Thursday, November 27, 2014

What is the Difference Between Elephants and Zoos?

On November 8, my friend and colleague, Julie Woodyer, was awarded the first ever Pat Derby Visionary Award by the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) "for her intellectual strength, passion and unfaltering perseverance." She needed all of that and then some—plus the help of many compassionate and thoughtful people, and the wonderful generosity of TV personality Bob Barker—to fight what I will collectively call "the zoo community," to do what should have been a no-brainer.

The late Pat Derby, co-founder of PAWS, was a mentor and inspiration to Julie, giving the honor a special meaning. PAWS, of course, is a magnificent sanctuary in California designed to accommodate animals who have long been used by the zoo and entertainment industries. PAWS provides them safe haven for the rest of their lives. The specific challenge that was so incredibly arduous was to have three elephants from Toronto Zoo moved not to a zoo facility, where they would have more limited quarters and still be on display, still used in the interests of humans—but to a sanctuary, where everything done would be in their interests, and only in their interests.

The animals were technically the property of the city of Toronto, which balked at the cost of renovating the animals' quarters, or of obtaining another elephant when one of the three died—which the city must do to meet accreditation standards. The standards indicate that, since elephants are "social," a zoo must have three or more (though exceptions are made).

The three African elephants were as old as Toronto Zoo elephants ever get, and showing their age. They simply couldn't get enough exercise in the limited space available to keep themselves healthy, and they had to endure cold Canadian winters.

Part of the story is told in previous posts on this blog.

While we are indebted, on behalf of the elephants, to those Toronto City councillors who made the effort of going beyond the anti-sanctuary rhetoric of the zoo community to determine for themselves what the best option would be for the aging elephants, others seemed mesmerized by the zoo community's oft-spoken claim that it knows best. Up to the last moment, we had a professor specializing in chicken welfare solemnly claim, backed by the full weight of his academic credentials, that the elephants would never make the journey alive.

Well, they did. More than a year later, they have the wonderful ability to roam over fields and hills, and do... well, do whatever they want to do... within an environment that, if not their African homeland, provides a far closer simile than any zoo-accredited facility available to elephants on this continent. They get top veterinary care and all of the amenities any zoo can offer.

And, last year, with good weather and giant pandas "on loan" (really rented at a high cost) on display, the Toronto Zoo nevertheless suffered a $8.3 million decline in revenue. People who care about animals may be getting the message about zoos.

With notable exceptions to be sure, the zoo community still seems not to grasp the difference between a real sanctuary and those facilities that claim to be sanctuaries, but provide inadequately for animals. These people may therefore assume that, unless accredited by a zoo, no animal should go there. But, there is an accreditation process for sanctuaries called the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). It is not possible to accredit a zoo as a sanctuary or a sanctuary as a zoo; they are two different things. And, as the Toronto experience shows, however much zoos accredited by the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) or its Canadian version, the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), may serve human interests, sanctuaries are designed and run to serve the interests of the animals themselves (if up to standards that do exist). That was Pat Derby's dream, now fully realized.

And, that brings us to one of those good news/bad news stories. Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo recently said that it would close its exhibit for elephants. That's the good news. For years, compassionate people with varying degrees of expertise have been concerned about the zoo, their concerns solidly backed up by a probing investigation by the Seattle Times and a citation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations under the Animal Welfare Act.

But, what of the two surviving Asian elephants, Bamboo, age 47, and Chai, age 35? The best thing for them would be to move to a sanctuary. The bad news is that, in a situation eerily similar to what we experienced with the Toronto Zoo, the Seattle Zoo seems to want to move the animals to—yep—another zoo. This is clearly not in the better interests of the animals themselves. But, the zoo does not seem to care. It claims to care, yet still insists that the elephants can't just be elephants; they must serve the forces of education and conservation, and be on display.

If only they could speak, Iringa, Toka, and Thika—the Toronto Zoo elephants now enjoying the space and freedom PAWS provides—might have something to say about all of that. Sadly, animals have no voice in their defense. It is up to us. No conservation function is served by imprisoning elephants. Ivory poachers and ivory buyers are the problem; imprison them. There is nothing that an elephant in an enclosure can teach you that can't be better learned many other ways. And no, we have no need to have them "on display." They've been on display, and now it should be their turn to have their interests served. They need to go to a sanctuary.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Monday, October 20, 2014

Journey to Churchill Exhibit Disappointing

During a recent visit to Winnipeg, Manitoba, I stopped in at the Assiniboine Park Zoo to have a look at their new Journey to Churchill exhibit. Reportedly constructed at a cost of $80 million, the exhibit complex is the first phase (along with a new zoo entranceway) of the zoo’s planned redevelopment.

As expected, Journey to Churchill has been big news in Winnipeg. It became an especially hot news item when some Arctic wolves dug under the wall separating their space from an adjacent polar bear paddock, and then again, when a polar bear chewed through some waterproofing sealant on the underwater visitor viewing tunnel forcing its closure. But, I expect that like most of the expensive, new attraction exhibits that populate zoos across the continent, there won’t be too many more of those kinds of incidents and the novelty factor that accompanies any new development will gradually wear off and in time Journey to Churchill will fade into the news background.

Before I made my visit I checked the zoo’s website to see what they were saying about Journey to Churchill. It said the exhibit brings the magic of the north to the heart of Manitoba and that it is the most comprehensive project ever undertaken in Canada aimed at issues related to climate change, polar bears and other northern species. So I entered the zoo with a glimmer of hope that the exhibit would, even in a small way, live up to its hype and, more importantly, that it would provide superior conditions for the animals, which include, not just polar bears, but Arctic wolves, Arctic foxes, ringed seals, caribou, musk ox and snowy owls. I also hoped that, if nothing else, it would have a strong conservation “call to action” component. How disappointed I was.

During the past 30 years I’ve visited Arctic displays (and polar bear exhibits), both good and bad, in zoos around the world. To me Journey to Churchill seemed like little more than a slightly more grandiose rehash of what already exists in other zoos in North America and elsewhere.

