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.






Ethics is, by necessity a complex topic. To discuss ethics requires the juggling of perspectives, emotions, facts, actions, intentions—almost every facet of everyday and extraordinary life. Additionally, under changing circumstances and evidence, they must be able to bend and rearrange, or risk shattering, I imagine, that some, including Peter Singer, would argue with me on that last point, but I don’t intend to spend much time directly contesting that point. Instead, I intend to make a case for my own ethics; at least, my ethics as they pertain to what I eat and—for I believe the two are essentially linked, at least in my case—my ethical views towards human’s relationship with animals, both wild and domestic.

I first want to admit to having spent most of my life willfully ignoring any thoughts on where my food came from. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about the controversy surrounding the modern food supply system—I read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and watched the documentary “Supersize Me” at a relatively young age. I had vegetarians as friends and family. I knew more than the average person probably did and it wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was that I didn’t really that I mattered what I thought or did, and to be entirely honest, part of me still believes it doesn’t much matter.

I did always have strong ethical feelings towards the treatment of animals (in a broad sense) and the way we share the world with them. And eventually, my feelings around these areas began to bleed over into my ethical considerations around eating. These feelings were strongly influenced by working at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore for four years as an educator and assistant zookeeper and by starting to work as a bird bander with the New Jersey Shorebird Project. I take a big picture view that the species is the most important thing to conserve and protect. It is important to note that I do not believe that this means captivity is wrong or harmful. It isn’t and, if I’m being entirely honest, I have relatively little patience who contend that captivity is an inherently immoral thing. I think that this view is naive and requires intentional omission of important facts about the world we live in today. However, in order for captivity to be successful, the care of the animals must be humane, safe, and decent. This would, of course, disqualify me from supporting the food industry, who’s animal care is generally appalling.

In practice, this looks something like this: I eat a lot of salads, pastas, and seafood. Working in my favor is that I don’t particularly care about most GMOs. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time discussing that here, but briefly—they have no demonstrated side-effects to human health and basically every food we consume except wildlife is a GMO or derived from a GMO. I avoid the vast majority of red meats and poultry. And when I do eat them I do try to find food that was raised at free-range farms that are somewhat local.

I feel like this is relatively uncontroversial, except for maybe the fact that I do still eat seafood. I eat mostly wild caught seafood from fisheries that are sustainable, and so hope to avoid driving species to extinction with my actions, and hope to avoid environmental degradation due to fish farming. I use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” to help me make my decisions—it is a highly respected and professionally compiled source of information of ethical and environmentally friendly seafood consumption, and so I generally trust the information it provides about all species.

In conclusion, I want to go back, for a moment and address my earlier thoughts on animal captivity. I think that it is important to explain this a little more thoroughly since it was my starting point for this discussion and for the development of my opinions, in general. A sixth mass extinction is currently underway. The world has already been irrevocably altered by human activity—current scientific evidence suggests that we have already passed a point of no-return in the progression of global warming, the old growth rainforests cleared for agriculture would take centuries to fully reforest, even if we would let them, the rate of coral bleaching may now be exceeding the ability of new polyps to form, dooming some reefs to permanent extinction, to name just a few examples. I bring this up to offer as proof of this—there is not enough room in the wild anymore for many species to exist at healthy self-sustainable levels, and the situation will only worsen from here on out. Panama Golden Frogs’ habitat may be permanently uninhabitable due to human-introduced pathologies. In all but the most heavily guarded reserves (yes, by concrete, barbed wire, and armed military guards) African Elephants are poached at rates approaching 99 individuals per day. The size of permafrost is shrinking so rapidly in the arctic, that polar bears may literally run out of dry land in the next fifty years.

These species will cease to exist without captivity. And I feel like I cannot accept and praise captivity in wild animals without also praising and accepting it when it is executed humanely in domestic food-producing species.

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.

