Thursday, May 26, 2005

Player Haters?

Last Sunday, sick and frustrated, I watched the deciding game of the May "Subway Series" on television. Some weeks earlier, a friend had offered me a ticket to the game and I had eagerly anticipated the afternoon ever since. But instead of animatedly talking baseball on a beautiful Sunday at Shea Stadium, I was feverish and pouting on my bedroom floor in a sweat-drenched t-shirt and boxer shorts. That the afternoon had turned rainy and cold, thereby making things less than ideal for those fans who were able to make the game, did little to make me feel better; I'd been betrayed by my immune system. Even the run of unfortunate errors by the young Mets' players, and the resulting Yankees rally (which whipped me into a frenxy of anguish despite my fugue-like state) could not quell my frustration at having not been able to be there.

Fortune sometimes smiles on all of us, though, and another friend offered me a ticket to a Wednesday night Yankees/Tigers game in the Bronx. So yesterday, in now familiar cold and rainy New York weather, I headed up to the Bronx after work. Despite having lived in New York City for nearly six years, this would be my first game in Yankee Stadium! The seats were the best I have had since attending a Baltimore Orioles/Cleveland Indians game at Camden Yards in the early 1990s. Directly behind home plate, just this side of the "gated" boxes, I found my spot moments after the first out of the game. I love baseball stadiums almost as much as I love the game, and I spent the better part of the first inning studying the stadium itself. By the end of the third inning, though, it was neither the game nor the stadium that demanded the bulk of my attention, but the fans. One pair, sitting four rows behind my left shoulder, was especially difficult to ignore. Early in the evening, during a relatively quiet moment in the stands, one of them yelled out, very loudly, "F*ck you, Detroit! You f*ckin' suck, you pieces of sh*t!" Unfortunately, this was only a warm-up.

I've been to a number of baseball games in the last decade - though only a small number of cities: Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA; New York, NY - but I have never before heard such hateful taunting. Granted, I have a chip on my shoulder. I don't hate the Yankees, as a team, but I do loathe most Yankees fans. They represent the worst kind of spoiled royalty. As I see it, the fans who support the richest and winningest team in all of American sport should be proud and charitable. To point fingers and scream "You suck" at the rest of the field is akin to a member of the aristocracy leaning out of his carriage to call a toiling peasant a loser. But my desire for the average Yankees fan to inherit some humility and grace is not the matter at hand.

While watching that Sunday "Subway Series" television broadcast, I could hear New York Mets fans boo Kaz Matsui, the struggling Japanese import, when he approached home plate to bat up. Each time I heard these jeers, I shook my head; after all, the Mets are one of my favorite teams (second only to the Chicago Cubs) and the heckling that Matsui was dealt incensed me. The commentators noticed the booing, too, and mentioned how difficult such treatment had proven for Matsui. In the Japanese equivalent of our major league (Puro Yakyu), fans never heckle their own players. In fact, they don't boo or berate players on opposing teams either! Kaz Matsui (not to be confused with the more successful Hideki Matsui, currently playing across town for the New York Yankees) emerged a superstar from a league in which players receive only support. Today, he finds himself centerstage in a much tougher arena, one in which fan regard is fickle and their bite is often terrible.

The friend who had given me the ticket is married to a Japanese man and I decided to ask him, as we quietly sat among the ruckus at Yankees Stadium, what he made of Major League Baseball. While he isn't a big baseball fan, he immediately commented on the difference in the stadium experience. In Japan, he explained, each player has a song or a dance associated with them and Puro Yakyu stadiums are filled with fans ritualistically celebrating their team, even when they lose. The whole experience, he said, "is about having fun."

When the Yankees next scored on a two RBI double by Jorge Posada, the fans in our area went crazy. The first few seconds were fun, with lots of high fives and wild cheering, but then the chorus of, "F*ck you, Detroit!" and "Who's your Daddy?" began anew. A crippled man seated in front of me grabbed at his wrist crutches and struggled to his feet. He attempted an awkward high five with a buddy of his who was screaming something to the effect of, "We own you, Detroit!" Perhaps wrongly giving him the benefit of the doubt, I imagined that this crippled fellow, a casualty of genetics or circumstance, couldn't move quickly enough to ditch his sh*thead friends. I suppose he, too, could have been slandering the mothers of the Detroit Tigers, but I couldn't hear his more quiet ejaculations over the rest of the din. The crowd "celebration" was a curious mix of happy excitement, vitriolic fervor, and entitlement. I turned back to Koh and said with a smile, "Just like Japan, huh?" He shrugged and shook his head, half laughing. He appeared bemused. We sat in our seats among the standing, screaming Yankee fans and tried to take it all in.

By the time that exchange took place, the Yankee duo sitting behind us had elected to up the ante. Below are just a few of the many things screamed over my shoulder. Some of these were repeated many times.

"F*ck you, you f*ckin' f*ggots!"
"Hit the mother f*cker in the face with the pitch....Yeah, hurt 'em!"
"You fat piece of sh*t, there's a cheeseburger on second...can you make it, fatboy?"
"Detroit sucks! Boston sucks, too! F*ggots live in Boston!"
"Let's Go Jankees! Yeah....Jankees!"
"You suck, Detroit! Why bother trying?"

Occasionally, these fans even opted for a little abuse of their own boys.

"Hey, Giambi, you f*ckin' juice head! You're a potato head, you sh*t!"
"Hey, Matsui, hit the ball to China or wherever you come from!"
"Hey, Posada, if you had good knees you could run better! Shoulda been on second with that hit, you putz!"

In between such outbursts, the pair talked about beer, cell phones, and their pursuit of women. On beer, for example, one announced, "I don't drink's just too dark and thick, ya know?" Heineken is way too dark and thick? Um...okay.

Anyway, while these two "characters" were certainly the loudest around, they were not alone. Cries of "Detroit sucks!" could be heard anywhere you moved and every time a Yankee player failed to make a play or get a hit, no matter how difficult, the fans voiced their displeasure. Most distressing of all, though, was the encouragement given the loudest idiots in the stadium. Even those folks who seemed more inclined to clap and cheer than berate and boo egged on Tweedledum and Tweedledee. A girl noticed me staring over my shoulder at the pair of jackasses and she laughed. "They're awesome, aren't they?," she asked, with a smile. No, they're reprehensible and offensive, in fact. Shamefully, I said nothing.

I don't want to give the impression that I never cheer on my teams - I've jumped up and down at games and screamed obscenities at the television more than once - and I can't claim to be above booing a bad call. (A clear bad call is legitimately angering, but I won't boo close ones, even if disappointed in the result; after all, I'd hate to make a judgment mistake on the field, and I trust that the referees and umpires want to do as good a job as they can.) Yet I have absolutely no urge to call anyone on the other team a "piece of sh*t," even if I dislike them. What little I know of Alex Rodriguez, for example, makes me disinclined to like him, but I've never booed him (though I have wished for a strike-out or a botched bit of fielding). Shaquille O'Neal drives me mad with his dominating play and arrogant attitude, but I don't hope for a broken knee or a torn ACL.

