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The Blame Game

Published 03/15/03
By Barry Kent MacKay
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 34 Number 1, Spring 2003

In the Bible, the book of Leviticus describes a horrific custom that involved sacrificing two goats to atone for the sins of the community. On the appointed day, one of the animals was slaughtered in the temple; the other, bedecked with a red ribbon to symbolize the people’s wrongs, was abandoned in the desert to die. British artist William Holman Hunt’s famous 1854 painting, “Scapegoat,” shows a dying goat, wearing the pretty ribbon, staggering beneath a blazing desert sun while surrounded by inhospitable salt pans and the bones and carcasses of other animals.

My dictionary’s primary definition of the word “scapegoat” is simply “one that is made to bear the blame of others.” The British Scapegoat Society elaborates, saying:

Scapegoating is a hostile social-psychological discrediting routine by which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves and towards a target person or group. It is also a practice by which angry feelings and feelings of hostility may be projected, via inappropriate accusation, towards others ... Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. Distortion is always a feature.

It is in the nature of humans to blame others, to simplify complex issues in lieu of trying to understand them, and to single out a villain to blame for their own failures. Very often it is animals — little understood and incapable of defending themselves — who are held liable for the consequences of human actions.

When Cod Was King

Perhaps the scapegoating of an animal species can best be understood by examining an egregious example. To do so, we must go back in time, to 1497. In the lonely expanses of the North Atlantic east of Newfoundland, over what is now called the Grand Banks, the famous explorer John Cabot discovered that there were so many cod and other species of fish in the waters that they could be caught simply by tossing a bucket over the side of a boat. According to Cabot’s contemporary, Peter Martyr, the intrepid traveler had, at times, encountered so many fish that they “even stayed the passage of his ships.” Another fisher took time out from slaughtering cod to note, “this fish constitutes a kind of inexhaustible manna.”

But exhaustion eventually set in. By 1907, Newfoundlanders had landed some 430,000 tons of cod, and 1,600 vessels flying the flags of many nations plundered the Grand Banks. There were clear signs that the bounty was not infinitely sustainable. Cities such as Boston, which originally depended on the immense riches of the oceans, could find fortune elsewhere. But for Newfoundland, then a lonely outpost of the British Empire, with its thin soil, scruffy muskeg forest cover, and short growing season, cod was king. Few other sources of income existed.

Late 20th-century technology made matters even worse: As fish populations declined, people’s ability to catch them increased. Aboard ships, billowing sails gave way to steam-driven engines and wooden hulls were replaced by steel. Trawlers dragged great nets over sea bottoms, destroying the habitat and the creatures who lived there. Sonar, depth finders, aerial searches, and satellite imaging meant that few fish remained hidden. Fishers landed countless sea creatures, processing and packaging those with commercial value on board: about half the catch was deemed unusable, and broken bodies were thrown back overboard. Onshore, multinational companies further boosted the local economy through fish processing plants. The community was too dependent on the huge and growing international market for groundfish to consider slowing down.

Government (Mis)Management

In 1977, Canada implemented plans to manage the fishery so that threatened cod populations could be protected. For a while it worked: Cod stocks rose until 1984, when they again began to decline. Something had gone wrong; the numbers of cod were supposed to keep on increasing.

Various reports and task forces implicated overfishing. The most authoritative of these studies, popularly known as the Harris Report, predicted that failure to reduce the killing of cod “will most probably lead to a significant continuing decline in the spawning population.” In response, Fisheries Minister Bernard Valcourt said he rejected the advice of “purists” and refused to cut quotas. In 1990, John Crosbie, then-Trade Minister and soon-to-be Fisheries Minister himself, fumed that it would be “demented” to place tighter restrictions on cod fishing, claiming he had to consider “the economic, social, and cultural effects of reduced quotas.”

By the mid-1990s, a partial but far-reaching moratorium on cod fishing was finally in place, and scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) retroactively examined what went wrong. Several peer-reviewed scientific studies again named overfishing as the cause of the collapse of the northern cod population. At least one researcher was reportedly reprimanded for presenting his findings. The government and fishing industries denied accountability for their own role in the destruction of cod stocks and other fisheries and instead pointed their fingers at their designated scapegoat: seals.

In 1997, with the federal government desperately trying to find markets for seal products and fishers clamoring to kill seals and return to cod fishing, a special workshop convened at St. John’s. After reviewing evidence, international experts and biologists in attendance concluded that it was “unaware of any evidence that harp seals have had a ‘substantial effect’ on the abundance of northern cod since the collapse [of the stocks].” But the DFO did not care. It had its sights set on seals, and slaughter ensued.

During the 2001 hunting season, more than 307,000 harp and hooded seals were killed — more than at any time since the 1960s. These numbers far exceeded the quota and sustainability levels set by the federal government. But once seals had (wrongly) been named as the cause of the cod crisis, it became even more acceptable to hunt them down and destroy them.