At a reported 10 acres in size, Journey to Churchill sounds large (and, for a zoo, it is a rather sizeable exhibit complex), but a substantial amount of space, perhaps the majority, isn’t allocated to the animals at all. Visitor pathways, viewing stations, galleries, washrooms, bleachers, concession areas, a movie theatre, children’s play areas, a facsimile of the Town of Churchill, with a gift store and 200 seat Tundra Grill restaurant, keeper service areas, gardens, planted buffer regions, and other such features and infrastructure, consume a substantial portion of that purported 10 acres. Looking at the exhibit map, it appeared the polar bears had been allocated approximately 1/3 of the exhibit complex’s space and even that was subdivided into three pens, as well as some off-exhibit pens in another part of the complex.

One of the most obvious features of Journey to Churchill, impossible for any visitor to overlook, was gunite (a mixture of cement, sand and water that is applied with a pressure hose). It was everywhere. Used to create fake rocks, rocky outcrops and cliffs, gunite is most often used to cover, and therefore hide, infrastructure. It’s also used to create cave-like alcoves for public viewing (a design strategy meant to “frame” animals so that when visitors see them they appear to be in a natural setting). But the gunite was excessive and didn’t look very real. I thought it made the entire complex look more like the set of a new Flintstones movie than anything actually found in nature.

There were also many expensive design features, such as the giant acrylic viewing windows and an underwater visitor viewing tunnel, dubbed the Sea Ice Passage, but, unfortunately, they had no real relevance to the animals. They were features meant to enhance the visitor experience, not to enrich the lives of the animals.

The Town of Churchill facsimile, with its rail car, helicopter and inukshuks seemed to be little more than a giant visitor photo prop and looked a lot like part of a movie-set. Inside the village’s Tundra Grill restaurant, I saw that the back wall of windows was actually part of the barrier separating restaurant patrons from the polar bear pen on the other side of the glass. I suppose it might be nice to sit inside munching a plate of French fries while watching polar bears, but I have to wonder how that might affect the bears. Most animals enjoy their privacy. Does this seemingly intrusive design feature rob the bears of their privacy or force them to move to other areas of the enclosure?

Certainly the actual living spaces of the current collection of animals is improved over the conditions experienced by the animals who preceded them. I remember just a few years ago seeing the zoo’s brown bears and polar bears in antiquated, grotto enclosures, consisting of little more than a slab of concrete, surrounding by gunite walls and a moat at the front. So things are better, but for wide-ranging Arctic animals, the new exhibits are still not particularly large and they’re rather bleak. I watched one ringed seal swimming the same repetitive, stereotypic pattern over and over again. Nothing in the tank was there to interrupt the pattern or to encourage the seal to engage in normal behaviours.

What was particularly alarming, given the zoo’s promotional claims, was the paucity of information about how to help polar bears, other arctic animals and the environment they inhabit. When I entered Journey to Churchill, a sign welcomed me to explore Manitoba’s Subarctic region and said I would “Learn how we can work together to protect it.” But I saw just two signs (and I believe I saw them all) that had a few throwaway suggestions on how I could help. They included inflate my car tires properly, wash my clothes in cold water, drive one day less per week and adjust my thermostat. Really! Is that it? No hard hitting messages or calls to action were evident.

There seemed to be no attempt anywhere, or at least none that I could find, to convey what is really going to be required to turn things around (assuming they can be), no direct connections to “real” conservation initiatives and, perhaps most importantly, nothing encouraging zoo visitors to voice their concerns to our government or to urge elected officials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support international efforts to battle climate change and to facilitate innovation in industry to reduce our national carbon footprint. I thought the environmental messaging was weak and easy to overlook or ignore. And even if every person who visited the exhibit, read the signs and followed what was suggested, it wouldn’t make a whit of difference. How sad.

I had hopes that the 9 minute film playing in the Borealis Theatre, a high domed room with a 360 degree screen, would contain some hard hitting environmental information and a strong call to action, but it was benign and soft-pedaled an environmental message. I came away thinking it was more like a travel promotion for Churchill than anything else.

I also searched for any mention I could find about the welfare of polar bears or even animal welfare generally, but not much there either. Other than a single mention of “well-being” on one sign in the zoo’s International Polar Bear Conservation Center, I didn’t see welfare mentioned anywhere. But I did find lots of information about how the zoo had set up a program to accept polar bears from the wild, so they could be “rehabilitated” to life in captivity. Given what we now know about the behavioural ecology and natural history of polar bears and their history of suffering in captivity, I found it remarkable the zoo would claim that wild polar bears could be “rehabilitated” for life in captivity. It's certainly not what most people think of when they think of wildlife rehabilitation.

Before plans for Journey to Churchill were finalized, Zoocheck met with zoo officials and proposed something profoundly different from what they eventually built. We suggested they construct a “northern bear rescue center” right in the zoo. It would have been a stand alone facility featuring large naturalistic pens for black, brown and polar bears who had been rescued from substandard zoos or that were being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. The facility would have controlled viewing that wasn’t intrusive to the animals and wouldn’t impact on their behaviour.

A range of interpretive displays would feature relevant, current information, challenge visitors to get involved politically, provide opportunities for them to directly support arctic wildlife and environmental campaigns and field initiatives that actually help bears, other northern animals or the places in which they live. Visitors would be slowed down, so instead of them moving rapidly from one viewing station or display to another, they would be engaged and able to take in far more. There would no gunite, no silly photo props, no fake inukshuks, no giant windows, no viewing tunnel, and no restaurant overlooking the bear pen. The northern bear rescue center would have been a low tech, naturalistic facility that focused on the biological, behavioural and social needs of bears and that served a productive and much-needed purpose. And it would have cost just a tiny fraction of what Journey to Churchill did.

