This week’s Guest Blog was written by Linda Hufford, who has been a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in raptors for over twenty years. She runs Birds of Texas Rehabilitation Center in Austin County, Texas. Guest blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of other 10,000 Birds writers.
A number of years ago I was granted the privilege of flying into the Kuparuk Oil Field, above the Arctic Circle in the remote regions of the North Slope Borough in Alaska. Upon arrival we were given strict and non-flexible rules: never go even one inch off the ice paths, never allow the tiniest piece of litter to escape, never interact in any way with the wildlife, and cause absolutely no environmental damage. Penalties would be swift and severe for any type of violation, including huge fines and immediate removal.
We were given an impressive tour of the self-contained pods, and told how the environmental imprint of each unit was reduced as much as possible by recycling and flying out waste products; using support blocks and insulation to avoid damage to the permafrost; designating “people” space within a very limited perimeter; preparing “ice roads” for necessary traffic to avoid undue pressure to the permafrost; strict prohibition of any contact with wildlife; and factoring in the environmental impact in every decision regarding operations.
During the free time, I spoke off the record with an individual who had been based at the complex for a number of years. As a wildlife rehabilitator who has dealt with both the US Fish and Wildlife and our state’s Parks and Wildlife for over twenty years, I half-jokingly asked him what I thought was a “duh” question: “How frustrating is it to deal with governmental regulations concerning wildlife?”
His answer surprised me. He said the federal government’s and Alaska’s state rules were, for the most part, okay; they were consistent and generally made sense for the safety of both humans and wildlife, and in many respects, coincided with his own views of protecting the native environment. But, he continued, some – but not all – of the researchers drove him nuts.
Astonished by this unexpected response, I asked for elaboration. He said researchers were of two types: the sincere and dedicated people who were producing extraordinary information while observing the natural environment carefully and without causing damage; and the Truly Arrogant (generally younger, privileged, self-important, and totally uncooperative researchers) who arrived with a superiority complex that made them unwilling to adhere to the basic rules so strictly enforced by the oil companies. Their attitude was “the rules don’t apply to me, I’m a researcher.”
The Truly Arrogant tramped across the delicate tundra and permafrost, baiting wildlife with food, camping on prohibited areas, intruding on forbidden mating grounds, interrupting the natural behaviors of the wildlife, and leaving trash, disturbed tundra, and permanent damage to the permafrost in their wake. Their justification was that the animals don’t necessarily approach the very few reinforced areas and must be tracked down and baited so further studies can be made, despite the fact that this disrupted the animals’ natural cycles (thus rendering observations invalid) and caused irreversible damage to the delicate environment. The few Truly Arrogant caused as much or more environmental damage than the 300 full-time employees and operations following very strict rules and regulations.
This attitude of superiority and arrogance can be seen in the recent story about a researcher on the Solomon Islands who mist trapped a bird not seen by scientists for fifty years. The Moustached Kingfisher was known by only three samples– one female “collected” in the 1920’s, the other two females “collected” in the 1950’s, according to an Audubon Magazine article. The newest find of this extremely scarce bird was a male, and was “collected” (an innocent-sounding euphemism for “killed”) for the American Museum of Natural History.
The justification was ridiculously laughable: in order to further study the species. The collector was also quoted as saying that although the bird hadn’t been seen since locals collected the females in the 1950’s, there are lots of them, they’re just unseen. Huh?
Can a dead bird educate the researcher on its song? Or how gracefully it flew? Where and how it gathered food? How its diet changed seasonally? How it raised its chicks? Who its predators were? How it is being affected by human intrusions? Its natural longevity? The unique behaviors this mysterious species might exhibit? The relationship between this bird and other animals and plants?
Or is this researcher (and his backers, the AMNH) members of the Truly Arrogant: privileged to take a “trophy” that no other researchers had taken? If he were a Minnesota dentist, or a Texas veterinarian, or a beauty contestant posing with this trophy, would his argument for justifying this death be any different? And would the response of the public be the same?
Researchers can and do provide valuable information. As a wildlife rehabilitator, I’ve used many of their gathered facts to improve my bird care. Research done on (live) Barn Owls provided proof that the hearing of juveniles is not mature until they are about four months of age, so under no circumstances do I release ones any younger. Researchers observing (live) Mississippi Kites provide very useful information on the timing, paths, and correlation with fronts that I use when releasing my kites. Researchers studying (live) Hummingbirds discovered their diet consists of a large percentage of protein from insects; I use that information for my rehab diets. Common Nighthawks use lunar cycles, so my releases are based on this valuable information in order to give my birds the best chance of survival.
But what habits, what behaviors, what changes can truly be obtained by studying another dead rare bird? Or more specifically—what valuable information would be unique to this discovery when other samples already exist for study? And is the amount of knowledge gained anywhere near the amount of knowledge lost by the deliberate killing of this bird?
“Researcher” is a term that should differ greatly from the term “trophy hunter.” How incredibly sad that in this instance, in my opinion, it does not.