In the Forest with a Living Ghost

Our headlamps and flashlights cut through the deep midnight blackness and illuminate stretches of woods in front of us. There was no moon that night, and underneath the cathedral-high canopy of loblolly pines the multitude of starry pinpricks offer no background light for us to work by, so our artificial lights were all we had to illuminate our surroundings. Ahead of us stretched a line of ultra-fine nets designed to catch birds—mist-nets, named for the way the thin mesh seems to shimmer and disappear as you walk up to it at an angle. Hanging low in one of the nets ahead of us was an animated bundle of brown and white; the bundle jerked and twisted as our lights approached, and when I reached for the bundle, a pair of wide, breathtakingly yellow eyes turned and fixed me with an unblinking stare.

It was the season for catching Northern Saw-whet Owls (Aegolius acadius), and that’s precisely what hung in the net. At just after midnight, it was bitter cold—the following morning would be the first of the season with frost. I worked fast, finding the loops of netting caught on the owl’s wings and around its head mostly by touch, and working them off with precise tugs. The feet came last, and I was glad that my fingers were going numb from the cold when the bird flexed its feet rapidly, driving two wickedly thin and curved lead-gray talons into the pad on my middle finger. After the owl was free and my finger, now with small beads of blood welling up from the tiny holes in it, had been extricated from the owl’s grip, I quickly grabbed a soft mesh bag, and placed the bird in it—feet last.

A few hundred feet along the net, a second bird was hanging. Using the same movements as before, I extracted this owl as well, and by the time I had finished that Dan Small, my colleague on this cold night, had finished checking the rest of the nets and was holding a mesh bag of his own, complete with a wriggling, bill-snapping owl. We pile into the truck and take the long, bouncy, dirt trail back to the heated shack we use as our base of operations. From this shack Dan’s wife, Maren Gimpel oversees the Chester River Field Research Station’s Saw-whet Owl banding project. Tonight, she’s already headed out to sleep, but Dan and settle down and shed a few of our outermost layers, before quickly placing small metal bands on the legs of our owls. We take measurements, age the birds, determine their sex, and then send them back out into the night. Banding an owl can take as little as thirty or forty seconds, and yields important information about the health of the bird. After a month or so of banding, we may have data from as many as 200 owls, giving as an accurate picture of the demographic of birds involved in the season’s migration. Banding projects like this one have resulted in incredible information on the ecology of these birds, and the unlikely connections they have to other species across their range. Despite this, the banding of birds, particularly of owls, can be a highly controversial subject. The controversy is largely unnecessary and comes from basic misunderstandings about the treatment of the birds while they’re being handled, about the scientific process, and about conservation.

These misunderstandings don’t just apply to bird banding—they inform and explain many of the current ethical and moral trends in relationship with wild animals, and in our relationship with wilderness in general. In particular, there is a tendency to direct compassion and energy towards the protection and wellbeing of individual animals or individual charismatic locations; individuals that can be identified as vulnerable or mistreated, and which we can emotionally connect with due to their charisma or beauty. This identification comes at the expense of a bigger picture, one which is becoming more and more imperative to pay attention to.

The myriad of threats facing the wilderness we have come to revere and respect are probably known to most readers. Climate change is probably the greatest threat facing humanity today. Sea levels will rise, the most conservative estimates today suggest we have already committed to a five inch rise in most places, and some estimates suggest this could be as high as ten inches. The most recent IUCN checklist update suggests that the world’s most popular cage birds, including some that have been considered common up until recently, may be heading for extinction within the next fifty years. Deforestation and exploitation of the land for agriculture, mining, and oil drilling have been threats since the inception of the modern environmental movement, and they remain significant ones today. But while these pressures may be familiar, what may not be is that fact that our world has already started to crumble under them. A third of amphibians may be faced with imminent extinction, along with a fifth of mammals, as many as a third of known invertebrates, nearly three-quarters of studied plants. We are firmly in the grasp of what is being called the sixth mass extinction, or the modern extinction crisis.