I find it particularly sad that formerly wild bears now populate Journey to Churchill, brought into captivity under the guise of “rescue.” So far, they’ve been orphaned cubs that the Manitoba government has provided to the zoo. Certainly it’s a plus for the zoo because they can populate their exhibit and then claim they are saving bears that would otherwise face an uncertain fate in the wild. But what exactly are they being rescued to? They may be alive, but do they have much of a life being in a cage in Winnipeg? And doesn’t sending bears to the zoo relieve pressure on the Government of Manitoba to come up with better, alternative solutions for orphaned cubs or needy adults, or to actually solve the problems that put those bears into that situation in the first place?

Some people predict that the number of wild polar bear cubs in need is going to rise, so what happens when the zoo is full? The problems wild polar bears face will still be there because incarcerating bears in a zoo in Winnipeg does nothing to solve them. Perhaps sending bears to zoos just buys the Government time, allowing the problems that wild bears face to get worse in the process.

What is most sad is to me is that polar bears and the Arctic need help now, but as far as I can see Journey to Churchill won’t help very much at all. Sure, a few visitors might remember a factoid or two about polar bear feet or musk ox fur, but so what. That kind of information can obtained in a minute or two on the internet or in a children’s book about wildlife. Even fewer zoo visitors will be motivated to actually change their behaviour or get involved. We know there are grave threats, including climate change, that challenge wild animals and the environments in which they live. We also know what has to be done, and it’s not just wash your clothes in cold water and drive your car a bit less. If Journey to Churchill is the best the Assiniboine Park Zoo and the zoo community can do to help polar bears, I think we may as well start saying our goodbyes now.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Inc.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Should they kill the horses of Sable Island?

The world's most deadly species wants to strike again.

Originally published 09/24/14

Sable Island—essentially a giant sand bank that rises above the gray waves of the North Atlantic, some 300 km (187 miles) off the shore from Halifax, Nova Scotia—is about 42 km (27 miles) long, but only about 1.3 km (just over half a mile) wide. It has one full time human resident and very few visitors, but is home to about 6,000 Ipswich sparrows, and is the host to the world’s largest assembly of whelping gray seals. These seals give birth to tens of thousands of pups each winter, and are found lulling on the long beaches at other times.

This lonely outpost is also home to a seasonal breeding colony of roseate terns, which are listed as a “species of least concern” worldwide, but the Canadian population is “endangered” under the federal Species at Risk Act. The island is home to a small resident population of harbor seals, and provides a rest stop haven for many migratory birds. It is famous for having fog an average of about 125 days per year and for being surrounded by dangerous waters that have led to 350 shipwrecks and counting. The highest point is about 28 meters (92 feet) above sea level. On November 2, 1991, the “Perfect Storm” scored a direct hit on the island, with the highest wave ever recorded for the region: 30 meters (98 feet). The island is ever changing in its shape, in response to the powerful forces of sea and wind. No one knows what will happen to Sable Island as global climate changes cause sea levels to rise and storms to increase in frequency.

And then there are the horses: about 150 to maybe 400 of them. They have roamed the island for many generations, descended from animals deliberately put there in the 19th Century. An ever-so-romantic myth claims that they reached the island after escaping one or more shipwrecks. Either way, they are there because of human actions.

The Ipswich sparrow, once considered a distinct species, is now regarded to be a subspecies of the widespread Savannah sparrow. There may be some insects who have achieved subspecies status as well, breeding there for such a long time in isolation from their mainland counterparts that the forces of evolution have slightly changed their appearance. More than 190 plant species have been found there.

But, it is not a “pristine” environment. Sable Island has been impacted by humans for centuries. People have released cattle, horses, goats, and rabbits on the island, but most died off. This is a harsh place. The horses survived.

Recently, Sable Island was added to Canada’s National Parks System. You may think that’s a good thing, but it’s not necessarily so. Parks Canada, the agency in charge of National Parks, is committed to maintaining “ecological integrity,” which is described as the environmental conditions that are “characteristic of its natural region and likely to persist, including abiotic components and the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities, rates of change and supporting processes.”

But, they don’t mean it. Parks Canada staff just can’t leave it all alone, arrogantly assuming that they know better what is good for nature than nature does itself. For years, they have shot nesting double-crested cormorants, a native species on Middle Island: a small, uninhabited island in southern Lake Erie that is now part of Point Pelee National Park. They also cull native deer, elk, and raccoons, and allow the hunting of the “invasive” moose in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.

The only thing that might save the gray seals is budgetary constraints. The government wants to kill the seals, but it seems unlikely that it will be willing to spend the amount of money it would take to do it properly (as outlined in a report on the proposed project a few years ago). To cull 100,000 to 120,000 seals per year, they’d have to build special incinerators, and all of the fuel, equipment, and supplies would have to be accommodated at a cost in the tens of millions, with no guarantee that it would lead to increased numbers of commercial fish stocks—and the possibility that it would have a counterproductive effect. However, the seals aren’t safe yet. The fight to protect members of a species that is clearly part of this harsh environment may yet be under attack by the very agency mandated to protect it.

And then, there are the fabled horses. A biologist from Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador, who reportedly “specializes in the study of unique ecosystems” (I would argue that all ecosystems are unique), wants all of the horses removed. And, those of us who don’t agree… Well, we are “not very well informed.”

This biologist is reflecting a view I once held myself: that humans are not part of nature, and that an animal species that is where it is as a result of human action does not belong. But, really, there is no part of the planet, from pole to pole and into the ocean depths, that has not been at least a little altered as a result of human action. Like it or not, we are part of the ecosphere—and, at the species level, an enormous part. Our role is hugely destructive. One of the things we managed to destroy was an evolving, distinct race of walrus that once lived on Sable Island. As Brenna McLeod and her Halifax colleagues put it, “Our data suggest that the Maritimes walrus was a morphologically and genetically distinctive group that was on a different evolutionary path from other walrus found in the north Atlantic.”

