A Vegan Ethic for the Untamed

It’s deer-killing season. What’s an activist to do? Sometimes the call to use birth control seems the only available delay tactic when people are loading the guns.

But it’s coexistence with predators that we need to insert into advocacy. We might believe the public isn’t ready for coyotes. The public isn’t fond of running into deer on roads either. Natural predation would reduce that risk. Coyotes aren’t trying to create additional risks. Mainly they’re avoiding run-ins with us, moving at night where they live near us.

And greater danger lies ahead if we do not let predators live and thrive.

Click here for full piece published today on Free from Harm.


Free from Harm is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable organization promoting farmed animal rescue, education and advocacy and registered in the state of Illinois. The banner photo on this preview was taken by Jeff Houdret and is used here with permission of the photographer.

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A New Animal Liberation: Why?

On Earth Day weekend 2016, the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance invited me to the Cleveland Heights library to offer a presentation (public; free vegan pizza and homemade dishes) on Why We Need an Animal Liberation for the 21st Century.

So we focused on the subtitle and reasons to recharge the phrase animal liberation.

Discussions of rights so often veer into questions about who qualifies. We laud certain animals for demonstrating (often at great cost to the animals themselves) that they can decipher and respond to our cues, or adapt to our domestic environments, or act like us. Our assessments of what animals deserve can trap them again. As Catharine MacKinnon observed more than a decade ago, the model that “makes animals objects of rights in standard liberal moral terms—misses animals on their own terms.”

And lately I’ve beenKai and Candice leaning to liberation as our real objective: it evokes those living on nature’s terms, autonomous, free.

We can credit Peter Singer as a catalyst for a rising conversation, in the English-speaking world, of animals’ interests and human responsibility. Singer personally underscored this in the New York Review of Books three decades after having published Animal Liberation.

The thing is, the theme of Peter Singer’s 1975 book was not so much liberation as pain management.

Slide4

To Singer, Animal Liberation promotes a principle that most people already accept: we should minimize suffering. This became the keynote argument for the animal-rights advocacy that followed.

The next slide, quoting Singer at Taking Action for Animals (sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, 2006), highlights a point of contention. While many advocates agreed with Singer’s opinion that pain sensitivity is what draws our ethical consideration, some wouldn’t wave off our role in their deaths this readily. Slide5

Many advocacy groups followed Singer, though, and never established precepts against killing. The Animal Legal Defense Fund wrote up a Bill of Rights for Animals that accepts killing though livestock must be stunned into unconsciousness prior to slaughter.

Humane slaughter is an oxymoron

Yes!

The idea that causing a conscious being’s death is allowable under the “liberation” banner is bizarre, yet taken for granted in a lot of advocacy. To this day, exposés don’t decry the killing so much as the way animals are killed.

Peter Singer’s “equal consideration” for nonhuman interests will essentially regard animals as containers of pain and pleasure. To cut down on the most suffering, the activist is urged to oppose glaring abuses in animal husbandry. Here’s the point as originally stated in Singer’s Animal Liberation:Slide6

To a large extent, even rights advocacy (while taking great pains to differentiate itself from Singer’s brand of utilitarianism) reflects Singer’s model.

Slide8

– Peter Singer. nybooks.com/articles/2003/05/15/animal-liberation-at-30/

Singer, who wrote Animal Liberation during a key decade for human equality movements, says equal consideration ought to be extended to nonhuman animals. But according to Singer this consideration will only the cover interests we deem similar to those we seek to protect for ourselves.

This might seem logical on its face, but I’m not convinced it’s a fair (or even relevant) way to judge the interests of other animals who have no need for our assessments.

Nautical Dogs and Sterile Deer

Animal-advocacy theorists have presented hypothetical emergencies to justify our preference for putting humans first. Picture a lifeboat that can’t carry an entire group of humans and a dog to safety. Who gets to stay in the boat?

Tom Regan’s Case for Animal Rights came out in 1983. In Regan’s version, the dog loses. Regan assigns a human and dog equal moral significance: we all experience our lives. Yet Regan distinguishes the value of the lives lived by the humans and dog from the value of beings themselves. And then allows the sacrifice of any number of dogs to save the human. Slide10

This assertion was repeated quite recently by Gary L. Francione and Anna Charlton, who, in Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals (2013), say they “will not challenge these widely-shared moral intuitions” that “may tell us that in situations of genuine conflict between humans and animals, humans win. But our intuitions also tell us that in situations in which there is no conflict, we cannot inflict suffering on animals simply because we get enjoyment from doing so.”

