Shakespeare may have been mistaken about what lives on after a person departs from this mortal world, for it is largely forgotten that the famous wildlife artist John James Audubon not only killed virtually every animal he portrayed but also blasted into oblivion thousands more just for the fun of it. Audubon also delighted in writing about his deadly deeds. In his Journals, a chronicle of shooting, baiting, trapping, and snaring wildlife, he breezily describes penetrating a wolf den in order to cut the tendons on the hind legs of the three hapless animals found there, then pulling them out by a rope around their necks, and finally turning them over to his hunting party’s pack of dogs.
How far have we come, in the century-and-a-half since Audubon’s death, in our relations with free-living animals? The National Audubon Society, named after John James himself, seems to have progressed little, considering the recent decision of Connecticut’s Audubon chapter to begin bow-hunting deer on its Greenwich property.
Audubon Greenwich’s decision is entirely familiar. We’ve seen it time and again, whenever a conservation society — or, for that matter, a government body or public utility — discovers that the land it possesses is undergoing some sort of natural change. The society zeroes in on a single species of animal to blame for the change, which by then is termed a problem. The “problem” inevitably involves the harrowing consequences of “too many” — at Audubon Greenwich, for instance, too many incidents of Lyme disease and deer-automobile collisions, coupled with a decline in populations of songbirds and trout lilies.
Next, the conservation group buys some science. Often crucial to the whole process, science tells us not only how to eradicate the culprit, but why we must do so. That a named culprit precedes the science should be a tip-off, a hint, that the purchased science may not present a balanced picture of the real or imagined problem. Nevertheless, the group hires somebody to write up the science — call it The Report — to ostensibly justify the decision to shoot away. Although it presents an argument with supporting facts for public scrutiny, The Report takes on a mantle of sacred infallibility. Of course, sacred infallibility is more in keeping with religion than science. But irony is the stuff of life — or in the case of Audubon deer — death.
News media love The Report. It makes their work much easier, after all, with its facts tucked neatly between two covers. A few quotes from either side of the debate and their work is done. Rarely do the reporters pause to take notice of what they miss: any research or scientific opinion that contradicts what it cherrypicks among the related published sources. News reporters buy into the fundamental pretense of The Report, which is that science distills itself to a single, pure truth.
As with reporters, so with courtroom judges. As a group, judges strongly prefer the wheels of justice to roll smoothly, and they greatly fear that something will wrap around the axle. The Report clears the road. Thus do most court decisions prompt smiles and handshakes among hunt supporters and vex the hunt’s opponents.
Because its cherrypicking is especially transparent, The Report recently procured by Audubon Greenwich deserves special mention. Fourteen of its thirty sources are nothing more than self-published monographs, and its key assertions appeal to outdated theories. The one on songbird decline, for example, blames high deer densities for the phenomenon, while more current research indicates that numerous factors bear on songbird declines, from forest age to weather patterns to wildlife population cycles. In the Northeast, moreover, non-native bushes such as honeysuckle and buckthorn play a role, as they encourage the birds to build their nests among their branches. By so doing, they expose the birds to land predators such as raccoons, either because, in the case of honeysuckle, their limbs are low, or, in the case of buckthorn, they lack protective thorns, such as those found on native hawthorn.
There’s also the bow hunting wounding rate. “Wounding rate” refers to the animals shot but not retrieved by the shooter. In the case of bow hunting, these animals often spend days dying of their wounds. According to the authors at Audubon Greenwich, the figure corresponding to wounded deer is seven per cent. Surely, anyone familiar with bow hunting read that twice. Field studies record rates several times that figure, even in controlled hunts. Who benefits from the outlandish figure? The bow hunting club whose members had agreed to do the shooting on the Greenwich property — and had provided the figure of seven per cent.
Across the miles
McGrath, Alaska is almost as far from Greenwich as you can go and still be within the continental United States. McGrath is home to 470 human residents, none of whom possess the financial wealth enjoyed by most of Greenwich’s inhabitants. And yet in spite of their geographic and economic differences, the two towns embrace the same attitude about hunting. The recent decision of the Alaska Board of Game and Department of Fish and Game to aerially hunt wolves near McGrath makes that clear.
Proponents of aerial hunts claim they suppress the wolf population so as to allow an increase in the resident moose population for yet more hunters. The assumption is the wolves prey on the moose to such extent that the moose numbers cannot increase. Proponents want more moose not because they love moose, but because they love moose meat. McGrath hunters hope to shoot more moose than they now shoot (by land) and trap in order to remedy what they say is a town-wide moose meat shortage.
The science behind the aerial wolf hunt resembles the science behind the Audubon deer hunt. The “declining” moose population estimates, for example, rely on “trend counts” that field biologists dropped decades ago, citing unreliability. (In 1979, those very methods produced moose population estimates alongside Nowitna National Wildlife Area, 100 miles north of McGrath, that were too low by 500 per cent.) In another striking similarity to Audubon Greenwich, the McGrath hunting proponents’ high estimate of local wolves comes from area wolf hunters and trappers.
Although Friends of Animals and seven Alaskan plaintiffs sued to prevent the aerial hunt from taking place, the judge, guided by the proponents’ science, found the easy path out.
None of this is to suggest the question of whether to shoot deer or wolves or any animal comes down to scientific legitimacy. Any such decision is a matter not of science, but of ethics. Let us turn, then, to the hunt proponents’ moral calculations.
We must shoot deer, they tell us in Connecticut, to save the Audubon habitat. We must shoot wolves, we hear, to feed McGrath. Never mind that nonviolent strategies can rescue Audubon from its peril, or that aircraft can more easily airlift tofu burgers to famished McGrathans than hunt down wolves. The decision-makers aren’t interested in nonhunting alternatives, whatever they may be — not because they may be cumbersome or cost a few dollars but because they would force on the decision-makers’ consciousness a profoundly inconvenient truth about deer and wolves. Were the decision-makers to acknowledge that these sentient animals can experience pain, pleasure, suffering and enjoyment, they would find it impossible to defend a decision to shoot them.
So instead they mutter that deer and wolves are simply natural resources, not unlike, say, coal, or perhaps snow. You solve the problem of too much snow, of course, by removing it; and that is precisely the analogy officials have borrowed in Alaska.
The paradox of deer hunting season arriving simultaneously with a holiday season in which deer figure prominently in lawn ornaments and greeting cards, together with aerial wolf hunting in a state — Alaska — that lists on its website the wolf as one of the “10 Most Wanted” animals worth viewing when visiting the place, tempts one to postulate, with weary resignation, that our contradictions define us as a species. But this would excuse the lying, a mistake whose effects on other animals are unconscionable. John James Audubon was no slouch when it came to lying. He drew fictitious fish that he passed off as real, knowingly claimed false priority of discovery of some of his subjects in his Birds of America, and occasionally traced another artist’s work without acknowledgement. And he made a fortune. The national organization that today bears his name seems to draw inspiration from him, as does the state of Alaska — except it prefers chasing wolves to exhaustion rather than severing their tendons before killing them. Our responsibility is to turn the tables on John James’ modern emulators: Make them pay for their lie. Send no membership fees to Audubon and spend no tourist dollars in Alaska. And speak the truth about deer and wolves, and what opportunists do to them, as widely and loudly as we can.