Torturing wildlife on the taxpayers’ dime

Bella's babies

Sometimes there just aren’t enough fluffy bunnies in the world.

There’s a U.S. federal agency called “Wildlife Services” that — like many such agencies — has a name about 180 degrees opposed to its actual purpose. Called “Animal Damage Control”  until 1997, Wildlife Services’ job is, bluntly put, to kill or otherwise control wild animals that are perceived as causing problems for humans.

Wildlife Services has a number of different programs, some of them undeniably necessary . The agency coordinates federal wildlife rabies control programs including oral vaccine distribution. It works with airports to deter flocks of geese from flying into jet engines. It plays a role in managing invasive species. Wildlife Services is a division of the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and much of the agency’s mission centers on protecting the interests of American agriculture.

What the agency’s best known for is protecting one specific U.S. agricultural interest — public lands livestock ranchers — from predators. For decades Wildlife Services has worked with ranchers in the American West to kill off predators so that those ranchers’ assets stand a better chance of making it to slaughter. It’s kind of a sweet deal for the ranchers: graze your sheep and cattle on land you don’t own for a dollar and change per head per month and have your competition taken out on the taxpayers’ dime. Never mind that predators can be kept away from most livestock reasonably efficiently by spending a little money, training herd dogs, keeping cattle and sheep together (cattle deter coyotes), or  hiring more herders. That’s out of pocket money for the ranchers. Corporate welfare is just as appealing in Wyoming as it is on Wall Street.

Wildlife Services has taken a lot of criticism for its coyote control methods in the past, including the use of bait stations laced with sodium fluoroacetate, a deadly poison that can inflict significant collateral poisoning on non-target animals if used indiscriminately. Putting a piece of meat out on the range unmonitored, tied to a gun designed to shoot a dose into an animal’s mouth if it tugs on the bait definitely qualifies as indiscriminate, and bait stations intended for coyotes have killed other carnivores from black-footed ferrets to golden eagles.

The agencies has also used leg hold traps and snares to capture coyotes, as well as methods like aerial hunting and use of hunting dogs. All of these are predictably controversial, with sensitive coyote huggers like yours truly taking up positions against and hard-headed pragmatists pointing out that sometimes unpleasant measures are necessary.

I would expect both sides would agree, though, that hiring out the job of coyote control to creepy sadistic assholes is unwarranted. My friends over at Demarcated Landscapes posted yesterday about a Wildlife Services’-employed “wildlife specialist” they’d noticed posting photos of his unorthodox control methods. Those photos are seriously upsetting: the t[disgusting];dr version is that he sets traps for coyotes, then sets his dogs on the immobilized coyotes to rip them to shreds.

[UPDATE: I note that there’s no actual indication that the guy was on the clock with Wildlife Services when he took the photos in question. Still, even if this was “off-duty” recreational torture, hiring him calls Wildlife Services’ screening procedures into question.]

Baby Bunnies

palate cleanser

The Demarcated Landscapes post has apparently stirred up a bit of attention: they’ve been getting hits and image downloads from the USDA office in Fort Collins (which is apparently the “gentleman’s” regional office) including photos this guy has posted to Facebook back to 2010. They cleverly saved screenshots of it all, which is lucky because the guy’s Twitter and Facebook accounts seem to have been closed in the last few hours.

I’m not saying here that it’s uniformly wrong to kill problem coyotes, though Project Coyote has a wide range of excellent resources for people interested in more peaceful methods of coexistence. But if you need to trap a coyote, you’ve got it trapped, you have a gun, and you decide to kill it as a form of one-sided blood sport? I completely agree with Demarcated Landscapes in their summation of the situation:

Please, someone, get this man psychological counseling. Anyone who is entertained or amused by letting his dogs kill a trapped coyote has something very, very wrong with him.

Appallingly enough, this method of killing coyotes seems not to be illegal in much of the west — it’s apparently not even particularly unusual. But on the federal payroll? You can voice your concern, should you be so inclined, to Rod Krischke. Wyoming State Director, Wildlife Services, P.O. Box 59, Casper, WY 82602; (307) 261-5336;



Why I don’t bother with youtube comments, Part Eleventymillion

As you know, NonStampCollector has joined Freethoughtblogs. Check out the responses to his latest video—angry people are unsubscribing from his youtube channel because a) PZ Myers is an evil dictator, b) they refuse to contribute to PZ Myers’ profits, c) they’re all evil feminists at FtB, d) they banned Matt Dillahunty! and e) PZ Myers will have total control over what NSC can post.

