Tag Archives: Persecuting society

Partnership Rewilding with Predators

Elk near Jackson Hole, Photo: Dave Rose
Elk near Jackson Hole,
Photo: Dave Rose

My father, Dave Rose, was fascinated with the elk that came down out of Yellowstone National Park during the winter months. He took us kids to Jackson Hole to see them, and he persuaded the guy with the hay to let us ride on the trailer while he went through the herd dumping fodder. Dad took slides (and more slides). Sometimes it seemed as if every slide show was all about elk!

Only much later did I learn that the National Elk Refuge was founded in 1912 by local ranchers who were concerned that this great herd might go extinct. Its migration routes were disrupted by ranches and the town.  Conflict between ranchers and elk over hay led to killing, and there was mass starvation.

The establishment of a winter refuge adjacent to Yellowstone, with funds for fodder, was an early action in America’s long and often odd conservation movement. For almost one hundred years wolves were persecuted. Herbivores were hunted. Still today at the National Elk Refuge, ‘both bison and elk populations are managed through refuge hunt programs. Permits specific to each hunt are required and are obtained online or through the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.’

When we went there all those years ago, it was pretty easy to see that this great migratory herd had nowhere to go. Problem and solution seemed pretty clear. But if Dad had read Aldo Leopold’s essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ he might have suspected that there was more to the story. Leopold’s brief, influential essay starts with him killing a wolf, as people did in those days, and then working through the implications of predator loss, overabundance of deer, stripped vegetation, and barren ground.

American wolves in captivity
American wolves in captivity

For centuries mainstream European-origin culture has feared, despised, and sought to annihilate wolves and other predators. The outcome, if one can use such neutral term to describe the result of all this suffering, has been extinctions and extirpations. If Dad had asked about wolves, he would have come upon a story of vicious, cruel persecution that would have deeply saddened his kind and generous heart.

As if in counterpoint to all the death work that has gone into efforts to eradicate wolves, conservation biologists are discovering that the top carnivores have ecological roles that benefit numerous species of flora and fauna. This is counter-intuitive thinking for western peoples, but it is actually integral to indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. The novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong tells the story in the context of Mongolia: kill the wolves and you kill the grazing lands, and so you kill the herding way of life.

‘Trophic cascade’ is the scientific term for ecological processes that ripple from one species through others, and through whole ecosystems.

This process has been documented with the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park after a seventy year absence. The consequences are completely stunning. A recent video narrated by George Monbiot tells the story in words and images (view here). It is helpful to know that Monbiot uses the word ‘deer’ where Americans would use the word ‘elk’ for the species Cervus elaphus. I don’t want to spoil the drama of the video, so I’ll just make the point that a trophic cascade starting with a top predator ripples through other animal species, plant species, and ultimately even through the physical geography of their ecosystem.

Furlined/Creative Commons
Furlined/Creative Commons

The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone is an example of the new thinking that is often called ‘rewilding’. It addresses ecosystem restoration on a large scale; there is no attempt at retrieving primeval ‘wilderness’ – that would be impossible, and if it were possible it would be counterproductive. Rather, rewilding aims to let ecological processes start up again.

The development of rewilding programs in the USA depends on three key strategies: cores, corridors and carnivores. The carnivores are the first key, as Monbiot narrates in the Yellowstone video. If they are healthy, the benefits flow on through the system.

The second key, then, recognises that the top predators require adequate range to sustain themselves across generations. The third key is corridors; it recognises the fact cores can become death traps unless the animals can move. This is so genetically, and equally because ecosystems and climate always offer the unexpected. With climate change, even more unexpected changes are (paradoxically) expected to occur. Animals need the versatility and flexibility in order to be able to respond to change.

Carnivores with ample area and ample connectivity will regulate ecosystems in ways that achieve complexity, diversity, and resilience.

So far, so good, but now the news turns alarming. An extremely important recent publication addresses these issues in the context of climate change and the accelerating extinction event now underway. A great number of the large carnivores that ecosystems need are themselves vulnerable to extinction or local extirpation. The authors state that in light of all the recent evidence ‘alongside climate change, eliminating large carnivores is one of the most significant anthropogenic impacts on nature.’

