Plants as the Prescription: Dr. John McDougall and the Globalization of HealthDr. John McDougall arrived on the sugar plantations of Honokaa, Hawaii in 1973 with all the expertise of a student fresh out of medical school. He readied himself to begin his career as a resident general practitioner, a plethora of drug prescriptions at his disposal. Yet the education he received at Michigan State University was soon overshadowed on the island, as his patients became his teachers, and he eagerly absorbed Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Filipino wisdom on the merits of a plant-based diet. The elders, subsisting on mainly rice and vegetables, seemed in the best physical condition, while their less healthy grandchildren indulged in the meats, cheeses and processed foods of the mainland. “The first generation never had heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis,” McDougall recalls. “They were very fit people.”The doctor quickly figured out the ills of a Western diet. “I was a very frustrated doctor trying to help people get well by pushing medicine,” says McDougall, “But I found that not only could you prevent but you could cure with a plant-based diet.” By the time he completed his degree as a board certified internist in 1978, plants had become his prescription of choice.Today, more than 200,000 people follow McDougall’s “healthy vegetarian diet,” preparing their meals based on starches, vegetables and fruits and avoiding oils, processed foods, dairy products, alcohol or cigarettes. While he stands steadfast behind his plant-based prescriptions, he acknowledges that these lifestyle changes can be difficult for many people who grew up in the United States.“So often we know what is right, but it is so hard to actually do it, whether it is morally, physically, intellectually,” says Roberta Joiner. “Our impulses just take over and seem to control us.” Joiner followed the McDougall plan and now teaches lifestyle cooking classes as part of the plan’s ten-day wellness retreat in California.[fn]Roberta Joiner, e-mail interview by FoA Staff Writer (15 Mar. 2006). Classes are held at the Flamingo Hotel and Resort in Santa Rosa.[/fn] People sign up for “ten days of brainwashing,” quips Dr. McDougall about the intensive retreat meant to ease them off any regular medicines and into a pure vegetarian diet. It’s anything but ascetic, though, as guests have access to an athletic club and spa, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and fine dining along with the educational materials and lectures by McDougall. Two chefs—trained by partner Mary McDougall and daughter Heather McDougall—cook hearty, international dishes including vegan enchiladas, lasagne, and vegetable mu shu.The doctor boasts a 90 percent success rate, measured by the number of attendees who successfully lower their cholesterol, decrease their blood pressure and weight where desired, and maintain a plant-based diet after they leave. Zena Alam has shed 70 pounds, and has been weaned from cholesterol-lowering drugs and two blood pressure medications. “It’s not an inexpensive thing to do,” notes Alam, “But it’s definitely worth it, and it’s a way of life for me now.” [fn]FoA Staff Writer interviewed Zena Alam by telephone (16 Mar. 2006).[/fn]Alam’s family and friends have not jumped on the bandwagon. “Over the last four years, business has increased; but there has also been a lot of resistance,” says McDougall. While the doctor’s immediate and extended families follow his regimen as a preventative measure, most people who come to the diet do so because they have major risk factors threatening their lives. Alam, at 40 years of age, had struggled with back pain so excruciating she could barely walk her dog. For Joiner, the catalyst was a heart attack while scuba-diving the Blue Hole in Belize.Only about one percent of those actually following McDougall’s diet invest in the $4,000 retreat. Some insurance companies cover such a visit, but they aren’t required to do so. In contrast, most states require companies to cover procedures such as bariatric surgery—an obesity treatment in which doctors close off the stomach to reduce the amount of food one can eat, and rearrange the intestine to reduce the amount of calories the small intestine can absorb.[fn]Strong Health (University of Rochester Hospital), “Bariatric Surgery Center at Highlands Hospital: Is Bariatric Surgery Right for You? Insurance Coverage”; Anne Collins, “Introduction to Beriatric Weight Loss Surgery” (copyright 2000-2005[/fn] “People are getting wise to the drug companies and quack surgeries,” says Dr. McDougall. “I think the day is coming when this will be common medicine and easily reimbursed.” The doctor compares the future of a plant-based diet with the turning of the public tide against smoking.A World of WellnessAlthough dieticians have acknowledged the healthful qualities of vegetarianism for years now, and despite Dr. McDougall’s findings and those of other reputable vegan doctors, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to describe a “healthy diet” as one that “emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products; includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.”