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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Snopes’ Frustration Is My Frustration

Truth Matters Not At All to a Very Large Minority

Published 09/15/10
By Barry Kent MacKay, senior program associate

Have you heard of Snopes.com? It’s a website dedicated to putting the lie to “urban myths” and misinformation, and sorting out, among the countless allegations making the electronic communications rounds, which are false, which are true, and which are a mountain of fabrication built on a molehill of fact. The site also provides information on where rumors originated. Many have a multitude of variations and have been around for ages.

The latest announcement from Snopes to arrive in my own electronic mailbox starts with a statement that reverberated with me to an enormous degree. After pointing out that reporters often congratulate Snopes for “striking a blow for truth,” Snopes says, “those reporters usually seem to be taken aback or disappointed when I tell them that I don’t really believe our site makes much of a difference in the greater scheme of things; that the responses we get tend to indicate a good many people are determined to believe whatever they want to believe, and no collection of contradictory factual information, no matter how large or authoritative or impressive it might be, is ever going to dissuade them from their beliefs.”

This statement is in an article that refutes one of a suite of lies being circulated to discredit the U.S. president, Barack Obama, or question the legitimacy of his presidency. Since this is about animals, not politics, and I am not an American at any rate, I’ll not comment beyond saying that this is a classic case of a desire (wanting to discredit Obama) that trumps facts, the accusation made to discredit him being demonstrably false.

It’s this business about truth that concerns me, as it applies to animal protection. Yes, it can be difficult to discern what really is true. It once seemed obvious that the Earth was flat and there was excellent supportive evidence. But the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, and supported by an interrelated assembly of easily demonstrated, indisputable facts.

The only qualifier I’d add to the Snopes statement quoted above is that, in advocacy, you must start with facts, but never, ever, think that disproving your adversaries’ arguments is going to be enough to prevail for your cause. It usually is not, but is at best a necessary starting point. I could list many examples of campaigns fought in which yes, we had “facts” on our side, but they didn’t matter.

Conversely, you don’t have the luxury of being incorrect. Flawed logic or misinformation will inevitably and effectively be used against your cause. Why does it not work in reverse? Why do the people who want to abuse animals get away with misinformation? Rarely they don’t, but usually they do because they, and the people they need to convince, have a vested interest in not being dissuaded from their beliefs.

USDA photo by Scott Bauer

I’ll use a small campaign I waged and won many years ago to illustrate my point. There was an intense lobby by hunters to kill deer in what was supposed to be a refuge, a “crown game reserve.” The fear, stated, was that if deer were not killed in the reserve they would eat all the food and then starve. I was shown what is called “high browse lines” as proof. Vegetation of the type deer eat had been grazed as high as deer could reach. As happens again and again, the argument was that there were too many deer; a catastrophic die-off from starvation was imminent, the allegation illustrated by gruesome pictures of emaciated deer.

I’ll leave to another day the utter, unmitigated irony of our species, in our multiplying and highly destructive and often starving and warring billions, daring to suggest that some other species is “over-abundant.” It’s a favorite excuse of wildlife managers to justify their jobs, which they see as promoting hunting as a “wildlife management tool,” or what I call the final-solution school of wildlife management.

I cited numerous studies that showed that yes, deer could starve in winter, but that they did so in response to deep snow and intense cold, both in hunted and non-hunted populations, and that according to peer-reviewed scientific research, such “starvation episodes” happened at most one every several deer populations. I also pointed out that there were many wildlife species who experienced starvation episodes when the weather eliminated their food sources, but if they weren’t game species, somehow it didn’t seem to matter.

I won that argument not because I was factual, but because the officials who were charged with deciding what to do realized that a lot of work would be needed to change the legalistic status-quo, and they simply couldn’t be bothered. At best, my arguments presented enough of a frisson of doubt to justify what would otherwise be indifference to the horrific suffering so graphically described by the hunters who were so anxious to kill deer.

But what is important, what my point is, is that this all happened about 30-odd years ago, and I am still waiting for that starvation episode to wipe out a significant number of deer in that refuge. The dire prediction of mass die-off has yet to come true, and yet my colleagues and I have had to fight the same battle, in some part of the province or another, every year since then.

That was a small effort, a small victory. A massive campaign that ended in failure was mounted a dozen years ago to protect two species of wild goose, the snow goose, and the smaller but very similar (and once endangered) Ross’s goose from an intensive lobby to allow huge bag limits and a spring as well as a fall hunt.

In 1997 a group of wildlife managers released a report, “Arctic Ecosystem in Peril.” A year later, the report led to the United States and Canada deciding that the entire population of the “lesser” snow goose (the race nesting more or less from Hudson Bay westward) had to be reduced by 50 percent to 85 percent. Similar but no-less-deadly proposals subsequently were made with regard to the “greater” snow goose, a slightly larger subspecies that mostly nests in the eastern Arctic and subarctic, and the Ross’s goose. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lumped all these geese into one group it called the “light” geese (snow geese actually come in two colors, one white with black wing tips, the other having a dark, brownish-gray body — often called the “blue goose” and which once was considered a different species).

Ross's geese

(painting by Barry Kent MacKay)

The issue is exceptionally complex. “Light” geese “grub,” meaning they dig down to consume roots of the plants they eat, and those plants are important to maintaining the ecosystem in which they occur, in a manner that serves the needs of some other Arctic/subarctic species who live there, leaving open mudflats behind. In recent decades the absolute number of “light” geese has hugely increased. They nest in colonies, which leave behind open patches of mud.

The argument was that the “agricultural subsidy” provided by farmlands and intentional planting of grain for migratory waterfowl greatly enhanced the survival of “light” geese, particularly the inexperienced young, on their wintering grounds in the southern United States. This, in turn, purportedly led to an unprecedented population explosion. Thus, to “save” the Canadian Arctic, it was necessary to cull at least half the light geese on the continent, although there was no clear agreement on how many geese that was. This was, of course, in the better interest of the geese as they were stripping their own food base and goslings were growing lighter, or failing to survive.

I won’t go into detail about what we found when, in the company of animal advocates from the Humane Society of the United States and Dr. Vernon G. Thomas, an associate professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Guelph, we visited the western shoreline of Hudson Bay to see for ourselves the “damage” done by snow geese, except to say we found that notwithstanding cleared areas amid the goose colonies, we found an area that was dynamic, filled with native wildlife but always changing (the land is rising and the shoreline moving eastward, as well as experiencing the effects of global climate change) and still was largely empty of colonies of snow geese.

To me the real issue was the unquestioned belief of the proponents of the extra slaughter of “light” geese that the population size of the snow geese was unprecedented. They cited a publication I had in my library that actually claimed the opposite of what they were saying. It cited various sources that clearly indicated that in, and before, the early decades of the 20th century, there were also huge numbers of snow geese. What the wildlife managers were doing was measuring the “increase” from what they had first encountered as young men, 10 or 20 years earlier, when snow geese populations were undoubtedly much lower, perhaps lower than they ever had been. And the basic, essential, premise upon which the rest of their argument depended was that those low numbers were the “right” numbers, the number that “should” occur, even if you have to kill 50 percent to 85 percent of the “light” geese to get there.

There isn’t space to revisit the arguments here, my point being that it did not matter that there were written descriptions of the number of geese that once existed — they were simply ignored or misrepresented, and of course legislators assumed they were being told the truth. The only response I ever got from one of the researchers involved in demonizing “light” geese was that the information from historical sources was “anecdotal,” thus not dependable, even though “anecdotal” evidence was not the only evidence that could exist from that early in history. It was deemed accurate in wildlife management circles when it served the correct political need.

(Born Free USA suggests how we can coexist with geese, and can point you toward specific incidents in which people and animals truly don’t coexist.)

I could name numerous other examples of facts ignored and truth trampled, but the bottom line is that facts don’t change minds that have a vested interest in not being changed. They never have and they never will. But we still have to be factual; ours is an uphill struggle against inherent assumptions.

Blogging off,
Barry Kent MacKay

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