Photo: John Murray
Photo: John Murray

A good section of the study is dedicated to dingoes, and it summarises the work of Arian Wallach and the other dingo scientists whose work last year was awarded the Eureka Prize. Their conclusion: ‘Overall, the suppression of dingo has probably contributed to the endangerment and extinction of small marsupials and rodents over much of the continent.’ It has also enabled the expansion of a range of invasive species over much of the continent.

The biggest threat to large carnivores is the human species. Finding ways of co-existence is therefore absolutely crucial. Not only is the work that carnivores do ‘underappreciated’ (the authors’ words); in many areas, as is well known, predators are actively persecuted. Many pastoralists have formed the view that livestock and predators are incompatible. Having set up an ‘us or them’ opposition, they destroy the predators.

Dingo Barrier Fence
Dingo Barrier Fence

Here in Australia the conflict is between cattle and sheep farmers on the one hand, and dingoes on the other. I wish they would all read Wolf Totem, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps they will listen to the recent  Bush Telegraph radio report ‘Could dingoes actually help farmers?’ (listen here) The program starts with a fascinating interview with Lyn Watson of the Dingo Discovery Centre speaking about dingo physiology and behaviour. It concludes with Arian Wallach, the dingo research scientist and one of the authors of the influential study of carnivores and climate change. She carries out research on Evelyn Downs Station, a working cattle station (ranch) that is one of the few predator-friendly ranches in Australia.

In the radio interview Arian reminds listeners that dingoes are top predators here in Australia: ‘ …  the health of the ecosystemits biodiversity, its productivity, the condition of it’s soil, the rivers, the endangered speciesare all tightly linked up with the dingo.’ She then very precisely changes the story from ‘us vs them’ (pastoralists vs. dingoes) to interconnection. Rather than barriers, there are connections. Cattle and sheep need biodiversity, dingos sustain biodiversity, therefore pastoralists, livestock and dingoes are all interconnected and are, in effect, on the same side.

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

Arian and Lyn also discuss the problems that arise when dingo ‘control’ (poison, trapping, shooting) creates homeless, unsocialised creatures who are effectively out-of-control. It is a truly vicious circle, and one of our great challenges is how to break the cycle of violence without destroying either pastoralists, or livestock, or dingoes.

To return to partnership rewilding, therefore, I see hope in the idea that the best thing we humans can do for the earth at this time is to work in alliance with other creatures whose lives regulate, pollinate, and otherwise sustain flourishing ecosystems. In relation to flying-foxes I proposed the establishment of vast corridors or networks of flowering trees. ‘Rewilding’ the open savannah woodlands would enable flying-foxes to sustain themselves and continue their work of pollination. Those same corridors could also be habitat for dingoes and many other creatures, and as core areas are maintained, and more corridors are established, the country can become criss-crossed with edges and zones of co-existence.

Life on earth is not ours to destroy, and nor is it ours to engineer solely for ourselves.

Partnership Rewilding acknowledges and works with interconnections. At this time, most ecosystems are massively perturbed and there is a huge role for humans in working to re-establish favourable conditions. The ethics of multi-species alliances thus have several sides. Humans may at times be active partners, and at times may simply need to get out of the way so that others can do the work they are so beautifully evolved to do.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Arian Wallach has just published and excellent article in ‘The Conservation’ (read here)

Her recent interview on Freedom of Species is also relevant and insightful. (listen here)

Resources:

Aldo Leopold’s essay is available online: http://nctc.fws.gov/resources/knowledge-resources/wildread/thinking-like-a-mountain.pdf

The horror of the violence against wolves is conveyed, along with much else, by Barry Lopez in his great book Of Wolves and Men.

Mongolian herders’ relationships with wolves are analysed in Natasha Fijn’s ethnography Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia. She is a terrific film-maker as well, and films from her Mongolian experience are also available (view here).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ray Pierotti, author of Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, for the wolf photos and for clarification of the elk/deer nomenclature.