The point is, I'm distressed by the prevalence of negativity in American sports. I'd like to think that it hasn't always been this way, but the truth is I'm not so sure. The nostalgia one feels for "the good ol' days" is largely a result of edited history; Ken Burns need only add a sepia tint and a banjo track to his "Baseball" footage and everything seems that much better. Even Barry Levinson's "The Natural," considered by many to be the pinnacle of "sports movies," hints at the venomous sting of the fan base. Is our culture really this willing to become the ignorant mob? If, as many folks say, contemporary athletes and celebrities are elevated to sainthood, their experience is equal parts transcendence and martyrdom. We love 'em, we hate 'em. We love to hate 'em, we hate to love 'em. It all seems a little schizophrenic to me. While I champion complexity, I guess I just prefer Southern hospitality and reserve at the ball park.

Making my way out of the stadium, a few drunken Yanks fans decided to make comments about my Cubs hat. Fortunately, they were not particularly nasty. "Look at this guy with the Cubs hat. What the f*ck is that about?," and "Hey, a Cubbies fan is here tonight, bro," weren't intended to insult. These drunks just wondered what I was "all about," and there's nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, I left the stadium thinking highly of baseball, but none too highly of the species that showed so much promise back when games were first being invented, when we were discovering ways of channeling our competitive aggression into an afternoon of fun.

Photo credit: unknown source; image of Freddy, an old-timer who attends every Yankees home game and bangs on his pot with a spoon. On Wednesday night, his spoon and pot were so abused by some fans that he reclaimed them, then opted to hold them out of reach for a while.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Crocuta crocuta: Part 2

"Even the grass..."

If the spotted hyena had a signature phrase, it might well be the same of that as the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield: "I can't get no respect." Long characterized as craven and stupid, the species is considered a villainous thief, a money-for-nothing scavenger that creeps onto the scene only after the real work has been done. In Disney's "The Lion King," the hyenas are slobbering, giggling fools. Likewise, in many a dated nature documentary the lowly hyenas are most often seen being run off by the "proud and noble lions."

Much of this disrespect is a result of our human aesthetic preferences. Rarely do I ask someone to describe a hyena and not hear the words "ugly," "disgusting," or "dirty." Yann Martel, in his terrific novel, Life of Pi, gives the reader a fair assessment of spotted hyena behavior, but the animal is still described as "ugly beyond redemption."
"Its thick neck and high shoulders that slope to the hindquarters look as if they've come from a discarded prototype for the giraffe, and its shaggy, coarse coat seems to have been patched together from the leftovers of creation. The colour is a bungled mix of tan, black, yellow, grey, with the spots having none of the classy ostentation of a leopard's rosettes; they look rather like the symptoms of a skin disease, a virulent form of mange. The head is broad and too massive, with a high forehead, like that of a bear, but suffering from a receding hairline, and with ears that look ridiculously mouse-like, large and round, when they haven't been torn off in battle. The mouth is forever open and panting. The nostrils are too big. The tail is scraggly and unwagging. The gait is shambling. All the parts put together look doglike, but like no dog anyone would want as a pet."
So what is this strange animal? Why does it seem to be "patched together from the leftovers of creation" and what is it actually like? Dogs, bears, raccoons, weasels, and badgers are all members of sub-order Caniformia. The physical appearance and greeting behaviors of the Hyaenidae family - four species: spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea), and aardwolf (Proteles cristata) - lead many to assume that they belong to Caniformia as well. In fact, hyenas are more closely related to the house cat sleeping on the ground next to me; they are members of sub-order Feliformia. Of the four living hyena species, the aardwolf and spotted hyena represent the more ancient lineages, the spotted hyena being the sole survivor of a "diverse, very successful and advanced carnivore/scavenger that ranged from Europe to Indonesia."(1) The other members of the Crocuta genus were much larger animals, some of them bear-size, and the smaller build of the spotted hyena enabled them to persevere while larger relatives perished. Excepting the aardwolf, hyenas have incredibly tough digestive systems, capable of digesting mammal bones in a few hours and teeth in a few days. They have even been known to consume and digest semi-poisonous compounds with no observed ill effects. Considering the bone crushing strength of the hyena jaw and the speed with which they consume food, such an adaptation is rather vital. As Martel writes, "It is not their gastric juices that limit hyenas, but the power of their jaws, which is formidable."

I am fascinated by all of the hyena species, but I find the spotted hyena most curious by far. The complex social architecture of a spotted hyena clan is notably different from that of its closest relatives. The striped hyena, for example, is a relatively solitary animal. Adults do not tolerate members of the same sex, so males and females come together to mate and raise offspring but spend much their time alone. The brown hyena typically shares a home range with only a small number of close relatives. The spotted hyena, however, can live in clans of up to 100 animals (in some cases, where food is plentiful, the clans can even exceed this number, though an 80 adult clan is extremely rare). Understandably, such large groups require some degree of socialization. Until recently, however, the sophisticated social dynamics of spotted hyenas remained unknown.

Inherited social status - an animal born of a high-ranking parent is automatically considered superior to those from a lesser lineage - is uncommon among group-living mammals. Usually size, strength, and other physical abilities determine rank. A weak or timid elk (Cervus elaphus), or wapiti, is unlikely to build a harem and be a good breeder, just as a smaller, less offensive grey wolf (Canis lupis) will be subservient to the more aggressive, powerful males. Primates were long believed to be the only exception to the rule, but biologists have learned that spotted hyenas also break the mold. Crocuta crocuta lives in large matriarchal clans with a rigid hierarchy. Rank passes directly from a mother to her cubs. Oddly, a male cub, no matter how highly ranked his mother is, will eventually leave his clan (at between 2 and 5 years of age). By contrast, all females remain with their "birth clan." The lone male spotted hyena faces a hard life and must hope for acceptance into a new clan. Should he be accepted, he will start at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy. Ranking even lower than the lowliest of cubs, he must greet them with a submissive posture. Reduced in this way, the immigrant male will also be forced to feed last. If the clan he has joined is large, feeding last can sometimes mean gnawing on bones or surviving on the feces of your clan mates.

Zoologist Kay Holekamp, of Michigan State University, studies the spotted hyena in Kenya. Holekamp wondered why males would choose to leave their clan and suffer such a fate. The answer she found is surprising. Holekamp discovered that immigrant males father an astounding 97 percent of cubs, "even though they are outranked by younger native males." Curiously, the tenure of an immigrant male is significant. A newly arrived immigrant is unlikely to find receptive females, but those that have been with the clan for some time will have sex offered more often, despite the fact that they remain at the bottom of the pecking order. This arrangement makes good genetic sense (limiting inbreeding), but some readers may wonder why the males are so willing to play by the matriarchal society's rules, why they don't "take" the females as is common in so many other mammalian species?

