Landscape of Fear

One of my cats cowers with her tail and head held down, scrambling for cover at the sound of rain, even though she has been living indoors for two years. I found her at a campground when I was hiking one day, and even though we live in Florida, night temperatures had fallen below freezing. I don’t know how long she was out there, but this tiny cat had to withstand fairly extreme temperatures and brave the elements. It apparently left an indelible mark on her which has persisted all this time.

When I was an undergraduate psychology student, I remember in the course of my studies hearing and reading that animals, including humans, are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It makes sense; pain is a mechanism that enables an organism to avoid certain things as they maneuver through their world, striving to ensure their basic needs are met. Pain is a warning that something is wrong. Sometimes that pain is psychic, corresponding to an earlier time when extreme discomfort was endured. There was a time that fear, pain and suffering were phenomena thought to be restricted to humans, not other animals, but we now know better. Or at least we should. The avoidance of pain is an evolutionary adaptation that was around long before humans ever came along. It is now widely recognized and accepted that human and non-human animals alike exhibit a wide range of emotions that have evolved over millions of years and are tools that enable us to survive.

Despite our understanding and appreciation of animal suffering and pain, we still accept it as a necessary reality in certain circumstances. For example, here in the U.S. we as a culture accept and rationalize that animal suffering is a necessary part of exploiting animals, for example, in the food industry. We tell ourselves that the suffering is minimal and that the animals are humanely treated and euthanized. To believe otherwise would be too uncomfortable. Increasingly, the realities have surfaced as graphic videos and images have made their way into social media, exposing the horrors of factory farming. However, human behavior adapts to changing beliefs very slowly and the unthinkable still happens to billions of farmed animals every single year, not to mention staggering amounts of marine animals and non-farmed animals that are killed for human use and consumption. We as a society continue to ignore their cries, their anguish, misery, pain, and suffering.

Some people argue that hunting is more acceptable, a humane and healthy alternative to supporting the breeding for slaughter of billions of animals each year in factory farms. But how different is it, really? True, the animals that live in our remaining wild places:  wildlife refuges, nature preserves, state and national forests, parks, as well as private property are fairly free to roam, at least within the anthropogenic barriers of these remaining wild spaces. However, some amazing similarities exist that most people probably don’t even think about.

I was talking with a co-worker the other day, someone who is a friend to animals and has rescued and rehabilitated quite a number of them. Years ago, she even helped me with a baby squirrel. Her comment that hunting is necessary to stave off overpopulation because we are destroying their habitat prompted my response of how hunting actually increases populations. She looked at me askew. She finally said, “I don’t see how that works…” How can hunting increase populations? That doesn’t make any sense. Hunting has been known to decrease and even extirpate certain populations and to cause extinctions. In fact, overhunting and habitat destruction are two of the biggest problems leading to mass extinctions on the planet. The white-tailed deer, prairie chicken, and wild turkey are a few of many species almost hunted to extinction until regulations were put into place to ban market hunting and to control hunting. So how can hunting increase populations?

The simple explanation is that government wildlife agencies are in the business of selling hunting licenses and tags. If you are in the business of selling something, do you really want to see your product numbers decrease? It makes perfect sense that you would want to increase the product you are trying to sell. That being said, how could you increase the population of a species that is being killed for profit? For a polygamous species such as deer, that’s fairly simple:  kill more bucks than does. A decreased number of deer on the landscape equates to more food per remaining deer. The surviving bucks will mate with the females who will exhibit what is known as a compensatory reproductive response due to the increased amount of food available. Some will have twins or even triplets. The result? More deer to kill next year. It’s pretty simple. It is a deer factory. Add in bait stations and the rate of reproduction is potentially even higher.

Is this really more acceptable and humane than farmed animal factories? Is breeding a “game” species more acceptable than breeding a pig, chicken, or cow? Is bringing deer into this world only to shower them with bullets or arrows as they attempt to go about their daily lives nobler or more ethical? Knowing what we know today about the wide range of emotions experienced by non-human animals, how can this scenario be viewed as acceptable?