The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Extinct Needs to Remain Forever

There seems to be one thing that fascinates and terrifies the scientists of the natural world more than almost anything else: extinction. Extinction can be looked at as the pinnacle of evolution. When a species has failed—when there is absolutely nothing left for it to contribute—a slow and steady decline begins. Evolution removes species naturally through extinction, and in doing so, maintains a healthy and viable ecosystem. However, extinction is also a terrible side-effect of the actions of humans. When extinction is caused while a species is still contributing to the health of an ecosystem, it has dire repercussions. This is the tragedy of human-caused extinction. It isn’t just the loss of a species before its time; it is the corruption of a natural process. In either case, extinction has a definite finality. Extinct means forever—or it did until very recently. Now, in today’s world of rapidly evolving technologies for genetic manipulation, we are faced with a full set of new questions that would have seemed outlandish just a few decades ago.

De-extinction is probably the flashiest (and most controversial) development in conservation and wildlife management in history. In an article that ran in the New York Times in February of this year—which has been widely credited with introducing the concept of de-extinction to the general public—Nathaniel Rich characterized de-extinction as an “ambitious, interdisciplinary and slightly loopy project”, which seems something of an understatement when you pause to think about it. De-extinction is exactly what it sounds like—bringing a living creature that has disappeared from our world back into it. For anyone familiar with Jurassic Park, it is a concept straight out of science fiction. It isn’t just ambitious, its borderline audacious.

De-extinction can be “achieved” through a variety of processes. The more traditional method, are somatic cell nuclear transfer, is also the primary method of cloning. In this process, a non-reproductive cell (somatic cell) from the mother has its nucleus replaced with the nucleus of a reproductive cell from the animal to be cloned. The cell is then given an electric shock to promote division and inserted into the mother animal. This technique can only be used, however, on species for which reproductive cells exist—species which have only recently gone extinct, in other words. For species for which that kind of genetic material is not existent, another, more complicated method is used. First the extant species most closely related to the extinct one must be identified. After this, the genomes of the two species must be examined, and the differences between the two inactivated by replacing the segments of code in the extant species with analogous segments from the extinct species. Afterwards, somatic cell nuclear transfer is used, with the main difference being that instead of a reproductive cell from the clone individual being used, the fabricated genetic code is inserted into the somatic cell.

All that scientific jargon aside, the appeal is obvious and deeply tempting. For a real conservationist, there are few things more troubling than seeing a stuffed specimen of a passenger pigeon or sea cow, and the desire to see one of them alive is overwhelming. Furthermore, unlike so many conservation management schemes, de-extinction is actually monetarily possible. Because de-extinction is so ostentatious and futuristic, it attracts donors that would otherwise ignore wildlife issues and conservation concerns for instance, silicon valley types who are heavily invested in the technology being used, and pharmaceutical companies interested in the implications the genetic manipulations might have on future drug-development.

There are also more esoteric—or at least more difficult to prove—arguments in favor of de-extinction. Many of de-extinction’s supporters argue that we have a moral responsibility to bring back species that we condemned to extinction. We had the power to drive them to extinction, and now that we have the power to undo it, we should use it. Rich describes it as “grasping for a silver lining” in a history dotted by conservation failures and relates how a leading conservation ecologist, Stewart Brand, likens de-extinction, and its effect on people, to the re-introduction of some of America’s formerly lost megafauna “it gives people hope when rewilding occurs — when the wolves come back, when the buffalo come back”. When discussing de-extinction with the general public, it is not surprising that this idea of giving people hope and a sense of morality is one of the most commonly heard discussion-points. There is also a very commonly-heard argument about biodiversity. It has long been understood that the more species there are in existence the stronger biodiversity is, and the healthier the planet is. These arguments aren’t really possible to prove—the first is a moral statement, and the second isn’t so much a law of nature as it is a widely accepted theory or hypothesis on the way the world works. But they sound appealing and comforting, and get passed around extensively.