[fn]U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” (2005).[/fn] Moreover, the government dispenses large subsidies to maintain animal agribusiness and to put milk in U.S. public schools.The eating habits we form early in life are hard to break. Dr. McDougall writes, “Westerners are completely addicted to their steaks, cheeses, and pies. Attempts at moderation guarantee continued dependence and continued failure. The only effective means to overcome these destructive habits is to remove the powerful substance from a person’s life.”[fn]John McDougall, M.D., “Moderation is Impossible for Passionate People” (Feb. 2006).[/fn] McDougall is not only up against a government agency but also faces proponents of trends such as the Atkins Diet, with its emphasis on flesh foods and low carbohydrate content, and the decidedly non-vegetarian South Beach Diet.McDougall observes that where people have high-carbohydrate diets—Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—one finds relatively low rates of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. Unfortunately, more often than not, these societies are looking to the United States for dietary trends. According to Dr. Dean Ornish, the author of Eat More, Weigh Less, “There’s a globalization of illness that’s occurring as people begin to …see the United States as a superpower. They want to live like us and now they’re starting to die like us…” But Ornish insists that activism such as McDougall’s and his own can have an effect “ I think we can get a globalization of health instead of a globalization of illness.”[fn]U.S. Department of Agriculture, Millenium Lecture Series, Symposium on the Great Nutritional Debate, moderated by Carolyn O’Neil (24 Feb. 2000).[/fn]McDougall is working hard to get the message across. His activism includes ten national best-selling books. His forthcoming work, Dr. McDougall’s Digestive Tune Up, will tell the story of a couple with common digestive ailments, and how they’re solved with a plant-based diet.Ann Wheat, co-owner of the world-renowned Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco, met McDougall in Hawaii while looking for a doctor interested in preventative medicine for arthritis. “Other doctors just wanted to put me on low dosages of medication for the rest of my life,” said Wheat, who is no longer on any medications, and has been following McDougall’s diet for 25 years, and supports environmental and animal advocacy.“For me,” says Wheat, “It’s not only a diet. It’s a lifestyle.”[fn]FoA Staff Writer interviewed Ann Wheat by telephone on 15 Mar. 2006.[/fn]Most people following the McDougall diet use materials from its special website, www.drmcdougall.com. Alternatively, people can telephone 800.570.1654.
Sustaining the ?Active? in Activism: Food as a Part of Fitness
Last issue, we discussed how important it is to keep our bodies healthy, and how to make exercise part of our daily routines. A healthy body will allow you to support your active, progressive mind.
Becoming more physically active will require a change in diet as well. As our activity levels increase, we must also pay attention to what we put into our bodies. Not only is food the body?s fuel; it?s made up of the building blocks of a future, fitter you!
While plant-based foods are no longer synonymous with health food — note the abundance of delicious organic desserts and soy-based sandwich fillers — we still need to focus on building up our new, healthy bodies with wholesome basics. We should focus on getting fresh fruits, beans and vegetables, and whole grains such brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley, and wheat. Treats — even organic and vegan — should be an exception rather than a habit.
To deal with cravings, replace the treats with healthful snacks. An apple or banana with a dozen almonds is actually a really nice treat, and won?t leave you with the inferior ?building blocks? of more commonly eaten cookies or chips. This doesn?t mean that cookies and chips can?t be eaten — certainly not, the horror! — but at the same time they shouldn?t be a daily fixation. It may take a few weeks, but with a bit of effort, we can look forward to the healthful snacks as much as we did for the not-so-healthful ones. It just takes a little imagination and retraining.
At various times it is just as easy to under-eat as it is to over-eat. The premise is simple thermodynamics: energy in versus energy out. The more active you are, the more calories you?ll need. Conversely, the less active you are, the less calories you should consume.
Shedding or Gaining Extra Weight: The Formula
To shed weight, one must decrease the calorie intake, and increase the calorie output by exercising the body.