The answer, as with most things Crocuta crocuta, is very unusual. Not only are the females the dominant sex, they are also physically larger (on average, 12% heavier) and more aggressive than the males.
"This female dominance comes by way of a rare degree of masculinization. Female hyenas...have higher concentrations of the typically male hormone androstenedione in early life and are host to some bizarre genital morphology. The hyena clitoris is an elongated structure that resembles the male's penis. The females urinate, mate, and give birth through this highly elastic pseudopenis."(2)
Because of this peculiar morphology, female hyenas are in complete control of the sex act. In order for the male hyena to mate successfully, the female must retract the clitoris inside of her, as if inverting a sock, allowing the male to insert his smaller penis. Also of note, the birthing process is incredibly difficult on female hyenas. Imagine a human female giving birth through an enlarged clitoris, and you begin to get a sense of the excruciating pain the mother hyenas experience when giving birth, especially the first time! Biologist Laurence Frank (University of California, Berkeley) says of the spotted hyena birthing experience, "It's the only time I've ever heard hyenas cry out in pain."(3) In fact, many first-time mothers die after giving birth.

There have been many fine articles on Crocuta crocuta in the last decade (the two quoted articles are good places to start) and what I have written above should serve as a springboard. If you have any questions about the species, feel free to ask. Odds are I know the answer and, if I don't, I'm sure I'll have fun finding out.

I'll close with another selection from Life of Pi.
"These were not cowardly carrion-eaters...Hyenas attack in packs whatever animal can be run down, its flanks opened while still in full motion. They go for zebras, gnus and water buffaloes, and not only the old or the infirm in a herd - full-grown members too. They are hardy attackers, rising up from buttings and kickings immediately, never giving up for simple lack of will. And they are clever; anything that can be distracted from its mother is good. The ten-minute-old gnu is a favourite dish, but hyenas also eat young lions and young rhinoceros. They are diligent when their efforts are rewarded...Nothing goes to waste; even the grass upon which blood has been spilt will be eaten."
(1) The Kingdon Field Guide To African Mammals. Jonathan Kingdon, Academic Press, 1997
(2) "Rebranding the Hyena," John Pickrell, Science News, April 27, 2002
(3) "Sex and the Spotted Hyena," Robin Meadows, Smithsonian ZooGoer 24(3), 1995

Photo credit: The Lion King, Walt Disney Pictures

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Crocuta crocuta: Part 1

Anything I write about the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) has to be prefaced with backstory. In the summer of 1997, my father took me along on a trip to South Africa and Botswana. As with many of my father’s assignments, this one was a marriage of environmental tour and traditional safari. To many readers this will seem an awkward coupling, but conservation, as opposed to preservation, encourages a controlled take of some species in order to better “manage” the populations and the ecosystem. Just as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sets bag limits on hunted animals here in the United States, so too do the governmental organizations in Africa. (In the States, it is clear that not every legal species is really in need of “management,” and much of the justification for the annual “harvest” (i.e., regulated hunt) is financial. Though hunting and fishing licenses continue to account for the lion’s share of money spent on conservation causes in the U.S., some decisions seem wrong-headed, more interested in revenue than biodiversity. One presumes the same is true of African countries.)

The first week of the trip was spent in an ecotourism camp. Camp Abu was incredibly posh – overwhelmingly so! – and visitors lived in the lap of luxury despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest town. During the day, clients rode trained African elephants (Loxodonta africana) into the Okavango Delta. On elephant back, one can get much closer to other species and the only threats are wild elephants, especially young bulls. For the purpose of discouraging conflict, several members of the camp staff would travel alongside the elephants on foot. If wild elephants took an interest in our little group, a staff member would fire his rifle into the air to scare them off. The time at Camp Abu offered some terrific wildlife viewing, but I saw only one hyena. Some distance from our group, it raised its head above the tall grasses for a brief moment; then it was gone.

After a week at Abu, we headed 25 miles south to the hunting camp. My father and I were the first guests to be hosted, and the camp had only recently been constructed. This being the case, wildlife encounters were spectacular, even unsettling. Sitting around the campfire on the first evening, lions (Panthera leo) coughed (they rarely roar) and hyenas whooped just beyond the play of firelight. That night, I was awakened by a screeching bird and, turning on my flashlight and casting the beam through my mosquito net, I realized my tent was surrounded by a pride of lions. Not eight feet away a lioness stood looking directly into the light. Just behind her, a fully maned male lounged on the ground where I had unpacked my bag that afternoon. In the three seconds before I clicked off the flashlight, I noticed more lions moving about on either side of these two cats. I remained in the same position, holding my breath, for what seemed like ten minutes. I was certain death was imminent. Although the thoughts one has at such a moment are, in retrospect, quite funny, at the time I was as solemn as a 19-year-old can be, excepting perhaps unfortunate teens caught up in a war.

Our week in the hunting camp was to continue in this vein. A lunch would be interrupted by a matriarchal herd of twenty-three elephants quickly cruising by the camp. I would awake at night in agony from the sharp bite of some unknown variety of spider or jump to attention when I felt a scorpion scurrying up my back and over my shoulder. On a morning outing, we came across two male warthogs (Phacochoerus aethiopicus) fighting over territory or breeding rights, tearing each other open with their sharpened tusks. A black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) lived in the camp and, though I was not lucky enough to see it myself, it was spotted several times during my stay. Yet three days into our stay at the hunting camp, I had only heard hyenas.

My encounter came mid-week. That morning, I was stalking a male impala (Aepyceros melampus) with the PH (professional hunter). We had followed the animal for a couple of miles and now found ourselves atop a hillock. The impala was roughly a hundred yards away and an opportunity presented itself. Peter, the PH, set me next to a tree against which I could stabilize the big rifle. He told me to fire when I felt comfortable. The truth is, I wasn’t comfortable. I had come to Africa understanding that I would not hunt with a rifle, but with a camera. Unbeknownst to me, however, one impala permit had been purchased in my name and, though I’m still not convinced he didn’t know in advance, my father was elated at this news. Realizing how very important this was to my father, I bowed to the pressure and now shouldered the 30.06 and sighted the crosshairs on the “boiler room,” the area of an animal that houses the heart, liver, and lungs. When I pulled the trigger, the rifle kicked back and the barrel pitched up. I was certain that I had fired over the impala. Indeed, the antelope continued to pick at grasses, seemingly unaware of the lead projectile which had just screamed by. Peter was visibly discouraged by my poor shooting. Rather than have me reload and fire again, he thought it best that I scratch this animal and await another stalk later in the week.

We made our way down the steep slope of the hillock. Reaching the bottom, Peter grabbed my arm. “Don’t move,” the Englishman said. Ten or fifteen feet from us, three impressive creatures lifted their heads from the grasses. So broad and muscular were their chests, I was every bit as terrified of these intimidating spotted hyenas as I had been of the lion pride. The closest animal stared at Peter and me, its great head steady atop a powerful neck. She was gorgeous in her way, despite the matted fur and odd proportions. After ten seconds, she lowered her head, made a quiet chortle to her companions, and all three moved off. Peter let go of me and said, “Follow me…quickly now.” The instruction was unnecessary.