I’ve heard hunters state that it is better to kill animals out in the wild rather than to let them die of starvation, exposure, predation, you name it. It’s like saying it’s more humane to riddle me with bullets now rather than let me die of natural causes, a possible accident, cancer, heart disease, drowning in the bathtub, having a tree fall on me…it is a ludicrous argument. Plus, they are leaving out a very vital piece of information. The fact is that countless victims of hunting do not die instantly. Many wander away to die a slow and agonizing death. Their injuries if not immediately fatal can lead to death by predation, exposure, and starvation from which these hunters so righteously claim they are sparing these animals. Listen to the arguments defending hunting and if you do, you will come to understand that their arguments are in defense of something that is inherently indefensible.

Wild animals have to contend with so much, besides the usual trials and tribulations inherent in living in the wild. Thanks to humans, they also have to put up with the destruction of their habitat, the hazards of ubiquitous roads even within forests, human-imposed barriers to free movement, the polluting and poisoning of their water and environment, and a host of other dangers. Add to these hardships the looming and ever-present threat of having their lives taken by a human. Rather than being free to live their lives as they normally would, wild animals are known to change their habits and behaviors to avoid the danger of humans. Normally diurnal species try to adapt by living nocturnal lives…but then there is night hunting. They are living in an almost constant state of human-induced fear in a contrived environment. I see anything but a humane, ethical, acceptable alternative to the mass killings occurring in our slaughterhouses across the country.

Nowhere to Turn: The Plight of the Florida Black Bear

Cecils Pride

As Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) gets ready to announce another bear hunt, many questions have been raised with not many satisfactory answers generated. Last year, a minimum of 655 Florida bears lost their lives at the hands of humans: 304 as a direct result of the bear hunt, 243 on roadways, and most of the others killed by FWC for being so-called “nuisance” bears.

Since 2011, when the number of bears killed on roads was 193, that number has exceeded 200 every year thereafter with a record high of 284 killed on roads in 2012. Why might this be the case? If you were to ask the FWC, they would say with the help of the media that these numbers reflect the “large and growing” Florida black bear population, that there are too many bears, and that they are spilling out into neighborhoods and roadways terrorizing and endangering…

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Bloody Saturday

It has been nearly a month since the infamous Florida black bear hunt, a hunt that left a huge, ugly boil on the state of Florida. In a sense it seems so much longer and many like me who were on the front lines, a sort of M.A.S.H. unit only the casualties were all dead, counting the corpses at the hunter check stations across Florida, are still suffering from the repercussions. Without a doubt, all of us have transformed somehow and have created a strong bond with each other. We were the bear monitors, whose jobs were to document and count dead bears to ensure the limit of 320 bears was not exceeded. The hunt was supposed to last a week but was called off completely after two days.

While the last bear census was completed way back in 2002, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) stated that perhaps there were more than the estimated 3,000 to 3,500 bears since they were so easy to shoot. The truth is, there were 3,778 permits sold to hunters for a quota of only 320 bears, most of which were killed on private land, a lot being killed near deer feeding stations. While baiting was not permitted, there was no oversight and some dead bears were found with corn in their teeth indicating that they were recently at feeding stations. Easy targets, a majority of the bears (78%) were shot on private land, not in the forest. They were basically just sitting ducks.

Sometimes while driving close to Chassahowitzka or North Weeki Wachee where I live, I think about how black bears used to be able to travel throughout this great state and beyond, never constrained or isolated in pockets as they are now. This isolation has undoubtedly already led to inbreeding, some places more severe than others. Because the different populations, seven in all, are not able to interbreed, they are subject to genetic defects due to inbreeding depression which of course weakens the subspecies. The subpopulation near Chassahowitzka is perhaps the worst of all with probably less than 20 individuals remaining.

It saddens me greatly that Florida black bears are now being squeezed ever more by human overpopulation problems and the overdevelopment that encroaches on the habitat of not just bears but all wild creatures. Some are labeled “nuisance” bears because they travel through subdivisions in search of food which used to be plentiful in their forest homes, until humans started harvesting their primary food sources. Many of these bears, over 80 so far this year alone, end up paying with their lives. The FWC will usually not relocate so-called “problem” bears but instead kill them. On top of that, hundreds of bears are killed on Florida roads each year, the average being about 250.