We sure put a stop to that! But, the horses of Sable Island are also “on a different evolutionary path” from all other horses. And, if they were to be left alone—assuming that Sable Island lasts long enough—they would become a form distinct from any other horse. Whichever agency is responsible for them being there—and that can only be human activity—did so a very long time ago. There is no indication that the horses are endangering anything. And, even if they were to clumsily step on every roseate tern nest there is, remember: world-wide, the species is regarded to be “of least concern” in terms of its conservation status. The horses of Sable Island will be unique as they evolve into an endemic form under harsh conditions that favor survival of those best equipped to live there.

All species who live there, or anywhere, arrived at one time in their distant past history, raising the question: when do we agree that they belong? Government policies show a bias that reflects the ease by which we do so much killing. If a species is considered “game,” like the pheasant or the brown trout, it is considered “naturalized”—but, if not, like the starling or the pigeon, it is considered “invasive” and does not belong. And so, we indulge in the two things we are so good at: determining the fate of the world’s species, and killing.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hunters Who Want To Kill Bears Change Their Tune

When All Else Fails, Get Personal

Judging from newspaper reports, there seems to be a bit of a change in how the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) is trying to promote the spring bear hunt—or maybe the media are ignoring what they were saying. The original argument was that the spring bear hunt does not orphan as many bears as its critics claim, and that male bears eat cubs (which they may do, but it is not commonplace). But, the concerns of those of us opposed to hunting bears in spring are based on what was reported by scientists studying the hunt. Without seeming to consult with those scientists (apparently including the bear experts working for him), Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources David Orazietti, and his boss, Premier Kathleen Wynne, chose instead to implement a “test” spring hunt, starting May 1 and running for six weeks. It is limited to eight wildlife management units in Central and Northern Ontario.

Now, the mantra from OFAH seems to be that they don’t want “big city animal rights extremists” influencing the Ministry. I guess they see that as their own exclusive right.

I am not sure which “big city animal rights extremists” OFAH means, but I do know that OFAH has absolutely no moral authority whatsoever to dictate what I, my colleagues who oppose the hunt, or the bear biologists whose reports and findings we cite, say when we present actual facts.

I suspect OFAH did some sort of opinion survey that showed that compassionate people didn’t really care what the precise number of cubs starving to death might be, or what male bears did; their concern was for the number of cubs orphaned by hunters shooting lactating female bears with dependent cubs.

What is “extremist” about referencing known facts, or being concerned about animal abuse that leaves cubs to starve? It certainly sounds nasty, to the point of name-calling. In my experience, name-calling is resorted to when facts fail to support the position, on either side of any controversy.

Colleagues at two organizations for which I am a director, Zoocheck and Animal Alliance of Canada, are taking the Ministry to court, advised by a top law firm, Gowlings. I won’t comment on the specifics of the case, but I will comment on what David Orazietti was quoted as saying: “We have young children who can’t go out for recess at their schools, teachers wearing bear whistles because their children are threatened.”

Huh? No “young children” have ever been killed by black bears in Ontario. The real issue is how to prevent even the possibility of a risk—even one that is too small to measure, given that it’s never actually happened. It would help to reduce interactions between bears and people, and to reduce the presence of bears in communities. Mind you, no one has ever been killed by a bear in any of our towns or cities, but it is still a matter of fewer being better. Orazietti is quoted as saying that other strategies have been met with “fairly limited success.” That’s more than either the spring or fall bear hunt has been met with, and the record would be far better, had funding for the “Bear Wise” program not been so severely cut, and had the province found incentives for communities to take necessary steps to eliminate major bear “attractants,” such as open dumps and garbage containers.

Orazietti can’t be that obtuse. His “consultations” do not appear to have been with experts, nor to have referenced how successful such programs as Bear Wise can be. Rather, he consulted with mayors! These politicians are playing a horribly cynical came, preying on people’s fears and ignorance while making them think they care. Good grief. The problems caused by bears occurred when there was a full-blown spring hunt—and the concern about a bear seen on the street on Halloween (that Orazietti frequently references) happened during the fall hunt! Hunting does not stop bear complaints unless it wipes out all bears: the very thing Orazietti’s ministry is committed to preventing.

In Yellowstone National Park (where they have black bears, like ours, and the far more powerful and potentially more dangerous grizzlies), rather than implementing hunting, they made a concerted effort to educate visitors and residents while removing attractants—similar to the Bear Wise program the Ontario government had in place. I recently saw a wonderful chart showing how property damage in Yellowstone from both bear species went from 138 from 1931 to 1969; down to 46 in the 1970s; to 20 in the 1980s; to seven in the 1990s; and how bear-inflicted human injuries went from 48 between 1931 and 1969; to six in the 1970s; to two in the 1980s; to one in the 1990s. And, that chart was put there by Stephen Herrero, the world authority on the topic, who wrote the book on bear risks to humans, literally; it’s called Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Winchester Press, 1985.

How is Orazietti supposed to know about that chart? Well, it’s in his own ministry’s report, written by Herrero for Orazietti’s own ministry in 2006. It gave a favourable evaluation of the Bear Wise program, with recommendations for the kinds of successes that have been well documented in other programs in other jurisdictions, and how they can be effective in Ontario—and were, dramatically so, when the community (Elliot Lake) co-operated (as most other communities apparently would prefer not to do). In Elliot Lake, from 2003 to 2013, calls taken about bears dropped from 509 to 67; traps set for bears in town plummeted from 55 to zero; bears trapped in town because of risk went from 20 to zero; each of those two years, three bears were shot for the same reason; cubs trapped went from four to zero; and bears tranquilized to be moved went from four to zero. Better results would have happened, if it hadn’t been for the government’s funding cuts.