What made that moment so remarkable was circumstance. I was at the mercy of this predator. While the same is true of the lion experience, I didn’t feel so considered by the cats; Tiki and Tsonga, two camp trackers, later explained that the lions had surrounded the tent because of my father’s loud snoring and, having already made a kill that evening, were merely curious. The three hyenas might also be described as curious, but Peter had grabbed my arm for a reason. We were, for a moment, potential prey. (The only other instance of such primal vulnerability I've known was during my time working in a tent camp on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. Doing trail work in the rainforest one afternoon, I became convinced that a jaguar (Panthera onca) was stalking me and spent the better part of a frightening hour making my way down to the beach and relative safety.)

Though I appreciate animist myths and fairy tales, I’m not much for spiritual mumbo-jumbo. That said, I have had a few experiences in my life which leave me feeling intimately connected to another species or place. In Botswana, two moments stand out. On my last day in the tent camp, I went for a walk on my own. Emerging from an island of trees I looked out over the savannah. As I wrote of the experience at the time, “…the sun sank behind islands of incredible beauty, painting the trees black and the savannah grasses gold. I stood on my own and felt at peace because there, as in very few places anymore, one is immersed completely in nature. In the distance, a lion roared and Africa seeped into my soul.” Curiously, the power of that moment has faded with time, whereas the hyena meeting has only become more profound.

(Part 2 of this post will focus on the natural history of the spotted hyena.)

Photo credit: ripped from

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Chesapeake's Swan Song?

Tom Horton’s “Why Can’t We Save The Bay?,” an article in the June 2005 issue of National Geographic, is essentially a regional piece, focusing on the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay. This bay, however, is the largest estuary in the United States; as such, it is a litmus test for environmental degradation everywhere.

I grew up on the Atlantic side of the Delmarva Peninsula, the thin slice of land extending south from Pennsylvania. Three states share the territory, with Maryland and Delaware claiming the wider span of the peninsula in the north and Virginia holding title to the narrow, southern tail. Connected to mainland Virginia only by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 23-mile long engineering feat, the Eastern Shore of Virginia was my home for the first thirteen years of my life. My parents still live there. Like most towns on “the Shore,” as we natives call it, my hometown was almost exclusively populated by fisherman and farmers in the late 1970s. Today, however, as with so many towns on the Delmarva Peninsula, these jobs are vanishing. Instead, most folks work in the “service industry,” meaning they hold jobs at McDonald's, 7-Eleven, or Food Lion (Wal-mart has yet to arrive on the southern peninsula), but a significant portion also find employment at the chicken factories of Perdue Farms, Holly Farms, and Tyson. As those that still remember when a charter boat captain was a wealthy man and a crabber could support a family die and the younger people become more disconnected from the ecosystem, the bay suffers.

Tom Horton blames population and pollution for the Chesapeake's ails. As he points out, two times as many people now live here as in 1950 (8 million has become 16 million). Unfortunately, many of these new settlers view the bay as a “major playground.” Living in New York City, I take a certain pride in being a southern boy, but a trip home (or a look at the spread on pages 24-25 of the magazine, which features a group of beer-guzzling speed boat enthusiasts who call themselves the Battle Creek Gang) too often reminds me of what the Shore’s populace has become. As with all environmental concerns, everything comes back to population and pressure. One can only hope that the writers addressing the issue, whether popular or outdoor journalists, communicate the urgency. For the Chesapeake Bay, the situation is dire; as Horton points out, “The latest ecological report card gave the bay a failing grade of 27 out of 100.” Worse yet, a dry year means the grade would have been even lower had more excess nitrogen been washed into the bay from farmers' fields upriver.

While increasing pollution is directly connected to the burgeoning population, pollution legislation seems more practical than population control measures, which raise the ire of most citizens. But apathy is endemic on the Delmarva Peninsula; the western shore, with our nation’s capital sitting alongside one of the bay’s major tributaries, offers the most hope. Some conservationists worry that, barring drastic and immediate action, we've already reached the “tipping point."
“A lack of both political will and enforcement has slowed progress in tackling the other big pollution sources – agriculture, cars, power plants, and urban storm water. We’ve been similarly lax in containing the sprawl consuming forests and wetlands – vegetation that absorbs millions of pounds of nutrients from polluted air and run-off – at the rate of more than 100 acres a day. And the demise of oysters, which once filtered and cleansed huge volumes of bay water as they fed on algae, has been an ecological disaster. ‘It’s like someone removed 99 percent of the filter in your aquarium,’ said Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.”
As Scott Phillips, Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey states, “You’re going to have to change people’s values to improve this ecosystem.” Tom Horton seems discouraged. “Public support often seems like the estuary itself, impressively broad but deceptively shallow,” he writes. Perhaps part of the problem is the cultural divide which separates the two shores, west and east. As my father wrote in his 1982 book Wanderer On My Native Shore,
“Because the bay is divided between two state governments that rarely see eye to eye on any issue, and because the bay is further divided culturally between its city-based white-collar populations and its rural-based farmers and fishermen, the Chesapeake offers special problems in resource management quite unlike those found in other sections of the nation.”
Sadly, such challenges are no longer isolated to the Chesapeake watershed.

In May of 1607, Captain John Smith landed on the banks of the James River on the western shore, just downstream from my alma mater in Williamsburg, Virginia. Smith and his companions found an ecosystem exploding with abundance. Despite their battles with illness and sporadic attacks from the region’s Native American tribes, food was plentiful for those settlers willing to fish, hunt, and trade. Almost four hundred years later, we have nearly exhausted the supply of blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus: the translation is “savory beautiful swimmer”), American oysters (Crassostrea virginica), ducks, and most game fish species. Those species still thriving today are, not surprisingly, those which adapt well to human settlement, including the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), snow goose (Chen caerulescens), Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and the invasive mute swan (Cygnus olor). The large predators – the black bear (Ursus americanus), red wolf (Canis rufus), and grey wolf (Canis lupis) - have long since been exterminated. In the National Geographic article, Walter Boynton, a scientist working on the Patuxent River points out that, just 40 years ago, oysters were “an essential food, part of the culture – and now they’re an hors d’oeuvre.” But Boynton continues, “I wonder if the bay has become like that for many people, from being essential to an hors d’oeuvre.”

Reading Horton’s article, I thought of the closing comments my father made in his chapter on the Chesapeake watershed. He wrote them in the early 1980s, but the language is similarly eulogistic.
“A philosopher might take the long view. This benign-weather interlude we have been enjoying since the first colonists came to the New World may be coming to an end. Perhaps, in another thousand years, climate patterns will be so altered, the Susquehanna will have reverted to its primeval course and surge into the Atlantic many miles east of the present Virginia capes; or, contrariwise, there may be no Virginia capes when a rising sea drowns the coastal plain.