To say that combatting this extinction will be difficult would be an understatement. Many conservation experts think that doing so is all but impossible. It may be that they are right, and that those still fighting do so in vain, without a realistic grasp of the situation. But if that is the case, then I fall among the latter. I think that a not-insignificant source of the problem lies in a very basic misconception about what the point of conservation and preservation is. Most professional conservationists agree that the point of conservation is to protect life on the species level. This may seem intuitive, but log on to the Facebook pages or websites of most zoos or bird banding station or news agencies reporting on stories about zoos and animal research and you are likely to see evidence to the contrary. A zoo will post a photo of their new, critically endangered, Spanish Lynx (Lynx pardinus) kittens and someone in the comments will sound off that it’s no big deal—it’s a tragedy in fact, for the babies have been born in captivity.

To borrow a phrase, today’s zoos are arks. They exist to weather the great flood of our time, which is the extinction crisis. It is true that this was not always the case. The first zoos were built purely for entertainment—usually the entertainment of the rich and powerful. But that hasn’t been true for much of the last half century, at least. Now, what species can be exhibited and bred is dictated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the decisions are not made on a whim. Captivity is taken seriously, for obvious reasons. If the animals aren’t being cared for properly they won’t breed. If they’re not being cared for properly, patrons won’t visit the zoos. It’s in the best interest of zoos and aquariums to be the model of proper treatment for the animals they exhibit, and they are. But there are factors of this treatment that can confound those and give the perception of mistreatment. The fact that Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) must be denned for the winter—effectively sealing them in a small, warm, dark room for three or four months straight—is easily taken for mistreatment. In reality though, this is necessary for breeding. A bear won’t allow its body to develop a pregnancy if it is not denned in such a way. What’s lost in translation is that the action, while it may confine the bear for a time, leading to mild discomfort (the bear will eventually simply hibernate), polar bears may not exist as a species without such measures. Threatened with climate change, their habitat in the wild will wholly cease to exist. Their only hope as a species is by the drastic measures being taken by zoos.

Perhaps zoos are an all-around dramatic example. I will say that I really do understand a lot of the concern they generate from animal-lovers, even if I do not agree with it. Let’s revisit our owls, for a moment. Northern Saw-whet Owls are poorly understood birds. Most expert suggest that they are relatively common, but admit that very little is known about their specific breeding requirements, particularly along the fragmented southern edge of their range. One of the things that we do know, is that in the heart of their breeding range in eastern and central Canada, they are closely tied to the population cycle of the Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi). This vole has a population cycle believed to be tied to cone crops in conifer species—when the cone crops drop a bumper crop, the vole population soars, offering the owls an astounding amount of food. They take advantage of this overabundance by having as many as three times as many chicks as during other years. In the winter all of these young, inexperienced owls migrate south en masse, as they are unable to compete with more experienced adults on the breeding range.

It is suspected that these cycles are about to experience a major disruption though, potentially creating a cataclysmic situation for owls and voles alike. Currently this cycle runs very predictably. Every four years there is a vole boom and the owls boom the following year. This is followed by a slow decrease in the vole numbers, again accompanied by a slow decrease in owl breeding success. All of this is related to the cone crops, which are likely triggered by formerly regular fluctuations in moisture levels. All of that, however will be thrown to hell with climate change. The disruption of the cone cycles will disrupt the vole cycle, which will disrupt the owls. In order to monitor and look for the first signs of this cataclysm, owl banding is crucial. It’s incredibly easy to see breaks in the trends through such a direct monitoring strategy, as it’s easy to see sudden changes in the weights and overall fitness displayed by birds within a sampling population.

