Tag Archives: Compassionate conservation

Dingoes On My Mind

I was feeling deeply blessed as Payi got me ready for ceremony. She helped me get rubbed up with red ochre, and she painted my face with the White-breasted Sea Eagle design using white ochre she had gathered just the day before. She painted bands of yellow ochre on my lower legs – they were dingo designs. After so many years of thinking and writing about dingoes, it was a particular thrill to know that I would be wearing their marks when I danced.

Deb with White Eagle face paint.
Deb with White Eagle face paint.

The opportunity to get back into Kurrindju Country was exhilarating. The northern dry season had turned crisp, and out in the hills and floodplains of this tropical region the silky oaks were flowering. It was a short distance from Darwin, but we saw Country that had been well burnt. The new grass and cycads were vivid, and a dingo stopped to look at us before ambling off into the bush.

I have worked with the Mak Mak mob, the White-breasted Sea Eagle clan, over many years. Payi’s mother was an inspiration – an immensely strong and knowledgeable woman. Payi, also known as Dr Linda Ford, follows in her mother’s footsteps with dignity, traditional knowledge, and a successful academic career. As part of her Australian Research Council grant she brought together people from about sixteen different clans, and several dance-ceremony traditions for three days of intense bonding, sharing, and teaching.

Payi describes her action-based cultural survival research this way: ‘Ceremonial performance is a socially powerful site of exchange, transmission and transformation of relationship to country, kin and identity. The project aims to extend the power of ceremony to benefit future generations of Indigenous people’s identity and Australia’s shared history.’

Belyuen men dancing wangga in Kurrindju Country
Belyuen men dancing wangga in Kurrindju Country

I will have more to say in a future essay about the gathering Payi organised. Just at the moment my thoughts have been brutally grabbed back to the world of man-made mass-death. For while we were celebrating cultural continuities, shared histories, multi-species communities, Country, and non-human kin, dingoes were once again being vilified, tortured, and degraded.

This latest program is a doozy, and as with so much that goes wrong in the mass-killing that lurks under the label ‘conservation’, the idea of the ‘pest’ was at the core. With the objective of killing goats on Pelorus Island in the Great Barrier Reef (Queensland), two desexed male dingoes have been taken to the island. According to the news report, two more will be brought in. The idea is that the island will be better off without introduced goats, and the expectation is that the dingoes will kill the goats. The dingoes can’t breed, and each one is fitted out with a large radio collar and a capsule of 1080 poison that can be released to kill the individual once the project is complete.

Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)
Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)

Rather than use methods that may reduce suffering, such as sharp-shooting, this program uses dingoes as human proxies, hoping they’ll do the killing. The Queensland RSPCA is concerned about the suffering of goats. Questions arise: will the dingoes actually kill the goats? Lyn Watson, a dingo expert, says they are likely to kill smaller animals first, and will not turn to goats until they reach a ‘starvation situation’. It seems probable that many goats will die very stressfully and painfully, but only after the dingoes have themselves become starved and stressed.

The ramifications of the cruelty of this program are so enormous that perhaps they haven’t fully been thought through. The 1080 poison causes terrible deaths. Once the humans have no more use for the dingoes, they are condemned to the very suffering the program purports to reduce.

One suggestion is that it is cheaper to get dingoes involved than to employ humans. Such a calculus of engineered and industrialised death is appalling. It gets worse. Dingoes are social animals. They live in family groups, and they find the meaning of their lives in the context of their family responsibilities. This is the context within which they fulfil their ecological functions. Desexed males do not constitute family groups. There is no way that they can live adequate social and ecological lives. The program condemns dingoes to anxiety and suffering in life, and terminates them with an appalling death.

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)

And what about the humans in this story? To treat other living beings as objects, rather than as subjects in their own right, is to step into the domain of instrumental torture. This plan extends the human capacity to cause suffering, terror, misery, and industrialised death. It draws other creatures into human designs for mass-death, shifting the blood and suffering away from the humans. The unwanted goats are to be eliminated by proxies, purportedly for the good of the island. Those proxies, the dingoes, will then be eliminated by remote control when someone in an office somewhere triggers the 1080.

