by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Surveys: Why I don't answer those things
Two confessions up front… One, I like to make my opinions about things important to me known. Two, I do not answer surveys—ever. No; I don’t see a contradiction.
Before making my opinions known on subjects I care about, I try to educate myself by reading views and studies from all sides of the issue. And then, I write about how I feel and why in letters or various other forums—including, for example, this blog.
On controversial issues, surveys almost invariably reflect a bias. More importantly, they take complex issues and simplify them to the point where it is literally impossible for a survey to reflect my opinion, even though that is what it purports to do.
The City of Cranbrook, British Columbia recently produced a survey about deer in town, and it illustrates my point. The very first question is, “How concerned are you about the deer population in Cranbrook?” The five answers range from “not concerned at all” to “very concerned.” I’m very concerned. Does that mean I want deer numbers reduced? No; that means I want them left alone. If I were not at all concerned, I wouldn’t care what was done. But, I suspect that the person who interprets the results may think the opposite.
The second question assumes, however, that I must be concerned, so it asks which of nine choices are the three most important. The first choice is “deer/vehicle collisions.” But, while that concerns me, if I choose it, could it be interpreted to mean that I think there are “too many” deer? It might. But, I think the deer benefit pedestrians and other drivers to the degree that they promote safer driving. Naturally, I don’t want anyone, human or deer, in a collision—but there are numerous things to be done to reduce that likelihood.
Another choice is “human health risks from deer.” As a survivor of a serious zoonotic (animal-caused) illness, I am certainly concerned, but also know that there is virtually no such risk in Cranbrook. And, indeed, because I am informed, I know that, in the case of one disease often blamed on deer—Lyme disease—deer may reduce the likelihood of human infections. But, most folks don’t know that.
The choice of “attracting predators” assumes that this risk actually happens (though there is no evidence of this), and that predators in town would favour eating humans over deer. In fact, if a hungry mountain lion or grizzly bear walks through my community, I would want them to have the option of venison: the more, the better. So, how do I answer, and how would my reply be interpreted?
An accurate response to several of the questions requires knowledge that most of us simply don’t have. Of course, to politicians, that’s not the point; perception is reality. Thus, what might matter is not whether educational programs work, but whether they SEEM to work. I’m more concerned about whether they ACTUALLY work.
“Have you or a member of your immediate family been threatened by a deer?” Seems to be a simple question, but I’ve known people who feel threatened by all sorts of things – a robin’s nest, a raccoon sleeping on the roof, a fox in a distant field, a large moth clinging to bricks, harmless bats, spiders, and snakes – all of which have posed “threats” in the minds of some people who have contacted me, often in a needless panic. Perception trumps reality.
One question I do like, answerable by ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ is, “Has your dog been injured by a deer?” That could generate useful avenues of investigation, because virtually all “incidents” involving mule deer in physical contact with people involve deer frightened by, and seeking to defend themselves or their young from, dogs. But, perhaps another question might be, “If yes, who is responsible? (a) the deer? (b) the dog? (c) you, or whomever is in charge of the dog?” But, those questions are not asked.
Question 9 asks citizens who have indicated that they don’t support culling, but favor alternative options, which alternatives they favor. The choices are “hazing/frightening techniques,” “repellents,” “fertility control,” or “no action.” It’s surely not an either/or situation, nor limited to just those options—but, rather, it’s an issue that requires a multi-pronged approach based on what works, if, indeed, the population is to be controlled. But, the real reason for the question is shown by question 10, which asks, “Would you be prepared for the City of Cranbrook to increase its present annual budget of $15,000 to carry out any of these options, including a cull?”
Huh? For that amount of money, you can’t scrape gum off of park benches. Surely, this is a tiny fraction of the municipal budget, presumably dedicated to deer-related issues. British Columbia’s minimum wage is $10.25. How much of an increase would this require, and what would it cost taxpayers (remembering that every politician fervently believes that no voter ever wants to pay even a penny more in taxes)? How can you answer without such basic information? For a buck a year increase in my taxes, sure; go crazy. Is that the amount?
This is not a survey designed to get at facts. Increasingly, it seems to me, that in politics, facts don’t matter—or, at least, that’s how politicians, from our Prime Minister on down, seem to act. They want to know how the populace feels, in a sense: How much do they know? How well informed are they?
This is a horrifically divisive issue, and the battle lines are drawn between a minority who simply doesn’t enjoy seeing deer and wildlife, but who doesn't automatically and unduly fear these animals, and who often knows a great deal about them—versus the mostly uninformed and fearful.
Finally, in a preamble, since the previous culls didn’t work, a new spin is added. While there was no real decline in deer, the “bad” deer—the mule deer who are less inclined to run from people—declined in numbers, while the number of the white-tailed deer, who dutifully flee from people, increased, as if to take their place. All of this based on one count each of three years. Therefore, we are told, culling worked.
The fact is that mule deer seem to generally be in decline in British Columbia, and white-tailed deer are increasingly spreading west—and no one knows why. Is that reflected in the Cranbrook statistics? Who knows? In fact, we know very little about our fellow nonhuman neighbors, and that is a sad, sad fact.