All this being said, there is a very vocal opposition to banding birds in general, and owls specifically. Owls are shy creatures and their disposition towards solitude and reclusivity leads them to be vulnerable to stress during the banding process. Furthermore, it is true that on very rare occasions, birds are eaten out of the nets by larger species of owls and that during the banding process they become slightly disoriented by the lights, sometimes becoming slightly dazed and requiring a short recuperation time prior to releasing them. Despite this, the rate of owls dying while in captivity or in a net is very low at any given banding station. And when these owls are passed on to rehabbers for examination, it is often found that these birds have underlying injuries.

From a certain perspective, the backlash towards banders working with owls is understandable. But the fact remains that banding is the only effective way to study owl populations. Traditional breeding bird surveys and vocal-based point counts simply don’t work—the birds are too unpredictable and patchily distributed. In order to understand, and thus save the species, birds have to be caught, banded, examined, and then released. There is simply no other way around it. The protection of the species has to take precedence over the concern for the discomfort of the individual bird.

I want to acknowledge that I am fully aware of how unpalatable this is. I want to acknowledge that those who work in the professions I have mentioned are fully aware of the risks involved. I have watched seasoned bird banders stand for hours, refusing to make their catch of shorebirds because they’re worried about rising tides. And I’ve watched the same bander, steaming in the heat, take water from her workers and distribute it in spray bottles to mist the birds still waiting to be banded. I’ve seen zoo vets agonize over decisions about the care of their animals. Whether to delivery lion (Panthera leo) cubs in an emergency procedure and risk the mother’s life, or wait and risk the cubs to save the beloved mother. None of these people go into their jobs expecting it to be easy, and all know their work will be scrutinized. But there is nothing else that can be done.

There is one major complication that deserves attention. It is this: de-extinction. De-extinction is all the rage in some circles. Many researchers think that the act of bringing a species back from extinction has great symbolic, as well as literal, power. We can return a species from the brink, as we have on occasion shown. To be able to bring them back from beyond the brink… Is the stuff of science fiction. Arguably, doing so would be the ultimate in mastering the mantra of doing everything for the species. There is no individual currently left, so the act of bringing back even one individual would be giving a species that had lost its chance a new one. However, this is arguable. The one and only time this has been successfully done, the species winked out of existence again mere minutes later. From the species perspective—and that of the individual animal—bringing about an event with such a likelihood is crueler than it is hopeful. Furthermore, introducing species to an environment from which they have been gone, potentially for thousands of years, could be more disruptive than it is helpful. The habitats have evolved in the absence of these species, and returning them could throw this new balance entirely out of proportion.

It would be nice to think that we could save all the species in the world without keeping a one in captivity. It would be nice to think that every species in the world could be saved. We are coming to the realization that this is not the case. Species cannot exist in the wild in perpetuity any more. Many of them may have no longer than a few decades left in their natural environs. By and large, this is the fault of humans. Our actions have pushed species to extinction already and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. By our actions alone can this mass extinction be mitigated. Among the measures that need to be taken, the moderation of climate change, protection of habitat, and yes, captive breeding and invasive research of imperiled species are all critical.

But just as critical is a reevaluation of our moral feelings towards wild animals. The prospects of their existence are rapidly changing. To ignore that and continue to tout our own equality with them is dangerous. We are not the same as animals. We should empathize with them and understand that they feel pain, but we should also acknowledge that we know things they never will. They don’t know they are not-so-slowly fading from existence, and we do. We need to trust that we are, in fact doing the right thing. That we are doing what’s best–what’s best for the species. For without the species, there will soon be no individuals for us to agonize over.

 

 

 

 

The Last Defense Against Us: Zoos and Aquariums

Despite the fact that it’s a chilly day, slightly gray, and overcast day, I’m almost sweating as I look out over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I am, perhaps obviously, at the National Aquarium, a world-renowned facility dedicated to education, conservation, and research. When I turn around, behind a waterfall, a screen of palms, and a barely-visible black netting, I can see a couple flying foxes and I can hear the warble-y chatter of several species of Australian finches. I’m about as close to heaven as I can be—this is as close as I’ve ever been able to come to most of these species, and seeing them in the microcosm they live in, is almost like being able to look through a window and see Australia outside instead of the rainy, cloudy Baltimore skyline.

