Editorial: Living in the House That Jack Built
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1997:
Sometimes it seems as if we live in the House That Jack Built, taking telephone
calls several times a day from the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.
Narrated as a variety of songs and children’s stories, both “House” and “Old
Lady” go pretty much the same way: one creature is sent to chase another, dog after cat
after mouse and so forth, creating ecological and social chaos.
That’s just about exactly what happened here on Whidbey Island this year.
Gardeners, irate that rabbits ate their crops, released housecats into their yards in hopes the
cats would kill the rabbits. Birdwatchers became irate that the cats ate birds, too, after
depleting small mammals. Already, the gardeners were irate again, complaining now
about deer and raccoons. Commuters objected that the occasional presence of deer on the
roads kept them from driving like bats out of hell after dark. Bats caused a panic, too,
when some people tried to attract them to eat mosquitoes, whom they accused of being
potential carriers of equine encephalitis. The bats were said to be potentially rabid. Then
people who let their housecats and small dogs wander, to have a “natural” life, joined
with hunters in raising a howl against coyotes, who followed nature in locally solving the
alleged rabbit, cat, roving dog, and deer problems.
We were told recently through local media that the coyotes had not only wiped out
prey locally, but would double in numbers each year if not exterminated.
As we responded, coyote reproduction is strictly linked to nutrition. If the
females don’t get enough food, they don’t mate. If, on the other hand, coyotes are killed
in large numbers while prey is plentiful, their average litter size nearly doubles––as the
experience of the USDA Animal Damage Control coyote-killing program well illustrates.
Recently renamed Wildlife Services, the ADC has killed more than 10 million coyotes over
the past 67 years, without ever extirpating them from anywhere. Indeed, within 18 years
of the start of the program, which forthrightly set out to destroy coyotes as a species, coyotes
had quadrupled their wild range. In areas where coyotes have been left alone, meanwhile,
their populations have remained remarkably stable, rising and falling mostly parallel
to rabbit numbers.
Of course we were also told that coyotes may menace children. Parents killed
three children on Whidbey Island within the past 18 months, a pervert killed another, and a
drug pusher indirectly killed one more, but wild coyotes have verifiably killed just one person
in all of U.S. history. At least three humans have either killed themselves or killed
other humans while hunting coyotes within just the past 10 months, yet in the 17 years we
have recorded attacks on humans by animals, both wild and domestic, just nine humans
have ever even been bitten by coyotes––and one coyote bit two of them. There are about
5.5 million wild coyotes in the U.S., equivalent to about 10% of the domestic canine population.
Pet Rottweilers, who are about a tenth as numerous as wild coyotes, have killed or
maimed more than 100 humans during this time, according to our files––and pit bull terriers,
about a third as numerous as wild coyotes, have killed or maimed 230 humans.
We’ll take the coyotes as neighbors any day. Indeed, we’ve had coyote neighbors
for many years, at many locations, who have never molested any children, didn’t push
drugs, and strictly obeyed the law of the jungle as Rudyard Kipling defined it in The Jungle
Book: killing only to eat or to avoid being eaten.
You may have learned in school that the major animal classifications are mammals,
birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and mollusks––or, more broadly, vertebrates
Most people don’t care about those niceties, as callers frequently remind us. In
practical terms, humans tend to perceive the subcategories of animal to be pets, meat,
endangered species, and/or nuisance wildlife. The two latter categories overlap whenever
the presence of an endangered species may become a nuisance.
Generally speaking, the public seems to perceive an endangered species deserving
of protection as a rare, cute, and preferably cuddly creature from a habitat other than
one’s own, preferably remote and abroad, not on private property or exploitable government
land, whom nobody wants to hunt, trap, or fish.
As we go to press, Congress and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, representing
the Bill Clinton/Albert Gore administration, are reportedly rushing toward finality an
Endangered Species Act rewrite to clarify those particular points. It seems just enough of us
thought the object of the ESA really was to protect wildlife that the very concepts of
“endangered” and “nuisance” became politically intertwined. Even endangered species
advocacy groups and media who report on endangered species issues are now in the nuisance
category, according to the pending ESA rewrite, which includes provisions to limit
public access to meetings and records via the Freedom of Information Act.
Nuisance wildlife comes in two subcategories: vermin, also known as varmints,
including bugs, who may be killed with impunity except perhaps for some concern about
human exposure to pesticides; and creatures also known as game, either endangered or
abundant, whom one can’t kill without a special permit. Abundant game may be killed
either for fun or profit. Endangered game may be killed only for profit or political convenience,
as an “allowable take.”