It?s important not to cut out too much, or you?ll run into potential health problems or diminish your potential to drop weight. 500 calories is often considered the ?magic number? in weight loss. If your basal metabolic rate requires you to eat 1,800 calories, then make sure you?re eating at least 1,300 calories a day. But I?d recommend keeping the reduction lower and steadier. A 200-300 calorie deficit might be optima. You won?t shed weight as quickly, but the change will be easier to sustain, and that?s a key to your success. This type of calorie deficit should melt one to two pounds (one-half to one kg) per week. Also, remember that if you?re working out, you?ll need to increase total calories to match your extra efforts and recovery. If you aren?t eating enough, you?ll likely feel tired and listless, and it will be hard to motivate yourself to be more active.
The reverse of this ? gaining weight — requires an increase in calories (as well as physical activity). Simply eating larger portions, adding 50-100 calories per meal, will work for most.
Final note: If you start going to the gym, and find that your weight isn?t changing very much, don?t get discouraged. It?s very likely that you?re toning up and gaining muscle. Muscle is actually heavier than fat, and so enjoy watching extra fat melt away as your muscle tone starts to show.
Carbs Are Your Friends
Unfortunately, due to fads such as Atkins, carbohydrates have been given a bad rap. While there is some truth in the harm of eating refined carbohydrates, the carbs found in whole foods, from apples and bananas to potatoes and corn, are actually a very healthful and necessary part of sustaining an active lifestyle.
Looking around the world, the countries that suffer the same diseases as ours (obesity, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes) are also quite high in protein and processed and refined carbs. Looking at the places where these diseases are rare or unknown, one finds that carbs are actually a large part of their diet, and protein is much lower on the scale.
How can this be? The truth is simple: unrefined carbohydrates found in whole foods, like fruits, vegetables and grains, are the main fuel source for our muscles and organs. The brain, for example, is fueled exclusively by carbohydrates! Perhaps this is why those on the Atkins diet are so confused.
Carbs are also essential for recovery from our athletic activities. While it?s true that protein is needed to rebuild muscles, it?s often overlooked that energy is also required to repair and heal. Think of it as building a house ? while bricks are needed, we?ll also need energy to use the bricks in building the house.
Once more, it?s important to stress the difference between carbohydrates. Processed or refined carbs include white sugar, white flour and white rice. In these, much of the fibre, vitamins and minerals have been removed, leaving mainly sugars or starches. Raw cane sugar, brown rice and whole wheat, on the other hand, leave these nutrients intact, and react quite differently in our bodies.
Fear no more, and banish your carbo-phobia, and enjoy all the healthy carbs out there!
Healthy fats and proteins!
At the request of the government of Senegal, Friends of Animals supported a two-year survey to determine the distribution and number of the chimpanzees in the southeastern part of the country. I supervised and assisted with the survey, work which was carried out in the field by Souleye N’diaye, former Director of National Parks for Senegal.
A key area for chimpanzees was found along the Diarha River. Working in conjunction with local residents, we monitored several families of chimpanzees living along the Diarha for a period of twelve months. But the Diarha soon became important for another reason. It is here that a baby chimpanzee was orphaned when his mother died of natural causes. The story of successfully returning this chimpanzee back to his original family was featured in an earlier article called “Tama and the Baby”.1During the release Souleye and I relied heavily on the assistance and hospitality of the local residents of a small village called Mbouboura.
During that we discovered that the resident chimpanzee and human populations shared the same spring. At the end of the dry season, with little surface water left, access to this spring would become competitive, and potentially dangerous. And thus, an important recommendation of the two-year study involved addressing competition between species for water and food. Mbouboura was named as a priority site. The Arcus Foundation provided the opportunity to resolve the conflict between the chimpanzees and humans of Mbouboura, thus allowing them to co-exist as good neighbors.
To give ActionLine readers an idea of what our day-to-day work is like, allow me to offer two excerpts from my journal.
Approaching the descent into the dry river bed, I slow down and look to the left for signs of the narrow trail I used when releasing the orphaned chimpanzee. Functioning more on memory than observation, I pull the car up the steep mound and follow the overgrown path leading to Mbouboura, the village closest to the release site. Less than 25 meters in, I realize that the road is no longer passable and we will have to turn back. Looking at the thick vegetation, I wonder if my vehicle might have been the last to pass here — nearly three years earlier.