One thing that fascinates me, perhaps because it can, at times, confuses me, is the animosity that some animal-lovers feel towards zoos and aquariums. There was a time when these facilities could rightly be criticized for negligence and maltreatment. Thankfully, those days are mostly over. While there are still going to be facilities that do not undergo accreditation processes, and therefore escape submission to rigorous scrutiny, the vast majority of zoos and aquariums are very safe and ethical places. All that being said, I do want to give credit to many of the detractors of zoos: there are legitimate concerns that they express, and it is these that I am more interested in discussing than generic criticisms of animal care conditions.

I think that most reasonable concerns brought against zoos and aquariums boil down to a very basic and reasonable concern. Zoos and aquariums, while they may not be negligent in their care of animals, cannot possibly offer to animals the same kinds of experiences and freedoms they would experience, were they not captives. This is, in many ways, completely true. However, it also represents, what I believe, is an increasingly flawed view of the way the world works.

There was a time, perhaps not so long ago, when it was still reasonable to expect that, with enough hard work, there was a large body of species that would be able to be preserved in their natural habitats without significant need for species to be removed from their habitats. That time is past. Today, some studies suggest that as many as a third of all amphibians, a quarter of all mammals, and roughly a sixth of all birds are facing extinction. The threats come from a myriad of sources—climate change, poaching, habitat fragmentation and destruction, and the increased risk of disastrous pollution events (think Deepwater Horizon, or Exxon Valdez), to name a few major ones. Additionally, while some post-industrial countries are beginning to see a turn towards green energy sources and conservation entering the mainstream political conversation, more countries are yet to industrialize. In the latter category of countries, smoke spewing from factory chimneys and stacks is seen as a sign of modernity and progress. Expecting to be able to preserve 35% of all life on earth (a “happy medium” scenario; some studies suggest this figure could be as high as 50%) in completely natural situations, when we’ve probably already committed the world’s seas to a mean rise of several inches and when many countries want—and, perhaps, need—to industrialize at any cost, is, at best, naïve; at worst, it strikes me as criminally negligent and ignorant.

In a climate as hostile to the conservation of species as this one, I think that people need to first rethink the purpose that modern zoological facilities fulfill. The model for successful zoos and aquariums has been moving away from a facility built and maintained for the entertainment of people for decades. Increasingly, zoos and aquariums have been relating new mission statements. Education of the public as to the risks facing wildlife, and research in order to better care for and protect individuals, and species, are now often cited as zoos’ primary purposes. This is not just a publicity stunt either.

In the 1990s and early 2000s Panama became the epicenter of one of the most terrifying biodiversity crises of modern times. During this time, it became evident that massive numbers of amphibians were dying off. Huge areas of rainforest, formerly hotspots for research and biodiversity, were, almost overnight, purged of amphibians. The culprit was eventually revealed to be a member of the Chytrid genus of fungi. This particular species of Chytrid fungus lives on the thin, porous skins of amphibians. Because amphibians absorb much of the oxygen they use for respiration through their skin, having something obstructing the pores and thickening the surface of the skin is deadly. The Chytrid seems, most often, to cause death by asphyxiation and cardiac arrest. What’s more, while the fungus vulnerable to some disinfecting agents, it’s not really possible to bleach all of Australia and the Americas, which is about what it would take to eliminate Chytrid from parts of the world that it isn’t native to.

So what is to be done when all the frogs in the wild on three continents are dying? To begin with, they really have to be removed from the wild; otherwise, they will undoubtedly go extinct. Once out of the wild, they can be bred and studied in environments free of the disease. To date, scientists, vets, and zookeepers have managed to keep Chytrid out of the breeding facilities, which house dozens of species and are scattered across the world. What’s more, in this controlled environment, it might be possible to develop a vaccine of sorts to allow for the future release of the frogs.