According to one report, this plan is suggested to be consistent with compassionate conservation. Let’s be clear that the program is riddled with hubris and hard-heartedness; there is no compassion, and there are no clean hands. Rather, there is the old divide and conquer mentality: identify the enemy, find an efficient solution, eliminate, terminate.

The news of this program is a timely reminder that colonisation is a multi-stranded endeavour that is worked out across human and nonhuman domains. Many current conservation schemes use industrialised killing to try to control wildlife populations, and in doing so they reproduce the same hubristic, hard-hearted determination to control the land through dispossession, appropriation, replacement and slaughter.

Use a ‘pest’ to take care of a ‘pest’ seems to be the superficial logic. It is a logic of violence and self-serving justification. It draws on the rationale of cost-benefit to avoid ethics, and it draws on a history of industrialised killing; it aims to expedite death. The logic has a certain seduction: I hate to see Country lose its flourishing abundance, and many invasives have devastating effects on diversity and abundance. I agree that we settler-descended people who have brought so much damage to these lands and waters have a duty to try to curtail the damage and to enhance Country’s capacity for resilience. At the same time, Frank Egler’s great comment comes to mind: ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they’re more complex than we can think. The power of Country to find its own resilience is beyond human engineering. I am sure we can help, but it is the worst sort of folly to think we can engineer.

The great ethical disaster is to justify the suffering of others by reference to something that has been determined to be a ‘greater good’.

Industrialised killing is not the final story. It is contested by many settler-descended people and by many Aboriginal people. And while there is no consensus on how to care for Country that has been radically impacted by colonisation and ecocide, Land Rights offers a threshold across which old ways of living generously, and new ways of living carefully can connect.

Many years ago Bruce Rose (no relation) carried out research with Aboriginal people in Central Australia, asking about their views on feral animals. He found that the question was not so much where animals had come from, but how they had managed to fit in: ‘the worth of an animal lies in its ability to live and flourish in the environment, not in its claim to being an original component of the fauna’. He found that many Aboriginal people expressed the idea the Country itself shows who belongs and who doesn’t. He concluded that ‘ethics and value judgements which support playing favourites with some species over others’ do not fit easily into the views of Aboriginal Elders.

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)

Country decides! A recent video made by Arian Wallach using critter cams in ‘rare and remote locations’ shows animals getting about at night in an area where they are protected from lethal controls. It is thrilling for the fact that the coming and going of a range of animals takes place without their having to adjust their activities to accommodate humans. These critter cam opportunities show what technology can do when it is not being driven by deathwork. Here we have the opportunity to see others in unguarded moments of their own lives. It may cause a whisper of embarrassment to realise how pervy it is to snoop on other creatures’ lives, but at the same time, animals are in general so wary of humans, and with such good reason, that it is only through technological mediation that we may ever be able to glimpse the beauty of their autonomous, unselfconscious living.

Among the many gifts that Aboriginal people bring to what Payi calls ‘Australia’s shared history’ is the knowledge of living with, and within, Country. This is knowledge that involves humans inhabiting webs of life as participants rather than as murderous controllers. The Pelorus Island debacle shows yet again how desperately we need such knowledge.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

To learn more about Mak Mak country, see the book we co-authored: Country of the Heart is published by Aboriginal Studies Press. Dr Linda Payi Ford’s brief summary of her research can be found on facebook (visit here).

Two articles on the Pelorus Island fiasco are particularly useful, one in the Conversation (read here), and one on ABC news (read here).

To learn more about Lyn Watson’s work with dingoes at the Sanctuary and Research Centre, visit the Foundation home page (here).

Bruce Rose’s study is called Land Management Issues: Attitudes and Perceptions Amongst Aboriginal People of Central Australia (Alice Springs: Central Land Council, 1995). I have written about this study, and about the control of ‘ferals’ more generally in my essay ‘Judas Work: Four Modes of Sorrow’ (read here).  To learn more about violent-care in conservation, see Thom van Dooren’s excellent article (read here)

Arian Wallach’s video is called ‘Dingo for Biodiversity Project 2016 Field Expedition’. It was published July 29, 2016 (view here).

