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 skies—places where, we hope and expect, animals live free. It’s the myth that populations of such animals can be pared by ourselves—humanely.
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 idea—introduced 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”
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?
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?
The 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 testing—perhaps, 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.”
The 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?
Featured photo by Jeff Houdret: Three young deer crossing a meadow at Valley Forge National Historical Park in winter. Elephants: AFP.