Will our descendants have the diversity of life that inspired such great variety in Algonquian culture? What will recreation be like on a less salubrious and species-poor planet? Will the requirements of survival be so compelling that most people will work with their heads down, oblivious to the world around them, like oyster cullers [in the Chesapeake] today?”
Dad, let's hope not.

Photo credit: Peter Essick, 2004

Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Misjudged Hyenas"

I would be remiss were I not to draw attention to the June 2005 issue of National Geographic. "Misjudged Hyenas" showcases photographs of Crocuta crocuta.

The Latin name drips off the tongue; equal parts sensuality and mystery, it sounds almost vampiric, but the animal itself is anything but sensual. In fact, it is in part the raw ugliness of the animal that so attracts me to them. Muscular and equipped with impressive jaws, these slope-backed animals have long been characterized as pathetic, stupid scavengers. This couldn't be more inaccurate an assessment. Biologists have known for years that hyenas are excellent predators. More recently, we learned that they have an extremely complex social hierarchy, far more sophisticated than that of lions and, according to some biologists, approaching that of ape species.

More closely related to the mongoose than to the bear or dog, hyaenas belong to the cat-like superfamily (or suborder, depending on your preference) of carnivores, Feliformia. Curiously, the spread on pages 62-63 of the June issue makes clear this relationship. In the image, a hyaena has been trapped in a bog by a pair of male lions and they are preparing to kill the smaller predator. The hyaena is covered with glistening mud and rears back in a futile defensive display. Muddied as he is, the physiological similarities between the mongoose and the hyaena are made clear.

At any rate, when I began this blog, I promised a longer post on this fascinating animal. One is forthcoming.

Photo credit: Anup and Manoj Shah, 2004

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Predators in Penang...and elsewhere

The short missive below was brought to my attention by HerpDigest, an email newsletter devoted to herpetology. Originally, the article was published in a newspaper printed in Penang, Malaysia (pictured above). I can find no link to the article, so I've pasted the text below.
“Breeding Ground For Snakes”
Monday, May 09, 2005, Penang, Malaysia

A vacant piece of land in Penang has turned into a breeding ground for pythons and cobras, endangering people's lives.

The site, at the junction of Perak Road and Macalister Road, is now covered with bushes and weeds and the residents nearby are now living in fear. Resident Teh Boon Seng, 42, said the owner who used to come yearly to clear the weeds failed to do so this time around. He said he had seen pythons and cobras in the area.

“Recently, I called the Fire and Rescue Services department to catch a huge python which crawled out from the site,” he said. “A few days ago, a cobra crawled into my house. We are now having sleepless nights,” he said at a press conference arranged by Komtar state assemblyman Lim Goon Soon recently. Lim said he had told the landowner four years ago to put up proper enclosures at the site, adding that the vacant land was once a haven for drug addicts.

“We want the landowner to clear up the mess fast before the snakes bite people,” he said.

There were at least 35 parcels of idle land in his constituency, he said. He urged the owners to rent out the land as parking lots.
Such situations are not uncommon in Southeast Asia, but the last sentence of this article set it apart. I’ve never been a big fan of Joni Mitchell’s song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” in which she suggests we will "pave over paradise to put up a parking lot," but the explicit parallel is jarring. (I prefer a more contemporary damning tribute to sprawl, Modest Mouse’s “Convenient Parking,” off their 1997 EP, Lonesome Crowded West.) What does an increasingly urban demographic mean for green space in our larger cities and towns? More to the point, what does such green space mean for the city's inhabitants, human and otherwise?

Yesterday, I received in the mail a plea for support from The Trust for Public Land. An attached questionnaire was comprised of questions designed to provoke ‘Yes’ replies, thereby encouraging you to pledge money. “Do you appreciate our national park system and wildlife refuges?” “Do you think it important to have wilderness areas in which you and your family can recreate?” “Do you feel our cities and towns should include more public parks and greenways?”

For the past three years, I have considered myself a champion of the wildlife corridor concept, a worldwide conservation measure trumpeted by the so-called “deep ecology” groups; the terrific Wildlands Project is an example. The “deep ecology” movement, and the wildlife corridor push with it, is often dismissed as a pipe dream but, as I see it, the only valid critique is one which focuses on the “inordinate” amount of time needed to construct this “network of networks.” Protecting and connecting all the ecosystems of the United States, much less the world at large, is an undertaking which promises to take years – perhaps centuries – of ugly courtroom battles and litigation. As Stephen Meyer writes in his excellent article, “The End of the Wild,”
“In theory this strategy could reduce the slide of ghosts and relics into oblivion if it could be implemented immediately and universally. It would be a form of global ecological zoning that would significantly lessen the influence of human selection in the excluded regions. Wildlands would enable species and populations to adapt to climate change. As an ecologically centered strategy it is most likely the only approach that could truly reduce the scale and scope of the biotic collapse that is already underway.

Yet the notion that upwards of seven billion people could live hobbit-like with nature is hard to accept. With the right social framework we might have been able to do it modestly in 1304, but not in 2004 and certainly not in 2104. Global society is moving rapidly and inexorably in the opposite direction.

To be fair, advocates of wildlands acknowledge that, owing to enormous social, political, and economic hurdles, their vision would be at minimum a 100-year undertaking. The problem, of course, is that the end of the wild will already be complete.”
There is a more specific and more interesting question, however. Where the towns and cities “touch” the wildlife corridors, how much connection is to be allowed? For example, if species are able to make their way from a designated wildland to a city park, we suddenly face potential threats from unknown invasive species and a surplus of prey species “hiding out” downtown.

I turn here to Reed F. Noss, a biologist closely associated with The Wildlands Project. The following excerpt is taken from his paper, “Can Urban Areas Have Ecological Integrity?” (I can no longer locate this paper online, but it was published in conjunction with the 4th International Symposium on Urban Wildlife.)
"There are 2 potential problems with this 'network of networks' design. One, corridors leading from the more developed zones of the network might funnel exotics and other opportunistic, weedy species into wildland areas. We know that roads and roadsides, for example, are frequent avenues for the invasion of these pests. I predict, however, that the wildlife corridor network is unlikely to facilitate weedy species invasion of wildlands beyond that already facilitated by roads. In fact, well-designed corridors, especially if wide, may provide habitat for predators of these weedy species. In addition, corridor bottlenecks could be used to trap weedy species and possibly reduce their spread.

A potentially more serious concern is that of corridors connected to wildlands or rural areas funneling problematic large mammals into suburban and urban areas. This is already a problem with deer....Following the deer into suburban areas, however, may be a natural predator of deer - mountain lions. Unfortunately, these predators sometimes also attack joggers and other people. Wildlife corridors have been implicated in bringing both deer and lions into Boulder, Colorado which has created some problems."
And so, at long last, I come back to the Lim Goon Soon comment about the need for more parking lots in Penang. Though Malaysian cities are not surrounded by anything resembling the wildlife corridors advocated by the deep ecology movement, the rural and the urban do butt up against one another in a more explicit fashion than they generally do in the western world. The boundaries blurred, predators passing through a town or city are that much more likely to take up residence in the vacant lots.