When Governor Rick Scott and the FWC decided that declaring open season on bears was all right, after 21 years of not hunting bears, there was a public outcry. For those who knew about the hunt and actively voiced their opinion, 75% of the people were against the hunt. So when they went through with it despite the massive emails, letters, phone calls, and protests across the state, we were indignant and many of us fell into a depression.

The anti-empathetic (antis) will cry out that we who care about the environment and nature are hypocrites. After all, many of us have moved down from the north or other places to settle in Florida which has taken away bear habitat. They tell us to pack up and move out to give our property back to the bears. If we really cared about the environment, that’s what we would do, they tell us. But this dismissal of those who care about other sentient beings is just backlash and means nothing. They clearly do not understand the pain involved in witnessing the aftermath of such senseless brutality.

Videos came out after the hunt…videos in which bears were being shot at, crying, running away, and then the death moans as the hunters stood there so proud of themselves. Ordinary people don’t want to have to witness that, but it is part of the package. I forced myself to watch two of these videos made by hunters. In one, they laughed as the bear tried to run away after they shot her leg. She had just been meandering along minding her own business, unaccustomed to being tormented by humans. I thought that after taking pictures of dead bears, the video wouldn’t be as hard to watch. I was wrong and as I sat there sobbing, I knew I couldn’t just sit by and let it happen again.

I have hiked hundreds of miles along the Florida Trail and never encountered a bear. Is there a bear overpopulation problem? Do their numbers have to be “managed”? I don’t think so. This hunt was probably set up to diminish the bear population to further development and in the interim expand hunting opportunities for trophy hunters. The FWC and Rick Scott must be held accountable for the travesty that we bear monitors will always remember as “Bloody Saturday.”

Captivity Won’t Solve Extinction

People often ask why sanctuaries for endangered animals do not breed them, either for later release back into the wild or to keep them in sanctuaries or zoos so that they will not become extinct. Since these animals are so critically endangered or heading there fast, why can’t we just take the ones we have and breed them so that we can perpetuate their genetics and keep them in cages or let them go? These people mean well. Their desire to preserve wild animals, stop extinction, and re-populate their dwindling numbers is benevolent, although sorely misguided.

There are many problems with this way of thinking. People don’t realize that the ancestry of most of these individuals cannot be traced. Records are lacking for most of the animals that have been rescued by sanctuaries, so we have no idea what their genetics are, and most are probably of mixed origin. Breeding Bengal/Siberian tigers and releasing their genetically impure progeny into a jungle somewhere in Asia, even if it could be done, makes no conservation sense.

It also makes no sense logistically. Even for the sanctuaries that are within the countries with indigenous populations of said endangered animals, there is an issue of habituation to humans. How to breed wild animals and have them not be habituated to humans remains one of the biggest problems. They would be an easy target for poachers and hunters, as these wild animals would associate people with food. Being accustomed to humans is a certain death sentence for wild animals. A wild animal that approaches a human usually ends up being shot through no fault of their own.

Further taking tigers as an example, there are six subspecies left in the wild. The three subspecies that we have lost over the last century were unique, each one perfectly adapted through millions of years of evolution. Of course, the same is true of the remaining subspecies, each one adapted to the unique ecosystem in which they live and from which they have evolved for millions of years.

Breeding them for life in a cage just to prevent their “extinction” doesn’t make sense. Not only is it cruel, but their natural evolution just stops. It’s like taking a picture and putting it on the wall, like a snapshot, frozen in time. The species ceases to exist outside its environment, stops evolving, and merely becomes like an exhibit in a museum, if you will.

Yes, keeping tigers in cages is cruel, even if the cage in question is large with lots of enrichment, which is too often not the case. Tigers in the wild roam up to hundreds of square miles in their home ranges and have been known to swim up to nearly 20 miles at a time. They are very intelligent, sentient beings who are wired to hunt for their food and stake a territory so much larger than even the most well-intentioned humans can ever provide for them.