Zombie Politics and the Lives of Animals

Spectacled flying fox, Tolga Bat Hospital
Spectacled flying fox, Tolga Bat Hospital

Virtues are easily lost, the cynics tell us, but vices linger remorselessly. Indeed, vice-like habits can take on a life of their own and play significant social roles. Recent events have turned my thoughts toward habits of hatred, fear-mongering and persecution that are entrenched within the harsh histories of western nations. Persecution, vilification and harm are part of today’s public discourse and public policy. They have a long history, and are foundational to what the historian R. I. Moore calls a ‘persecuting society’.

Moore developed this term through his research into Medieval European history. He concluded that around the year 1100 western Europe ‘became a persecuting society, and … has remained one.’ He was very clear: it was not just that persecutions happened, it was that they were deliberate and central to society. In Medieval times it was lepers and heretics who were persecuted; later it was witches and freemasons; throughout it all there were eruptions of persecution of Jews, and from time to time ‘sodomites’ were targeted. Persecution was based on stirring up hatred and fear, and was achieved ‘through established governmental, judicial and social institutions’.

Some scholars have objected to Moore’s idea on the grounds that surely all societies persecute those they deem to be outsiders. That may or may not be true, but Moore’s idea was that in western Europe persecution became part of the actual fabric of society. European societies became modern states through deliberate use of persecution. Their culture of persecution was flexible and transportable, and in general they took these zombie politics with them to their colonies.

The fact that there is political mileage to be gained from stirring up hatred is a stand-out feature of contemporary Australian politics. Terrible questions arise. Are we so in thrall to our vice of persecution that we cannot imagine a society that is not held together through vilification and exclusion? Are our politics so impoverished that the best way to mobilise large numbers of votes is through fear and its companion persecution?

When we think about society, politics, and the rhetoric of inclusion/exclusion, it seems obvious that we are talking about human beings. So it may come as a surprise to realise that the analysis works equally well in relation to the persecution of animals.

Flying-foxes are having a hard time of it in many urban, suburban and rural areas at the moment. In the language of those who want to get rid of them, they are ‘pests’. A pest, it turns out, is a creature who may be vilified, persecuted and killed without compunction, perhaps even with a sense of righteousness. According to educational materials provided on the feral.org 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.’ Pests are creatures you can feel good about getting rid of, although of course not everyone does feel good. Not surprisingly, pests make good political capital when the objective is fear-mongering and persecution.

Let us be clear: the vast majority of people who live in proximity to flying-foxes are managing co-existence just fine. There are good ways to get along with our fellow creatures, and it is totally possible to enjoy the fact that we in Australia live amongst some of the most unusual and beautiful animals on earth. As the journalist James Woodford wrote of flying-foxes (also known as giant fruit bats): ‘watching bats silhouetted against the stars is one of the greatest, but little known, pleasures of life’.

And yet, in Queensland at the moment, the government is preparing to unleash a new round of violence against flying-foxes under legislation that will come into force in 2013. The legislation is outlined in a discussion paper titled ‘A new approach to managing flying-fox roosts’. The plan is not exactly ‘new’ since it reinstates largely uncontrolled opportunities for violence that were the norm decades ago. Local councils will be authorised to undertake ‘dispersals’ where, when and how they choose, and for whatever reasons they choose. This differs from current practice. At the moment local councils or other groups must apply for permission, and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has oversight of the process. The new plan includes a code of practice that is meant to ‘minimise’ suffering and death, and adherence to that minimal code will be self-assessed. Even this is not enough for the most vociferous purveyors of hatred. Bob Katter, leader of Katter’s Australian Party, has repeatedly expressed the view that individuals have the right to shoot anything that enters their backyard, including flying-foxes. At the very least, Katter proclaims: ‘It is the policy of the Australian Party that they will be removed from all population centres – full stop’.

A submission by a group of twelve of Queensland-based NGO’s dedicated to wildlife conservation points out that while there are indeed ‘genuine problems with urban camps’, these problems ‘are outweighed by perceived, imagined or concocted problems, often promoted by irresponsible fear-mongering….’ They go on to assert the basic truth that ‘concoctions or imaginings are not a proper basis for good public policy’. The submission is well worth reading, as it addresses the points that are central to the hatred campaign.