So what is to be done? Is their a solution that allows for all parties to be represented or must we “pave over paradise” to quell our fears? For my part, I feel that predators (whether lions, bears, or cobras), living in close proximity to humans need not be a problem. If people were more willing to live alongside other species – a tolerance developed over several generations – safety precautions and sensible behavior would result in less conflict between man and beast. If a mountain lion (Puma concolor) has been frequenting your backyard, bring your dog indoors at night rather than allowing Buster to romp unattended. If a large Great White shark (Carcharodon carcharias) has been repeatedly spotted just beyond the breakers, don’t paddle your board out. Unfortunately, less conflict doesn’t mean a cessation of mawlings or snakebites and so the primal fear of predators will remain an issue for many more generations of man. When and if it does vanish, odds are there will no longer be any predators remaining. Modern man continues to repeat the mistakes of the preceding generations: pave it, mine it, milk it, and propagate, propagate, propagate. The recent boom and bust seizures of the economy are merely a time-lapse film of human history.

Photo credit: Penang, Malaysia, Copyright Chris Rouch. 1999-2005

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Hung-over and Thinking

For the most part, New York City’s subways are subterranean, but some lines in the outer boroughs are elevated. The Queensbound N/W subway line emerges from under the East River and rises over the rooftops before turning north up 31st Street to Astoria, where I live.

Yesterday, as white sunlight made unnecessary the green fluorescent glow of the subway car lighting, I looked up from my magazine and noticed a young Colombian boy playing with his father’s cell phone. Standing by a window, the boy had selected the phone’s camera mode and was captivated by the cityscape, pixilated and bleached, as it cruised by on the phone's small viewfinder.

'There is something here,' I thought. Is this a nice metaphor for our First World disconnect, I wondered? Does a preference for a digitized interpretation of the world suggest a break with the unmediated rest of it? Is the child really exhibiting such a preference or is this cigar just a cigar? For that matter, is the “real” world anything more than a neurological interpretation itself, our own personal computer translating strings of chemical 1s and 0s?

Suddenly, I found myself recalling something Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, wrote in 1945.
“It seems to me that something new is in formation on our planet. The material progress of modern times has indeed linked mankind by a sort of nervous system. The contacts are innumerable. The communications are instantaneous. We are materially bound like the cells of the same body. But this body does not yet have a soul. This organism has not yet grown conscious of itself. The hand does not feel itself a part with the eye.”
His observation still rings true today, at least to psuedo-luddites like myself.

Hung over and splintered, my mind made a seemingly disparate connection between the Exupery quote and a poem I wrote five or six years ago.
Sunset is chilly
on the shores of Southampton,
the water creeping closer
to the foundations of second or third homes.
Hiding in a tangled mass
of beached seagrass,
the tiny coffins of unborn skates
catch our attention.
Tearing open one of the leathery wombs,
a yolk falls into my palm.
Still attached, still feeding,
is a squirming embryo.

Next morning now,
The clouds heavy with rain
sag and burst like
too full mammaries.
The rain chases my train
to New York City.
The father reached over and pried the phone out of the boy’s hands. The boy looked up in protest before turning his attention to his shoes.

Photo credit: 1995-2001, Chao-Hwa Che

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


1) Bill Maher has a short interview transcript posted at the Sierra Club's newsletter, "Planet." Maher's precious perspectives and anti-rural bias often find him championing anti-management stances and making fun of "country boys," neither of which ingratiate him to someone like me. In this interview, though, we are on common ground. He boils down the lack of American environmental responsibility to the following observation, "People are just going to have to wake up."

2) In another interview transcript, Grist Magazine sits down with Edward Norton to talk about environmental activism. I respect Norton a great deal, both for some of his more impressive acting turns and for his intelligence. Unfortunately, he sometimes comes across as an arrogant prick - listen to the "Fight Club" commentary if you want to realize just how very much this guy loves waxing poetic about his own abilities - but some of his arrogance confidence is warranted.

3) James Howard Kunstler forecasts extremely dire futures for the First World, particularly our own country (and parts of neighboring Canada), but this recent adaptation of the introduction to his new book, The Long Emergency, is a very important read. It can be married to the excellent Stephen M. Meyer article (about extinction and wildlife conservation) to make you feel really good about the 21st century. I try to remain as optimistic as I can, but I find myself agreeing with Kunstler when he writes,
"It has been very hard for Americans - lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring - to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. [...] Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."
Kunstler predicts, as the Pentagon did in their 2003 forecast, a complete economic collapse of the United States by 2050. The result will be a country in which train travel is the only economically feasible option and the southern 1/2 is torn apart by drought, disease, and racism. He thinks the northern half of the United States will fare better, but he neglects to address the "white flight" that would surely follow such a "long emergency."
Read it here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Atheists, Naturalists, and Fundamentalists

This last week, I received a number of angry emails from religious fundamentalists. The writers of these notes were responding to some comments that I made on a conservation listserv. In my opinion, my comments were neither incendiary nor dismissive; in fact, alongside some of what I've written about religious literalists and the Christian right on this blog, the listserv remarks were tame. Happily, I also received a thoughtful letter from a devout Christian woman. The first selection below is taken from my response her email.
“Though I do label myself an atheist, my belief requires as much faith as that of a devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew. After all, what ‘proof’ do we have that there is NOT a God? I can think of nothing definitive. Agnosticism is the more honest choice, perhaps, as it resides in the question, more comfortable with uncertainty and contradiction. I considered myself agnostic for many years and my transition from agnosticism to atheism was in part the result of external pressures. The more ‘religious’ our country became, the more I felt the need to reside at the furthest pole in order to maintain balance. Is this irrational? Perhaps. More importantly, though, I believe there is no “higher power,” at least in the sovereign, interventionist sense – we are but a piece of the weave of universal energy, of the Over-soul – and, no matter how much I prefer questions to answers, this meant I could no longer consider myself agnostic.

I respect all three of the "sibling" religions for the core values and ethics each espouses; the overlaps and base similarities are obvious and numerous: Judaism spawned Christianity spawned Islam. Fundamentalism of any stripe, though, is untenable and given our contemporary global connectivity, that much more volatile. I do not mean to tread on Christianity at large when I rant about the growing influence of the far-right, evangelical community on US policy, but their words make the hairs of any sensible citizen stand at attention.

The text below is drawn from the National Association of Evangelicals' recent document, ‘For the Health of the Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.’
’We make up fully one quarter of all voters in the most powerful nation in history...Disengagement is not an option...To restrict our stewardship to the private sphere would be to deny an important part of His dominion and to functionally abandon it to the Evil One. To restrict our political concerns to matters that touch only on the private and the domestic spheres is to deny the all-encompassing Lordship of Jesus.’
Little surprise then that this group, 30 million+ strong, vehemently supports Bush, Cheney, Delay and company. The agenda of the Rapturists has landed in the White House. Whereas once many powerful figures in the Republican party were vocal proponents of the conservation cause, now we see a partisan push for environmental action coming only from the Left (with a few notable exceptions, such as John McCain, US Senator, Arizona). I find this distressing and unfortunate.