Here’s the message the 21st century is sending to animal advocacy: There is hardly any uncontested space on this planet. There are more than seven billion of us, and everywhere, humans are “winning” while everyone else is disappearing.

People now impose contraception on deer so we can CLE Leespread ourselves out without having to deal with the “conflict” of animals in our way. Or we oust untamed animals in the name of human rights. In India, a Tribal Rights Bill was introduced to redress discrimination by allocating land to several million indigenous forest-dwellers—while annihilating the region’s last few hundred tigers. Is erasure of tigers acceptable because the tigers would have had less possible sources of satisfaction than the indigenous people? Or does ethical decision-making require a thought process more complex than that?

Under new global climate patterns, lifeboat scenarios will happen a lot. Environmental crises are unfolding more quickly than could have been predicted when many animal-rights texts were written.

Chapter Nine of On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Century reviews advocates’ agreement to control the fertility of free-living animals over the years. In 1975, Singer suggested that animals have an interest in our research and development of fertility control over free-living communities.Slide16

The assumption that free-living animals might wreck their environment and need us to step in as supervisors matches the claims of administrative officials ready to lower the boom on animals in woods, parks, and fragments of green space. In 2008, when deer were targeted near Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, rights advocate Tom Regan accepted the premise that the local deer must be controlled, but argued that it should be done by pharmaceutical means. The contraceptive substance porcine zona pellucida (PZP), made from the membranes of pig ovaries, triggers the deer’s immune system, forcing the body to attack the deer’s own eggs.

Slide17

The Swarthmorean, 18 Dec. 2008

Regan’s position startled and disappointed me—for Regan’s book The Case for Animal Rights had urged: “With regard to wild animals, the general policy recommended by the rights view is: let them be!” But support for human-controlled reproduction in free-living communities had precedent in animal-rights legal work. In the 1990s, Gary Francione and Anna Charlton, on behalf of their Animal Law Project at Rutgers, explained their action on behalf of Pity Not Cruelty, Inc. to change deer-control policy in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania:

“We are assisting the plaintiffs in the Lower Merion challenge in the dissemination of information concerning non-lethal methods to decrease any deer/human conflicts, including the possible use of immunocontraception where the deer population can be verified to have increased considerably.”

This presents the deer’s very act of reproducing as a possible situation of true conflict. The stance ignores the obvious—balancing the deer population isn’t up to humans; it’s the role of native carnivores and omnivores.

Today, communities are demanding the systematic spaying of deer.

Slide20

A liberatory theory ought to call for the neutering of cats (TNR) or to prevent dogs from mating, they already lack the ability to reproduce and raise their young on their terms. Phasing out the breeding of animals as pets would, essentially, put wildcats and wolves off-limits to selective breeding to suit our whims. But contraception for free-living animals is animal control—nothing more, nothing less. Note the importance of distinguishing selectively bred animals from communities of animals who could actually experience autonomy, and shouldn’t be denied that opportunity.

I’ll let the next slide speak for itself.

Slide21

But for context, let’s talk about how much room we take up on this planet, thanks to some work made available by Californians for Population Stabilization.

Slide22Humanity’s mass (we’re the red bar segments in the next chart) has eclipsed the collective weight of all Earth’s free-living land mammals (green segments).

Slide24

Add to this the weight of our entourage of purpose-bred animals (blue segments).

Witness our expansion as we press the rest of Earth’s bio-community off the chart.

Can we so readily accept the claim of “too many of them”?

Shoppers gonna shop. Can we accept that some (really fancy) husbandry improvements support the liberation mission, sort of?

OK, let’s look at an e-mail I received from Whole Foods Market in London on 15 April 2016, just one week before Earth Day. Slide25It says…

“While organic dairy cows yield on average a third less than intensive production, the benefits of organic dairy are huge. In order for a dairy to achieve organic certification the herd must be pasture-grazed throughout the grazing season.”

The cows are on pastures (read: sprawl – and let’s explain it as such to our shopping friends), and they only “yield” a third of what densely confined cows produce. So, if all the cow’s milk shoppers switched to organic, they’d effectively demand three times as many cows? Look at these cows.

