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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

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When Animal Rights Sabotage the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2016

Deer-herd-web-2-26-06My latest for

There are times—too many times, in truth—when understanding and protecting the natural world demands that we band together to stop the killing: The macho practice of shooting wolves in the American West comes to mind as an example. So does the relentless slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa. But at other times, protecting the natural world requires us to kill, and this is the painful reality some animal rights activists refuse to understand.

It’s not a failure to communicate. Animal rights groups are often brilliant at communicating. It’s a failure to reason in the face of scientific evidence, and it comes up almost endlessly for people who do the real work of protecting the natural world.

The latest case happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city wanted to cull a booming deer population that is destroying the forest understory, damaging local landscaping, and causing car accidents (88 last year, double what it was just five years ago). Then both the Humane Society of the United States and the local chapter of the Humane Society—two separate entities—showed up to cry, “Cruelty!”

But, hang on, why should the rest of us care about Ann Arbor, a university town of 113,000 people 45 minutes west of Detroit? It matters, says Christopher Dick, a plant ecologist at the University of Michigan, because “HSUS is pitting its huge resources and cherry-picked science against every small town in the eastern U.S. that is having deer overabundance issues and considering lethal options.”

Activists put on a reasonable face when they come into town to

meet with local officials, typically proposing an experimental project with nonlethal methods, meaning sterilization or contraceptives. Among other things, that experiment requires catching and tranquilizing a large percentage of the deer for either surgery or a contraceptive implant, at great expense, and it has never succeeded anywhere else. But local politicians rarely know better. Then, “when it comes time to implement,” HSUS imposes “a condition that there can be no killing of deer for an extended period.” It’s all part of the strategy, says Dick: “Start the ‘experiment’ (destined to fail), stall the shooting, and meanwhile help to generate a political storm so that local governance will not want anything to do with deer management.”

And it matters, in fact, well beyond the eastern United States; because animal rights groups everywhere play on our emotions to protect a few favored species at the expense of entire ecosystems. HSUS, for instance, claims to be dedicated to creating “a humane and sustainable world for all animals.” But what this generally means is protecting warm, furry mammals—for instance, outdoor cats. Upwards of 20 million of them now roam the American landscape, and they kill billions of birds. But rather than culling the cats to protect the birds and other innocent victims, HSUS supports the failed policy of “trap-neuter-release.” This effectively creates vast, permanent populations of “community cats” to do their killing, though mostly out of our sight.

Likewise, 58,000 wild horses are now browsing the American West down to nubble, destroying ecosystems on which other species (and the horses themselves) depend for survival. But rather than culling the horses, HSUS advocates “compassion and concern.” That attitude does nothing to stop a developing ecological apocalypse as the horses pound grasslands and the underlying soil to dust. Nor does it allow any sensible alternative to the current practice of housing 45,000 formerly wild horses in “retirement” facilities, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $77 million a year.

But back to Ann Arbor, now home to somewhere between 500 and 1,500 deer. As the deer have multiplied, they have had a devastating effect on habitat. “Almost nothing, even junipers, are spared during late winter when there has been snow cover and the deer are starving,” said Larry D. Noodén, a retired University of Michigan biology professor. “The beautiful spring flora gets devastated…and the orchids are the first to be hit even when there is plenty of deer food.” The deer also like to browse down oak saplings, and they die out, changing the structure of the forest. Barberry shrubs often move in to replace them.

Does it matter? Barberry, an invasive species, tends to grow in dense stands that are habitat mostly for deer mice and deer ticks, a recipe for Lyme disease. And here’s the thing about oaks: They provide homes to caterpillars from 534 species of butterflies and moths. The butterflies and moths, in turn, are essential food for birds. So when you encourage overpopulation by deer, you end up driving out dozens of other species.

The good news from Ann Arbor is that city officials saw through the HSUS smokescreen of nonsense and lawsuits. They went forward with their cull, taking out 63 deer earlier this year. The venison went to food shelters. It remains to be seen whether ecological common sense will endure through another round of emotional assaults before next winter’s cull.

Here is the bottom line, for when HSUS shows up in your community. Because those two words, “Humane Society,” start the name, a lot of people donate to HSUS under the assumption that their gift supports local animal shelters. That’s how HSUS was able to collect donations totaling $135 million in 2014, and it’s the reason even some University of Michigan faculty thought it was almost sacrilegious to criticize the group. In fact, HSUS has no direct connection to local animal shelters, and only a tiny fraction of its budget goes in direct grants to animal shelters. Its main function, according to its tax statement, is “advocacy and public policy”—that is, lobbying.

The people at HSUS are no doubt decent and well meaning, and compassion for animals is a good thing. But they parse out that compassion on extremely narrow lines and largely in ignorance of how the natural world works. That means your gift to HSUS—and many other animal rights groups—supports a vision of a cute, cuddly America, when the desperate need is to stop the decline of a wild America that is already rapidly vanishing around us.