Orazietti says that the fully funded Bear Wise program was too costly. Okay; we get that Kathleen Wynne won’t spend the amount of our tax money required to be effective in reducing bear/human conflicts, and what is obviously a very minimal risk to people or property (lightning strikes are significantly more dangerous to both) because people mistakenly (but understandably) think killing bears in spring will work. Fool voters; prey on their fears and lack of knowledge; avoid having to do what has been proven to work; attack opponents; and then brag about saving money. From Rob Ford, to Stephen Harper, to too many politicians in between, it’s no wonder the profession is held in such low esteem.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Friday, January 31, 2014

Shifting Baseline Syndrome and White Geese

How Questionable Wildlife Management Devours Tax Dollars

In Canada, we have a federal government infamously downloading or cutting off a myriad of valid environmental research programs—inconvenient facts being an impediment to what’s really important to the right-wing ideologues now in power—while ignoring one area of waste that is quite disposable, but oh, ever so convenient if you don’t mind a total, absurdly wasteful sham.

The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) has come out with its latest “Population Status of Migratory Birds in Canada” and is now vilifying a species that is, I’d guess, unknown to 99 percent plus of federal politicians, or other Canadians. The Ross’s goose is nearly identical to a somewhat better known species (although I suspect still unfamiliar to most Canadians): the snow goose. These are both white geese with black wing tips. The snow goose actually comes in two color patterns, called morphs. A minority are dark brownish-grey with white heads and light blue-grey wing patches, and are known colloquially as “blue geese.” They were once thought to be a separate species. The Ross’s shows this “blue” version only very rarely. Otherwise, the Ross’s resembles the snow but is smaller, with a much shorter, stubbier beak with a kind of blue-grey, warty-looking patch around the nostrils. Even the geese can get confused and hybrids occur.

The snow geese are also divided into “lesser snow geese” which breed in the central to western Arctic, and the wee bit larger “greater snow geese” of the eastern Arctic. The tendency is to “lump” them all as “white geese” for the sake of “management.”

The snow goose was already thoroughly vilified by employment of something called the “shifting baseline syndrome.” That phrase was coined by fishery biologist Daniel Pauly, who used it in 1995 in reference to fish management (another tax-funded wildlife management disaster; remember the northern cod?) but applicable to a wide range of wildlife management policies. “Essentially,” Pauly wrote, “this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.”

Around the same time, I said the same thing, only about waterfowl biologists with regard to snow geese. A tight group of (mostly) men raised shrill alarm that the white goose population had increased startlingly—there being so many that they were damaging the environment by pulling out plants by the roots, thus altering salt levels in the soil of coastal areas, to the detriment of numerous other Arctic and subarctic species. The northern ecosystem was, they said, “in peril.”

In 1998, I visited the primary research site, near Churchill, Manitoba, in company with Dr. Vernon Thomas, Department of Zoology at the University of Guelph. True, there were mud-flats where geese had eaten the vegetation, but the subarctic ecosystem seemed in no way imperiled, and the desert-like conditions suggested by the lurid prose were restricted and rarely bigger than, say, a football field. We viewed the area from the air, and then landed, and on the ground found rhizomes under even the most barren patches of soil criss-crossed with goose footprints. The region is under something called “isostatic rebound,” whereby the ground is not-so-slowly rising, adding more land as Hudson Bay retreats, in a state of continued, natural change.

I found that the original 1997 report, used to justify a massive increase in hunters’ ability to kill large numbers of “lesser” snow geese, contained a glaring error by giving an incorrect publication date for a life history study that clearly showed something that was being ignored by these waterfowl “biologists,” as surely as the fishery biologists referenced by Dr. Pauly ignored historical data about the size of fisheries (with disastrous results).

There is nothing “scientific” about ignoring data that don’t fit your theory, and this cluster of waterfowl managers wanted us all to believe that the Arctic ecosystem was in peril, only to be relieved by culling (or “harvesting”) vastly more snow geese. Goose numbers were presented as being higher than ever. Classically displaying the avian version of the shifting base syndrome, they had assumed that the conditions they had seen on their first visits to the north as young men, when the white geese were at or close to all-time lowest numbers, were the “norm;” thus, the changes they had seen as white goose numbers increased were seen as abnormal. And, as has been said of a suite of other species, the change was attributed to anthropogenic (human-caused) changes—in this case, the planting of crops that provided wintering geese in the southern U.S. more food than they had ever had before. It was called an “agricultural subsidy.” So, how much food did geese have before, say, the industrial revolution? No one even asked.

This differs from the fisheries’ version of shifting base syndrome only because so many fish species never got a chance to recover, while the snow geese did. But, in both circumstances, management decisions are based on faulty estimates of what “should” be there based on the historic record—and would be, had they been left alone.

I know this is all sort of technical, thus boring, which is why it’s so easy to waste Canadian tax money… But stay with me on this, because it is also not very hard to understand.

If these “biologists,” on government payrolls and/or various government grants or funding from NGOs in the business of supporting the entire sham, flying about the Arctic and subarctic garnering “data” to prove their point, were right, then surely early records would show low numbers of white geese. The exact opposite was true.

Most of the killing off of snow geese occurred before there was much effort or ability to count them, and long before aerial photography and other technologies for producing accurate estimates were available. But, read this quote from pioneering ornithologist Herbert W. Brandt, describing an experience in Texas, where, on March 23, 1919, he and his companions visited a marsh on the plains. “As we approached it looked as if it was covered with snow, but it proved to be thousands upon thousands of snow geese and other wild geese. Here is their winter home, coming into the great pastures at night to feed on the abundant grass. Last year for the first time known a couple of large flocks remained the entire summer.” Indeed, like small numbers of other such first-hand accounts that survive from that era, it suggests abundance comparable to, and possibly greater than, what we experience today. Brandt continues that the owner of the ranch “told us that the geese we saw were just a few left from the great winter flocks, most of them having now departed for the northland. He has seen 500 acres of solid geese, he said, just one snow bank…”

There are other such accounts, even photographs, all dutifully ignored or dismissed as “anecdotal” by the CWS. It’s important, because assuming that the various accounts were right, huge numbers of snow geese have naturally occurred before, and left no permanent damage. Indeed, in a private moment at a waterfowl conference in Memphis some years ago, a CWS waterfowl manager said to me, “Barry, it will take a good fifty years for some of that vegetation to recover.” I just looked at him. He blinked, and then said, “But that’s your point, isn’t it?”


