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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)