Late in 2003, Friends of Animals and The Audubon Society were at odds over deer. Too many deer is a national problem---- what to do about them? Who can be against an individual deer, a bambi, grazing in a pasture, looking up with big eyes? And who can be against the conservation of an entire endangered species of a bird? Could it be that the Audubon Society does not like bambi? Could it be that Friends of Animals could want to cause the extinction a species? Seems impossible, but it appears to be at the heart of the controversy reported in Wednesday’s New York Times where Priscilla Feral, President of Friends of Animals in Darien, Connecticut, publicly opposed a deer hunt on Audubon Greenwich land, a hunt whose intention is to protect the habitat of endangered species of birds. How can two organizations, both appearing to be of good will, be on opposite sides of an issue about the health of nature and its wildlife?
As an ecologist who has done research on wildlife populations for decades, I recognize this as an inevitable consequence of a rule of ecology: what’s good for an individual is not always good for its population or species; and what’s good for the population or species is not always good for an individual. Each of us wants to live forever — myself included ---- but a world in which nobody died and babies continue to be born would soon be unlivable ---- Earth’s finite resources would not be enough. For a species to persist indefinitely, its individuals either cannot reproduce or cannot live forever. For an individual, a long live with many offspring is desirable.
We did not make nature, and we cannot change her rules. We can only learn what they are and try to figure out how to live with them. From a human point of view, this leads to an inevitable conflict of values. Each of us, as individuals, enjoys other individual animals. Each of us likes to see a population of animals healthy in a habitat that provides a wealth of resources. Natural rules of ecology tell us that the two are not obtainable for all time in any one place. The issue, based on a scientific understanding of population dynamics, leads to a choice based on values.
If we opt for the individual deer, then we have to find other ways that hunting to reduce the present population and future reproduction. We might introduce anti-reproductive hormones into the environment which pose their own environmental issues. And if this is all we did, we would have to watch many deer slowly die of starvation and disease, with their clear watery doe eyes replaced by eyes clouded with pain.
Another option is to make the habitat less favorable for deer. Our suburbanization of the landscape has created a wonderful deer habitat — all those yummy flowering plants easy to reach, those tasty young trees planted near new houses. We could impose zoning laws, or have a voluntary agreement in all suburban neighborhoods to plant only deer-hostile vegetation, whether or not these were beautiful or useful.
We could transport the deer as they became crowded to some other place — a costly solution and one that merely places the problem in someone else’s backyard — our nation is filling up with deer as suburbs expand nation wide.
The point here is that there is no easy solution, and no single right or wrong. Nature has given us the population dynamics of wildlife, and we have to acknowledge these rules. Solutions that make all sides happy may be expensive, have environmental consequences we do not like and perhaps can not predict.
With this understanding that the predicament is not one or the other side’s fault, but a consequence of nature, perhaps we can create an atmosphere where all the people of good will can sit down together and work out a solution that, while not being perfect from any single point of view, becomes an acceptable part of the values of our civilization.
Copyright © 2003 Daniel B. Botkin