The next slide joins the two above advocacy positions: (a) constricting the populations of free-living animals, and (b) allocating more space to animal husbandry. Both positions, and certainly the two combined, support human claims to habitat and, in turn, the disappearing of the untamed.

Slide27

Both campaigns arguably advance ye olde humane-treatment principle “based on values that most people accept” but neither supports true animal welfare. The vegan response to these campaigns is non-participation. (That doesn’t mean doing nothing! We need to give our active support both to vegan-organic farming and predator coexistence initiatives.)

Slide31Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, suggest animal husbandry could be a beneficial system for the animals involved. Hogwash. The hills were the habitat of wolves and wildcats before we came in with our animal husbandry.

As for an incremental step on the way to rights for animals, let’s be clear: no improvement in the conditions for purpose-bred animals cuts the mustard. The more connected to nature the farm is, the more reasons for the farm owner to set traps or call the “nuisance control” professionals.

Free-living animals lose where they’re overlapped by controlled ones, as the owners continually introduce problems into habitats.

Slide34

No authentic rights await purpose-bred animals; the concept is an absurdity we can accept only as long as we accept purpose-breeding.

Cultivating Active Respect

One rights scholar has said: “If we are going to make good on our claim to take animal interests seriously, then we have no choice but to accord animals one right: the right not to be treated as our property.” Will this resolve all the problems?

Slide36

Reindeer were domesticated back in 14000 BC; dogs were bred from wolves about 13000 BC—long before modern conceptions of rights and property.

Because domination is a deeper, broader problem than property status, we’d best think of abolitionism—the call to stop treating animals as commodities—as a component of animal liberation. We’ve got to get over our practice of warring against other beings, displacing them, hijacking their reproduction and demolishing their spaces. Authentic animal-liberation theory conceives of affirmative action to facilitate animals’ flourishing on their own terms. This means cultivating active respect for animals’ connections with their own communities, for their interests in the climate, in the land, water, and air they require to experience freedom.

Slide37And while the interest in shifting other animals’ legal status from property to person is worthwhile, the outcome will be limited if we base our claims on their remarkable abilities to adapt to human environments. Or if we focus on pain control. Slide38

The argument for nonhuman personhood, in the 21st century, will defend the life experiences for which animals themselves evolved, free from our assessments or supervision.
CLE convenors

Thank you . . .

to Cleveland’s vegan community for encouraging this exploration of our movement and the writing of the book itself. Having a launch date helped to move the new work from a computer file to a book! Bill, thank you for choosing the graph slide and explaining its elements during the presentation. Thanks to all our animal writers, including those not mentioned and those critiqued here, for their contributions to the advocacy dialogue. This writing is not an attempt to compete or compare. It’s intended, in the vegan spirit of collective progress, to help refine our wayfinding, knowing that involves dynamic and sometimes knotty discussions.


Photos of the Earth Day Celebration and book launch in Cleveland Heights courtesy of the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance. THANKS TO ARKIVE.ORG FOR OFFERING A HUB FOR PHOTOgraphers of animals in Habitat, and encouraging the sharing of these images. Encampments meme: Tiffany Warner on PINTEREST, Pinned from KnowYourMeme.Com

Animal Liberation Follies

Professional advocacy now congratulates itself for its hands-on manipulation of animal fertility. It’s a false anti-cruelty position that strives to replace guns, arrows and traps with high-tech animal removal. What gives anyone the right to impose birth control on untamed animals? What gives career advocates that right?

Read more at Dissident Voice  today.

Fifteen Buzzwords Vegan Educators Can Stop Using Today

Semantics, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, is the science of meaning in language. To be understood, we need words to mean what the receiver thinks they mean. Semantics matter.

What about creating new phrases? When we choose coined terms, we’re usually communicating to insiders—others who’ve read the same literature. These terms often come from specific non-profit groups or individualsEureka - from espaciotiempo.org.ar claiming to advance a groundbreaking theory.

The use of a coined term even in a small group of insiders can cause misunderstandings, for it might suggest agreement with the whole kit and caboodle set out by the phrase’s inventor.

You might ask: Isn’t vegan a coined term? And so it is. But in its 70 years of use, it has become plain language. The word was offered by a community rather than an individual, and it functions as an essential signal to a unique and liberating pathway. It draws on a principle known and expressed for many generations, and channels it into a social movement’s terms.