Predator or Prey?

Another victim of scapegoating, the double-crested cormorant, may suffer a fate similar to the Canadian seals. When I was a child growing up near the northern shore of Lake Ontario, these birds were a rare and beautiful sight. Like ospreys, brown pelicans, and bald eagles, cormorants suffered egg-shell thinning from the accumulated effects of DDT contamination in their bodies. Once DDT was banned, the species began to increase in numbers, although other environmental toxins continued to cause lethal deformities in hatchlings.

To some of us, the burgeoning number of cormorants is a welcome indication of environmental health. If the cormorants are thriving, it suggests a decline in toxins. More cormorants also mean more fish, which the birds depend upon for sustenance.

But on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, sport fishers are concerned about the effects cormorants may have on smallmouth bass. Cormorants are “new” to the region over the last few decades. Their numbers are increasing in some areas, and so if bass stocks decline, many assume that cormorants must be the cause. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has proposed “managing” cormorants, in part, by killing them. But out in the northern Canadian prairies, where double-crested cormorants have long lived, the species is also being blamed for fish declines, as is the white pelican, a species only recently removed from endangered status. Near both the prairie lakes and on Lake Ontario, cormorant colonies have been illegally raided, adults shot, eggs smashed, and babies stomped or left to starve.

In 2002, API submitted comments to the DEC about its draft cormorant management plan. Our numerous objections included an indictment of the agency’s use of value-laden words and statements. For example, the DEC claimed that cormorants consume “significant” numbers of smallmouth bass, when actual figures indicated that game fish, of which the bass are merely a subset, represent only a fraction (estimates ranged from 0.2 to 5.8 percent) of the cormorant diet.

The DEC document also ignored virtually all other conceivable contributing factors to changes in fish populations, such as increased agricultural run off, global warming, the effects of acid rain, shoreline development and, particularly, the effects of introduced species, including non-native salmon, zebra mussels, and spiny waterfleas. The regional food chain is far more complex, and involves more species, than the government scapegoaters admitted.

Elsewhere, cormorants have been blamed for cutting into the profits of U.S. commercial catfish farms, despite the fact that neither they nor any other native birds have ever been shown to cause serious declines of fish stocks. On the contrary, what declines have occurred can be directly linked to fishery management policies that cater to the seemingly insatiable demands of the sport anglers and commercial fisheries.

Most Americans eat fish, and although they do not consume the number of fish per day that cormorants do, they live far longer and exist in greater numbers; there are hundreds of Americans, and millions of people worldwide, for every double-crested cormorant. Nevertheless, cormorants have been targeted at both state and federal levels. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed killing off 10 percent of the country’s estimated two million double-crested cormorants. Even if such a reduction were feasible, it seems unlikely that a fisher outraged at the sight of fifty cormorants eating “his” fish would be calmed if the number were forty-five, nor that a catfish farmer would welcome nine hundred cormorants on his property when he fumed about one thousand. The U.S. has culled some 200,000 cormorants since 1987, but it’s doubtful that anything short of near-total eradication will satisfy all sport and commercial fishers and fish farmers.

Other examples of fishery-related scapegoating abound. The Mediterranean monk seal is a critically endangered species, yet some Mediterranean fishers seem to believe that even a single seal is one too many, and want to declare an open season on the animal. While conservationists have fought long and hard to restore the southern sea otter, some abalone gatherers still think there are too many otters off California’s coast. The most frequently-proposed “solution” to such conflicts — state-sanctioned slaughter — does not address the real (usually human) threats our fisheries face.

Specious Science

Sometimes, scapegoaters raise their accusations to surreal levels. Consider this: Through centuries of increasingly mechanized massacre, one after the other of the great whales has been reduced to remnant populations, some critically endangered, some exterminated completely. The minke whale, however, usually escaped slaughter. Weighing a paltry 6 to 8 tons, the minke was not considered worth killing when compared to the slow-moving right whale (60 to 106 tons), the bowhead (110 to 122 tons), the gray whale (28 tons), the fin whale (40 to 76 tons), and the blue whale (the largest of all, at up to 196 tons). These less fortunate giants were hunted to the brink of extinction, and their stocks are now too rare to sustain a return to international commercial whaling.

Several countries, however, including Japan, Norway, and Iceland, are eager to resume whaling, and have set their sights on the minke whale, which so far remains non-endangered. The pro-hunting argument? Minke whales need to be killed, since they are preventing blue whale populations from recovering. According to this reasoning, the relatively common minkes are eating too much of the krill and other tiny marine life forms that provide other great whales with sustenance. Do away with a hefty percentage of minke whales, hunters claim, and more food would be left for the endangered species — although both scientists and animal advocates suggest that a thirst for profit is the real motivating factor.