All of this being said, the arguments against de-extinction are many. In April, 2013 National Geographic’s Carl Zimmer wrote a cover story about de-extinction. It was ahead-of-its time, preceding Rich’s article by nearly a year, and so did not gain nearly the press that it probably deserved. In the article, Zimmer begins by describing the first successful attempt to revive an extinct species. A species of mountain goat from Spain was revived when a clone of the endling—the last existing member of a species—was delivered by a closely-related species. The goat returned from the dead, but only for ten minutes. A severe birth defect caused the young goat to suffocate within minutes, and the species was once again lost. This story set the tone for most of Zimmer’s article. He discusses in detail the methods for bringing back species. He is careful to emphasize both their difficulty and their plausibility—something which is common among the opponents of de-extinction. The party-line for Zimmer and like-minded individuals is that while the science is there, it’s not as easy as proponents make it out to be.

This assertion has its values. When you are dealing with controversy with such wide-ranging implications as de-extinction, perspective needs to exist, and the difficulties that would be faced are massive. However, this is not the most convincing argument against de-extinction, and it is at this point that I will turn to an article from May 2012, not about de-extinction, in order to prove a point. Leslie Kaufman ran an article in the New York Times about zoos and the way they manage their collections. She opens her piece by relaying the stories of two attractive and critically endangered primates. One of which is being saved and one which is not. She follows this up by remarking how zookeepers, vets, and collection managers “are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save”. Zoos, which had, in the past, been imagined as places of entertainment and education, are now adding “modern Noah’s Ark” to their job descriptions. And deciding which animals to let onto this ark is a painful and desperately difficult decision. One of the problems zoos face is balancing this new responsibility as an ark with their more traditional roles.

In doing this, zoos have always faced criticism from factions that think they should be more devoted to conservation and not as interested in providing entertainment. The problem with this is that zoos did not develop to be arks. They developed as entertainment facilities reliant on public donations, admissions sales, and state grants. They certainly cannot gather the first two sources of income without spending a large amount of their time and resources on keeping zoo visitors happy.

Let us, for a moment, investigate the case of the St. Louis Zoo—one of America’s largest and more successful zoological parks. Despite being so large and well respected, this zoo faces the same struggle as any others. These include coming up with new ways of attracting visitors to the facility to meet the bottom lines. At present, the St. Louis Zoo is known in the zoo business for ostentatious and modern exhibits, displaying high-attraction species of conservation concern, including severely endangered black-and-white ruffed lemurs. The investment of money into breeding and maintaining appropriate exhibits for these species is huge, but having these species displayed brings in large numbers of guests. It has the added bonus of contributing to the conservation of these animals. Generally speaking, however, if zoos must choose between conservation and monetary success, they will choose the latter. An example of this comes straight from Kaufman’s article. She notes that while the St. Louis Zoo is highly committed to conservation, they are currently in the process of building $20 million dollar (around 40% of its total operating budget) polar bear exhibit despite the facts that “its last polar bear died in 2009 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to remove or rescue the bears from the wild”. Additionally, polar bears are known to be quite difficult to breed in captivity, and individuals whose genes are not already overrepresented in the captive population are rare, so acquiring captive bears from other facilities is quite difficult.

Given this, if the St. Louis Zoo were to gain able to create a clone of a mammoth or genetically engineer one using recovered DNA, it is not entirely unreasonable that they might funnel some funds away from the ruffed lemur projects—a, presumably, less monetarily productive program. And if, after this is done, it is proven the mammoths brings in more money than the lemurs, which is all but guaranteed, it is not unreasonable to imagine the lemur breeding program being significantly scaled back, if not entirely phased out. For a population which is not abundantly common in captivity and which is facing near certain extinction in the wild, such a blow could prove fatal for the survival of the entire species.

The scenario outlined above has not happened anywhere yet, thankfully. But it is not hard to imagine how it might. The individuals who run the de-extinction programs are generally not conservation biologists or wildlife vets. They are computer scientists and geneticists who happen to like animals, or some facet of the natural world. As such, their primary interests are bringing extinct animals back and not the consequences these acts may have. No one seems to have thought about, for example, the space that would be needed to exhibit a mammoth in captivity, nor what its specific dietary or medical requirements would be. This, when combined with the issue of the disruption to the current conservation system, becomes, perhaps, the most convincing argument against de-extinction and which jumps to the forefront of my mind when I think of why it makes me uncomfortable.

