A few years ago, the dog blogland was enamored with a concept: There is no pet overpopulation problem. There is only a bad animal rescue marketing problem.
In some sense, I think this is true, and as Christopher Landauer at the Border Wars blog has pointed out, the number of dogs being euthanized at shelters has dramatically dropped.
A few years ago, I was only an infant in this land of self-styled “experts” and “working dog” advocates. I believed just about everything the “elders” said until I started finding real flaws in their logic and “religious tenets.”
The concept that pet overpopulation could merely be addressed through marketing alone had a lot of people exciting came from a book called Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America (2007).
There may be some merits to what Winograd has to say about the exact nature of the pet adoption problem in North America, and I have noticed that there are really good moves on the behalf of some rescue organizations to better market dogs. For example, there are organizations that take dogs out of overfilled shelters in the South and take them up into New England, where shelter dogs are often somewhat difficult to come by.
I never read Winograd’s book, though, because I began to read some of his other writings. It turns out that he is in favor of TNR cat management plans, which go as follows: You catch the cat in a trap. You take it to the vet. It loses its gonads. You release the cat, and it forms a colony that keep other cats from coming in. Allegedly, this keeps cat colonies manageable, but in the reality there is little scientific evidence that this strategy reduces cat populations, though there are some “science through press release” studies out there that do make these claims.
Now, I am a firm believer in biodiversity. I think extinction is a big problem, and it is well-demonstrated that the one of the major causes of extinction is invasive species.
All over the world, man has introduced species after species to places where they wreak havoc upon native animals.
The best example of an invasive predator that destroys populations of native animals is the domestic cat. Now, in the US, we don’t have as severe problem with feral cats as a country like New Zealand does. Our native fauna has evolved with predators like cats, so they have evolved mechanisms to avoid predation. However, study after study has shown that even in a mesopredator filled North America, cats are making a big dent in our wildlife populations. According to one estimate, cats kill 1 billion birds in the US every year, and they are also taking their toll on reptile and amphibian populations.
Now, this is in North America, where the fauna evolved with terrestrial predation. In a place like New Zealand, the bird evolved for millions of years without ever seeing a mammalian predator. The birds became terrestrial themselves. Many, such as the giant night parrot known as the kakapo, became slow and inefficient breeders. And when cats, weasels, stoats, and ferret/polecat crosses arrived in their country, the native bird population had no way of dealing with predators. Species after species went extinct. This same story has been repeated on island after island, and it’s only now that we’ve tried to rectify the mistakes. Wildlife agencies all over the world are doing the best they can to control invasive species. In some places, like the islands off the coast of Baja California, the cat population has been extirpated, and native species have been given an opportunity to return.
We may not have a dog overpopulation problem, but we certainly do have a cat overpopulation problem. We are not an island with many unique endemic species, but we do have lots of lovely little animals that are certainly being harmed through predation from cats, both free-roaming and feral.
Now, when I say we have a cat overpopulation problem, I simply mean that cats can breed in the wild. Dogs almost never produce freely breeding populations, though they certainly can. It’s just that dogs have to learn so much in order to be effective scavengers and predators that are able to be able to raise young without humans caring for them, while cats, as somewhat lower animals, already have the instincts they need to survive on their own and rear their offspring. Further, when cats are born and raised in the wild, they become too wild to become tame. It matters not that their parents may have been pets. Without human contact during their critical periods for socialization, almost all feral cats cannot be tamed.
There are an estimated 82 million cats “owned” cats in the US, and there might be an additional 60 million ferals. These animals aren’t serving any real purpose in the ecosystem, other than they are adding to the mesopredator boom that has occurred in the United States since we’ve extirpated wolves and cougars from much of their native range.
Coyotes certainly are doing some good work on the feral cats in this country, but it’s pretty clear that coyote predation alone won’t control them.
In the Winograd world, TNR has been given near hallowed status. Never mind that these programs actually don’t end feral cat colonies. They manage them, and if this were implemented in an ecologically sensitive area, it would be a disaster. The cats would still be there killing whatever they could find.