I believe our greatest hope for environmental sustainability comes from a move toward social democracy, but I remain unsure whether such a system can work in a country as sprawling and asphalt-addicted as our own. Regardless, wildlife corridors, refuges, and reserves stand little chance when the powerful lobbyists emerging from Colorado Springs, the ‘training ground’ for God's ‘warriors,’ ‘harness the forces of free-market capitalism.’ As the celebrity evangelical Pastor Ted states,
‘I teach a strong ideology of the use of power of military might, as a public service...the Bible's bloody. There's a lot about Blood. Globalization is merely a vehicle for the spread of Christianity.’
Or, as one attendee of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs describes the recent tsunami in Indonesia, ‘[I'm] psyched about what God is doing with his ocean.’ (Psyched? Give me ten minutes in a parking lot and I'll show you how psyched I am about what God is doing with my fists.)

I also wish that the ‘Taliban wannabes’ would mind their own business, but their ranks are steadily growing. Whereas two years ago, I dismissed the articles and essays that warned of a coming ‘Christian conflict,’ I now am increasingly convinced that this country faces very difficult times. The twin burdens of racism and fundamentalism will prove substantial hurdles in the early 21st century, distracting us from more pressing matters of economy and environment. I just turned 27 and I feel as though I should still be idealistic and optimistic; instead, I am increasingly anxious. I have to hope that a minority of the evangelicals will interpret the scripture correctly, realizing that God called on us all to be good stewards; some evangelicals are, in fact, arguing for thoughtful environmental policy. Let us hope they are able to influence their leaders and let us hope that their leaders may find some use for sound science. After all, science gave them the radio and where would the contemporary evangelical be without the airwaves?”
My response was shared on the listserv. Afterwards, I received a more friendly response. Interestingly, I learned that the term “fundamentalist” is considered a positive label by many contemporary Christians. "Evangelicals” are the new “fundamentalists,” evidently, although some of the angry folks who emailed me are bad news no matter what they call themselves! Still, I'm bothered by the relativism of some American Christians. If an Islamic fundamentalist is thought of as a baddie, why then should a Christian fundamentalist be deemed a goodie? Oh, wait, I forgot…our nation's leaders are trying to start a Holy War.

I also received a short note from a biologist working in the southwest United States. I’ve had several exchanges with this gentleman and I have come to respect his opinions on a range of conservation issues. I very much like what he has to say about faith, and I include his note below.
“I understand your statement on positioning yourself towards the atheistic pole. I do the same.

For a while I preferred to call myself a ‘provisional atheist’ in the same sense that I'm a ‘provisional Darwinian’ ... unless and until new evidence comes along to make me change my philosophy, this is what I accept.

However, I decided that the term ‘atheist’, although not as evil a word as some theists would like to paint it, just didn't cut it for me. ‘Atheist’ says what one DOESN'T believe, but it doesn't say much about what one DOES believe. It's a negative response to another's position, not an affirmative statement of one's own position ... like calling myself a ‘non-conservative’ when I am unapologetically a liberal.

Nowadays, I prefer the term ‘naturalist’ (in the philosophical sense, although as a biologist I'm also a naturalist in the conventional sense). Naturalist simply says I accept the worldview of naturalism, that everything in the universe can be (or potentially can be) understood and explained by natural laws and processes.”
I may have to start calling myself a Naturalist!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Extinction Debt: Weeds, Relics and Ghosts

"A great many of the plants and animals we perceive as healthy and plentiful today are in fact relics and ghosts. This seeming contradiction is explained by the fact that species loss is not a simple linear process. Many decades can pass between the start of a decline and the collapse of a population structure, especially where moderate-to-long-lived life forms are involved.

Conservation biologists use the term 'extinction debt' to describe this gap between appearance and reality. In the past century we have accumulated a vast extinction debt that will be paid, with interest, in the century ahead. The number of plants and animals we 'discover' to be threatened will expand out of control as the extinction debt comes due."
The above selection is taken from a terrific (and terrifically depressing) article by Stephen M. Meyer, professor of political science at MIT, published in the Boston Review. Meyer addresses ideas all too familiar to those of us following the extinction crisis, but he succinctly describes the current quandary far better than most writers have. Meyer focuses on the concept of trophic generalists (or weedy species), relics, and ghost species. He also explains how “extinction debt” works, a concept not foreign to economists or ecologists, but apparently difficult for almost everyone else to comprehend.

I highly recommend this article if you're interested in reviewing or learning the basics of the extinction crisis.

The Ripple Effect

Reading an article this week about the Argentine evangelical preacher, Luis Palau, I came across an interesting quote. He stated,
“I believe that change comes from personal conviction, from leading a more biblical lifestyle, not by Christianizing a nation. If we become called to Christ, we will build an effective nation through personal ethics. When you lead a life of purity, when you respect your wife and are good to your family, when you don’t waste money gambling and womanizing, you begin to work for better schools, for more protection and safety for your community. All change, historically, comes from the bottom up.”
Palau's quote struck me not for its evangelical message (although its worth noting that his “old-school” evangelical approach is rapidly disappearing in today’s increasingly reactionary evangelical community) but because I heard myself in the approach. I, too, believe that change comes from personal conviction, from leading a more sustainable lifestyle, not by forcibly “greening” a nation. Self-improvement and local impact will eventually ripple out to affect policy at the national level.

Given this “begin with yourself” approach, I am always on the look out for ways to minimize my ecological impact. Unfortunately, for those of us living in the United States, Europe, or much of Southeast Asia, some of the positive lifestyle changes are very difficult to implement. I have yet to give up all my cell phone or computer, for example, or to better insulate my windows. I don’t really need a phone or a computer; in New York City there are plenty of public payphones and “cyber cafes” where I can purchase time. Yet despite my best intentions, I remain unwilling to sacrifice these modern conveniences.

At any rate, I came across this very straight forward list of ways you can help be a more environmentally friendly consumer and thought its simplicity merited a link. The base message: buy less and keep it for longer.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Tuna Country

Last night I attended a friend's rooftop barbecue in Brooklyn. As often happens in such a setting, I drank a little too much and stayed a little too late.

Early in the evening, another guest recommended this NY Times article (printed Tuesday, May 3rd) discussing the current tuna fishery crisis. I had not yet read the piece and I made a mental note to find it online today.

Later, after the remaining guests made our way downstairs to the host's loft apartment, I found myself in a discussion about a Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) mount. One of my friends purchased the mount in a New York City thrift store several years ago. It's seen better days; the fish's bill is torn away from the upper mouth and the tail is only a stump. Damage aside, I admired the fish and explained to some other guests what a living sailfish looks like, bill and tail intact. I also explained that this was a fish distinct from other billed fishes, such as the marlin or swordfish species, and described what made the Pacific sailfish distinguishable from its Atlantic relatives (even though they are usually considered one species, there are “racial” differences).

