On the Torture of Small Animals

Until yesterday it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder about the effects of water cannons and helicopters on small and vulnerable creatures. The Queensland town of Charters Towers is proposing to assault flying-foxes using these and other methods. The starting date is December 2, so time is of the essence. A petition is now circulating to prevent this assault. It  is addressed to the Charters Towers Regional Council: ‘Reconsider using water cannons, smoke, sirens and helicopters to disperse the black flying-fox colony in Lissner Park after requesting a Damage Mitigation Permit.’

The petition is organised by Barbara Brindley of Wynnum, Queensland. She writes: ‘All flying-fox camps are full of mothers and babies at this time of the year and whilst many babies are still being carried by their mothers, the majority are too big for mothers to fly with and will be left in the crèche trees at the mercy of the water cannons. Water cannons break bones and helicopters create down drafts that smash bodies and wings.’ Most of us recoil at the thought of all the suffering involved in such actions, and it is important to know that many people in Charters Towers also recoil – at the very least from the prospect of carrying out the assault while the young are still unable to fend for themselves.

Grey-headed flying-fox mother with baby. Courtesy of Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox mother with baby.
Courtesy of Nick Edards

As I wrote in my post on ‘Zombie Politics’ (29-8-13), ‘ persecution, vilification and harm are part of today’s public discourse and public policy’. Recent legislative changes are promoting opportunities to inflict suffering on flying-foxes. Queensland has reinstated shooting, and has had to exempt flying-foxes from the Animal Care and Protection Act in order to do so. The state is also proposing to give local councils greater freedom to assault flying-foxes without ethics oversight.

It could be argued that Charters Towers is just carrying on a well-established Australian tradition. For over a century Whitefella settlers tried their hardest to exterminate flying foxes. With government approval, they shot, poisoned, gassed, burnt, and electrocuted flying foxes. They cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for the corpses, and bombed them. They even brought an expert from Great Britain to advise on how to accomplish the extermination.

Times change, and flying-foxes are now protected as native species. There are four species in mainland Australia. Two are officially listed as threatened, one seems to be doing okay, and the data are insufficient to make a definitive assessment of the fourth. Flying-foxes by preference are nomadic. They love to live in large groups, and they follow the blossoming and fruiting of their favourite trees and shrubs. Or, that is what they did prior to the extermination of some 95% of Australia’s east coast indigenous forests. Now they live as best they can on what remains, and they feed on crops when they can get at them. In addition, they move to cities and towns where food and water are likely to be more consistently available than in the devastated bush. And it is exactly in these urban areas that they are likely to be regarded as a nuisance to human health and safety, and thus to be targeted for ‘dispersal’. But of course it is also in these areas where people have the opportunity to learn to appreciate the wonder of flying-foxes.

Fly-out in Sydney. Courtesy of Tim Pearson
Fly-out in Sydney.
Courtesy of Tim Pearson

I could go on to write about how flying-foxes are keystone species that pollinate what is left of the Myrtaceous woodlands with which they are co-evolved. This would be a story of how their lives matter to other species. I could write in detail about their vulnerability to extinction, about the fact that each mother gives birth only to one baby per year, so that with their relatively short life-spans, flying-fox populations are inherently vulnerable. This would be the story of inter-generational nurturance and continuity. And I could write about the long struggle in the western world to enact anti-cruelty legislation: a story of the recognition that it is not good for humans to deliberately cause suffering in other creatures. These points are all relevant, but there is more.

It may seem that philosophy and water cannons are far apart, but as we live our lives we take stands that reflect our philosophies of life and death. Underlying much of the hype against flying foxes is an old, demonstrably untrue, but almost magical mantra that says that humans are entitled to an unencumbered place in the sun. An ugly self-righteous human is displayed in a lot of this discourse as it revolves around the proposition that anything that impinges on humans and their projects, on their comfort, and indeed on their desire to take up all the space under the sun, will have to be eliminated.

This question of who can be tolerated and who will have to be eliminated goes to the heart of ethics in the contemporary world. As Hannah Arendt explains, the great crime of genocide lies in large part in the underlying decision to refuse to share the earth with specific other humans. In this time of man-made mass extinctions, the refusal to share the earth with other species is becoming visible as an ethically and ecologically disastrous failure on the part of humanity.

The Charters Towers assault is an opportunity to take a stand for a world in which our fellow creatures are not made the subject of vilification and hatred, and are not tortured and brutally killed. Such a stand calls for the exercise of human intelligence and good will in developing arts of co-existence.

There are good instrumental reasons for protecting the lives of flying foxes: because the forests need them; because we don’t know all there is to know, and therefore do not know and cannot know what we would be destroying if we were to destroy them. But side by side with all the reasonable and instrumental reasons for sustaining the lives of flying foxes, there are these other issues: we can and should protect them because they too belong here, because they are beautiful, because life is richer with them than it could ever be without them, because we humans have the capacity to love other animals and in these days of habitat loss and numerous other threats, flying foxes need our love. And indeed, we could protect them because in killing them we are in danger of losing ourselves. We need to be able to love others, to protect them, to live with them, and to experience the awe of their ways of life. How we manage to share our place in the sun defines not just where we are, but who we are.

Wounded flying-fox in care at the Tolga Bat Hospital.
Wounded flying-fox in care at the Tolga Bat Hospital.

In the midst of this impending torment, suffering, vilification, and human shamefulness, I want also to remember the joy of life. An earlier post on ‘Flying-foxes in Outback Australia’ (24-8-13) told the story of my trip to see a truly fantastic flying-fox fly-out. Hundreds of thousands of them were camped in the mangroves near the Aboriginal community of Port Keats in the Northern Territory, and when they lifted off at dusk it was incomparable spectacle. My home-video is now available, and even though it shows only a fraction of the fly-out, it gives a sense of this awesome event.

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What can a person do today for flying-foxes?

~~~       The petition is on-line: sign and circulate to everyone you know; add a comment.

~~~      Check out the people who are active in defence of flying-foxes; consider making a donation or adopting (financially) a flying-fox in care:

-~~~       The Tolga Bat Hospital, Atherton, Queensland

-~~~       Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland, Inc.

~~~        Spread the word: the stands we take really do matter.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

5 thoughts on “On the Torture of Small Animals

  1. Deborah we thank you for raising your voice as so many we would expect to, are not. We need more champions and we need people to see what we see on a daily basis. The beauty, the resilience, the giving of themselves to carers for their recovery. These animals are the innocent, they are precious and they being vilified. The vilification and lies are spread through time poor grubby media and nasty politics. There are solutions to living in harmony with nature. It’s also about understanding, knowing our wildlife and most of all tolerance.

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