More about Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  January/February 2013:

More about Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds

Jim Sterba says:  Thank you for your generous review of my new book,  Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.  I much appreciate your commending it to your readers as,  in part,  “excellent history,”  which is high praise indeed.

I hope you will allow me to clear up a few points.

You are correct in saying I grew up in rural Michigan.  I began hunting in the 1950s for sport,  not meat,  although we ate what we shot.  I do not considered myself to be “a lifelong conservationist,”  as you assert.  If anything,  I am a lifelong journalist.

You mention “two noteworthy omissions” in my discussion of wildlife comebacks.

I quoted those who considered the Conibear body-gripping trap to be a humane alternative to the leghold trap.  You are correct that I did not note that Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals’ cofounders George and Bunty Clements did not share fellow cofounder Clara Van Steenwyck’s early enthusiasm for the Conibear trap.  For those against trapping,  no trap is humane.  I did mention,  however, that the American Humane Association,  the British Columbia government and Queen Elizabeth II lauded Frank Conibear for his invention.  And that the European Union in 2008 refused to buy South American beaver pelts until Argentina and Chile switched from using legholds to using more “humane” Conibear 330s.

As for the Canada geese that brought down U.S. Airways 1549 in 2009,  whether they were migratory or residents is disputed.  The Smithsonian feather fragment isotope analysis said the birds had been to Labrador and concluded they were part of a migratory flock.  Bryan Swift,  New York state’s geese expert,  two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service experts,  and a Canadian Wildlife Service waterfowl biologist noted that resident geese go on non-nesting molt migrations on occasion,  which could account for the isotope finding.  They also noted that nearly half the 89 goose-airstrikes around New York City in the previous 10 years occurred in months when few if any migratory birds were around.

A couple of other points:  I don’t dismiss wildlife contraception “out of hand,”  as you say.  I say it’s costly and impractical.  You are correct in saying I overlook declines in roadkills in recent years.  That’s because I know of no sound data supporting that assertion.  Likewise,  your assertion of “steep declines in the feral cat population” thanks to trap,  neuter,  return programs is,  in my opinion,  wishful thinking.  Indeed, even the American Veterinary Medical Association says neuter/return doesn’t work to bring populations down.

I assume you were having a little fun mocking my battle with feral grapes in Maine in writing that I am “apparently unaware that the Vikings called the region Vinland after finding wild grapes there.” First, my battle began not in my youth,  but when I was a youthful 40-year-old. Second,  I sent samples of the grapes to the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit at Cornell University for analysis and they were pronounced––as I say on page 299 of Nature Wars––“prohibition-era table grapes,  a Concord cousin.” ––Jim Sterba New York,  N.Y.

Merritt Clifton responds: The late George and Bunty Clements were not always “against trapping.”  They turned against trapping after more than 20 years of experimentation with purported quick-kill traps,  including the Conibear,  convinced them that the quest for a “humane” furbearer trap was futile. 

The enthusiasm of the American Humane Association for the Conibear trap,  more than 50 years ago,  came parallel to AHA promotion of the use of decompression to kill dogs and cats in shelters––a method abandoned as inhumane throughout the U.S. by 1985,  though now pushed by the AHA to kill chickens.  The AHA meanwhile opposed surgical sterilization of dogs and cats as “vivisection,”  even though it had withdrawn opposition to the release of shelter animals to laboratories for use in experiments and medical teaching and training.  The AHA did not endorse surgical sterilization of dogs and cats until 1973,  50 years after the basic procedures were approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association.  

The AHA abdication of moral authority on behalf of animals during this time led to the formation of the Animal Welfare Institute in 1952,  the Humane Society of the U.S. in 1954,  Friends of Animals in 1957,  and the National Catholic Animal Welfare Society in 1959––all of which opposed Conibear trap use,  then and now.

Neither could the British Columbia government nor Queen Elizabeth II be considered exemplars of humane values.  Though the Queen herself has rarely hunted,  her husband,  Prince Philip,  at least twice shot more than 10,000 captive-raised birds in week-long sprees with other royalty.  After the first such incident,  in 1956,  Princess Grace of Monaco prevailed upon her husband,  Prince Rainier,  to give up captive bird-shooting.  The Queen,  however,  apparently said nothing when Prince Philip included their son,  Prince Charles,  in a similar week-long bloodbath.

Non-migratory Canada geese,  whose normal range is just a few dozen miles,  are unlikely to have made “non-nesting migrations” from New York City to Labrador.

The cost of wildlife contraception in the research-and-development phase,  as with the cost of developing any pharmaceutical,  is not to be confused with the actual cost of manufacture and delivery of a perfected product.   

If broadcast distribution of oral contraceptives could be used, the cost of delivery would be comparable to the cost of deploying oral rabies vaccination,  which has proved highly successful against rabies in foxes,  raccoons,  and coyotes,  at cost of less than $1.00 per dose.  

While developing oral contraceptives for wildlife that can be safely broadcast has not yet been accomplished,  injectable chemosterilants effective in male animals are as inexpensive as calcium chloride,  tests of which have been described in recent editions of ANIMAL PEOPLE by Parsumus Foundation director of medical research programs director Elaine Lissner and others.

Concerning the decline of roadkill,  even as urban and suburban wildlife populations continue to increase,   the largest data base on insurance claims is kept by State Farm Inc.,  the largest U.S. vehicular insurer.  Deer/car collisions decreased for the third consecutive year in 2011,  the most recent year from which data is available,  after peaking in 2008.  

Concerning the decline of the feral cat population,  U.S. animal shelter admissions of cats fell by more than 75% in 10 years after the formal introduction of neuter/return in 1991-1992.   Roadkill studies found a decline of more than 90% in the numbers of cats found dead on city streets.  

Since then,  results have leveled off,  as detailed in “Feral cat neuter/return results appear to have plateaued,”  ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2012,  but––significantly––shelter admissions of cats and roadkills of cats have not rebounded,  indicating that neuter/return is at the very least suppressing a feral cat population recovery.

Finally,  according to the Concord Grape Association,   “The Concord grape is a robust and aromatic grape whose ancestors were wild native species found growing in the rugged New England soil.  Experimenting with seeds from some of the native species,  

Boston-born Ephraim Wales Bull developed the Concord grape in 1849.”  

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