It is widely accepted in the field of animal ethics that animals whose lives have been put to human uses deserve to live under conditions that offer quality of life commensurate with their needs as individuals and their nature as members of a species. This is well established in relation to zoo animals, for example.

Numerous essays on this site address pests, the suffering others, and ethics of care.

 

Crypto-Creatures

This is a wonderful moment: there actually is some good news to report! An animal that was feared to have gone extinct has been located. Not just an individual, but a whole group, alive and well in the bush.

Let me back track, briefly. A few years ago I had a chat with the film maker Robert Nugent, and he told me that he was starting on a new project focussing on the Australian night parrot. He explained that this elusive nocturnal parrot might be extinct, but that there were unconfirmed reports of a living group. I wondered how he would film a bird that is active only at night, and that in any case hasn’t been seen for sure in a very long time; I marvelled at the ingenuity of the creative drive. Those cryptic birds  haunted my imagination and I began to envision them as mysterious and rather glorious mythical beings.

Imaginary parrot
Imaginary parrot

Yesterday I consulted my bird books and found a more prosaic story. The night parrot, Pezoporus occidentalis, is related to the ground parrots (Pezoporus wallicus). There are two main types of ground parrots, eastern and western. My area is home to the eastern variant. I have seen them every once in a while, and although one book describes them as ‘dumpy’, I find them lovely even though they are neither slim nor showy. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction. The night parrot looks pretty much the same and is far more endangered.

The ominous account in the bird books reads: ‘Recent specimen (1990) found dead beside highway near Boulia, Queensland’.

Night parrot (CC)
Ground parrot (CC)

Now Bush Heritage has announced that a group of night parrots has been located. What is more, they are being protected in situ. The Bush Heritage conservation organisation was started by Bob Brown, our great moral leader. He and a few others conceived the idea of generating a fund with which to buy properties with high conservation value and dedicating them to regeneration (if needed) and protection. The reason was simple: if we waited for governments to take the lead in conservation we would lose too much. Community action was necessary. Bush Heritage is supported by donors and has been going for 25 years. It now owns millions of hectares of land.

The night parrot site involved agreements with the local land owner and the Queensland government to acquire a sizeable block of land. The on-going work of conservation involves liaising with local landowners and with the local Maiawali people. The new property is called Pullen Pullen to honour the local Indigenous name for the bird. It’s location is being kept secret. The birds were important figures in Maiawali culture. Mr Darryl Lyons explained that his people  ‘were known in their main corroboree as the rainmakers and were often summonsed by neighbouring tribes to go to their areas to do the rain dance and the ceremonial dress of that corroboree had the Pullen Pullen feathers in it.’

Night parrots were once widespread across arid Australia. They are ground dwellers in spinifex and samphire country. It is possible that they are able to gain all the water they need from Sclerolaena plants (which also produce edible seeds) and therefore do not require direct water sources. It now seems probable that one big factor in the decline of night parrots was the cessation of Aboriginal burning. Spinifex burning is well documented; it was organised to create patches. The effects ensure that there is spinifex at various stages of growth, that there are lots of patchy edges, and that the incidence of catastrophic fires is reduced.

Spinifex country
Spinifex country

The ornithologist Steve Murphy is in charge of researching and organising protection for the night parrots. He says there is one main threat aside from humans: feral cats. At any time they could knock off the whole population. According to one news report, there are dingoes in the area, and that is probably why the feral cat population is low. No one wants to take risks, however.

I am captivated by the story of Maggie, a one-year-old collie who has been trained to smell and track feral cats. Her human companions, Mark and Glenys Woods take her out early in the morning, and she patrols the area sniffing for cats. Mark Woods explained: ‘Maggie’s sense of smell is so highly developed she can distinguish a feral cat from a domestic cat. This incredible ability makes them one of the most effective tools in managing and eliminating feral cat populations.’ When she scents a cat or a den she sits and waits. That is the extent of her job.