An Austrian in his mid-thirties seemed genuinely interested in the information and asked me how I knew so much about the fish. I explained that my father is a conservationist and writer who is particularly knowledgeable about marine species. Although most of my knowledge of “game” fish is hand-me-down material, in my teens I spent a few days catching Pacific sailfish off Costa Rica. All in all, I was feeling pretty good about the exchange. The people listening seemed to enjoy learning a little bit about the sailfish.

Evidently, though, this was not the case. As I was saying my goodbyes, the Austrian fellow introduced me to a girl friend of his. “This is the guy who knows about the fish.” She laughed and said, “Oh, yeah? That’s interesting.” “Well, I guess it’s sort of ‘interesting’. I mean, it’s just a fish,” the Austrian guy replied. Ugh.

I couldn't care less what some random Austrian transplant thinks of me, but I always get a little excited when I come across an urbanite that seems to take an interest in natural history. As we become an increasingly urban species, the need for knowledge of the world outside our city walls will also increase. I'd assumed that my fellow partygoer was taking a real interest in the sailfish. In fact, he had been listening only because he thought it novel that I was talking about such esoteric subject matter; I was, I suppose, his circus monkey.

Realizing this, I was offended - unnecessarily so. I responded, “Well, I'm fascinated by the ‘natural’ world; it's vital to me and I don't think it's 'just a' fish.” I didn’t say this rudely or in a patronizing tone because, the truth is, most people feel the same way he does. Nevertheless, I headed home brooding, temporarily convinced that E.O. Wilson’s biophilia is not a gift inherited by all humanity, but a rare disorder.

The sailfish incident brings me back to the NY Times tuna article by Andrew Revkin. Revkin discusses at length the pressure exerted by longline fishing (see also the related post at Organic Matter), but he only touches on an essential part of the puzzle: demand. Tuna remain one of the most widely consumed fishes, whether canned, steaked, or stripped with a side of wasabi. In 1999, I ate toro sushi once or twice a week; one of my roommates, who later moved west to become a sushi chef in Los Angeles, practiced preparing sushi in our cramped NYC kitchen and I was the lucky beneficiary of both his successes and mistakes. I also went out to cheap sushi restaurants as often as my budget would allow. Tuna, tuna, tuna…I couldn’t get enough of it. As with any other meat, I no longer eat tuna unless I catch it myself. Trouble is, I can’t even rationalize tuna fishing these days. Tuna, like swordfish or shark species, has been added to the list of fish I will likely never eat again. The fishery simply isn’t sustainable given the present demand. As Revkin suggests, new limits must be imposed and accepted, but the only sure way to encourage lawful observation of such limits is a decrease in market demand. Just as a move away from oil consumption makes conservation and sustainable living more feasible, so does a decrease in demand for meats, particularly the large pelagic fish. Unfortunately, SUVs continue to fly off car lots and most sushi lovers can't imagine eating Sushi Combo B without toro!

Photo credit: John W. Mykkanen

A Rattlesnake Suitcase Under My Arm, An' Honey You Can make My Motor Run

There are some situations and places I hope to never find myself in, not because they are particularly dangerous but because I worry about my own actions or well-being in the context. If I were to score such situations on a scale of 1 to 10, Las Vegas is a 4, an evangelicalmegachurch” is a 7, and a rattlesnake round-up is a 9. (Most of the 10s I can think of involve witnessing violent, criminal acts.)

I have already passed through Las Vegas once; I hope to avoid it in the future. For me, it represents all that is wrong with contemporary American culture. Whether looking down from the airplane on approach or out of a city bus cruising down the strip, the sprawling wasteland of vulgar displays and unforgivable consumption made me uneasy and even angry. Fortunately, for me Vegas was but a pit stop on my way to Arizona for a rafting trip on the Colorado River. Still, I pledged to never again enter city limits unless I couldn't avoid doing so.

I have never been present at an evangelical rally and, despite a sick curiosity about such gatherings, I do not plan to attend any in the future. The core values espoused in most religions are positive, but any variety of religious fundamentalism causes me to cringe. A stadium or “mega-church” full of devout, born-again Christians has few equals among my nightmares.

Yet even a Las Vegas mega-church could not provoke me as thoroughly as a rattlesnake round-up. Just reading about these barbaric events makes me flush with anger. I am deeply troubled by the reckless, excessive collection of the animals and I react badly to snakeskin wallets, boots, belts, and so on, but it is the attitudes of the “wranglers” that I most detest. Public fear not withstanding, there is little respect, if any, shown the reptiles. Whether pouring gasoline into snake dens, roughly throwing them into canvas sacks, or kicking the more “aggressive” reptiles in the head, rattlesnake round-up participants are not out to educate. These events are celebrations of human dominion (a word I’m hearing more often these days) and ignorance. In one corner we have white-hatted man and, in the other, the evil, fork-tongued serpent.

Anyway, this Los Angeles Times article by Ann Japenga doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but she does a nice job of describing the 33rd Annual National Rattlesnake Sacking Championships. I’ve excerpted a few “highlights” below.
“As more hunters arrive in pickups, drag out coolers and release their squirming wares, it becomes obvious that a rattlesnake is hardly a demon. When a handler's attention strays and a snake is momentarily free, it lies still or tries to crawl away. Throughout the event, the men strive to make the snakes look menacing while the snakes mostly try to escape.


The air smells of popcorn and beer, and a wet-dog stink emanates from a booth where vendors sell snakeskins. The stage is enclosed with Plexiglas and elevated so that spectators can watch the show from the snakes' point of view. Some 80 diamondbacks skulk in the corners. A few shimmy up the walls trying to escape, but most — even the huge ones with heads the size of a man's fist — try to crawl to the bottom of the pile, away from kids rapping on the side of the pen.

As many as four or five men stand around the snake pit. They wear starched jeans and high boots to protect themselves from ankle strikes, and they kick back into place any snakes that venture from the corners. Coiled snakes skate across the polished floor like hockey pucks. To incite strikes, the handlers wave a boot inches over the huddled snakes. The snakes that spring out are rewarded with a kick to the head. As the tension mounts, the rattling sounds like steady rain.


[Ken] Garrett claims to be something of a snake whisperer, handling the snakes before a competition to sense their temperament and trying to calm them rather than rile them. ‘I'm a hunter,’ he says. ‘I believe in man's dominion over all animals. The snakes are there for the use of man.’”
No, Mr. Garrett, they aren't. Your literalist interpretation of the Bible is thoughtless, offensive, and embarrassing. You and your "wrangler" buddies should be ashamed of your fearful, prejudiced, and ignorant behavior. May your grandchildren feel similarly to me.

Photo credit: Thad Allender/Journal-World Photo