Beyond that, the animal-rights idea takes no special jargon to explain. The idea that animal husbandry involves inflicting unnecessary harm is not a novel theory; it appears in Henry Salt’s 1892 book Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. International Vegetarian Union historian John Davis says that although Salt died five years before the founding of The Vegan Society, the last 55 years of Salt’s life were lived (as we now say) vegan.

Much term-coining and buzzword creation that’s come along since vegan has muddied clear waters, as our competitive culture promotes the act of personal marking—branding, to use today’s infelicitous term—on something that could just be straightforwardly recalled.

Here are 15 words and phrases we could drop and be better off for it:

1. Welfarist. For anyone who missed the “abolition-versus-welfare” back-and-forth, a quick synopsis. The animal-rights ideal would mean everyone opts out of using other animals. Instead of making that clear, charities continue to use heart-wrenching images and vow to fix the most “barbaric” abuses. Pity doesn’t challenge the status quo. A donation to reduce spectacular suffering can affirm the donor’s superior status in the system, changing nothing. PETA asks restaurant chains to prefer chicken suppliers that use gas slaughter technique. If any businesses enter into such preference agreements, PETA will publicize their promises to consider better animal welfare. Because it’s been connected to this kind of industrial whitewashing, welfare is used by some critics as a negative word; people who promote minor changes in animal enterprises are derided as welfarists. But does the word welfare have anything to do with the way businesses adjust their handling of the animals they own, use, and ultimately kill?

In contrast, an authentic caregiver promotes animal welfare. Trap-neuter-return work—catching abandoned domesticated cats and their offspring, neutering them, and supplying continued care—is praiseworthy welfare work. Welfare, to the ordinary ear, means well-being. So, right now, we should stop using welfarist as a negative code-word. (I should add that rescuing or “helping” animals does not, by itself, advance animal rights. But rescue and genuine caregiving are needed when we humans have caused an emergency in other animals’ lives, or imposed dependency upon them.)

2. “Stop factory farming!” Can we object to all animal farming at once? Even the small, family-run farm violates other beings’ most basic personal interests, beginning with the purpose-breeding of them because we can. And such farms still use resources that could feed hungry humans. Mathematician Adam Merberg published rough calculations suggesting a well-known free-range farm uses more calories in feed than it produces in food; and with the needless waste they generate, these property developments degrade water, soil and air. The very existence of any pastureland signifies predator removal. There is no benign animal agribusiness. Not for the planet, ourselves, the animals we’ve domesticated or those we haven’t.

3. Euthanasia. The term means a good death. It does not mean killing refugees to make space or save resources. Starting today, let’s all rule out the term euthanasia to mean the cold-blooded killing of a bear who chased a camper, or the death of a dog in a so-called shelter.

4. Companion animals. It’s not fair to selectively breed other animals to suit our desires, then call them companions as though they chose to hang out with us. I know: this is a tough one. Most people reading Vegan Place care for and love individual animals in our homes. So it can be hard for us to challenge the practice of keeping household animals. It might feel unloving. But step back and consider how they got here. These animals’ domestication is based on neoteny—the purposeful retention, in an adult cat or dog, of juvenile characteristics that prompt an animal to need and solicit care.

Most vegans already agree that nursing on another species is weird, and indeed that selectively breeding animals so we can take their milk is weird. Isn’t it also weird to want wolves and wildcats selectively bred so we can make them forever dependent?

And fashioning toys out of powerful wolves and wildcats—separating them from their families, buying and selling them, subjecting them to praise or punishment at whim, making ourselves their indispensable overseers—can hardly be justified on the grounds that pets benefit from the arrangement. Did it really benefit wolves to become Schnauzers? The land that is now the United States was once home to hundreds of thousands of wolves. Today, it has a few thousand wolves and 80 million domesticated dogs.

rackIf we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we have, over time, forced free souls into submission. And when we think of it that way, companionship is an unfair term.

5. “Why love one but eat the other?” I’d think genuine advocacy seeks to cultivate an attitude of respect, not love in a system of inequality. If so, the best thing we can do as teachers is to inspire communities to respect other animals’ natural freedom and power—all that is taken away when we transform the Earth’s other conscious life into shapes that please us. The vegan issue isn’t about why we only eat one, but why we purpose-breed either.

