The casual killing of 5 billion dogs

Last year I wrote a piece for a major review magazine and in their wisdom they sat on it for the last 12 months, paid me and then decided not to publish. They are two excellent books, raising important themes about our treatment of nature. Rather than waste all my efforts I thought i might just put the piece on my blog


Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive and Unwanted Species, edited by Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II, University of Minnesota Press, 2013 978-0-8166-8055-9; The Global Pigeon by Colin Jerolmack, The University of Chicago Press, 2013, 978-0-226-00208-8.


They may now be the stuff of environmental academia, but the statistics of death involving North America’s historic megafauna still have the capacity to take away anyone’s breath. Prior to European arrival there are thought to have been at least 35 million pronghorn antelopes and 25 million American bison spread across that continent’s prairie grasslands. They represented one of the largest concentrations of wild game on Earth, rivalling those even on the African savannahs.


Yet the pronghorns were eventually whittled down to a few thousand, while of bison in 1889 there were just 541 individuals left. The rest had been shot for their skins or flesh, although the efficiency shown in the killing far outstripped the management of any buffalo product. It is thought that 3-5 animals lay rotting where they fell for each one that entered the market. An American historian suggested that ‘As an example of the profligate waste of an abundant natural resource, the story of the near extermination of the bison probably stands unsurpassed in recorded history.’


Perhaps we should take a few moments to reflect on the prairie dog as an alternative candidate. These two-pound squirrel-faced ground-dwelling rodents, which have no genuine taxonomic link to wild canids, would hardly have been noticed as they scrambled round all those trampling buffalo and pronghorn hooves. Yet prior to the colonial conquest of the plains the prairie dog population has been estimated at 5000 million. Today just 2 per cent remain and they have been corralled on to less than one fortieth of their original range.


That elimination of best part of 5 billion mammals may just be a footnote to the larger drama of the American Plains, but our ignorance of their demise surely invites a little further scrutiny. The destruction of bison was indisputably profligate, but at least when filtered through the binary moral vision of Manifest Destiny, the killings had a kind of logic. The vast bison numbers denuded the forage that colonists wished to secure for their cattle. The indigenous grazing herds also underpinned the economies of hostile Native Americans, such as the Sioux and Cheyenne. Slaughtering buffalo, therefore, had the merit of eliminating two forms of ‘savagery’ in one ‘civilising’ blow. Yet the 150-year eradication campaign visited upon prairie dogs fulfilled no such need. The animals offered no serious impediment to conquest, or to colonial models of agriculture and stock rearing. Little irresistible logic underpinned their killing: they died – and continue to die – largely because instinctively white America assumes they must.


In the excellent Trash Animals, the editors Kelsi Nagy and Phillip Johnson, along with the 14 other contributing authors, try to tease out across a spectrum of the nation’s least-loved critturs – coyotes, cockroaches, gulls, grasshoppers, snakes, starlings and wolves to name just a few – why such animals forfeit almost entirely any rights to our affection or tolerance. They seek to explain what it is we think we loath, where that hatred originates and how it shapes the accompanying policies of management or the many essays at outright extermination.


In one of the book’s best pieces Kelsi Nagy carefully unpicks this strange and disturbing tale of the prairie dog. In her home state of Colorado she locates the myths that have justified the long warfare against these ecologically important mammals. The only one for which there is ambiguous support is the notion that prairie dogs eat the forage intended for domestic stock. Some studies have indicated that prairie acres subject to their relentless incisors are half as productive as grass acres elsewhere. Yet in other trial studies where one fifth of all the cattle range was inhabited by prairie dogs that there was no difference in livestock body weights compared with those of cattle reared on dog-free ground.