The only way to end feral cat colonies is–gasp– to euthanize as many of them as possible.
Now, that might seem extreme, but let’s make one thing clear, we’re talking preserving as much biodiversity as possible. These cats are biological pollution. If a corporate polluter dumped chemicals into a river that killed as much wildlife as a cat colony does, you’d want them fined and forced to clean it up.
This is clean-up.
No one is saying that we should be torturing cats to death, but there is simply no good solution but to kill them.
Winograd has been challenged on this concept quite a bit. His answers actually reveal that he has a values system that is can simply be described as follows:
To hell with biodversity!
This is what Winograd has to say about those of us who think that invasive species ought to be controlled:
The idea that some animals have more value than others comes from a troubling belief that lineage determines the value of an individual animal. This belief is part of a growing and disturbing movement called “Invasion Biology.” The notion that “native” species have more value than “non-native” ones finds its roots historically in Nazi Germany, where the notion of a garden with native plants was founded on nationalistic and racist ideas “cloaked in scientific jargon.” This is not surprising. The types of arguments made for biological purity of people are exactly the same as those made for purity among animals and plants.
So I’m a Nazi because I think it is worthwhile to shoot stoats that might be preying upon New Zealand blue ducks? He can’t even argue his point without resorting to Godwin’s law, which tells you a lot about how much he’s actually carefully considered the concept of “invasive species.
Let me put it this way:
New Zealand blue ducks are native only to fast flowing streams in New Zealand.
Stoats are native to a wide range of the Northern Hemisphere. We North Americans call them short-tailed weasels or ermine, and many of our populations turn white in winter.
They are no way an endangered species.
They were introduced to New Zealand to control another invasive species, the European rabbit, which was destroying sheep grazing lands. The stoats did control rabbit numbers, but they were also able to expand much more rapidly because in addition to rabbits, New Zealand was then full of really predator-naive ground-nesting birds, most of which are now either extinct or endangered as the result of predation from animals like stoats.
Because New Zealand blue ducks are much more endangered than stoats are, it makes sense to control stoat numbers to protect the blue ducks.
It’s not a Nazi concept. It’s simply that conservationists don’t want to see a species disappear because of our stupid introduction of an invasive species.
And yes, in this calculus, the life of a blue duck is much more than that of a stoat.
That’s a reality-based calculus.
Winograd then goes on to make a strawman argument:
Trying to move the world to a mythical state that probably never existed lacks a moral or logical foundation. Nature cannot be frozen in time or returned to a pre-European past, nor is there a compelling reason why it should be. To claim that “native” species are somehow better than “introduced” species equally or better adapted to the environment is to deny the inevitable forces of migration and natural selection. No matter how many so-called “non-native” animals (and plants for that matter) are killed, the goal of total eradication can never be reached. As far as feral cats are concerned, they will always exist. To advocate for their eradication is to propose a massacre with no hope of success and no conceivable end. They exist and have a right to live, regardless of how and when they arrived or were “introduced.” Their rights as individuals supersede our own narrow, human-centric desires, which are often based on arbitrary biases, subjective aesthetics, or commercial interests.
No one is saying we want to return to a “pre-European past,” and it’s not just Europeans who have introduced species. The Polynesians brought pigs, dogs, and rats places like Hawaii and New Zealand, and it was North African traders who brought domestic cats into Sub-Saharan Africa. The goal of conservationists isn’t to return to past, but it is instead to preserve as much as we can.
Man has really waged war on nature in these past few thousand years. We have only now just begun to recognized the consequences of the war we have prosecuted. We cannot turn back time, but we can leave a few pocket behind. It may only be of aesthetic value, but in the long run, preserving biodiversity is the best thing we can do for life on the planet. Species come and species go, but the more diverse lineages we are able to leave relatively intact the better it will be for the forces of evolution to fill niches as extinction goes on.
