Editorial: Biological xenophobia
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1996:
Our friend Bob Plumb, of the Promoting Animal Welfare Society, in Paradise,
California, recently became aware of a feral cat problem at a park in nearby Chico. A large
colony was accused of killing songbirds, and slated for destruction by animal control.
Plumb, a retired physics teacher, combines his longtime philanthropic interest in
humane work with applied math skills. He especially likes to solve problems through modeling,
projecting the outcome of various strategies based on known statistical parameters
––and over the years, he’s become rather good at it.
When Plumb worked out the numbers pertaining to the park in Chico, he found
that the popular approach, trying to catch and kill all the cats, wouldn’t work. Catch-andkill
capture efficiency, in that habitat, stood little chance of exceeding the reproduction
rate. In effect, using catch-and-kill would amount to farming cats, sending each season’s
“crop” off to slaughter just in time to open hunting territory to the next round of kittens.
The benefit to birds would be nil.
Plumb also modeled neuter/release, which he calls TTAVR, short for trap/treat
(for treatable medical conditions)/alter/vaccinate/release, to cover all steps. Adoptable cats
would be put up for adoption; seriously ill or injured cats would be euthanized.
The first-year costs, he found, would be far greater, since neutering a cat costs
about five times as much as killing the cat and disposing of the remains. Over a three-year
period, however, the costs would be the same, as the neutered park cats ceased breeding.
After three years of catch-and-kill at 70% efficiency, the park cat population would remain
at the current level. After three years of neuter/release, it would be markedly less. The
total number of cat-days at large, in the interim, would be a fraction as high, and the toll
on birds would be proportionately smaller.
Plumb anticipated one big problem in selling the idea of a neuter/release program
to the city: the up-front cost, for an unfamiliar approach. He proposed to get around that
by having the Promoting Animal Welfare Society furnish $8,000 toward the price of neutering,
and supply 20 volunteers to do the work.
Plumb did not anticipate the seething hostility his offer received. “I am puzzled,”
he wrote, “ at how we became the target of the bird-and-wildlife bunch, as well as of government
employees. They surely hate us: we are the enemy. We want to release neutered
cats and they want to kill them. Hence in their eyes we are responsible, the Audubon
Society representative’s exact words, for killing thousands of birds. I simply don’t get it.
TTVAR reduces cat births, and over a relatively short period of time reduces the cat population.
Does this make us the enemy of birds and wildlife? Do the thousands of
spay/neuter subsidies we pay for make us guilty of killing birds and wildlife? Even the
park department got in their licks. They advertise for and have one or two volunteers who
catch and kill. No problem, no hassle, no worry about providing the park and city people
with liability insurance. But, if you aren’t going to kill the cats, then all sorts of barriers
are erected. Has Audubon gone loco? I always thought of the Audubon Society as a group
of school kids with a leader watching birds. Now I find they are an absolute hate group
when it comes to anyone who does not desire to see any and all cats who stick a nose outdoors
immediately caught and killed.”
Actually, Plumb encountered a familiar syndrome, biological xenophobia, and it
doesn’t just apply to Audubon Society ignorance of the efficacy of neuter/release. Other
egregious examples of biological xenophobia include the Australian releases of calicivirus
and mixomiatosis, using introduced diseases to attack feral rabbits; air drops of the deadly
poison Compound 1080 underway in New Zealand in an almost sure- to- fail attempt to
wipe out brushy-tailed possums, a thriving accidental import from Australia, where they
are a threatened species; the Greenpeace campaign against the sale of genetically engineered
soybeans; the long National Wildlife Federation fight against the introduction of the
genetically engineered oral rabies vaccine for raccoons and foxes, as rabies spread up the
Atlantic coast for a decade after the vaccine proved effective in Europe; the National Park
Service efforts to eradicate wild burros from the Mojave National Preserve, mountain goats
from Olympic National Park, and sheep from Santa Cruz Island; the lawsuit filed against
the National Park Service on October 22 by the National Parks and Conservation
Association, seeking the removal of free-ranging cattle, deer, and elk from Santa Rosa
Island; and the ongoing snaring of feral pigs on Nature Conservancy property in Hawaii.
Biological xenophobia, or irrational fear and hatred of “introduced” species, is in
fact the institutionalized policy of most major conservation groups, and of the state and
federal habitat management agencies they influence––except when the introduced species
come with grazing leases, or come, like rainbow trout and Chinese pheasants, as live targets
for hunters and fishers, by far the most common means of deliberate introduction.
Then the opposition is at best sporadic.