Taking cubs from their mothers and reintroducing them into the wild is another misguided notion of how to solve the extinction problem. Imagine taking a toddler from a human mother and dropping that child off at a campground. Would that child survive? Perhaps she would, but only if another human took pity on that child and took her in. Of course it makes no sense to take a tiger cub and dump him into the jungle. Without the mother to guide, protect, and teach him or her how to hunt and survive in the wild, that cub will not survive, just as a human toddler will not survive without protection and guidance for the first few years of its life. This is not even to mention the trauma that ensues by taking cubs away from their mothers. It’s traumatic for the mother and for the cub.

So what do we do to help preserve endangered species? The only answer is to preserve their habitat and allow them to live and breed on their own. We need to conserve and protect the species already living in their habitat. Left to their own devices and given the space, they will breed and thrive. Other ways to help are to NOT give our money to places that abuse animals in the name of “conservation,” such as paying to swim with or take a photo with a tiger or lion cub (pay-to-play schemes)…to give our money to organizations that are truly helping to make a difference, helping wild animals in the wild and conserving our wild places.

Sanctuaries wouldn’t be needed if exotic animal ownership were illegal, if wild animals weren’t used in circuses or for our entertainment. True sanctuaries are helping to make a difference for wild cats and other species of wildlife, and they do not breed for a life in a cage. Supporting them also contributes to saving these species in the wild. We need to channel our good intentions by educating ourselves and making informed decisions.

Some organizations making a difference to help cats and other endangered animals in the wild:

Killing Sanctioned by “Evidence”

Ever since I was a child, I seemed to possess some kind of understanding about the animal kingdom that others denied or just couldn’t see (it wasn’t until much later that I met like-minded individuals). It could have been in part due to the feelings of isolation that separated me from the rest of the human family in general and specifically my own. I knew for sure that animals communicated and were intelligent in their own right, perhaps in a way we didn’t understand, and that they were all uniquely adapted to their own environment. I wasn’t a particularly smart kid, it was more a feeling I had that all animals deserved respect and should be approached, if at all, on their own terms and shouldn’t be used for our enjoyment. I didn’t need any “evidence.”

People who don’t share this compassion and respect for animals, such as trophy hunters, are quick to blame animal activists for being too soft (“bunny huggers”) or for attributing so-called “human” attributes and feelings to non-humans. Compassion and empathy are seen as weaknesses and animal activists are summarily dismissed as being irrational.

I wonder how many people who love to hunt actually value human lives, especially those of strangers, any more than the lives of the animals they lust to kill. There is a proven connection between those who abuse animals and those who abuse other people such as bullies in a schoolyard, perpetrators of domestic violence, all the way up to mass murderers.

I remember when I was an undergrad at UT Austin and enrolled in an independent research course. One of my professors, a PhD who had specialized in Psychobiology, often proudly suggested that he would use humans as his subjects if he could, if there were no research ethics or oversight committees. He often gloated over the horrific ways he would “sacrifice” the research animals he used. He obviously had no empathy for nonhumans and shared the same sentiment when it came to his own kind. He merely channeled his murderous instincts into a culturally-accepted form of torturing and killing on a grand scale, from which he made a comfortable living and made his way into prestigious research journals.

It seems that animal advocates, such as those opposed to the Florida bear hunt, sometimes feel compelled to back up their convictions with scientific facts. Yes, it is true that scientists have not completed a bear population count and this is a very good reason to not allow hunting of the bears. But even if an accurate count was made and there are more than 3,000 Florida bears in 2015, would hunting bears then be acceptable? If hunting were “backed by science,” would murdering 20% of the population, leaving motherless cubs to die, shooting pregnant females, as well as destroying healthy adult males and thereby traumatizing the survivors be perfectly fine?

I am not against science, and it is true that there is a lack of scientific evidence that supports the massacre of our Florida bears. I just don’t think we should have to stand behind the shield of “scientific evidence” in order to conserve and protect the myriad of species that also call this planet home. We shouldn’t need “evidence” to realize that they value their lives as much as we do, have feelings, and deserve to live in peace.

The Most Destructive Species

I just came back from a job-related trip to Indianapolis, where I spent one week training with about 34 other people from different parts of the country. The only thing we had in common was that we all work in medical labs of some sort. Of the 35 of us, only two of us were vegetarian. I learned later that the other vegetarian, a beautiful young woman from India, had never once eaten flesh. I didn’t speak to her at length, but I imagine she didn’t really view it as a choice but rather as a lifestyle that had been instilled in her from birth, a part of her culture and religious beliefs.

