With spring comes the celebration of new life… unless you’re unfortunate enough to be part of a species being “managed” by humans. This spring, the Toronto Zoo saw fit to euthenize two healthy, newborn reindeer, males, and thus undesirable additions to the herd. Some of the zookeepers were revolted enough to blow the whistle. In the wake of a public outcry, the zoo has instead found a new home for three more male reindeer at the Bowmanville Zoo.
The Greater Vancouver Zoo saw the murder of one of its spider monkeys, a fifteen-year resident. Intruders caved in his head while kidnapping his mate. The mate has yet to be recovered.
The Calgary Zoo was forced to close its stingray exhibit when forty of a school of forty-three died in just over twenty-four hours of unknown causes. Hard on the heels of this misfortune, the Toronto Zoo opened Stingray Bay, its own interactive stingray exhibit, having taken “extra precautions for the safety of the stingrays and our visitors,” including removing the rays’ barbs, their primary defense.
Not all atrocities occur in zoos though.
I’d never even seen a cormorant until I was well into my twenties, although apparently they were quite common up at our cottage prior to the 1960s. Thanks to pesticides and bad press, cormorants were at one time an endangered species. Now, there are a couple on the lake. They’re amazing looking birds: large, black, primeval and strong. After years of protection, the cormorant is slowly returning to its former range. But not without renewed challenges.
Point Pelee Park has proposed to diminish its cormorant population on Middle Island by ninety percent. That’s not a cull; it’s a holocaust. Why? Because the presence of such a large and successful population of cormorants is adversely impacting the “ecological integrity” of the island’s fauna. Also, anglers would have you think that cormorants deprive them of sport fish. The scientific evidence shows that cormorants have little impact on sport fish populations, preferring a diet of the introduced species that have been invading our waterways and have few natural predators. The ridiculous thing is that the cormorant is a natural part of this ecosystem, but humans think that the way in which this bird fits into its own environment needs correction.
The seal hunt debate raged again this spring, with heated and emotional arguments on both sides. It’s the largest slaughter of marine animals on the planet and, to my mind, a cruel international embarrassment. The only good news I heard about it this spring, and it’s tempered good news, is that due to weather conditions, Canadian sealers only killed about half their quota.
In international news, the South African government has decided to reintroduce an elephant cull. After decades of illegal ivory trade, the elephant population was threatened, leading to a trade ban in 1989 and the subsequent protection of the species. With such protections, the population has rebounded nicely. Elephants are big animals with big appetites; they travel in herds that decimate everything in their path. Elephants like to rearrange their habitats; why should humans be the only ones? Because of the protected success of this one species, fauna and other animal populations are being threatened in some areas, so there certainly is a problem. But given that elephants are extremely intelligent, feeling, family oriented animals, controlling the population through culls, by herding them together with helicopters and hiring sharpshooters to kill them, seems incredibly inhumane, not to mention scientifically dubious. And of course, even though the trade in ivory has been suspended, that doesn’t mean it can’t be reinstated if a generous amount of ivory suddenly becomes available.
Other than humans (who are far too good at rearranging their habitat to suit themselves, generally with little regard for the environmental impact), any species left to its own devices will find its natural population. Ecosystems include prey, predators, diseases and fluctuating resources that have evolved together naturally to keep things balanced. No healthy ecosystem stagnates; it’s continuously evolving. That’s the way natural populations remained balanced for thousands of years. And it’s only taken us about one-hundred-and-fifty years to completely screw things up.
As the world’s human population closes in on seven billion, as habitats for other animals continue to decline, as current energy sources diminish, as food and fresh water stores plummet, we’re going to have to face the fact that until we find a realistic way to colonized space, we are part of a closed ecosystem. Because we have the facility to manipulate our environment, we have grown to larger numbers than the planet would otherwise sustain. But sooner or later, something’s gotta give. Will we run out of ideas for how to successfully manipulate our environment? Will we pollute our food, water and air resources to the point where we poison ourselves? Will human strife cause increased war and violence? Will we start managing and culling our own?
In New Zealand, humans had tried and failed four times to rescue a beached pygmy sperm whale and her calf. Although they were able to push the pair back into the water, a sandbar blocking the way to the ocean was disorienting them, causing them to beach repeatedly. The humans were ready to give up, preparing to euthenize the whales, when a local-area dolphin pushed herself between the rescuers and the whales, then led her cetacean relatives off the beach, through a channel and back to open water. One marine biologist commented that dolphins have “a great capacity for altruistic activities.” So, what else are we missing in our rush to dispose of the animals competing for our space?
© Catherine Jenkins 2008