27 Responses to “When Animal Rights Sabotage the Natural World”

  1. Johanna van de Woestijne said

    Thank you for writing about the ecological destruction caused by the “fuzzy animal lobbyists”.

  2. Plover Lock said

    Well said. While well meaning, these people can’t find it in themselves to understand the larger scope of these hunting/culling of over-populated animals. Especially when it comes to cats… I don’t understand, people lose their minds when it comes to lowering the outdoor cat population. I think the Humane Society started out as something great, and at its core, it still does some good work too, but it has become a twisted entity nowadays it seems.

  3. I agree that HSUS can and does do good work. If they really wanted to make a difference, though, they would focus more on working with farmers and other stakeholders to improve our almost non-existent animal welfare regulations in the livestock industry. And they would of course drop this campaign to impose domestic cats on wildlife.

  4. Reblogged this on The Last Word and commented:
    “It is becoming more and more apparent that HSUS has little understanding of the natural world, and even less understanding of conservation and wildlife management.”– Andrew Wyatt

  5. Got this comment via Facebook from Sammi Lewis: “You make a good point in your article about animal rights backfiring. However, humans are the most destructive animal. Why not cull us as well? Just a thought” The short answer is that it has been tried, always on racist, or antisemitic, or other hate-based “us versus them” terms. Also it wouldn’t work. A 2014 study found that even a pandemic that killed a quarter to a third of all people on Earth wouldn’t result in a “sustainable” human population. Here’s a Newsweek account of that research:

  6. Also got this comment via Twitter from Ali Van Zee: “@RichardConniff has another HUGE error: #wildhorses do NOT eat grass “down to the nubble”, cattle does that. Nice try, tho.”

    I replied: “Why do people always misquote me to pretend I’m wrong? Grasslands, not grass. And here’s the science: …”

    Instead of saying, “oh, dang, you’re right after all,” or “let me sit down and think about that,” or even “here’s the science supporting my point of view,” the writer simply moved on to other excuses about how human population or loss of predators or government mismanagement or any old thing other than animal rights is the real problem. I pointed out that I also write about these problems in other columns. The tweep’s idea was that my 800 word column should have included everything else on Earth other than animal rights. Such people have an aversion to reason.

    • al smith said

      because that is what animal rights seats is all about deflection and emotion. Thanks for the great article pointing out the HSUS and their methods taken straight out of Alinskys rules. Their method could also reflect the Chubby Checker song “Twist and Shout”. And if you study the people who support these groups ( other than the misinformed, of which there are many) you will find as you did by one comment that they are a band of misanthropes But the top level considers two things only: money and power. They care little to nothing about animals or their plight.

  7. Carrie said

    I completely support the need for the management of deer populations (and other species) through legal culling- ticks are out of control and the understory is destroyed here in CT/NY. The HSUS (and their international and agricultural arms) from what I’ve seen however does focus heavily though on many very important issues like animal welfare in agriculture, illegal poaching, unecessary/inhumane animal confinement (sea world, etc.) endangered species, ivory trade, dog meat trade, fur trade and lots of other worthy causes. It’s a difficult line to draw I suppose, between conservation ecology and animal rights for the lay person. However, I still support much of their work- they shed light on important subject matter that would otherwise go unnoticed at the expense of many, many animal lives.

    • I can see that. But as long as they compromise that work by abetting this cat-dog-wild horse attack on natural ecosystems in this country, I’d rather give my money to a group that covers most of those issues far more effectively, notably the Wildlife Conservation Society.

      • Carrie said

        The WCS is a great organization and I support them as well. Given their wildlife focus, I don’t believe WCS is involved however in domestic animal and livestock welfare, ending the illegal sport of dog-fighting, lab animal welfare, ending the puppy mill business, or addressing the dog meat trade, etc. I agree with you though, the ecosystem destruction in the US by feral or overpopulated animals is a big issue. At least here in the northeast, I say we bring natural predators back like the eastern cougar, that we humans extirpated long ago (to make room for agriculture). That will bring some of the deer numbers down, but I’m sure there would be a public outcry. Regulators at all levels need to step up too and increase their public education programs.

      • al smith said

        This is typical animal rights speak.. you pointed out what is wrong, she points out what she thinks is wrong.. the “dog meat trade” is not a USA problem..HSUS does not want ANY meat to be consumed. They are a vegan based group and always have been. They demonized farmers and ranchers that supply us with the safest foods in the entire world/ They do not want to end dog fighting. They supported Vick for Pete’s sake, used him like the pawn he was and then supported his ownership of another dog/ They are a ‘create a crisis” group that uses the deer situation, or what other people in a different culture consume, or the “puppy mill” business and even the use of animal to cure human disease. Bring back “natural predators” is always one they like to use as well but the minute a rancher loses his livestock or even his pets or guardian dogs to a natural predator and want to cull them the HSUS is there to “create a crisis” and again demonize the hunter. When the head of the Fish and Game dept in CA bought a legal tag to hunt a mountain lion in another state HSUS was there to make sure he lost his job. Not a group I would want to support.