But the case of the frogs and the fungus is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the importance of zoos and aquariums in conservation. Each day, nearly 100 elephants are killed in Africa. In some portions of central Africa, one in six Chimpanzees are caught in wire snares; most of these will not survive the traumatic experience. In Mexico, almost 80,000 parrots are caught out of the wild each year and smuggled into the US, Europe, and South America for the pet trade. A staggering number of these birds are chicks, and an even higher number—perhaps as many as 85%—do not survive the conditions imposed on them during their travels. For many species that are currently endangered, it is currently far safer to live in zoos and aquariums than in many portions of their wild range. The beauty of zoos and aquariums, however, lies in the fact that a species’ residence in one does not have to be permanent. Take the Golden Lion Tamarin, for example. After a population decline that landed them as a Critically Endangered species in 2003, a breeding program and reintroduction effort spearheaded by the National Zoo, allowed for the establishment of several new (albeit small) populations and, while still listed as Endangered, they are doing far better than they were a decade ago. This demonstrates that if it is possible to return a population to the wild without immediately compromising them, zoos and aquariums are more than willing to do so.

All this being said, zoos and aquariums, by their very natures, exist as public enterprises. Many receive public money, and nearly all really heavily on private donations. Because of this, they cannot spend all of their funds attempting to save species. If they did, they would fail. To keep this from happening, they must be able to exhibit species the public is interested in: thankfully, this includes many endangered species, such as the aforementioned African elephant. On the other, many are not in serious need f conservation. Most penguin species are not considered endangered, but they tend to be popular with guests. Even here, however there is great benefit to having these species exhibited. It is extremely important to bear in mind that people want to understand animals they care about. Therefore, more common, popular, species can be used to educate the public about adaptation, habitat, and ecology—themes that might be harder to impart upon a crowd listening to a species they are only vaguely aware even exists.

Despite the educational benefits, many of the critics of zoos and aquariums will argue that only endangered species that require conservation should be kept in captivity. However, beyond the educational purposes, there are other reasons why you can’t simply just exhibit species of conservation concern. As stated above, the non-threatened species may be far more popular than the threatened ones. These species are the ones that bring the donations, that allow for admissions prices to be raised, that sell cute stuffed toys in the gift shops, etc. Without these species pulling in money, there are no funds available for the species of conservation concern. And if individuals aren’t being taken out of the wild to be exhibited in captivity (which they aren’t—that’s been illegal for decades), and they’re being exhibited in humane conditions (which we’ve already addressed here) and they are fulfilling educational and conservation-functions, then they should not be considered any different than species of conservation concern, and their captivity should be, likewise, considered vital to the preservation of species.

I spent four years in a volunteer program at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. In those four years, I did not meet a single person there that was not dedicated to the care of the animals, and we consistently had animals in excellent exceeding their life expectancies by years and years. The exhibits the animals lived in, especially the newer exhibits are roomy and offer a wide-range of enrichment and very natural, high quality landscaping. In a statement about the Edinburgh Zoo’s new primate facilities, Jane Goodall expressed that “the choice is between living in wonderful facilities like these, where they are probably better off, or living in the wild in an area… where one in six gets caught in a wire snare… [and] are shot for food commercially”. It is time to realize that our world is no longer the place it used to be. Extinct means forever, and for many endangered species, the only thing standing between them and extinction, is a zoo.

Note: Here are some of the resources that I used when writing this, and good places for people interested in conservation, extinction, and zoos, to look into.

http://www.ranadorada.org/captive_propagation.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/2011241/Is-Jane-Goodall-about-to-lose-her-post.html

http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/

http://www.goscienceseven.com/ecology/ecology%20unit%20pdf/studAmphibianextinction.pdf

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/28/science/zoos-bitter-choice-to-save-some-species-letting-others-die.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert