, folks who are uninterested in the animals they hunt, little concerned with treating the murdered animal with respect after they pull the trigger and most concerned with having a good time and getting some good stories. The majority of folks buying a hunting license in the US are out there to shoot, not to hunt. As you know from previous posts, I think such attitudes are disgusting and unfortunate. They are no less deserving of my vitriol than the "morons" in question above.

Your suggestions regarding the hunting seasons are curious, though I think shooting bucks is wrong-headed and selfish to begin with, taste aside. I don't like the February season, as the deer will have just suffered through the hardest time of year, especially if they are lame; it seems more humane to shoot them in the fall, prior to the cold, more barren months. August seems fine by me. In fact, the season could just be moved forward, beginning in August and ending in mid-October. There is some sense to this idea, O'George. Let's propose it.

Finally, I hope your work is going well. If you ever have pieces you are willing to share with me, please don't hestitate to do so.

Anonymous said...

There can be no happy medium in the war against alligators. If they want war, they shall have it. Alligators were on the verge of extinction when we took measures to protect them allowing their numbers to swell and now they prey on our pets and occasionally kill humans. Our kindness was perceived as weakness by these reptiles.

I have no issue with alligators in the Everglades where they belong. We need them there to fight the boas, but when they encroach on residential areas they must be destroyed. And please spare me this foolishness about us encroaching on their habitat. Any place we have ever lived throughout the history of mankind has encroached on some animal. Animals can either learn to live with it or die at our hands.

Alligators have been the bullies of nature preying on the weak and sick for tens of thousands of years. Well this time they've met their match. Bring it on!

Hungry Hyaena said...


It appears you read the post rather selectively, as my perspective is balanced. Ignoring that, I take issue with several things you write.

If you feel humanity is "at war" with other large predators, we're coming from very different viewpoints. You write "Animals can either learn to live with [human encroachment] or die at our hands." This implies, then, that only trophic generalists will remain. These are the species, like European starlings, American cockroaches or many species of jellyfish, that adapt well to a wide range of habitats and environmental circumstances. I actually have a great deal of respect for these hardy species, but a world populated only by tropic generalists is a sick one indeed, one destined for short term sustainability and a harbinger of mass extinction.

Of course some species will still expire, no matter how "balanced" or "sustained" an ecosystem (on any scale) is. Such is the way, but your insistence that this is some sort of war is baffling (and offensive) to me. Truly, if everyone felt the way you do, the human species will die sooner than need be, victims of our own reckless hubris.

You claim alligators "perceived" our protection legislation as weakness. I'm something of an animist myself, sir, but if you really think these alligators are comprehending our legislative acts and thusly taking advantage, you're a bit "touched" in the head.

Your characterization of alligators as "bullies" is also odd. Nature needs the animals that prey on the "weak and sick." This ensures that evolution - via natural selection - continues. But, sticking with your unusual constructs for the moment, I suppose you could argue that alligators have met their match; after all, humanity is the greatest bully species to have ever existed on this planet.

Anonymous said...

Do you realize how at odds you are in your last paragraph, Hungry Haena? It's okay for alligators to be evolutionary bullies, but not yes. If you accept evolution, you have to accept that humans are animals and evolved just as every other species. Part of our evolution involves the capacity to utilize tools as weapons and we're not the only animal to do so. We're just the best at it.

I clearly stated I am not talking about alligators in swamps. Anyone who goes into a swamp deserves to be a gator snack. I'm talking about alligators in residential areas. Alligators in residential are not vital to the ecosystem or food chain because there is no ecosystem or food chain in a residential area.

That's where the problem comes from. The prey they should be feeding on isn't there so they turn to dogs and cats. They create a new ecosystem.

I understand you love animals but these animals should be removed from our environment and put into theirs. Gators have no business in dense neighborhoods any more than black bears should be allowed to roam free in the streets of Buffalo.