  8. “Ann Arbor, now home to somewhere between 500 and 1,500 deer.” Please tell us where you got that number. The City’s most recent aerial survey (…/Survey%20Results%202-18-16%20Map…) counted 202. Even if they missed half the deer, that’s 404.

    “Scientific evidence,” as you mention– and facts and data– are important. Your article loses all credibility when you make them up.

    • The standard multiple in past scientific studies, to account for deer scared into hiding by a helicopter overhead, is 2.5. Hence the the low-end estimate. But, frankly, even I get scared into hiding when helicopters pass overhead, even though in my area I know they belong either to the Coast Guard, or to people making the run from NYC to Martha’s Vineyard. Deer don’t know what’s going on, except that it’s loud and scary. That makes it a highly inaccurate way to count wildlife.

      • al smith said

        and yet they use them to count the “wild” horses and you are correct. There are far too many of them. They suffer and die horrible deaths because of groups like the HSUS who call them “icons of the West” and they decimate the grasslands and we cannot even use them for food as we used to

  9. The TNR comment is a little off base. HSUS and PeTA are opposed to this practice and it does work if followed up diligently. The threat to wildlife is over blown with no real data to back it up. TNR is about management. I approve hunting as a way to manage wildlife populations. A good book on animal rights extremism is The Hijacking of the Humane Movement.

  10. Gustavo said

    What people do not understand, it seems, is that this “overpopulation” is caused for many reasons all of them caused by man:

    1. Insertion of foreign species in the ecosystem.
    2. Anhilation of natural predators.
    3. Invasion and destruction of their natural territories.

    So what you now call necessary culling is a result of our acts.

  11. al smith said

    It is interesting to note that the HSUS holds a major interest in the use of PZP, the most common “birth control” touted for horses and deer. PZP is the contraception they promote for use on wild deer and horses. HSUS is the registrant for PZP “The authority to carry out these projects is issued by two separate Investigational New Animal Drug documents (INADs) issued by the FDA to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). ” So is there some sort of conflict of interest here? The ironic thing is PZP is made from pig ovaries.. no pigs killed.. no PZP.. no scientific research on animals.. no PZP..and the circle continues.. More legislators need to know about the HSUS.. thanks for putting it out there

  12. sabine said

    The number of wild horses left on the ranges is less than 20 thousand. Compare that to about 7 million cattle that roam the same ranges at tax payer’s expense so who is eating the forage to the ground, trampling the vegetation and fouling streams with manure? Not the horses and burros. You had me there until you threw that nuggets of ignorance in there. Do some research before you write.

    • Free ranging cattle on federal lands are of course an issue, but a separate one, which I have dealt with in many other columns. Regarding wild horses, the best estimate of the population by government wildlife biologists is in fact 58,000, as cited in the article above. Here’s the citation: You may not understand this, so let me explain that all the blue text in my article represents links to scientific studies (meaning citations). Here is another estimate, in Science, the leading U.S. science journal, putting the figure at 33,000: The government has been able to keep the population that low only by a system of persistent removals of horses into captivity, at great expense. The article notes that “the 30-year cost of maintaining horses currently in longterm holding facilities would be ~$394 million ($449 million with 2% annual inflation).” An intensive contraception program could only slow the rate of population growth in the wild, not reverse it, and it would be hugely expensive. Meanwhile drought conditions cause these horses to die miserably of thirst and hunger. The merciful thing would be to cull them and export the meat to countries where it is a normal part of the diet.

  13. UPDATE: Regarding the predator question, here’s a new study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: And this is the key line from the press release: “With their study, the scientists were able to show that even in human-dominated landscapes predators maintain their important role as regulators of wild populations, notably by reducing the number of herbivores.”

  14. […] Richard Conniff’s blog Strange Behaviors explores the problems with cat and horse sterilization programs in his writings, and recently featured an Ann Arbor/HSUS post. […]

  15. Richard, thanks for providing this perspective on HSUS’s role in the politics of urban deer management. I have written a post on what I see as the use of pseudoscientific rhetoric by HSUS to bolster their agenda. I invite feedback from wildlife biologists or stories from others who have watched the HSUS intervene in their towns’ deer management programs.

  16. UPDATE: Here’s a new study from Czechoslovakia, which finds that introducing an alien tree species reduces the moth population and thus also the diversity and number of birds. Though the common understanding is that trophic cascades happen from the top down, driven largely by changes in the predator population, this study also provides further evidence that these cascades are really more complicated than that.

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