According to the reports, along with relying on dingoes and on Maggie, an alternative mode of control is being used. It is a mechanical device called a ‘grooming trap’, designed to be triggered only by cats. When triggered, it shoots out 1080 poison. The idea is that cats will lick off the poison and die. This device inflicts a terrible death; creatures who ingest 1080 suffer horribly.

Feral cats are the subject of a huge campaign designed to try to limit their numbers. A key element in the campaign is the demonisation of cats. This tends to obscure the fact that many of the causes of death of native animals, particularly birds, are generated by humans. A Bush Heritage publication on ‘Land Clearing and its Impacts’, tells us that Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and that clearing affects not only the trees themselves but also other creatures who live in and among trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:

‘Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing….

‘For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.’ And yet, regulations against land clearing are being abandoned, while feral cats are targetted ever more severely.

The pest industry recently expanded its empire when a gathering of Environment Ministers (in July 2015) endorsed the National declaration of feral cats as pests . This meant that they would ‘review arrangements within their respective jurisdictions and, where necessary, to remove unnecessary barriers to effective and humane control of feral cats’. The site explaining feral cat issues includes details of new methods of using 1080 for cat killing. The short translation of this obscure pronouncement is that the 1080 deathscape expands again.

Information mural, Alice Springs Desert Park, Kaye Kessing
Information mural, Alice Springs Desert Park, Kaye Kessing (artist)

It is true that feral cats kill a lot of birds and other animals. It is also true that their populations become wildly out of sync when dingoes are killed. The relationship between cats and dingoes is one of those extinction cascades: the effort to kill dingoes opens the way for an over-abundance of cats, foxes, and rabbits. All three species multiply without check when their top predators are gone, and the impacts on native animal and plant species are disastrous.

Feral cat, NSW, by sunphlo (CC)
Feral cat, NSW, by sunphlo (CC)

I write regularly against the use of 1080. Poison is not an appropriate way to address conservation issues. A basic principle of compassionate conservation is that the conservation of one species ought not to be achieved by inflicting dreadful deaths on members of other species. I do not want to see conservation measures contribute to an industry dedicated to death. The pest industry promotes itself by vilifying other creatures; it spreads suffering around the country in the name of land management, and tries to make mass death look like responsible action. I will be writing to Bush Heritage to share my views on 1080. I donate to this organisation because I believe passionately in its aims; at the same time I do not want my money contributing to 1080 or similar poisons.

There are ways to get rid of cats at Pullen Pullen without all the suffering. The dingoes should thrive if the area is kept clear of 1080, and they will take care of the cats. And Maggie and her humans, Mark and Glenys Woods, are on the job. Their cross-species alliance is an ideal to be aimed for in all conservation.

I want to congratulate Bush Heritage for the large-scale in situ approach to conservation. The great merit of this approach is that it enables endangered species to continue their lives in the manner that has evolved for them to live well and happily. A further merit is that it enables humans to facilitate the work of the natural world, rather than disrupt it. It builds on the understanding that every life is an inter-species project, that we live within systems of connectivity. It sets out an ethical project for humans:

to work in alliance with existing systems.

This approach differs greatly from the anthropocentric engineering approach in which humans imagine themselves as the creators of a new and improved nature.

South-west Queensland
South-west Queensland

Alliances are the way life works sustainably. The night parrots are embedded in multiple alliances – with spinifex that gives them shelter and food, and with Sclerolaena that give them water and food. The Sclerolaena are terribly annoying to humans, especially barefoot humans; they are best known as prickles, burrs and bindyi. And yet for night parrots they are literal life-savers. These little birds have survived colonisation with its invasive humans, cattle, horses, and catastrophic fires (with the cessation of Aboriginal burning); they have survived many more disasters than I am aware of. Their resilience is their great asset. Our conservation efforts can enhance that resilience by removing feline predators and, as Bush Heritage is doing admirably, protecting them from human predators.

We will know more about these interspecies, biocultural alliances when we get to see Robert’s film. I’m told that ‘Night Parrot Stories’ will be shown in the Sydney Film Festival on 19 June. In the meantime:

Three cheers for the gorgeous cryptic survivors!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

Robert Nugent’s previous film on locusts is ‘Memoirs of a plague’.