There seems an element of perversity in some of the arguments proffered by ranchers and the anti-dog lobby, when the steers themselves often actually prefer to graze on vegetation around the prairie-dog colonies, because these rodent-managed swards are more nutritious and palatable. Even if there were indisputable proof of a reduction in grazing for beef herds, Nagy points out that these negative effects have to be set against the hundreds of millions of dollars paid out cumulatively over decades in government subsidy for the gassing and poison campaigns. In short, the costs of killing prairie dogs do not justify the benefits. In some states the authorities find it cheaper to pay farmers to leave the creatures in place. Most farmers unfortunately prefer to implement government-financed slaughter programmes and in one such South Dakotan scheme from 1984 they spent $6,200,000 and cleared dogs off less than 1 per cent of the state.


Nagy does an excellent job of drawing out the language that frames the moral arguments behind the opposition campaign. A classic sample comes in the testimony of Mark Mason, an active combatant in the dog-versus-beef conflict, who wears a badge that says ‘I explode dogs’. Mason has founded an assault-rifle-bearing group that he has named the ‘Varmint Hunter Militia of Denver’. Its stated aim is to ‘defend farmers from the true invaders: the prairie dogs.’ If Mason shows little awareness of the irony implicit in his mission statement, he is at least alive to the gallows humour in the choice of title for his dog-killing group. The intention, he claims, was ‘to piss off the animal-rights activists’.


The Varmint Hunter Militia may be partly a joke, but it reveals the raw frontier mentality that still informs North America’s slaughter not only of prairie dogs but also of ‘the millions of coyotes, wolves, mountain lions and bears that ranchers condemn as livestock killers.’ The centuries of visceral political independence bound up in that term ‘militia’ align the modern killing of prairie dogs with the older moral cause of wresting a great libertarian nation from the wilderness.  


If such a vocabulary sounds atavistic, then the language that shapes the moral debate around, and public attitudes towards, a beast called the Mormon cricket is positively biblical. In her superb essay ‘Managing Apocalypse’, Christina Robertson tracks her nation’s troubled relations with a member of the grasshopper family (orthoptera) technically known as Anabrus simplex. Like many in this insect order, it can proliferate when the background conditions are optimum, until there are swarms numbered in billions. The flightless insects then march in search of greener pastures devouring much of the vegetation in their path, although it should be said that the preference is for native plants over human crops.


Robertson never ducks the issue that Mormon crickets can be serious pests when these temporary mass movements occur. What she takes issue with are the fundamental continuities between the Old Testament language of Exodus, with its apocalyptic account of locust plague in ancient Egypt, and reactions to modern population spikes in the equivalent American species. For example, one recent Reuters headline ran: Mormon crickets, the plague of the western United States, are on the march again, ravaging farms and turning roads blood red.’


Robertson argues that

Apocalyptic literature highlights despair. A landscape vulnerable to “infestations” of a swarming, buzzing, dank-smelling grasshopper is, to Judaeo-Christian sensibilities, a landscape forsaken. What Mormon crickets have come to symbolize – the end of the world, the loss of human control over the landscape – is far more significant than the damage even large numbers of the insects typically inflict.


She contends that the real catastrophe arises not with any cricket swarm, but with the over-reaction launched by official government agencies. Invariably this takes the form of spraying gross quantities of toxic chemicals on substantial areas of the American landscape. Prior to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring the stock weapons of choice were chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT then dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor. Nowadays products called Malathion and carbaryl are preferred and, although they are less indiscriminately poisonous and their effects less enduring, their repeated use amounts to what Robertson calls ‘ecological genocide.’ She pulls few punches in her castigation of the folly:


A hundred and fifty years of insect management, driven by industrial capitalism, the Second World War’s chemical stockpiles, and our Judaeo-Christian disdain of six-legged insects, has hardened us to the scattershot use of pesticides. By pitting human prosperity against nonhuman nature, by conflating swarming insects such as the Mormon cricket with apocalyptic destruction, we have set the stage for ecological Armageddon.


So how could the issues be tackled differently? Robertson speaks for many of the authors inTrash Animals, in their own efforts to rehabilitate an unloved species, when she proposes that Americans (and, indeed, people everywhere) could shed the outdated vocabularies of hate and uplift their imaginative encounters with what are often essential components of native ecosystems.