Politicians would far, far rather scapegoat wild animals than address serious and real environmental threats. I mean, yes, the Arctic is in peril, but from a wide range of anthropogenic forces culminating in rising temperatures on average—not from a native species who has been there since the retreat of the glaciers.

Which brings us back to Ross’s geese. When I was a young child in the 1950s, it was, to me, a mystery bird: a small version of the snow geese, whose nest had not been discovered until 1938. In one of my childhood reference books, it stated, “They winter entirely in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys of California, where they are known to gunners by the name ‘China geese’ and now enjoy absolute protection under the game laws.”

No longer. They made the mistake of trying to recover to former numbers. Those stubby little beaks of theirs are now implicated in the increased “peril” we are supposed to believe the Arctic endures at the hands, or beaks, of the white geese—even the little, once endangered Ross’s goose. The CWS has issued its “notice of intent” to designate these small geese as “overabundant.” Well… They were rare back when I was ten years old, and now they aren’t… Wow… Maybe their current numbers are unprecedented.

Well, no, not according to the always easy-to-ignore historic record. It is a fragmented record because, apart from a handful of ornithologists, no one in the 19th and early 20th centuries could identify them as anything other than, at most, puny snow geese. And yet, a knowledgeable chronicler wrote in 1928, shortly before the bird became endangered, that on its wintering ground in central California, it was “often quite common. It seems to be tamer than other species of geese which visit that region; hence many are shot for the market…” Remember, we are talking about an era that saw the elimination “for the market” or otherwise, of vast herds of bison; the extinction of our most common bird, the passenger pigeon; the elimination of huge flocks of Eskimo curlews, now extinct; the elimination of our only native parrot, the Carolina parakeet; the extinction of our only flightless birds, the spectacled cormorant and the great auk; the extinction of the Labrador duck; the extinction of the Atlantic gray whale; the extinction of the heath hen; and on and on… It was an era of mass wildlife destruction, and a small white goose who came from a place where few or no humans lived—and we thus had not learned to fear them—wouldn’t have had a chance.

Based on what happened with the snow geese when they were designated as “over abundant,” what will be wanted when the designation is given (and it will be) is absurdly extended bag limits, use of recorded calls and baits, a spring hunting season, and anything else that replaces the concept of “fair chase” or “sport” with permission to slaughter. There is the added advantage that hunters who enjoy this sort of thing (and I emphasize that many don’t) will be able to bang away at any white birds with black wing tips (hoping they exclude whooping cranes and white pelicans) without the nuisance of having to tell the Ross’s goose from the snow goose. They will be able to kill large numbers of them using bait and electronic calls, all with federal blessings.

At the time this all began, we predicted it wouldn’t work. First, there was no way hunters would or could slaughter enough snow geese to reduce their continental population to a number satisfactory to the wildlife managers: a number where their feeding showed virtually no “impact” on vegetation. In fact, many hunters were quite disgusted with the idea, and with the inevitable waste of meat if one meets the bag limits. Snow geese are not generally tasty, and we taxpayers unwittingly funded a government cook book on how to make them more palatable. A guy who shoots twenty a day is hardly going to eat all twenty! Also, Arctic wildlife populations typically display “boom-bust” increases followed by population crashes; think lemmings, for example, and the predators who eat them. But, by knocking the top off the growth curve, one assures that the “bust” part does not happen… They don’t peak, there is no subsequent crash, and numbers stay high.

Two decades later, we have been proven to be right. As the CWS puts it, “Despite recent efforts to reduce the numbers of mid-continent Lesser Snow Geese, the population continues to grow.” But, paradoxically, that’s good news for wildlife biologists whose ineptitudes are so seldom challenged; their work, their grants, are assured into the future.

And, even if a government infamous for cutting funding to work that raises alarms about the environment figures it all out – which is highly unlikely – well, they will happily keep signing the cheques so they can say they are funding conservation. I mean, hey; you could address, say, climate change, but that might mean limiting, say, the Alberta oil sands, or proposed pipelines, or Arctic resource exploration… So, you can see the dilemma. It’s easier to kill geese.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA

Originally published

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wildlife (Mis)Management Myths Prevail

This Too Shall Pass (Or Will It?): What Animal Advocates Should Know!

One of my favorite lines from the Bible does not, according to those who actually read the Bible, occur in it. The line is “This too shall pass,” and, Biblical or not, I have often thought about it, and the concept has given me strength. But three recent events (and many others like them) challenge the notion.

First, a reporter for an Ohio newspaper called me to discuss cormorants. Fine; since I saw my first double-crested cormorant in 1958, I have been intensely fascinated by, and defensive of, this most maligned and misunderstood species, and learned all I could about it. But…he had talked to a wildlife management “expert marksman” who had shot many cormorants during culls at Lake Erie, and as “a scientist,” his word meant so much more than mine. As well, the reporter could not get his head around the fact that our “duty” to “control” nature is neither a given nor necessarily effective—the view being that, since nothing much is natural, we should be out there deciding on behalf of nature who should live, who should die, and what the environment should really look like. I’ve heard it all before.

And then there was the decision, referred to in my last blog, to reinstall, albeit on a limited “test” basis, the spring bear hunt here in Ontario to reduce the number of complaints. But I had just read, among other such documents, a New Jersey study that clearly showed two things: as the number of bears “harvested” increases, so do complaints about bears, AND, non-lethal bear management has the opposite effect (sometimes dramatically so). Ontario data show the same thing, but facts don’t matter… As I said in my blog, our provincial prime minister, Kathleen Wynne, is embracing cruelty to bear cubs in the interest of earning votes. I suspect that the number of spring bear hunt proponents who have read the same studies and reports that I have read hovers around zero.