Not only are these totally irrelevant to NSC’s video, but they’re all wrong. a) I don’t control FtB; Ed Brayton holds the purse strings, b) Profits from advertising are all split up by percentage of total traffic, so visiting NSC’s site puts money in his pocket, not mine, c) we’re all good feminists, like all decent human beings should be, d) we haven’t banned Dillahunty (look, here he is!), and e) all of our bloggers are completely independent, and they can write whatever they want. We took on NSC because we talked to him and learned that he’s not a total asshat, unlike some previous, poorly vetted admissions, so we trust him to be rational and reasonable.

I think he’s better off with the cretins unsubscribing, since it means the quality of his comment stream will take a great leap upwards. It will also improve because all of you will head over to youtube and subscribe.

Romney is a very devout man

Mitt Romney gives lots of money to his church! Sorta. It turns out he’s also a very clever man, with a deep knowledge of the tax code, who has cunningly used loopholes to generate the appearance of giving money to the church while keeping most of it for himself.

Romney reportedly took advantage of a loophole, called a charitable remainder unitrust or CRUT, which allows someone to park money or securities in a tax-deferred trust marked for their favorite charity, but which often doesn’t pay out much to the non-profit. The donor pays taxes on the fixed yearly income they get from the trust, but the principle remains untaxed . Congress outlawed the practice in 1997, but Romney slid in under the wire when his trust, created in June 1996, was grandfathered in.

The trust essentially lets someone “rent” the charity’s tax-exemption while not actually giving the charity much money. If done for this purpose, the trust pays out more every year to the donor than it makes in returns on its holdings, depleting the principal over time, so that when the donor dies and the trust is transferred to the charity, there’s often little left. The actual contribution “is just a throwaway,” Jonathan Blattmachr, a lawyer who set up hundreds of CRUTS in the 1990s, told Bloomberg. “I used to structure them so the value dedicated to charity was as close to zero as possible without being zero.”

Indeed, this appears to the case for Romney’s trust as well. Bloomberg obtained the trust’s tax returns through a Freedom of Information Request and found that Romney’s CRUT started at $750,000 in 2001 but ended 2011 with only $421,203 — over a period when the stock market grew. Romney’s trust was projected to leave less than 8 percent of the original contribution to the church (or another charity that he can designate). This, along with the trust’s poor returns — it made just $48 in 2011 — suggest the trust is not designed to grow for the LDS church but just serve as a tax-free holding pool from which annual payments can be disbursed to the Romneys.

If he’s so willing to screw over the god he worships, one has to wonder what he’s planning to do to the country.

The principles of atheism promote a positive ethics

Last week, the Irish Times published an opinion piece that was generally quite positive about atheism, but also perpetuated a stereotype.

Ireland is seeing the emergence of a newer kind of atheist, who is anxious to dispel the myth that they are all one-dimensional, rabidly anti-religious Dawkinsians.

It then goes on to praise charitable efforts by atheists, the emergence of the Atheism Plus movement, and the ongoing discussions about ethics within the atheist community (like I said, it’s mostly a nice article saying good things about atheists). However, it’s as if the author is surprised that we aren’t all out hanging priests from lampposts and blowing up churches.

But that’s wrong. The New Atheist movement has always been about applying reason and evidence-based thinking to everything, without exception. Atheism+ was established by aggressive, out atheists who do not compromise on the foolishness of faith, and take the very same take-no-prisoners approach on social justice issues.

In 2010, atheists met and formulated the Copenhagen Declaration (see also the Irish amendment). These are entirely ‘Dawkinsian’ in spirit!

It is actually no surprise at all that atheism is taking this direction. The only people who have been surprised are that obnoxious subset of atheists who thought nobody would ever expect them to defend their viciously anti-equality views rationally and with evidence — they’ve gotten a bit of a shock when they’ve found themselves marginalized and regarded with contempt. But they are well out of the mainstream of the New Atheist movement, and are reduced to angrily lashing out on the internet against the decent human beings who make up the bulk of our godless horde.

Michael Nugent has written an excellent article rebutting some of the misconceptions in the original opinion piece, which has also been published in the Irish Times.