She also suggests that her nation could do worse than take a leaf from the ancient book of Native America. In the 1850s while Mormon settlers despaired and prayed for divine deliverance from one famous ‘plague’ – hence the cricket’s name, incidentally – the Paiute Indians were far more creative. They dug long trenches, filled them with straw and drove the insects into the pits. Then they set fire to the lot and cooked them. Historical Native American groups capitalised on the crickets’ brief season of plenty and enjoyed the sweet savour of nature’s gifts.


May be it is understandable to take up arms against a crawling beast of the soil that has seldom inspired more than a shiver of disgust. But what about when the ‘trash animal’ in question is our oldest close avian neighbour, a sweet-voiced beauty that would have shared our Palaeolithic cave dwellings for tens of thousands of years and, after the barnyard fowl, is our second most enduring avian domesticate? Why would we now pour scorn on an animal, that, in symbolic form, stands at the very heart of Christian thought, serving as an emblem for the Holy Spirit; a bird that has long been our favourite metaphor for love, and whose physical release at the graveside or during the wedding celebration is still a commonplace climax to these central rituals? In fact one could go as far to say that this species joins a select handful – with the cat, chicken, cow (or bull), horse, dog (in both its domesticated and wild wolf form) and may be also the crow and the eagle – as a fundamental archetype of the human imagination, which has helped to shape our entire encounter with the rest of life. We are, of course, talking about the dove.


Unfortunately the white bird of the human soul is, in real life, an enormously plastic species that has morphed under our selective management into hundreds of recognised breeds – some to race, some to eat, some to carry messages and some merely to keep as cooing company. In these other guises the same bird, technically known to science as Columba livia, is called the ‘common pigeon’.


In the inner city its escaped and free-flying, or street-walking, form now fuels the kind of controversy we see inspired by desert crickets and prairie dogs. Urban flocks of pigeons are routinely referred to as ‘winged rats’, although a name I vividly recall from my childhood comes closer to explaining why pigeons are such a target for human hate. A birdwatcher I knew called them ‘winged shit’.


It is the decades-long drizzle of their acidic droppings that is blamed for slowly melting our most exalted city monuments and dwellings. On some bird-rich roofs the dung can be so thick it seems almost capable of burying the building. A 1960s clean up of the Foreign Office removed 50 tonnes of best pigeon guano and, as if all this were not cause enough, the anti-pigeon brigade routinely accuses the creatures of carrying contagion.


The droppings are said to be breeding grounds for the fungal-borne condition histoplasmosis. Pigeons are also blamed as carriers of West Nile disease. It is worth pausing to note that prairie dogs too are routinely indicted for spreading bubonic plague. Technically it is all true. In practice, it is all exaggeration. Epidemiologists point out that you would have to inhale vaporised pigeon dung on a routine basis to be at serious risk. What the pestilence-bearing charge really articulates is not the vileness of pigeons, but the darkening symbolism that now envelops the urban form of Columba livia.


In his essay on the bird ‘Flying Rats’, Andrew Blechman describes the kinds of extreme measure taken to eliminate city pigeons. For example Swiss marksmen in Basel shot 100,000 pigeons in a 24-year period to 1985. Over that same span the city’s pigeon population actually grew. He emphasises that the true solution is not the poisoning and killing campaigns that often cause such strong adverse public reactions. Rather if one controls the food supply then the pigeon plague is itself also curtailed. Even more controversial, one of Blechman’s interviewees Daniel Haag-Wackernagel, an internationally recognised expert on the species, set up dedicated clean breeding lofts for the city’s birds where they could even be hand fed. Counter-intuitive it may sound but Haag-Wackernagel’s measures halved Basel’s pigeon numbers in four years.