One of the great successes of the humane movement over the past 200 years has
been inducing much of the public to become squeamish about killing animals. Killing for
meat is now done out of sight, to keep it out of mind; nuisance wildlife killing is a specialized
profession, albeit with professional standards amounting to little more than possession
of traps; and the percentage of American males who admit to sport hunting is about equal to
the percentage who patronize prostitutes, albeit that publications on every newsstand still
tout both pursuits as the essence of manhood.
Bandits at twelve o’clock
Thus we get a lot of calls from people who say they don’t want to kill their nuisance
wildlife, but don’t want to accommodate nature in any way, either. One such recent
caller asserted that raccoons were eating so much of a farmer’s corn crop as to be close to
putting him out of business. The problem, according to the caller, was just that there were
too many raccoons. Nothing else needed to change. Couldn’t we recommend some chemical
that the farmer could put in a nearby pond to make the raccoons stop reproducing?
Chances are, a commercial-scale corn farmer is already spraying his crop several
times a year with quite a number of chemicals that could make raccoons stop reproducing,
and perhaps make them stop breathing, too, depending on their degree of exposure––
whether through the water, the air, the soil, or direct contact. Some such chemicals defoliate
the fields so that young corn doesn’t have to compete with other plants, some kill
insects, some kill fungi, and some replace nutrients lost due to soil erosion and the absence
of other plant matter.
If the chemicals don’t deter the raccoons, obviously the raccoons are somewhere
else during the several months the sprayings occur. Equally obviously, the raccoons must
have other food sources, to survive the three-fourths or more of the year when the corn crop
is inedible. The carrying capacity of the habitat and reproductivity of the raccoon population
are governed by the year-round abundance of food, not by corn season.
Successful raccoon reproductivity also depends upon the ability to evade predation.
We were told there were no coyotes in the vicinity, no foxes, and no great horned
owls. Repeated chemical applications over the years may have depleted the owls, and the
destruction of hedgerows to plant more corn might have destroyed the fox dens, but the
absence of owls and foxes should certainly have meant an abundance of coyotes, with raccoons
plentiful. Perhaps, though, the coyotes were killed off earlier in the year, for whatever
misguided reason. Indeed, coyotes eat some corn too.
Even with no predators, raccoons still require tree cover. If a farm should have
sufficient tree cover to shelter significant numbers of raccoons, assuming other habitat conditions
permit such numbers to exist, a sharp farmer could calculate his probable losses
from growing corn close to the trees, the raccoon habitat, and instead border his corn fields
with a barrier strip of legumes, hay, or any other low-growing compatible crop that
wouldn’t give the raccoons cover to move safely from tree to corn row––just as hundreds of
farmers already do. The crop might not be as profitable as corn, all things being equal, but
might make up the difference by preventing corn losses.
In short, raccoons per se are not the farmer’s problem. The real problem is that
the farmer is fighting nature by monocropping, producing fodder for factory-farmed poultry,
hogs, and cattle. The whole system depletes the soil, pollutes water, is atrociously
cruel to animals in every aspect, and ultimately kills people, too, by encouraging consumption
of meat at a clip that brings Americans appalling rates of obesity, heart disease,
stroke, and cancer. Most likely, raccoons are taking the blame for an accumulation of
damage also caused by wind, draught, hail, disease, insects, and other wildlife, as is usually
the case when one animal is fingered as scapegoat for human losses. But even if raccoons
really are doing major crop damage, the reasons are ecological and systemic, and
must be averted by planning, not just by killing or sterilizing one species to benefit another.
The caller didn’t want to hear it. The caller wanted a magic technological fix, but
there is no magic technological fix to nature: though abused and neglected, she isn’t broken,
and will certainly survive all of us. Success in addressing problems of nature requires
adaptation, which in turn requires patience and understanding.
Merely extirpate raccoons, and this farmer will see Canada geese proliferate,
bringing their own forms of nuisance: raccoons are the major Canada goose egg predator.
Extirpate geese and there will be more crickets and grasshoppers. Spray the crickets and
grasshoppers, and there will also be fewer of other insect-eating birds––and fewer bees to
pollinate crops, which may fail on that account.
Fight nature, and nature will fight you––and always win––but practice kindness
and tolerance toward other living creatures, and most creatures, one way or another, will
do good things for us, even if most people don’t know enough about them to notice.