Eco-freaks and computer nerds
Inflaming biological xenophobia are frequent predictions by scientists seeking
grant money that our air, water, and soil may soon be irrevocably contaminated by (pick
one) the spread of purple loosestrife, gypsy moths, Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussels,
Norway rats, Asian swine flu virus, kudzu, nonmigratory Canada geese, King Kong,
Godzilla, and/or the cockroach that ate Cincinnati, never mind that none of the last three
had either biologically viable mates or any actual existence.
The science behind such Grade B movie scenarios consists of the observation that
mass extinctions of charismatic megafauna and species of unique biological niches seem to
be imminent, and that habitat destruction caused by humans is augmented by the damage
done by the plants and animals we bring with us, either on purpose or by accident.
There is little serious doubt about the importance of maintaining biodiversity to the
ongoing health of the earth, the multidirectional threat to hundreds of endangered species,
the economic devastation done by some alien species when they invade receptive habitat, or
the possibility of enabling some threatened or endangered species to recover by removing
predators and/or competitors such as feral cats from their habitat. There is reason to be cautious
about the possible consequences of the release of genetically modified plants and animals,
if––unlike the rabies vaccine and the soybeans––they have some reasonable possiblity
of transferring unknown traits to wild populations.
But there is no reason for panic, for letting religious zeal overtake both humanitarian
considerations and sound appreciation of how ecology really works. And make no mistake
about it: biological xenophobia has much more to do with faith than reason. Within
the environmental movement, the quest for restoration of a purportedly pristine and stable
prehuman or pre-Columbian ecological balance can be traced not to scientific discovery,
which tells us that there is no such thing as a steady-state ecology or a climax forest, but
rather to 19th century Teutonic naturism, inextricably tangled––as Anna Bramwell pointed
out in her 1989 history of Ecology In The 20th Century––with the same notions of racial and
ethnic purity that ultimately inspired the eugenic movement, aimed at exterminating supposedly
genetically inferior humans, and eventually gave rise to Adolf Hitler.
Considering what that branch of the philosophical family came to, perhaps it
should not be surprising that other branches have arrived at the kill-’em-all attitudes they
hold toward purported nonhuman undesirables.
Bramwell’s book made environmental movement leadership mighty uncomfortable
just before Earth Day 1990, and well it should have, because she was talking about
their philosophical mamas, and in particular, talking about how the attitude that all human
activity defiles habitat translates into a medieval concept of human-apart-from-nature, not
recognition of the realities of natural science. The view that humans are somehow uniquely
unnatural is precisely opposed to a genuinely ecological concept of human-as-subject-andengine-of-continued-evolution,
acting like the wind and the waves and migratory “carrier”
animals to endlessly mix and mingle species, including ourselves.
In view of the length and profundity of the evolutionary process, and the certainty
that every ecosystem will change, the idea that humans can or should arrest every “nonnative”
species or even attempt to maintain any piece of habitat in steady-state conditions
seems as quaintly ridiculous as King Canute trying to order back the tide.
King Canute, however, understood the absurdity of what he was doing; he did it
to teach his courtesans the meaning of h u b r y s, the fallacy of attempting to play God,
including attempting to dictate to nature.
Trying to spare the lives of feral cats or rabbits or brushy-tailed possums may also
be ridiculous in the ecological sense, since preventing suffering isn’t a concern of nature,
but such efforts do represent the extension of kindness that humans must achieve to save
ourselves from ourselves, quite apart from whatever other value they may have. That
nature may be cruel in some aspects is no reason for all species to be, most especially ours.
Biological xenophobes would do well, meanwhile, to look into the mirror and
question whether our terror of extinctions perhaps originates more from the universal personal
fear of death than from external reality. Despite the obvious peril to charismatic
megafauna, documented extinctions are still rare, and the often ballyhooed incredible rates
of extinction purportedly occurring all around us are, in truth, just projections of known
threats involving megafauna to myriad small plants, insects, and microorganisms of which
we really know little or nothing, least of all evolutionary history because only the fossil
traces of the very biggest 1% of species can even be differentiated by species.
As Mexican immigrants slip nightly through the Nature Conservancy’s immense
Grey Ranch, forming the bootheel of New Mexico, it would further be worthwhile to consider
to what extent mostly white middle-and-upper-income environmentalists’ fears of
alien invaders are sublimated projections of cultural insecurity.
Meanwhile, the distinction between the biological xenophobia characterizing
much environmental public policy and the electronic xenophobia manifest in Space Invaders
videogames seems to be mainly that the computer nerds aren’t really initating ghastly death
and destruction when they start pushing buttons.