Quote from bird book is from Simpson and Day, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (sixth edition).

The Darryl Lyons quote is from a news report.

To learn more about Aboriginal burning in Central Australia, a good resource is Peter Latz’s book Bushfires and Bushtucker.

The Mark Woods quote is in ‘Bush Tracks’, the Bush Heritage quarterly magazine (Autumn 2016).

Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).

To learn more about the ‘grooming trap’, visit here. On the meeting of ministers, visit here.

On Sclerolaena, see the info sheet on wildlife and native plants.

There are numerous essays on this site concerning 1080, the pest industry, and the role of dingoes as ecological regulators. On pests, see ‘How to Love a Pest‘.

The best article on killing and conservation is by Thom van Dooren and can be read online (here).

Ways Toward Compassion

Singer and songwriter Betsy Rose has been visiting for a few weeks. She is travelling for eight months on a journey that will take her around the world, singing as she goes. Betsy is my sister, so of course it is wonderful to have her here, and in good sisterly fashion she’s given me the opportunity to pick her mind. She is a Buddhist, and I have saved up some questions about compassion.

Betsy Rose
Betsy Rose

The term ‘compassionate conservation’ hit me like electricity when I first heard it. How exciting it is to encounter an alternative to the treadmill of killing that claims that the only way to achieve healthy ecosystems is to kill everything that appears to get in the way of a pretty narrow human vision of what belongs and what does not. Compassionate conservation takes us right away from a suite of practices based on suffering and death, inviting us to think and act differently. The convergence of ecology and compassion is a truly significant direction for major change in our world today, but what is compassion, actually?

Betsy’s mode of engaged Buddhism draws inspiration from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches a basic message of mindfulness and peace that is becoming more profoundly urgent as our species’ penchant for violence erupts into an accelerated, global, multispecies rampage. From an ecological point of view, Buddhism offers a particularly significant human response to violence because it links individuals into wider networks of living beings and aims for the well-being of all.

Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)
Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)

Many Buddhist prayers ask that all beings be free from suffering. There is, of course, no way to eliminate suffering from life – the two go hand in hand, just as joy and life go hand in hand. But we human creatures have it within us to change our own behaviour so as not to cause suffering needlessly, and it is possible to work toward more peaceful, less brutal societal relations between humans and other creatures. The emerging field of compassionate conservation aims to accomplish this manner of social change in the domains of ecological management and conservation. And yet …

the Buddhist idea of well-being goes way beyond welfare.

The provocation to western thought is huge! Welfare can be understood as freedom from suffering, whereas well-being implies that beings are actually capable of experiencing the goodness of life. This is so significant that it can be hard to take in. One has to pause for a moment to consider what the experience of well-being implies. In ecological terms, we would say that all beings have their own life-world, and they experience it subjectively. Creatures, whether large or tiny, are not machines, but rather are subjects: they have ways of life, modes of being, forms of action and interaction. Worlds of subjectivity include time, place, mobility, sustenance and much more.

Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)
Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)

One effect of the Buddhist commitment to well-being is that it calls for commitment to ways of life. And in this world of connectivities, commitments keep expanding. For example, commitment to a migratory species must surely include the path of their travel, and commitment to species whose strong site fidelity brings them home to reproduce must involve commitment to those home places. We might think with others in terms of their precious well-being and be reminded of salmon running up their specific streams to spawn; or the lovely synchronicity between flowers, nourishing pollen and pollinators as butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back; or turtles returning to specific beaches to lay their eggs.

Buddhist commitment to well-being apparently involves a lively, unlimited recognition of the connected world in which creatures are capable of experiencing joy in their own well-being. A short section of the Buddhist prayer of universal love reveals this:

May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen
Dwelling far off or nearby
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.

Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)
Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)

I did a short interview with Betsy (view here), asking about her travels and her activism. We filmed at home with the relentless rain contributing a little hum in the background. Betsy had encountered a multispecies zone of compassion at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and she offered a vivid description of the thrill of being in an animal-centric place. There, humans are just visitors, and the focus, organisation and management of the place is dedicated to the well-being of the other (non-human) animals. To close the interview, Betsy sang one of the songs she wrote expressing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. It is particularly moving to me because it is about breathing. Breath is immensely inclusive: all the myriad creatures (plants, fungi, animals, many bacteria) breathe in one form or another, and the wind is the breath of the world. Wind, breath, life, well-being: it flows through us all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources

For more about Betsy and her music, visit here. To follow her travels, visit here. Her first posting, from Thailand, tells of how she was honoured with the ‘International Tara Award’. To learn more about the Elephant Nature Reserve, visit here.

The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at UTS has excellent material on this ethical approach to conservation. I  have addressed issues involving compassionate conservation in a number of essays, for example, ‘How to Love a Pest’.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and teachings are well documented, for example at the site for Plum Village in France.

The west’s understanding that creatures inhabit their own worlds of meaning owes its recent history to the continental biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Brett Buchanan has provided an excellent analysis of Uexküll’s influence in more recent philosophy in his book Onto-Ethologies. Thom van Dooren and I have developed some of this thought in relation to how two types of animals, penguins and flying-foxes, create worlds of meaning that focus on place. Our article is available on the web.

How To Love A “Pest”

I laughed when I read the Canberra Times headline ‘Liberals environment spokeswoman suggests eradication of native bird species’. It turns out that some of the spokeswoman’s constituents are annoyed by the migratory cuckoo known as the common koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), and because they’re annoyed they want something done. She herself referred to the birds as ‘imported pests’, and wanted them managed or eradicated.

Koel, wikimedia commons
Koel, wikimedia commons

Surely not, I thought! It is true that the call of the male koel is loud and insistent, but let’s be honest: homo sapiens is the only animal to have invented the two-stroke engine and used it to acoustically assault the suburbs. Mowers, whipper-snippers, angle-grinders, chain-saws and other DIY tools of destruction and construction out-perform koels all year round.

Actually, I like koels. I didn’t get to hear them arrive in Sydney this year, and I felt deprived. But like or dislike, can anyone seriously entertain the idea that just because something is annoying is ought to be gotten rid of?

The answer, unfortunately, is ‘yes’, as one quickly learns from a visit to the website of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). CRC’s are a government initiative that links industry, universities, stakeholders, and others for the purpose of furthering knowledge and capacity on matters of national concern. The Invasive Animals CRC has as its focus vertebrates that are deemed to be invasive either because they are non-native or because they have become identified as a ‘pest’, or both. There we learn that ‘The Invasive Animals CRC creates new technologies and integrated strategies to reduce the impact of invasive animals on Australia’s economy, environment, and people’. Technologies, when we explore the term, turn out to be a range of methods involving both killing and genetic engineering to reduce or eliminate reproductive capacity.

One of the key terms is ‘pest’. Many thoughtful persons have noted that  once an animal is declared ‘pest’, or ‘vermin’, or even ‘invasive’, something happens within the sensibilities of many humans. As my friend Thom van Dooren discovered in his research on foxes and the penguin colony at Manly in Sydney, those animals deemed not to belong slip into a category of those whose ‘lives are not legitimate lives within the context of contemporary ecologies, and as such … their deaths are not only condoned (as they often are in legislation), but also in an important sense demanded for the sake of any genuine conservation’.

Killing for conservation is certainly problematic, and advocates of compassionate conservation argue that it is inherently wrong. But the problems with ‘pests’ go much deeper. To quote educational materials provided via the CRC website: ‘The word “pest” is used to describe an animal that causes serious damage to a valued resource. Such a pest may be destructive, a nuisance, noisy or simply not wanted.’ From this open-ended definition, decisions are made about which lives matter and which lives don’t.

The Invasive Animals CRC website gives you a link to feral.org.au, and there you really start to learn about the nitty-gritty of decision-making and killing. The PestSmart YouTube Channel offers short tutorials on all manner of killing. You can learn, for example, how to rip up rabbit warrens.