And then there was yet another hideously patronizing article, this one in The New York Times, telling us that we may not like it, but look, folks: since we’ve removed deer predators, deer numbers have to be controlled. They don’t mention how much more “game” we kill (or, in their language, “harvest”) than the predators we supposedly replace. Oh, we who don’t like it no doubt mean well, but we are just na├»ve Bambi-lovers who are unable to appreciate cold facts.

I've heard all of this so many times, regarding so many species, with but minor variations.

Here is some information for the animals' side to think about. But before I go on, one thing I strongly, strongly, strongly urge of everyone fighting to protect wildlife: challenge EVERY single premise. Take nothing as factual without first doing your own deep research. NEVER, please, mistake wildlife managers for scientists, or wildlife management for science. Be clear, concise, and factual. We have truth on our side, which is a good foundation to build upon.

The basic idea driving this continent-wide trend toward culling, again with allowances for regional- or species-specific variations, goes something like this:

Humanity has eliminated the "controls," such as predators, that in pre-Columbian (hereafter "primal") North America, kept the species "in check."

Humanity has enhanced carrying capacity (the amount of food available to the species in question) of the environment beyond what existed in primal times, thus leading to a population "explosion" that is "out of control," or has led to "hyper-abundance."

Because of the first two situations, the people who support culling blame the species in question for harming “the environment” (forgetting that those species ARE the environment, or part of it), impacting agriculture, and putting human safety at risk. Culling “controls” the population, restoring a balance toward normalcy – a concept that is either not defined, vaguely defined, or given a very specific number (there should be "X" number of deer [or whatever species is targeted] per hectare, based on what the habitat can withstand).

In reality, though "X," when identified at all, is the number (derived through computer models whose accuracy depends on the amount and quality of data entered) at or below which complaints to politicians cease to be made. We often hear dire predictions, like those of deer starving—and yet starvation in deer is largely a function of snow conditions, and happens in populations whether hunted or not. If you look at the deer targeted, you’ll see that they are typically healthy. We begin to understand that wildlife management is driven by politics, not science.

For some species, such as wolves or cormorants, "X" is often very close to zero. Literally, it can be a number that renders the species in question threatened or endangered, if not extirpated or even extinct, but of course that won't be admitted... It will always be a figure above zero, at least for native species.

There are other factors in play:

Lethal culling, as opposed to non-lethal conflict resolution and thoughtful, compassion-based management, has a huge psychological appeal. Not everyone has the same values or thinks the same way, and a percentage of the population has no, or very selective, empathy toward other species (or other humans, for that matter), and to them, "punishment" is important—and killing appeals to their need to demonstrate dominance and control. It is not necessarily that they are looking for an excuse to kill, but rather, killing fulfills an atavistic need to dominate and to punish: a characteristic that I believe was selected for through evolution, but is no longer valid. We have “won.” The world of other species is shriveling in the wake of our technologically driven power.

It is also true that the majority of people NOT bothered by the presence of an animal species tend to keep quiet about it. How often do you write to your elected representative to say something like, "Hey, I just saw a cardinal at my feeder, a chipmunk in the garden, and a cottontail in the front yard, and I want you to know that I enjoyed them very much and am very glad that they are there?" I mean, why would you? Decision and policy makers almost exclusively hear from the whiners and complainers.

Another factor is fear. I am currently dealing with communities in British Columbia where the "bogeyman" is the Mule Deer (not the White-tailed Deer, which also occurs there, but is far less likely to hang around people than are Mule Deer... but no matter...they've killed them, too). The fear is based on a few actions by defensive deer – most notoriously a doe whose fawn was beset by a cat, a group of human bystanders, and finally a distant dog, which was the final straw for her, and she attacked the poor dog. From that, the concern has become that a child will be seriously hurt or killed.

There have been countless thousands, tens of thousands, of interactions between children and deer... millions, if we count kids in petting zoos featuring deer... including Mule Deer... and, so far, the number of such incidents appears to stand at... zero. It does not matter; ignorance rules.

Zoonotic disease is always a popular bogeyman with wildlife managers. No matter that studies show that the presence of White-tailed Deer in the east may LOWER the probability of transmission of Lyme Disease to people and pets (that's right... the opposite of what you are told by wildlife managers); the fear is enough to warrant the killing. It is a well-known fact that people tend to be very poor at risk-assessment, and so it is easy to convince them to be disproportionately afraid... or to take unnecessary risks, for that matter... or to fear economic damage, ecological damage, or whatever. It is not that all such concerns are totally invalid; it is just that they must never be assumed to be valid, or as valid as presented.

Remember, too, that hunting is generally in decline. Wildlife managers are fighting to promote lethal animal control, especially in the United States, where special taxes on guns and ammo go toward paying for wildlife managers.

It is increasingly understood that hunting just for "sport" is no longer as socially acceptable as it once was; thus, a social need has to be served, and scapegoating animals fulfills this need. This is less true in Canada, where culling is more likely to be done at government expense, but there are exceptions—like the newly reinstated spring bear hunt in Ontario, as purely a political move as anything I've ever seen. The government had a good "Bear Smart" programme, but simply didn't want to fund it.

Regarding deer, the idea that they are more common now than in primal times (not that it should matter; we can never return to primal conditions) is based on outdated assumptions about the primal population size of first nations people. It is now understood that there were far more people here than was originally assumed, and thus, if you extrapolate from the newer figure, it means far more deer.

The elimination of deer predators such as wolves and eastern cougars is factual, but how do we measure that against the impact of the human predator, the enhanced mortality from automobiles, fence entanglements, hunting and poaching, the eastern range expansion of coyotes (evolving within our lifetimes into a larger subspecies to better fill the ecological niche left vacant by the elimination of the wolf), and various other anthropogenic impacts such as pollution or climate change? Certainly, what we can glean from earliest accounts suggests that there could well have been far more deer in primal North America, although such accounts are scarce, and many historical records that are presented as reflecting primal conditions do not do so, given the incredible rapidity with which disease reduced first nations citizens immediately after European contact.