Further, no one is saying is that we should freeze nature in time. Species have always introduced themselves through simple migration, but this not simple migration. This is man introducing a large number of species at a rate that has never occurred on the planet before. It took thousands of years for the two species of lynx that now exist in North America to become established here, but in only a few hundred years, we have established a vast breeding population of small wildcats.
Winograd thinks this desire to control invasive species is human-centric. It is not. It is life-centric.
That Winograd would go to such logical flights of fancy about animals really shows a vast weakness in the so-called No Kill Movement.
In another post from last year, Winograd goes into a bizarre reflection about the Audubon Society to cut down some cypress trees near where he walks his dogs:
They were beautiful. A row of Monterey Cypress trees that lined a path to the ocean. They provided respite from the winds, a home for birds, shade, and oxygen in exchange for our CO2. They were part of the walking trails at Fort Funston in San Francisco and every time we reached them, the dogs would get excited. They would start vocalizing and surging ahead. They knew. Because the trees, or at least I liked to believe the trees, foretold of what was to come: The ocean was within reach. There was sand to kick up, balls to chase, water to frolic in. I don’t know if the trees meant anything to the dogs, but I loved those trees. And they exist no more. Each and every one was cut down, leaving a row of stumps, an ugly scar on the beautiful seascape of one of San Francisco’s open space treasures.
They were not cut down by loggers trying to profit from their timber. They were not cut down to make chairs or tables or copy paper or toilet tissue. They were cut down by so-called “environmentalists.” They were killed by those whose mission was supposed to be their protection. According to the local chapter of the Audubon Society, the trees were not “native” and had to be destroyed.
Well, I can tell you that introduced trees are not biologically neutral.
Take my favorite tree that I have only been able to read about: the American chestnut.
Once a dominant tree in the Eastern forests, it is now extinct as a freely producing species in its native range.
That’s because when Japanese chestnuts were brought over, they brought with them a type of fungus that soon spread to the native chestnuts. The Japanese chestnuts had some immunity to the fungus, but the Americans did not. By 1940, the American chestnut was essentially extinct in the Eastern US.
They only chestnuts I’ve ever seen were Chinese ones that were planted as ornamentals.
Now, Winograd’s cypress trees really can’t be attacked in this way, but the Audubon Society is concerned with biodiversity. “Let’s try to preserve a bit,” is all they are saying.
If Winograd had stopped there, he might have had a point, but then he goes into this strange rant:
Invasion Biologists believe that certain plants or animals should be valued more than others if they were at a particular location “first.” When the species that were there “first” are competing for habitat with a species that came later, they assert that the latter should be eradicated. In championing such views, the movement paradoxically has embraced the use of traps, poisons, fire, and hunting, even when these cause harm, suffering, and environmental degradation. And the destruction of a beautiful tree lined path to the sea.
He has no idea why ecologists (“invasion biologists”) would want invasive species controlled in the first place.
It has nothing to do with “firstness.” It has to do with preserving bits and pieces of biodiversity when we can. Most of these invasive species have a very wide range, and when they wind up killing or supplanting unique endemic species, they create greater homogeneity throughout the world.
In the Ethiopian Highlands, there exists a relict species of canid, which we now call an Ethiopian wolf. It now found in only two disjointed pieces of the Highlands, and one of its greatest threats is the domestic dog. Domestic dogs do occasionally interbreed with them, but their biggest threat to the wolves is they carry diseases for which the wolves have evolved no immunity.
Domestic dogs are not endangered at all, and as regular readers of this blog know, it’s one of my favorite animals.
But I don’t want to see the Ethiopian wolf go extinct because of dog-born diseases. I want to see this unique lineage of the genus Canis preserved. Not because of its “firstness,” but because I know that there is an ethic that says we should try to preserve what we can. The world that man has created is one of homogeneity and biological depauperacy. In the long run of progress, our descendants may ask why we didn’t do more to preserve these species.
I ask that question of those people who made the dodo and the great auk disappear.
It’s an ethical question for which Winograd has no answer, and it’s why I cannot adhere to this No Killism.