Rabbit Photo: Arian Wallach
Rabbit
Photo: Arian Wallach

What you don’t learn is just how dreadful this method is for the rabbits. My friend Freya Mathews, a leading environmental philosopher, encountered this method when she began investigating ways of removing rabbits from her bio-conservation property. In her words:

‘Ripping involves the mechanical destruction of warrens by large blades attached to a tractor. I had rejected ripping earlier on account of the impact of the heavy ripping vehicles on soil and vegetation, but now that the contractors were more or less insisting, I thought I had better investigate the effect of the procedure on rabbits themselves. To my horror I found that in the course of ripping, rabbits inside the warrens are themselves ripped – they are simply sliced up, with those that are not killed outright being left to die, buried alive with appalling injuries, all conveniently out of sight. I had been willing to kill rabbits for the sake of ecological restoration, but this was way too much – it was torture, brutal beyond imagining. Yet this is one of the standard methods of rabbit management, routinely practised across the country, prescribed in all the government literature and on all the official web sites.’

Other video tutorials show how to set mechanical injectors into bait so that target animals (foxes, dingoes) will be orally injected with 1080 or cyanide. You learn that injectors don’t replace trapping and aerial baiting, they are just one tool among many.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo
Photo: Arian Wallach

You don’t learn that the World League for Protection of Animals has concluded that 1080 poison (sodium monofluoroacetate), which is banned in almost every country in the world, should also be banned in Australia ‘not only for its cruelty, but also because we simply do not know what might be long term effects of continually pouring substantial amounts of the poison into the environment’. 1080 is one of the main poisons used against dingoes, other canines and foxes, and is also used against rabbits and other herbivores. More specifically: ‘1080 poison is a slow killer. When ingested the animal suffers a prolonged and horrific death. … They may convulse and haemorrhage blood from ears, nose and mouth, respiratory muscles fail and they suffocate.’

As this group noted in an earlier publication, ‘aside from the physical pain endured over the many hours before death, the terror, fear and anxiety felt by these animals is unimaginable.’

Along with these and many more kill-focussed tutorials, feral.org offers educational materials for primary and secondary school teachers. You can download a PowerPoint for use in teaching children in years five and six. According to the site: ‘Pest Tales provides primary school teachers with a complete and up to date resource which highlights pest animal species in Australia, their impact and current ways of managing the damage they inflict on the environment, economy and people.’

I worked my way through the slides with mounting horror. The first question for the children to consider is: what is a pest? The first set of answers includes labels and photos: feral (photos of cat, goat, etc), exotic/introduced (cane toad, etc), invasive (fox, rabbits, horses), and pest (magpie, flying-foxes and possum). The definition of pest is ‘an animal detrimental to humans or human interests’, and the explanation of detriment is that ‘a pest is a matter of opinion’. If anyone was wondering where and how children learn human-centrism, this PowerPoint is a great resource. Within the parameters, human-centrism is unavoidable – if a pest is an animal detrimental to humans (actually, to be more objective, to some humans), then humans are the ones who  decide the animal is a pest.

It becomes clear just how impoverished this vision of animals and ecosystems really is when we stop to  consider the fact that there is no real engagement with population dynamics and Australian ecosystems.

Rabbits, wikimedia commons
Rabbits, wikimedia commons

It is difficult to imagine a more shallow approach to matters of life and death than to sidestep ethics and ecosystems, and portray complex issues as if they were opinions.

Another slide labelled ‘Run Rabbit Run’ lists all the methods that have been used to try to eradicate rabbits: poison baiting (ground and aerial), trapping, fencing, shooting, ferreting, hunting, snaring, scaring, release of predators such as foxes, fumigating warrens, ripping warrens, blasting warrens with explosives, disease – myxomatosis, disease – rabbit haemorrhagic disease, introduction of fleas to increase spread of disease. Please remember that this list of horrors  is being taught to young children.

Since none of these methods has actually been successful, and since no alternatives are offered, the future looks likely to be as steeped in suffering as has  the past. And what the children don’t learn is that the one predator that would have a good chance of keeping rabbits in check – the dingo – is itself considered a pest.

