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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

The costs of helping and hurting

Some of us pay to help birds, all of us pay to hurt them.

Published 09/17/08
By Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate

What is the value of an animal’s life?

The question is ubiquitous in animal protection, but so is it to governments spending your hard-earned tax money.

Several weeks ago I received a phone call as I was entertaining friends for dinner. A family had picked up a cormorant down at the waterfront, and couldn’t find any help for the flightless bird. Government policies here in Ontario discourage wildlife rehabilitation and I only knew of one local rehab center, and I knew that it would be closed for the evening. “I won’t leave you abandoned,” I said. “If you can’t find any other help, bring the bird here.”

They did.

The bird was a fully grown, very feisty, immature Double-crested Cormorant. A brief examination showed that the cormorant had encountered the kind of thin, transparent oil slick that often oozes from various machinery and engines in amounts too small to raise alarms or be reported, but can wreak havoc on wildlife.

Even a small amount can destroy the insulating ability of plumage and cause the bird to suffer hypothermia. Worse, it is toxic. Fumes are dangerous and as the bird preens in a futile effort to cleanse its plumage it may swallow small but potentially lethal amounts.

In my youth I cleaned many oiled birds, an arduous task stressful all concerned, especially the birds. But I now lacked the means to do more than wipe the bird down and keep him quiet in a ventilated room until more proficient help could be obtained. That happened the next morning when I drove the bird across town to the rehab center, where the prognosis for full recovery is good.

I made a donation of $140 to help defray costs involved in helping this bird. And that got me once more contemplating the complexity and inconsistencies of my own species.

While I was happy to pay to help an individual bird in need, I have unwillingly been paying, via my tax dollars, to kill cormorants. It would take too much space to explain the myths behind tax-supported slaughter of cormorants in Canada and the U.S., and for a fuller understanding of the myths used to fuel cormorant hatred, go to www.zoocheck.com/cormorant and look around.

The fact is state and provincial, and federal, money does go into these blood-stained efforts. And trying to find out just how much has been frustrating to a colleague who has made the effort. Thousands of birds have been killed and many nests destroyed by government-funded programs and so far the closest she can come to an estimate of how much it costs whatever government is involved to kill cormorants is $500 per bird.

But that could be seriously underestimated since there are numerous “hidden costs”. Support for wildlife control expenditure depends on antipathy toward the birds, fueled by simplistic rhetoric that builds on certain myths: cormorants are not native to much of eastern North American and the Great Lakes (which ignores 19th century breeding records from southern Lake Erie, and writings of 19th century observers); eat all the fish (in spite of numerous studies showing that with a few isolated exceptions they have minimal impact on desired “game” or “commercial” fish stocks); degrade the habitat (they do kill trees with their excrement, but the impact is a minimal and quite natural process that gone on for millions of years) and, silliest of all, have a negative impact on other native bird species (here in Ontario the birds they are supposed to be “hurting” are increasing).

And so while a tiny part of my taxes goes into killing these birds, in the interest not only of the birds themselves, but in the interest of accuracy and understanding of the natural environment, I will put a larger amount of my disposable income into helping them.

The issue lacks the high profile of Alaska governor and now Republican Party candidate for the Vice Presidency Sarah Palin’s use of government money to slaughter wolves in Alaska, blasting them from aircraft and paying bounties (something virtually every non-government wildlife biologist and conservation organization opposes) but the principle is the same. It is our money and for some of us, at least, we’re happier seeing our hard-earned income used compassionately, used for protection and education, and we show it in our donations to animal protection and environmental organizations, in our lifestyle choices, and, is the need arises, doing what we can to help a single bird in need.

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