Though it is already late, I decide to try the longer road to the village of Madina Diawelli, the parent village of Mbouboura and the residence of the chief who presides over the two satellite villages of Mbouboura and Parayamba. It’s around dusk, and the elders are in the mosque, praying. A tall Peul woman with a baby strapped to her back unrolls a mat for me on the gravel, and offers me a cup of water. Some time later the men emerge from their tiny mosque, and invite us in the compound. I can only see their silhouettes.
I have asked Endega, a close friend from Ethiolo, to accompany me on this trip to assist with an introductory discussion about the well with the villagers of Mbouboura and the chief of Madina Diamwelli. Once the vice president of the rural community of Salemata, Endega is known throughout this district, and his presence is essential during the early stages of discussion and negotiation. And Endega was with me three years earlier when we released the baby chimpanzee and discovered the competition between the villagers and chimpanzees over water.
Having thoroughly briefed him on my proposal to build a well in exchange for freeing the river for the chimpanzees, I now listen to his presentation to the elders, and their responses. Endega translates. The chief is very pleased with the idea of a well but that he would really prefer that the well be built in the parent village — his village. Speaking for me, Endega explains that the purpose of the well is to reduce the competition between humans and chimpanzees over water. A well in the village of Mbouboura would mean the women no longer need to walk the distance to the river to collect water; the natural water source can assigned to the chimpanzees. So this arrangement would improve the living conditions of both. Such a conflict, adds Endega, does not exist near Madina Diamwelli; neither do chimpanzees. The elders nod.
Two days later, after a similar meeting with the elders of Parayamba, we are on our way to Mbouboura on a new road that none of us knew existed. The road is quite dangerous, worse than I expected, strewn with short stumps and vicious thorn trees that can rip a tire to pieces. It takes more than an hour to cover the ten or twelve kilometers to Mbouboura.
We arrive from the north. I spy the mango tree where we always parked the vehicle before walking the last kilometer to our camp along the river. The elders are waiting for us, in the mosque under the shade of a tree. After extensive greetings we begin our discussion. It is obvious that my proposal has already been discussed at great length, and they have agreed that the well is to be constructed in Mbouboura. Some of the faces I expected to see in the crowd are missing. I learn that Saidou, and elder who often stayed with us at the camp, has passed away. The same is true of Bintou, who regularly came down with her baby to collect water.
Now comprising thirteen families, Mbouboura has roughly 136 residents, a population nearly twice what it was when I was last there. This surge in population will most certainly intensify the competition for water. Everyone assures me that the chimpanzees are still frequent and regular visitors to the river.
As the chore of water collection is primarily that of the women I direct much of my discussion and questions to them. I learn that the closest well is more than 5 kilometers from the village. The closest source of natural water is the Diarha River, roughly 1.5 kilometers from the center of the village. A woman routinely makes a minimum of five trips daily to the river to collect water for her family needs, which include water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and sometimes bathing and laundry. To reduce the amount of water carried, laundry and bathing are often done at the river’s edge. With a basin balanced on her head and a baby strapped to her back, each woman makes the three kilometer roundtrip carrying a minimum of 20 liters of water each time, for a daily total of 15 to 18 kilometers. I am reminded that at the end of the dry season water is very scarce and the women scrape and dig the gravel away from the water points in the same way that the chimpanzees are forced to do in order to obtain water. And this is when the major conflicts over water occur between them. And this is exactly why we are here today.
Before leaving I review the terms of our agreement. A well is to be constructed inside the village; the villagers will free the designated zone of the river to the chimpanzees; the villagers will maintain a path from the main road for the truck to bring equipment and materials necessary for the well. It is also agreed that we will begin monitoring the chimpanzees’ presence at the river site once the rains have stopped. Although lacking money and possessions, the villagers generously provide me with a parting gift of a bowl of rice grain. I accept their gift and then kneel with the others for our parting prayers.
As we drive away, my mind is on all the tasks I need to address: Inform the local government officials, locate someone to contract for the well, and purchase and transport the supplies. I have only eight weeks until the rainy season will make work impossible.