Another bizarre scenario played itself out in my home city of Toronto where, many years ago, politicians named ring-billed gulls as the source of Escherichia coli (or E. coli, a sometimes-dangerous germ that occurs naturally in the intestines and excrement of most animals, including humans) found in local beaches. Actual measurements, however, showed the least amount of E. coli in the waters where there were most gulls. API and the Canadian Wildlife Service jointly hosted a seminar to set the record straight: The major source of E. coli was not the gulls, but rather the city's antiquated storm sewer systems that, following heavy rains, caused human waste to enter the lake, leading to the closing of swimming areas.

Perhaps the most outrageous example of scapegoating is the fear-mongering currently practiced by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since late 2001, when an as-yet-unidentified person began sending weapons-grade anthrax through the U.S. postal system, Americans have been understandably fearful about deadly biological agents. Perhaps that is why last fall, in a draft environmental assessment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services listed the possible spread of anthrax as a rationale for killing black and turkey vultures in the state. The agency even claimed to have scientific proof that the birds caused a serious threat.

Upon investigation, API learned that this scientific evidence turned out to be a brief, second-hand report on a field study of dubious objectivity, and provided the USDA with another, more rigorous study indicating that vultures in fact nullify anthrax and other dangerous pathogens found in carrion. API also cited statements by Dr. Martin Hugh-Jones of the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at Louisiana State University, who has advised the government on issues of biological warfare. Dr. Hugh-Jones said, “I cannot see any purpose in vulture control in Virginia whether for anthrax control — there is no anthrax east of the Mississippi nor has there been for decades — or for any other reason ... The birds are highly efficient and necessary scavengers.”

It seems quite possible that other factors influenced the USDA’s plans to use lethal control against the vultures. Many people simply don’t like vultures, associating them with death and disease. In areas of increasing human development, vultures are also the subject of “nuisance” complaints, as when the birds roost in parks or leave their droppings on buildings and grounds. Perhaps anthrax merely provided a convenient excuse for those who view vultures as “pests” to demonize the birds and recommend their eradication. (As of press time, the USDA had not publicly announced a decision on the issue of vulture control.)

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Scapegoating of animals thrives where there is ignorance of animals. A friend who is a professional horticulturist is forever being asked about how to trap moles before they damage plants. But moles don’t eat plants; they eat invertebrate animals. Voles may damage some plants, but it’s the moles whose earthen mounds are most visible, and so they are scapegoated — and killed — out of ignorance.

In Africa, elephants sometimes take heat for “destroying” habitat (studies show that they actually maintain the environment for many veldt-living species). In the U.S., some blame the wild mustangs of the West for ruining prairie grasslands (they are grossly outnumbered by grazing cattle). Predators such as wolves are forever vilified for killing livestock and “game” animals (predator and prey existed in far greater numbers prior to human interference).

It’s true that the natural behavior of animals can bring them into conflict with humans. People often show contradictory responses to such situations; on the one hand, we may treat animals as instinctual, reactive beings, while on the other, view them deserving of punishment for daring to do what they naturally do. For example: Water that accumulates behind a beaver dam may flood a road, but from the perspective of the animals, it creates needed habitat. Should beavers be killed simply for being themselves?

Long-term, humane solutions to such conflicts lie not in scapegoating, but in using our ingenuity to devise responses that respect the needs of both human and non-human animals. In a kinder world, we would acknowledge the ways in which we contribute to problems. We would make every effort to live compassionately and respectfully. We would honor the rich complexity of nature. We would not, in short, be scapegoaters.

Ending Scapegoating

Often, the scapegoating of animals occurs quite literally in our backyards.

As sprawl and development encroach upon open space, human-wildlife conflicts inevitably follow. Animals usually suffer the most in such situations, losing habitat and, sometimes, their lives.

Examples of scapegoating spring easily to mind — raccoons trapped for foraging in dumpsters; coyotes poisoned for preying on companion animals; geese culled for “soiling” parks; deer killed for eating lawns and shrubs. In many cases, such problems could be avoided if people made simple behavioral changes, such as securing trash cans, utilizing fencing and other deterrents, and bringing their companion animals inside. Communities that offer educational “co-existence” programs to residents have reported declines in human-wildlife conflicts.

Predatory animals and carnivore species are especially vilified. Federal, state, and local governments spend millions of taxpayer dollars each year to kill predators such as coyotes, which are often viewed as threats to livestock. In fact, the coyote is the most persecuted native carnivore in North America; hundreds of thousands are slaughtered every year. Studies show, however, that widespread lethal predator control is usually counterproductive and negatively impacts ecological integrity and biodiversity. Further, most lethal control programs fail to address the root causes of conflicts, including habitat degradation and poor land use planning.

API offers assistance to communities interested in finding lasting, environmentally-sound, and humane solutions to human-wildlife conflicts in their area. We have participated in numerous regional forums on co-existence and have published a series of brochures on how people can live peacefully with animals. Contact us to learn more.

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