We all have choices, but few of us venture outside of our comfort zone or question our lifestyles, our everyday actions, or even our core beliefs. I like to think that humans are somewhat intelligent, but I see examples all the time where people are not thinking about what they say or what they do.

One day while taking a break from our training, I saw a chipmunk directly outside the window that overlooked a small retention pond. This cordoned off area within just feet of Interstate 69 was home to at least one rabbit, chipmunks, muskrats, and some ducks. Naturally, I took a picture of the chipmunk and showed it to a few people in my class and during one of our dinners. Living in Florida, I never get to see them and I was so happy to get to see one up close.

One woman, an employee of the company and a resident of the Indianapolis area, immediately informed me that chipmunks are so destructive. They destroy the little plants in her yard. I was thankful that she didn’t go on to tell me how she and her husband kill the chipmunks who call her yard home. Rather, she uses mothballs as one technique to try and discourage them from coming around.

Another discussion centered on the Canada geese who try to nest close to the window near that retention pond, a little oasis surrounded by concrete and buildings and just a stone’s throw from a major interstate. Our instructor recounted a time when the company hired some people with dogs to come and scare the geese away because they are “such a nuisance and poop everywhere,” so they don’t want them nesting on their property. They wanted to kill them all, but Canada geese are protected, so they did the next best thing and forced the geese to find some other location…hopefully, I was thinking,  a location far enough away from the homes and businesses of uncompassionate people who would show the same disregard for their lives. Of course, that is increasingly difficult to find since humans have taken over the landscape.

How ironic. The animals, which were here first, are a “nuisance” and are “so destructive” in the eyes of most humans, while humans continue to mar the landscape with tall buildings made of glass for birds to fly into, build more strip malls, and cover the earth with asphalt and concrete for parking lots, highways, and still more buildings on all sides in all directions.

How can people not see this dichotomy? Are their minds so clouded over so they have no ability to think and reason, so they say what they have been programed to say, think, feel, and do? Or do they just not care, which doesn’t really explain why they would utter such nonsense.

I often wonder if people don’t care whether the whole world is covered in concrete and the only non-human animals left are domestic animals and cockroaches. I for one wouldn’t want to live on a planet devoid of all the beautiful majestic creatures, each one a sentient being just wanting to live and having to struggle just to survive.

People talk about wanting to get away, which often entails going into nature to camp, recreate, be surrounded by beauty, breathe the fresh air, and get away from people for a change. But if we continue to look at certain animals as a nuisance, what sense does that make?

We can’t destroy the planet and the diversity of species and think that these wild places are just going to continue to be there for our enjoyment. “Our enjoyment.” We must look past our selfish interests and view the world from a different perspective. Having compassion for others has to extend to life forms that look different from us. We need a major shift.

Will Work for Zoos

The other day, I had a brief conversation with a young man…yes, I’m now one of those people who say “young man”…who has a degree in marketing but would like to pursue another degree, perhaps in biology or related discipline. He, like many others, is giving his time for zero pay to an organization that helps animals. He aspires to make a living helping animals and aiding in conservation. I frequently run into people who aspire to get paid to work with animals whether it’s a pre-veterinary student, an aspiring zookeeper or park ranger hopeful. The pay is low for most of these occupations, but the payoffs can be outstanding.

I overhear conversations from people who say they want to work with animals because they don’t want to work with people. “People talk back,” they will state. Meanwhile, they treat even the friendliest person with great disdain and contempt and I think about how, as hard as they may try, they will usually wind up working with the very people they despise and in the process make life miserable for themselves and those that are unlucky enough to have to deal with them.

People go into working with animals for various reasons, but when the ego is prominent, it makes me wonder how sincere is their desire to really help animals. Sometimes I can’t help but hate people too (especially those that hurt other animals) so I can understand their sentiment. But to have that as their driving force seems somehow corrupt. If I were in the position to hire an animal caretaker, “because people suck” would not be high on my list of given reasons to take them under my wing.

I really wish that young man well.