Yet, this is also the greatest challenge facing the opponents of de-extinction. They are attempting to be accurate and precise and, thus, un-emotional. This is the sciences’ greatest flaw and strength. It is truthful to a fault. Scientists opposed to de-extinction continue to argue against it by saying that it is possible but difficult and flawed. This is perfectly true and relatively unbiased. But the less-constrained and arguably less professional and scientific proponents of de-extinction continue to appeal to the guilt of the public with moral arguments. As long as emotional cries for action are met with quiet and measured responses, the opponents are fighting a losing battle. The opponents need to embrace the more emotional argument I have outlined above—namely the devastating effects de-extinction’s widespread implementation could have on current conservation practices.

De-extinction is a scientific wonder. The very fact that we can bring back entire species from the grave is mind-boggling. And I must admit that it would be both morally gratifying and very reassuring to see a flock of passenger pigeons blotting out the sun again after one hundred years of absence from this world. However, I also recognize that the sentiment expressed by William Beebe, one of the most prominent naturalists of the twentieth century, when he espoused that “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again” is what has saved countless species from extinction. Threatening to change that now could unbalance the management of endangered species in a spectacular way. If we know that extinction is reversible, there is no moral imperative for us to act to keep species from disappearing. Extinction will become a catalogue of things that the human race has “put on the shelf”; a list of footnotes to be saved for future examination. Ironically, the prevention of future extinctions is reliant on the infallibility of a sober and chilling fact: extinct has always meant forever.





The Politics of Taxonomy

The other day, the American Birding Association (ABA) Blog posted an overview to the first part of this year’s American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) Checklist proposal (which can be found here As usual, there were revisions to the family organizations (Parrots, this year), a genus reassignment (American Tree Sparrow), and multiple new splits. The splits included some reasonably predictable ones–Trindade from Herald Petrel, and Rosalia from LeConte’s Thrasher. However, for every split for which a reasonably measured argument can be made, it seems that one split that is more abstract is proposed. This time around, that split goes to the Painted Bunting.

Painted Buntings north of Mexico can be divided into two subspecies. A western subspecies that breeds in brushy areas of the southern Great Plains, and an eastern subspecies that breeds primarily in the coastal southeast. They are likely inseparable in the field, with the primary differences being moult timing and wintering range.

The Painted Bunting is a species whose proposed split is probably less about a biological difference in populations, and more about ornithology and conservations’ politics. The ABA Blog notes that the split proposal suggests treatment of the two populations as separate species as a way to create a more favorable environment for conservation of the eastern subspecies, which is relatively uncommon and declining. I have had long-discussions with other birders around my age, in which we have both questioned the way that the AOU seems to be deciding which populations of birds deserve full-species recognition. I at least, am not willing to hold anyone at fault for attempting to help a population of creatures that is threatened, but I wonder if the best way to do this is to elevate threatened populations to species status. I am of the opinion that the current trend of elevating many many populations of birds to full species status in order to make conservation funds reach them more easily, or because of differences in mitochondrial DNA that do not translate into field identification is diluting the definition of a species.

In the cases of elevating populations for genetic differences, moult-timing differences etc, the picture is much more complicated. But in the case of raising populations for the purpose of conserving them more easily and effectively, I think that there is a solution that will preserve the vitality of the species definition and protect the species–and it does not come from the AOU at all. I think the solution must come from the governments charged with protecting the populations. The governments must have the ability to recognize populations which are locally threatened and maybe not a full species, and offer them the same kind of protection on the basis that they are a locally significant part of the flora and fauna.

I understand that, until and unless this happens, there will, necessarily, have to be other ways of protecting these populations, and that it is, by some, considered valid to use species recognition as a way of doing this. I don’t have any solutions to this “problem”, but I do think it should be noted that this olution has ramifications for the science of taxonomy and genetics. Just some food for thought…