My mobile phone rings. The name SALEMATA appears on the small screen. Calling from a telecenter roughly 20 kilometers from Mbouboura, Gaby’s voice is triumphant as he tells me that the well is finished. After numerous difficulties, many relating to transport of materials, Gaby and Lama, the two young Bassari entrepreneurs responsible for the construction of the well, managed to complete their contract only two weeks later than scheduled. And just in time. The rains have already started to descend.
I arrive in Ethiolo the following evening. The rains have already started pushing the heat of April and May aside. It rains all night and I sleep comfortably for the first time in months. I am awakened by the calls of chimpanzees coming from the Patee mountain, the site of our first well.
According to ThianThian, the chief of the village, the chimpanzees sleep near the source every night. They scream and yell in the morning before they come to drink. They do the same every evening. They must be ecstatic to be the sole proprietors of the water source now.
But when I look at my watch, I see it is only 4:30 in the morning. I wonder if a leopard or some other predator has disturbed them.
The next day, we are on the road to Mbouboura after the all-night rain. With six strong passengers, we are able to push the car out of the mud when the four-wheel drive is unable to do the job.
Dark rain clouds hover above as we arrive. Nevertheless, in a moment of great celebration, everyone comes to greet us: elders, children, dogs. The gaiety of the women is visible as they circle the well, filling their multi-colored, plastic containers. It is delightful to see these overworked women so carefree and joyous, if only for a few moments. I notice an innovative washing table, made from the leftover cement, placed close to the well.
The sky begins to darken and the rain clouds loom even closer. I had hoped to come back one more time before the rains made the road impassable, but am not sure that this will be possible. I suggest that we say goodbye now. I express my thanks to all for having accommodated the release of the baby chimpanzee three years earlier, and for agreeing to the well. I explain that we hope to return in the dry season to begin monitoring the chimpanzees and to develop a nature club with their children, the vast majority who are not enrolled in school. I feel my eyes well up with tears as the elders take my hand, thanking me with kind words and gifts of rice and cous. Ashamed to accept their meager rations, I ask if they can keep them for my next visit so we can all share the meal together. They refuse before I even complete my request. And then one by the one the women come forward each with a gift of a pot cover woven from grass, each one a different size and color.
After our last goodbyes, we run through the deluge to the car.
We ride in silence. I am unable to stop thinking of how the majority of the world takes for granted the existence of this most critical resource: water. Then I remember the chimpanzees. The major impact in their lives will take a few months to materialize. After the rains stop and water becomes scarce, I am sure they will appreciate the peace and comfort of knowing that they can access water daily in the safety of their own territory without the intimidating presence of humans.
I would like to express my most sincere thanks to the Arcus Foundation for funding the building of the well in Mbouboura. It has a direct and clearly positive impact on the quality of life for the chimpanzees — and for the humans, who enjoy clean drinking water for the first time since the village was established.
- 1. See Friends of Animals’ ActionLine (autumn 2003).
The sight of a horse-drawn carriage weaving its way in and out of Midtown traffic, amidst blaring horns, aggressive cabs and trucks, swerving bicycle riders and throngs of pedestrians, is, to New Yorkers, just another part of the urban landscape. The horses, pulling their antiquated carriages, are a beloved New York City tradition, some will say. Others insist that there is nothing more romantic than taking a moonlight carriage ride through Central Park with someone you love, while savoring the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves on the pavement.
But every exploitative industry and practice in society exists with a wall of illusion before it.
In January 2006, Friends of Animals helped found a coalition whose goal is enacting legislation to ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City. The Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages has drafted legislation to effectively phase out this industry, and seeks to have current horses adopted to protect them from kill auctions. The immediate necessity of such a coalition was evident on Jan. 2nd, 2006, when a horse and driver were on their way back to the stables, but the horse panicked, ran out of control, and crashed into a car on 50th Street and 9th Avenue.
The horse, Spotty was badly injured and later had to be killed. The driver, who had been thrown from the carriage, was critically injured as were two passengers in the car.
Many accidents have involved horse-drawn carriages over the years. In several of them, the horses were frightened by a loud, sudden noise — typical of New York City. The natural instinct of horses is to run when they are frightened, often unpredictably, by something that startles them. The incident involving Spotty received particular attention, due to its severity. Friends of Animals and other Coalition founders knew that the time was right to get the effort for a complete ban on the industry out to the public, and to seek support from New York City Council members.
Two more carriage disasters followed the January incident. On April 28th, in Central Park, a startled horse bolted into a 71-year old bicyclist—who sustained serious injuries as a result. Just one week later, on May 5th, a frightened horse collided with a moving car on 11th Avenue. The car overturned, its driver ending up in the hospital, and the horse sustained injuries.
By this time, the Coalition had received significant media attention, including cover stories in both Newsday and AM NY, quotes in the Daily News, the New York Post, and the New York Sun, in addition to my live radio interview as spokesperson of the Coalition, by Ellis Henican and Lynne White on 710 WOR Radio.
Our message is simple: Horses are not commercial vehicles.
The Coalition has been urging the public to boycott carriage horses until they are officially disallowed.
On Saturdays, Coalition members and supporters have been gathering at Central Park South, where the carriages are gathered to pick up passengers. We’re engaged in an outreach effort to educate the public on the exploitation of the horses, in addition to the public safety risks the carriages pose. We have obtained endorsements from tourists and from New York City residents on petitions, to be delivered to the City Council and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, urging legislation that would ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City. We have also been distributing the informative ‘What’s Wrong With Horse-Drawn Carriages in NYC’ flyers to sustain the boycott and advise people how to advance the effort to enact a ban.
Many cities have ended the tradition of animal-drawn vehicles. Here is an inspiring list of the enlightened cities that have banned horse-drawn carriages:
Florida: Kenneth City, Key West, Deerfield Beach, Palm Beach, Panama City Beach, Pompano Beach, Treasure Island
Nevada: Las Vegas, Reno
New Jersey: Camden
South Carolina: Broadway at the Beach
Other cities that have banned horse-drawn carriages include Toronto, Canada; Beijing, China; Paris, France; and London and Oxford, England.
Action You Can Take
The presence of horse-drawn carriages in New York City sends a disturbing message that other animals are mere objects of entertainment for tourists. The positive response we’ve received from the public during our outreach efforts proves that not only is New York City ready to abolish this exploitative industry—it’s long past due.
1. Boycott the Carriage Horse Industry. Educate friends and family to the reality of this industry.
2. Contact NYC Mayor Bloomberg at www.nyc.gov or call 311 and leave a message of strong support for the effort to end New York’s horse-drawn carriage industry.
3. New Yorkers should contact their City Council member at: www.nyccouncil.info and ask them to support legislation that will end the horse-drawn carriage industry.
4. If you use the Internet, visit www.banhdc.org to find out about the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, and to get involved.
Why Are Government Agencies Killing Double-Crested Cormorants?
An increasingly nasty killing campaign, not unlike a war, is currently being waged in North America against a somewhat prehistoric-looking bird named the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).
This cormorant is a fairly large bird, about 33 inches long, with black plumage, webbed feet, an orange-yellow throat pouch, and two short crest-like areas on the feathered head when in breeding plumage.1The cormorant’s food consists largely of fish — occasionally including some species sought by anglers.
The Double-crested Cormorant is the most widely distributed of several cormorant species breeding in North America. The species is expanding breeding activities into some new locations — sometimes at places where other birds such as Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodius), Great Egrets (Ardea alba) and Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) already are breeding, thereby perhaps providing some degree of competition for potential nest sites and food.
Much research remains to be done, however, to accurately understand the behavioral and ecological interactions of nesting Double-crested Cormorants with other nesting birds — especially in Pennsylvania and Ontario.
In Pennsylvania, during the past half-century, Black-crowned Night Herons have nested on several islands in the Susquehanna River. For example, one nesting colony thrived on Rookery Island near Washington Boro, Lancaster County, until sometime in the 1980s when the birds stopped nesting there and, for unknown reasons, abandoned the island.
Common Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons also nest on Wade Island in the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and in 2005, there were also 59 cormorant nests on Wade Island. A slow decline of nesting night herons began on Wade Island extending back some five years before the first Double-crested Cormorants arrived on the island. Hence, currently unknown behavioral and ecological factors seem to be responsible for declining populations of nesting Black-crowned Night Herons on at least two islands in the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.