The bird may be avian enemy number one in some European and American cities, but the species’ long and intricate entanglement with humankind has ensured that it retains a special place in the lives of many communities. In an eloquent and meticulously researched book The Global Pigeon, Colin Jerolmack explores some of these engagements. The author spent years acquainting himself with a heterogeneous suite of pigeon-pampering groups, including Turkish migrant breeders in modern Berlin, as well as the bird-feeding tourists that once flocked to London’s Trafalgar Square and St Mark’s in Venice.


However his primary focus was a blue-collar group from Brooklyn in New York that originally comprised second or third-generation Italian immigrants. These working-class breeders inherited a very particular pigeon enterprise from their European ancestors. In the home country it is calledtriganieri, but it originated in Moorish Spain and was imported to that country by Islamic conquerors more than 1000 years ago (where the birds are still known as palomas ladronas, ‘thief pigeons’).


It entails several flocks of pigeons being released simultaneously into the skies above a town or city, where they fly together in a promiscuous melee. Success is measured by the way that some birds forsake their original owners and are tempted to return to an opponent’s coop. The strays are taken into custody and then become the property of the capturing party. (Incidentally, you have a glimpse of triganieri in Elia Kazan’s film On The Waterfront, when the young Marlon Brando woos Eva Saint Marie while tending his doves against a New York skyline.)


Today triganieri is a dying art. Jerolmack tells us that the average age of white participants is 70 years old, while the author’s most intimate profile involves Carmine Gangone, a foul-mouthed old rogue in his mid-80s. Gangone reminds us of one of the strangest paradoxes about pigeon keeping: the people most often devoted to the Western world’s classic symbol of love are tough, working class and macho. The baddest man on the planet Mike Tyson is himself a pigeon keeper.


One touching element of Gangone’s engagement with his birds is the way it enables him to transcend his conventionally chauvinist identity to forge important connections and even genuine friendships with younger Hispanic and black neighbours, who have been somehow drawn into the strange rooftop world of triganieri. In a way it is the foundation of such touching relations, often across substantial social and cultural boundaries, that is the main theme of Jerolmack’s book. Even his own evolving authorial voice and vocabulary reflect the way that he succumbs himself to this simple central life-affirming story.


In the opening chapters Jerolmack’s syntax and vocabulary come straight from the sociology textbook. ‘These observations,’ he writes early on, ‘are a caveat to sociological perspectives that assume nonhumans do not play a consequential role in organizing the social realm, and to sociobiological or ecological theories that emphasize the presocial determinants and asocial rewards of human’s relationships with animals.’


Gradually the urge for detachment slips a little and the professional jargon gives way to a more accessible and direct engagement with the people (and the birds) in his book. Yet this does not prevent Jerolmack from making a crucially important scholarly observation. One theory that he feels bound to contest is that of ‘biophilia’, the proposed existence of an innate affinity in our species for other parts of nature. First proposed by the eminent scientist E O Wilson, the concept has since been adopted and championed by environmentalists for the nourishment it gives to the idea that contact with wildlife, from the American bison to the common pigeon, are a precondition of human happiness.


In fact Jerolmack’s informants completely disown any kind of conscious link between their birds and nature. Born and bred to a life of inner-city brick and steel, they are, as Jerolmack points out, strangers to the need for nature. What the author concludes is that the birds are actually drawn into the social world of the triganieri community, serving as a means of measuring the men’s status within, but also creating a bridge between, their community members.  


In one of the best essays from Trash Animals – a piece on wolves – its author Charles Bergman writes: ‘Animals are only partly biological creatures. They are also symbols in which we can read who we are.’ In the extreme example of this Brooklyn pigeon tribe the birds are, as it were, surrogate humans, emblems of their owner’s identities. While this profound transubstantiation-like linkage of bird and keeper does not involve in any sense a wild creature, it does involve relations between different species. It is the fundamental connections forged between two independent and autonomous creatures – human and pigeon – that gives the sport its inner meaning. It also seems to me an uplifting affirmation of the richness that flows when people integrate themselves with other parts of life.