6. Farm animal rights movement. There is no such thing. To animal agribusiness, the effective response is conscientious objection. Those who feel they are missing an ethical duty by not showing undercover videos or lobbying for animal-husbandry adjustments might consider farmer Harold Brown’s counsel: Let the animal farmers themselves improve conditions (they will, for PR reasons) as the vegan movement grows without them. Leave them without assistance, threats, cajoling or praise. It’s not the advocate’s role to police an abusive system.

7. Farmed animals. Why, instead of farm animals, has it become fashionable to say farmed animals? As in: animals who just happen to be farmed? It’s not as though we could just stop using them on farms, and the problem is solved. These animals have been selectively bred as farm animals: to be as easily confined and herded as we can make them. We need to do more than rescue them from farm use; we need to challenge the purpose-breeding at the root of the wrong.

8. Vegan cats. One of these words is not like the other… Veganism is an ethic that can be safely, harmlessly, naturally embraced by human primates. Forget about forcing cats to eat plants, and start getting vocal about the making of pets in the first place. See #4.

9. Single-issue campaigns. Should we dismiss the defending of any targeted group because it’s “single-issue”? What wrong done to a community or even to one person is beneath concern? All lives matter.

10. Wildlife. Aren’t we talking about animal communities? The word wildlife can mean plants as well as animals. Moreover, wild means uncultivated—a concept that falls short of representing the complexities of the non-human lives, systems, and interactions.

11. Humane, non-lethal alternatives.  Don’t do it. Don’t ask managers to put free-living animals on birth control rather than shoot them. Earlier on this blog I shared my column examining the way forcing contraception on animals became confused with advocacy; here is that link again. Read it and weep for the deer of Valley Forge National Historical Park and at several other National Parks in the eastern United States, where plans are being carried out to kill kill kill for as many years as park managers say so—until they get approval for some disappear-deer drug. The Natural Resources Director at Valley Forge claimed to have implemented this plan as a compromise with animal-rights activists.

12. Ethical vegan (also: abolitionist vegan). There is no unethical or pro-exploitation kind of veganism. Nor must we establish subcategories, subcultures, or exclusive clubs for only certain vegans. Vegan is vegan.

13. Meatless. Meat means an article of food or an essential part of something. It’s the term animal agribusiness which covers all the interconnected exploitation of an industry at once—and doesn’t suggest that vegans lack anything.

14. Veg. Nobody knows what that means. 

15. Vegan options. How about vegan offerings? In contrast to the if-we’re-lucky connotation of options, vegan offerings has a ring of confident generosity. Let’s imagine, discuss, and create a culture that makes animal farms history, one where vegan living is embraced as the way to sustain our world.


Thanks to Meg Graney and Kate Sparkman Sharadin for helpful online comments that got me in the mood to write this up. Source of banner detail: Shop With Meaning. Source of Eureka! drawing: EspacioTiempo (PDF). Source of St. Bernard breeding rack photo: Stornum Kennels.

Animal Contraception Covered by CounterPunch

The weekend edition of CounterPunch offers a piece that will be familiar to Vegan Place regulars. My article in the current edition of CounterPunch adds information about a recent proposal by Allen T. Rutberg to capture up to 60 female deer in New York, and to experiment on their reproductive systems during the 2014-2019 period.

I hope this information will be considered by advocates who condone contraception in deer and other undomesticated animals. Most animal protectionists already know how terrifying drop-netting is, how deer and other animals struggle when captured: the panic, the cries, the scrapes, the broken bones. I would suppose few advocates know this kind of capture is also planned for contraception experiments, and that the chemical birth control experiments which began four decades ago continue, with no end in sight.

I ask the advocates who call “contraception in wildlife” a humane undertaking to read the article’s linked pieces, and to learn well what contraception entails. Kindly share the article if you’re so moved; and read some of the work by other CounterPunch authors whose pieces might not get mainstream attention, but have the potential to change humanity’s mindset.

Control

Most vegans are aware of the Humane Myth dynamic: Disturbing examples of industrial animal handling are exposed. For example, pigs are forced into narrow crates to efficiently produce more pigs for the business. A segment of the market appears, distinguishing itself as conscientious and humane, although its goal is the same: to turn pigs into bacon and make money. For in truth it’s all exploitation, from the first day the family farmers learn to use their insemination rods to the day they send their animals to the same old killing floor as the rest. And the “free-range” farms banish the truly free-living animals. The guards of the henhouse have scant tolerance for foxes.