In an attempt to stop declining numbers of state endangered nesting Common Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons on Wade Island, and without any scientific evidence explaining the reasons for the declines of these birds, the Pennsylvania Game Commission decided to shoot up to 50 Double-crested Cormorants nesting on the island.2 The Game Commission asserts that cormorants compete for the island’s trees and shrubs used as nest supports by egrets and night herons, thereby forcing these birds off the island while also causing the death of some trees and shrubs due to accumulations of cormorant guano on the island’s vegetation.
Several ornithologists, however, protested the cormorant shooting on Wade Island: Along with Stacy Small, former Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Pennsylvania, and nature writer Scott Weidensaul, a Board Member of Audubon Pennsylvania, I find no scientifically valid reason for killing cormorants nesting on Wade Island.
While a scientific study would be needed to determine the factors responsible for declining nesting Common Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron populations on Wade Island and perhaps elsewhere along the Susquehanna River, the Game Commission’s speculation that cormorants caused recent declines in night herons nesting on Wade Island is contradicted by ornithological studies in the Great Lakes region, where Double-crested Cormorants do not negatively impact regional nesting populations of Common Egrets or Black-crowned Night Herons.
In Ontario, at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, a similar dispute exists regarding shooting in 2006 of nearly 3,000 adult Double-crested Cormorants (collectively some 6,000 during the past several years) on the park’s High Bluff Island in Lake Ontario. It appears the primary stated reason for this cormorant war is to protect other colonial nesting waterbirds, and to satisfy complaints of anglers.3 What are the results of this cormorant management effort by Ontario Parks and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources? Thus far, it has cost at least $250,000 per year, and the death of thousands of cormorants. In addition, dangerous levels of mercury pollution emanate from the bodies of decomposing cormorants put into a compost pile, due to mercury pollution of the fish they eat. In fact, in 2005, the contaminant problem forced the transport of mercury-polluted compost to an area landfill, and in 2006 it led to an enlargement of the park’s compost pile in an effort to “dilute” the mercury contamination.4 The disruptive activities associated with cormorant shooting also caused the nesting failure of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) in the park.
Various Canadian animal protectionists also documented extreme cruelty during the cormorant shooting activities, with wounded birds suffering for many hours before death, helpless nestling baking in the sun without their parents coming to shade them, and many hundreds of cormorants landing alive and wounded in trees or nearby water without being retrieved where they would suffer painful and lingering deaths.5 One hopes Ontario Parks and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources will become responsible agencies and stop their unjustified war on cormorants.
Friends of Animals members can oppose cormorant killing by writing to the following Pennsylvania and Ontario officials:
Carl G. Roe, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Game Commission
2001 Elmerton Ave.
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797
Susan Grigg, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
- 1. Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America (5th ed.; 2002).
- 2. The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s chief law enforcement officer, John A. Shutter, Jr., claims his agency has the legal authority to kill nesting Double-crested Cormorants: “The reduction of the population of Double-Crested Cormorants on Wade Island will be done under the authority of a Federal migratory bird depredation permit. … We believe this action is necessary to protect a rookery of Black-Crown night barons [sic], which are classified as an endangered species in Pennsylvania. While we did not place notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, we did make known our intent through a news release to media outlets.” John A. Shutter, Jr., unpublished letter of May 1, 2006; see also Pennsylvania Game Commission News Release #49-06, “Game Commission Announces Effort to Protect Nesting Colony of Great Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons on Wade Island” (20 Apr. 2006); and Marc Levy, “Pennsylvania Puts Cormorants on Hit List” – Associated Press (16 May 2006).
- 3. See MacKay, Barry Kent et al., “Memo to John Ramsay, Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and John Immerseel, Zone Manager, Ontario Parks, Regarding Double-crested Cormorant Killing at Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario” (12 Apr. 2004); Doug McRae, “Sorry and Costly Affair” – The Independent [of Brighton and East Northumberland County, Ontario] (7 Jun. 2006).
- 4. See “Sorry and Costly Affair” (note 3 above).
- 5. See Memo to John Ramsay and John Immerseel and “Sorry and Costly Affair” (note 3 above).