The corrosive effects of all this hatred, and the thought of all the suffering that flying-foxes will be subjected to once this legislation takes effect, were weighing me down, and as I thought of toxic zombies I began thinking about antidotes. That was when I remembered Jenny McLean’s back yard. The Tolga Bat Hospital is located in the north Queensland heartland of anti-flying-fox politics. In need of sustenance for my spirit, I went for a visit.

Jenny Maclean, a dedicated carer and advocate, founded the Tolga Bat Hospital and visitor centre. Her back yard includes a large enclosure where individuals of all four Australian Pteropus species live. They have arrived through misfortune, and are not able to be released back into the bush, but their injuries do not detract from the quality of life. So there are flying-foxes who have been rescued from barbed wire, but whose broken bones mean they will never fly again. Some have come in with electrical burns, others were injured in cyclone Larry. Still others have been rescued from cages where they were living lives of misery, and a few have been rescued from dogs and cats.

The Hospital was actually founded in response to a recurring disastrous local situation. The main species of flying fox in this region is the endangered spectacled flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus). They are pollinators and seed dispersers for the world heritage rainforest located in this region, as well as for other ecological communities. In this part of the Atherton Tablelands, they forage on the berries of Solanum mauritianum (a weed from South America) in October, November and December of each year. Their foraging brings them close to the ground and they are then prey to paralysis ticks. They have not developed resistance to the ticks, and so they become paralysed. Jenny and her team of dedicated volunteers walk the forest floor looking and listening for flying foxes in distress, rescuing them, and bringing them back to the Bat Hospital. Some can be saved, many cannot, and many babies are orphaned. The purpose of care is to sustain those with a chance of survival, and return them to their forest homes as soon as they are ready for release. At times up to two hundred orphaned babies are being fed every four hours by the team of volunteers. Most of them will be released back into the bush.

Not so long ago, release meant a return to a life of relative safety. Queensland had shown its progressive side and had banned the shooting of flying-foxes because it is inhumane. Dispersals were subject to external oversight and were meant to be accomplished without long-term impacts on the species or specific cruelty to individuals. This meant that there would be no dispersals while the females were in the later stages of pregnancy and no dispersals while the young were dependent on their mothers. But this situation has changed. Queensland has reinstated shooting, and has had to exempt flying-foxes from the Animal Care and Protection Act in order to do so. The ‘new’ plan for dispersals looks set to amplify the suffering. Increasingly, flying-fox rescue and release may mean saving vulnerable creatures from one fate only to return them to an extremely chancy life as long as they are anywhere near humans.

In spite of these uncertainties, the Hospital is a wonderful antidote. Jenny puts food out for the resident flying-foxes every afternoon, planning for them to come down to eat around the time that the Hospital is open for visitors. Tourists arrive daily, and their faces light up with joy and amazement as they come into close but safe proximity with flying-foxes. Fear and hatred not only evaporate but suddenly seem incomprehensible.

It is a great gift to be able to look a wild animal in the eye and see the glow of intelligence. Sometimes one encounters a reciprocating glow of interest. It is a privilege to be close to members of endangered species, and to know that outside the enclosure the full and rich life of flying-foxes continues. And so it shall continue, unless humans decide to get rid of them. Such decisions are political. They take no notice of ecological relationships, and nor do they concern themselves with cruelty and abuse. They are driven by the zombies of hatred and persecution, and they aim to win elections. They do no credit to anyone.

 

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

References:
Moore, R. I. (2007). The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250 (Second ed.). Malden: Blackwell.
Woodford, J. 2003. “The Swingers,” in Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney.

For a short video about Jenny McLean and the Tolga Bat Hospital see:
http://vimeo.com/31001848

On pests see:
van Dooren, T, 2011, ‘Invasive Species in Penguin Worlds: An Ethical Taxonomy of Killing for Conservation’, Conservation and Society, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 286 – 298, http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/0972-4923.92140