Now, on to a different humane myth. One that developed outside of agribusiness, in the woods, savannas, gardens and skiesplaces where, we hope and expect, animals live free. It’s the myth that populations of such animals can be pared by ourselveshumanely.

Why do we say there “too many” of the other animals? They all seem to balance themselves perfectly well until we intrude. Which we do, everywhere. Our population is seven billion and rising. As we spread ourselves out, we devise the cultural carrying capacity ideaintroduced by the ecologist Garrett Hardin to mean the limit we declare on any animal community perceived as being in our way.

TIME cover (9 Dec. 2013) labels deer "America's Pest Problem"

TIME cover (9 Dec. 2013) labels deer “America’s Pest Problem”

In North America, after we killed most of the wolves because ranchers and hunters didn’t want the predators around, deer achieved a notable ability to thrive in our midst; yet they are pressed by our incessant construction and road-building into ever smaller and fragmented green places; and so they are described, in many areas, as having a high population density. Government officials, goaded by media representations that alarm the public, advance the conception of deer as a problem requiring a solution.

So officials make plans and draw up budgets, and people are hired to shoot deer on public lands and around cities by the hundreds or thousands.

Animal advocates are calling the pending plan to wipe out thousands of deer on Long Island “primitive and ethically indefensible.” Their petition invokes “the overwhelming evidence that immunocontraception is effective, humane, less expensive and sustainable over the long term.”

Thus, advocates have decided to

  • Buy the myth that deer or other free-roaming animals constitute a problem; and
  • Regard a more sophisticated form of eliminating deer as sustainable and ethically defensible.

Let’s examine this closely, because much is at stake. Do we really want patented, government-approved pharmaceuticals to ensure that other animals are controlled the way humans want them to be controlled? So that we achieve an officially prescribed “density” of the animals in question for any given expanse of space? Is the bio-community that surrounds us something to refashion through some macabre, Disneyesque design?

Claude Monet pigeons Ruling the roosts 

Birds are also frequently named as nuisances. For pigeons, a much-vaunted contraceptive is OvoControl P. Its distributor’s website declares:

The Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (“ASPCA”) as well as other animal welfare groups support the use of non-lethal technology to moderate the populations of pigeons. Left unchecked, pigeon numbers in a local flock can grow very rapidly.

The company, Innolytics, calls the active chemical in OvoControl P “practically non-toxic” and elaborates:

Traditional reproductive studies in rodents show very limited effects.  Experiments to evaluate possible effects on sperm receptor formation in mammals are presently underway at Innolytics.

A letter to the Montana Standard by Jay Kirkpatrick, who holds a Ph.D. in reproductive physiology from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, promoted the pigeon contraceptives:

…Trying to find relief through the removal of any “problem” animal simply exacerbates the problem. Unless you literally exterminate every pigeon in Butte, the residual population will simply keep filling the roosts and leaving behind reminders.

Reproduction, folks. That’s the key to managing populations. And there is an excellent proven commercial solution for the problem of pigeon reproduction in the form of an Environmental Protection Agency-approved avian contraceptive.

Not content to stop with the pigeons of Butte, Dr. Kirkpatrick continued:

This approach has worked extremely well for pigeons in other cities and the broad approach of fertility control has worked well for wild horses, urban deer, bison, and even African elephants.

Why it is so hard, for people to understand that reproduction is the problem?”

Pigeons, free-roaming horses, deer, bison, African elephants…oh, my.

Humane Society International, the international arm of the Humane Society of the United States, has been experimenting with contraceptive substances on elephants in Africa for more than a decade; they herald these intrusions as “a new paradigm for elephant management” and garner financial support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But Africa’s elephant population has dropped to less than half a million, compared with five million elephants 65 years ago. So why do the Humane Society and U.S. government keep preventing elephants from naturally reproducing in Africa?

Elephants: AFP photoThe Humane Society points to a lack of “new reserves established that can actually accommodate elephant.” (The singular form, elephant, is used in the original.) Highly vulnerable populations of long-tusked elephants, such as a genetically unique community of only 230 at KwaZulu-Natal’s Tembe Elephant Park, are being reduced through contraceptive testingperhaps, warns Pretoria wildlife veterinarian Johan Marais, to fade into oblivion.

Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, who penned the pigeon contraception letter in Montana, is credited as one of the two compilers of the Humane Society’s elephant contraception report. The report mentions ultrasound exams and helicopter chases, with flights close enough to shoot elephants with darting rifles; so clearly the control is intense. But the report states: “Not only has immunocontraception proven to be the least invasive and most humane population control mechanism available to us, it proved to very effective in curbing population growth.”

This activity does not replace population reduction by lethal means. Instead of opposing the killing of elephants, the Humane Society’s report maintains that “relocation and/or culling of elephants in confined reserves may continue to be necessary, but contraception will enable management to better control the frequency and extent of such interventions.”

The Humane Society’s position is, evidently:

  • Free-living animals cannot live free from killing or intrusive social control; and
  • The Humane Society possesses the knowledge and authority to decide and direct the means of control.

But if elephant habitat is shrinking, isn’t that the real issue to address? Wouldn’t the best advocacy defend animals in their autonomous state rather than forcibly prevent their existence?

A non-lethal alternative?

Not only does contraception erase animals by preventing their offspring from existing; the science itself kills. In one series of experiments run by researchers at Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 21 white-tailed deer were captured, ear-tagged and collared, kept in a fenced area at an army depot, with some subjected to multiple contraceptive vaccines, and all killed, as stated in the report:

In October 2000, within permit authority from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), deer were humanely killed by a shot to the head or neck from a high-powered rifle fired from a blind or a vehicle.

The bodies were dissected to find any damage or disease resulting from the vaccine known as porcine zona pellucida (PZP), which hijacks the deer’s immune system so it attacks naturally occurring reproductive proteins. The most commonly used immunocontraceptive for controlling the reproductive systems of female mammals, PZP is “harvested from porcine ova”—taken from the bodies of pigs.

For the three years before they were killed, the deer were always within the reach of the university researchers and their students. Their dissected bodies told the tale: most of the vaccinated group had severe pelvic inflammatory disease, and abscesses the researchers called “remarkable”—severe enough to be called tubercular in appearance even two years after the injections. The body of Deer Number 188 showed bone marrow fat depletion with “classic signs of malnutrition normally seen in deer struggling through an extremely harsh winter.” Earlier studies indicating this same condition are cited in the study; the researchers declare that “[a]dditional investigation of the frequency and possible causes for marrow fat depletion should be conducted…”

Gary J. Killian and Lowell A. Miller had, just a few years earlier, published the results of six years of experiments at the Deer Research Center of the Pennsylvania State University. Deer subjected to PZP had fewer offspring (though “fawning” is mentioned in the study results, there is no commentary about the lives of these youngsters born under laboratory control) and the adults’ bodies changed so much that “the average breeding days each year for the control group was 45, whereas in some years some PZP treated does were breeding more than 150 days” of the year. Thus are the social lives of deer—the schedules of their lives—commandeered by the chemical.

The researchers also tried a hormone-based substance. It stopped antler growth on male deer—whose testicles, and sex lives, also failed to develop. The female deer subjected to the hormone also failed to develop sexually.

Noting “many earlier studies” dating back to 1973, Killian and Miller nevertheless claimed that the physical and social effects require more testing. Cited studies included “[e]fficient immunocastration of male piglets” and “gonadal atrophy in rabbits” as well as “applications of contraceptives in white-tailed deer, feral horses and mountain goats.”

Let Life HappenThe broader view

Meanwhile, everywhere humans impose our own brand of control on deer, the animal groups that naturally curb the deer population are treated as though their roles in nature don’t count. Wolves, bobcats and coyotes are persecuted continually—by traps, poisons, hunting and even killing contests.

Insofar as the so-called non-lethal forms of animal control put coyotes and other omnivore or carnivore animals out of a job, they can help to perpetuate the deaths of those animals.

So this is the other humane myth. Many an animal-rights activist has gone along with the idea of a contraceptive alternative—even offered to fund it or insist that local officials adopt it—because of the myth that it helps animals whereas killing harms them. But can the use of contraception on deer, elephants, and other free-living animals fairly be called humane?

And in the broader view, shouldn’t we resist the erasure of animals who don’t amuse or enrich us, or perfectly fit their allocated spaces, as our own numbers relentlessly rise?

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Featured photo by Jeff Houdret: Three young deer crossing a meadow at Valley Forge National Historical Park in winter. Elephants: AFP.