“New Atheism” as promoted by Richard Dawkins has always combined promotion of critical thinking and science, strong rejection of religious beliefs that are unsupported by evidence, active campaigns against the harm caused by religion around the world, and philanthropic and charitable projects such as Nonbelievers Giving Aid and Foundation Beyond Belief.

Atheist Ireland is part of this evolving project, not a deviation from it. We promote atheism and reason over supernaturalism and superstition, and we promote an ethical and secular Ireland where the State does not support or fund or give special treatment to any religion.

We reject religious beliefs that are silly in their claims about reality, such as intervening personal gods who answer prayers and impregnate virgins to give birth to themselves; and religious beliefs that are harmful in their corruption of human morality, from Catholic sexism and homophobia to Islamic floggings and executions for blasphemy.

We believe that society should address ethical issues based on human rights and compassion, and applying reason to empirical evidence, and not on religious doctrines; and that individual ethical decisions should where possible be made on the basis of personal autonomy and individual conscience, while not infringing on the rights of others.

This is not to deny that there are jerks among atheists — but the principles of the New Atheism have always been clear, and the imperfections of humanity should not be regarded as a slight against the ideals to which we aspire.

Godless Patriots

You need more t-shirts. You need some with a positive patriotic message so you can dumbfound all the yokels who think atheists hate America. Here’s the place you can find them: Godless Patriots.

They’re just starting up, and they’re looking for business and assistance — they also have a kickstarter page where they’re trying to raise money to expand their inventory.

They’re nice designs, and this isn’t mindless patriotism. They’ve got shirts for Americans and for the British.

Take a look and pick one up.

Happy Halloween!

People are always sending me pictures of their terrifying tentacled creatures, so I thought it only proper today to exhibit one that will send chills down your spine. Behold! A nightmare from Tupelo, Mississippi!

Note the cool regard of all she sees, the superior attitude, the tentacles, the stylish purple outfit with googly eyes on her head — she’s clearly an atheist. You will bow down before her.

Could be worse

Hey, residents of the east coast! Feeling down? Struggling with the aftermath of a small climate disaster? Let me cheer you up. It could be so much worse. You could be living in Alberta!

You see, there are many consequences of human greed and shortsightedness. There’s an oil industry that’s demanding the right to pour pollutants into the atmosphere for your personal convenience, and that’s contributing to the frequency and strength of storms, which lead to heavily publicized events when a major storm hits a hugely populated area. So sure, deaths and power outages and property destruction in New York are a big story. But most of the damage is being done out of sight and out of mind. No way is the oil industry going to openly destroy the environment in your backyard (deniably indirectly, though, that’s OK) — but any place that is largely empty of humans — especially wealthy, well-connected humans — is fair game. Like the boreal forests of Canada.

Here’s such a forest in Alberta. These trees had the misfortune to be growing above the tar sands…they were in the way.

Hmmm, you say. Surely those forests have been replaced with something scenic. Yes, they have: like this.

I’ve seen landscapes like that before…in cynical dystopian science fiction movies. Harvesting the oil from the tar sands involves denuding the surface, digging deep, and sluicing the whole sticky black mess with vast volumes of water to extract the wanted fraction…and the waste water, saturated and sludgy with toxic hydrocarbons, runs off into gigantic holding ponds. I don’t know what it’s being held for, or how long…for armageddon, maybe?

Inspiring, isn’t it? Next time I’m in Alberta, I should take some time to tour the northern part of the province to see the natural beauty. Oh, wait. I don’t have to go to Alberta — the sludge ponds are visible from outer space!

We’d sing…sing…sing…!

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

What? Did you think I’d break out into the Lumberjack song?

Here is the consequence of our need for oil.

Just remember, everywhere…it could be worse. And it probably will get worse.

Humans versus wildlife

Taricha torosa

Taricha torosa

I figure we could use some less-than-apocalyptic news today. Over the last couple decades, the management of Tilden Regional Park in the hills above Berkeley, California has closed a main road artery through the park each year between November 1 and April 1 in order to protect a local amphibian. The road parallels a seasonal creek; each autumn when the rains start local members of the species Taricha torosa, a.k.a. the California newt, head for the creek to find pools in which to mate. For many of them this involves crossing the road, and even though it’s not a heavily traveled road at the busiest of times that’s still more traffic than the newts can handle.