Similarly, the enhanced carrying capacity from what is sometimes called the "agricultural subsidy" (there is far more nutriment per acre in, say, a corn field than in a primal forest) does not take into account the other factor that determines carrying capacity: shelter. Vast acreage of a high-nutriment crop does little good without places for the deer to hang out, breed, and gather for winter.

But also be sure to challenge the impact deer or other bogeymen species make to a community, the ways in which those impacts can be resolved, and the cost-effectiveness of such resolutions. Physical removal of deer stimulates compensatory morality: a rebound effect whereby, with less competition for resources, more deer are born and more deer survive... ideal for ammunition and trap manufacturers and the employment of wildlife managers, because the "problems" are never resolved.

That’s the way the wildlife managers and supportive industries like it to be. We don’t have to.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Lies Parrot Keepers Tell

The Timneh Parrot

Ironic. A couple of weeks ago – mid-December – I had decided to do a National Bird Day blog about the Timneh Parrot. You won’t see the blog I nearly completed because, as I was finishing it, I took a brief break to check my e-mails—and in one, there was a link to an online article by Scott Malone entitled “U.S. parrot rescuers struggle to keep up with unwanted birds.” As anyone who has seen the wonderful new film, Parrot Confidential, is well aware, most parrots are extremely ill-suited to be “pets” or “companion animals,” and a huge number are doomed to lifelong imprisonment under cruel conditions. Sanctuaries, as the title of Malone’s article said, can’t keep up with the demand for suitable homes for these birds—especially the largest and noisiest of them, who become unwanted once the novelty of owning them wears out.

In classic journalistic tradition, after quoting the owner of a “wild bird rescue facility” clearly fed up with owners “no longer able or willing to keep their pets,” Malone quoted an apologist for keeping parrots, one Al Decouteau, chairman of the 4,000 member Society of Parrot Breeders and Exhibitors (SPBE), saying, “Of the 350 breeds of parrots, about 12 have become extinct in the wild, but because there are breeders, those breeds have lived on.”

The problem is, that’s simply not true. First of all, the term “breed” refers to a domesticated form of a species that has been, through careful breeding of individuals showing desired mutations over many generations, turned into something that did not ever naturally occur. A breed is not a species. Poodles, pugs, and great Danes are all breeds, but belong to a single species: the dog. Those breeds didn’t evolve naturally in the wild. You could “release” all of the collies, retrievers, and boxers you wanted; it would not lead to there being wolves, the original species.

Decouteau, a veterinarian, presumably meant “species.” There is one species of parrot, the ill-fated Spix’s Macaw, that is currently only known as a captive bird—but what pushed it to the edge of extinction was the demand by the exotic pet industry for parrots. Owners were so zealous about having one of these rarities that it was difficult, if not impossible, to get them to cooperate in an effectively managed captive breeding and release program. The last known wild bird had to be protected from parrot collectors, yet “mysteriously” disappeared.

There have been some international efforts to captive breed and release some endangered parrot species, but they don’t involve pet birds. Conservation successes are disappointingly difficult to achieve. An effort to restore one of the only two parrots native to the U.S., the thick-billed parrot, failed because birds lacked the benefit of teaching from wild parents, and were thus easy prey for predators. (The other species, the Carolina parakeet, is extinct…and yes, they were kept in cages until, sometime early in the 20th century, none were left to cage. SPBE incongruously uses a drawing of one in its online logo.)

Captive breeding, centrally managed to maximize genetic diversity, with very carefully-timed release done “in situ” (within the bird’s native habitat), can enhance a suite of conservation efforts – things like provision of nest-boxes and habitat protection – for some parrot (or other) species, such as the Mauritius parakeet and the Puerto Rican parrot. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the exotic pet trade, which vies with habitat loss as the most significant contributor to the endangerment of parrot species.

But, as I said, I was writing about the Timneh parrot. I had originally thought to make the interesting point that this distinctive African parrot, though well known, had been considered a subspecies, or race, of the more widely distributed and better known African gray parrot. I knew that would require an explanation of how species evolve and how the term “species” is defined. Put very simply, subspecies are forms distinct in some, often very minor, ways from others of their kind, with said distinctions not being enough to prevent them from freely interbreeding where their populations abut, or overlap, and produce viable offspring. For example, adult male American robins who live in Labrador and Newfoundland have black backs and heads, while those living in Michigan or Ohio have black heads and gray backs, and those living where I do in Ontario are in between, but closer to the Michigan birds, while the further east you go, the darker, on average, the backs become. Those are “subspecific” differences. The Newfoundland and Michigan populations belong to two separate subspecies of the same species—the American robin—and most folks would notice no difference between them.

The Timneh parrot is found only in the forests of countries on the African gulf coast – Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, southern Mali, and the Ivory Coast. They are slightly darker than the African gray parrot, with a dark maroon, not red, colored tail, and a light yellowish or pale horn-colored patch on the upper beak, while the beak of the adult African gray is entirely black. The populations of the two species do not overlap.

According to BirdLife International, the Timneh parrot is “vulnerable” to extinction because “population declines have been noted across the range. In all of these declines, trapping for the wild bird trade has been implicated” along with habitat destruction, although the species can use second-growth forest, cultivated areas, and even gardens. But, “during 1994 – 2003, over 359,000 wild caught African gray and Timneh parrots were reportedly exported from the range states.” For both species, the numbers taken from the wild are not sustainable, despite the fact that both are also bred in captivity.

Here is what SPBE (and other folks who see nothing wrong with keeping parrots) fail to mention. Breeding is not the issue. The African gray, Timneh, and all other vulnerable, rare, or endangered parrots actually do know how to breed. They’ve been doing it without our help for millions of years. What they need protection from is the actions that are driving them to extinction: the wild bird trade and habitat destruction. Keeping a pet parrot does not address those problems. Neither does SPBE, the exotic pet trade, or supportive industries making all the paraphernalia, from cages to cuttlefish-holders, that produce profits. None of it addresses the root causes of so many declines in so many species of parrots.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.