These websites and their ‘information’ offer evidence of the widespread, bureaucratised, tax-payer funded, university-based, industry-supported, socially sanctioned pursuit of killing as a way of inhabiting the land. The fact that the manufacturer of 1080, Animal Control Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd, is a participant in the CRC is known as industry collaboration, and is therefore not seen as collusion. The killing is cloaked in the language of managerial efficiency, but the iconography tells the other story – of vilification, persecution, and justification.

Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park
Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park

At the end of the day there can be no doubt: frequently what passes for a job well done is actually another act of the most terrible cruelty in an on-going saga of death.

I keep coming back to the normalisation of all this death work, and to the mind-set that takes it for granted that if a non-human animal is annoying, ‘something’ should be done. To return to the koels in Canberra: the Liberals environmental spokeswomen was subjected to a fair bit of ridicule, but if we look at the issue from the viewpoints presented by the Invasive Animals CRC and its related websites, right was on her side. People were annoyed. The koels were doing it. They were, therefore,  pests (at least to some people). And as pests, they were a problem to be managed or eradicated.

An alternative to this mind-set is readily available.

It is not at all difficult to love the migratory koels. There comes a time when winter is on the way out, but spring hasn’t quite arrived. There are big winds, and often they are cold. In Sydney it feels like we will never warm up. And then – riding those huge winds, the koels arrive.

When I hear that call my heart lifts. A YouTube clip captures it nicely, and I love knowing that the name koel is onomatopoetic. This bird is readily identifiable and it tells a great story: the big air and ocean currents that govern the weather are shifting.

Approaching rain, outback Australia
Approaching rain, outback Australia

I remember the call from the Northern Territory which is where I first heard it. There, koels are also called rain birds, or storm birds, and they arrive in advance of the wet season. Their great travel path brings them from southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia where they breed and spend the summer before flying back in the autumn. The effort it takes to fly those great distances, coming with one set of winds and leaving when the winds shift again, shows us the absolute grace of nomadic mobility. The birds fit beautifully into the large circulations of life on earth.

I agree with my Aboriginal teachers – these birds bring good news. And the fact is, they leave. They have to leave if they are to come back again with more news. This is what they do – every year. The departure and the return are the rhythms of nomadic mobility, and in this time of rapid environmental change there is consolation in the fact that the winds and currents, and thus the koels, continue to live out their patterns and connections.

Blessed are those who arrive with good news, and blessed too is their departure.  May we all learn to say both ‘welcome’ and ‘fare thee well’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Thoughts of Peace on Christmas Eve

It is still light here in Sydney at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The neighbourhood is quiet, although I’d have to say that our street excels in the ‘bright lights of Christmas’ extravaganza. We may be quiet, but we are not subdued.

Thoughts are tumbling around me tonight as I imagine the kids next door struggling to go to sleep in anticipation of Santa Claus, and at the same time to imagine  baby flying-foxes who are orphaned and starving, their mothers dead or bereft of crèche and safety. Such thoughts are like pebbles in a pond, and there is no end to the sadness arising in response to living beings who tonight are in distress and despair. Terrible things are happening all over the world, and this is not a single-species story.

And yet – one of the great moral and spiritual leaders of the world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, never seems to despair. And if he does not give up, then surely none of us can claim a right to give up. Keeping faith with life on earth demands that we keep on keeping  on.

Recently I learned that the Dalai Lama visited Bob Irwin in Kingaroy, Queensland. Bob is the father of Steve Irwin, the wildlife icon of Australia. Bob loves Australian native animals, and is vigorously opposed to killing them. His bottom line is quite plain: we need to put the well-being of animals on a par with human well-being and find ways to achieve both. It is no easy task, but isn’t this exciting! The Dalai Lama’s Buddhist compassion comes together with the Aussie battler who fights on behalf of animals to offer a powerful statement  of compassionate conservation in defence of the defenceless.

On the eve of the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’, I take heart.

Dalai Lama and Bob Irwin with words about flying-foxes. Posted with the permission of Bob Irwin.
Dalai Lama and Bob Irwin with words about flying-foxes.
Posted with the permission of Bob Irwin.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2013)