The California newt is one of those species, like the blue-ringed octopus and the pufferfish, that counts tetrodotoxin among its defense mechanisms. There’s a recorded human fatality involving a related species  — the rough-skinned newt, Taricha granulosa, one of which was swallowed by a drunken Oregon fratboy — but as far as I know the California newt boasts neither a human body count nor spurious pharmazombie folklore like other tetrodotoxic species. The newt’s egg masses are well-endowed with tetrodotoxin as well. Some  garter snakes have developed a resistance to tetrodotoxin and can eat the eggs, but mainly they’re left alone.

Like a lot of very toxic species, the newts’ defense mechanism relies on communicating that toxicity to its attacker. Poke at a California newt and it will usually display its bright orange belly, which any sensible predator would take as a warning of a bad stomachache or worse. Sadly, this defense does little to deter a speeding Buick.

This fall the rains started early, and the newts — apparently belonging to that 47% of American species that refuse to take responsibility for their lives by checking a calendar — started crossing the road a week or two before the closure. The road started to become dotted with little bright-orange corpses. And so the discussion started up between the management of the East Bay Regional Park District and local residents. Should the Park close the road early to protect the newts, or would that add unnecessarily to the inconvenience of the seasonal road closure?

It’s not surprising that there would be conflict. What’s surprising is which parties took which sides. As the blog Berkeleyside reports, it’s the Park that’s being recalcitrant about acting to protect the newts, and the locals who would presumably be most inconvenienced who’re demanding the road be closed.

David Wake, who has lived in the Park Hills neighborhood since the late 1970s, has been studying salamanders and newts since the late 1950s. Professor of the Graduate School in Integrative Biology and Curator, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, he said newt populations have fallen dramatically in recent years, although the closure of South Park Road has helped.

On a neighborhood listserve Wake wrote: “The movement patterns are not governed by human calendars. Males move with the first substantial rains. They migrate in the direction of the creek.  Females come later. But breeding is not completed until the creeks start receding, late in the rainy season. This means that males get knocked off in late October (our first rains typically arrive during the last two weeks of October), and females get knocked off in early- mid-April, when they leave the stream with our last rains. The closure of the road should be extended for two weeks on either end.  I have made this case for many years, unsuccessfully… The tragedy of the newts is that in most years their breeding is completely unsuccessful.”

I’ve been reporting on human-wildlife interactions for twenty years now, and these things almost always get cast as “humans versus wildlife,” as though the right of humans to build something or get a particular job or drive via the shortest route possible on the one hand, and the survival of wildlife species in the other, are of equal weight. A startlingly similar situation here in the California desert involves the Coachella fringe-toed lizard, which depends on what the ecologists call “blow-sand” habitat. Blow-sand habitat is pretty much what it sounds like: in the desert, sand flows downwind from one basin to another, creating distinct habitats with distinct assemblages of sand-adapted vegetation and fauna. The Coachella fringe-toed is one of those fauna, relying on loose sand for shelter against temperature extremes and predators, and its eponymous toe fringe helps it run across that loose sand the way snowshoes help you walk on snow.

The Coachella fringe-toed lizard has had something like three quarters of its habitat destroyed in the last 40 years by sprawl in the Coachella Valley: suburbs, strip malls, golf courses and light industrial development have exploded in the north end of the valley. One of the last stretches of open blow-sand habitat is along the course of the Whitewater River, which flows out of the San Bernardino Mountains into the valley. By the time it reaches Palm Springs the river’s water is mainly underground, and the riverbed an expanse of open sand — fringe-toed lizard habitat.

Three major roads cross that section of river. There are three or five days per year when the wind picks up even more than usual, blowing sand  reduces visibility to near zero, and the police have to close those roads. Engineers could build baffles or fences to keep the sand from blowing across the road quite so much, but that would reduce the flow of sand to the lizard habitat on the downwind side of the road. So instead some people in the Coachella Valley must, a few days a year, add two or three miles to their commute, and the local paper’s website fills with complaints about radical environmentalists prioritizing a lowly lizard over their god-given right to drive wherever the fuck they want to.

There are, of course, people in the Coachella Valley who like having the fringe-toed lizard as a neighbor, and they just don’t happen to write reactionary comments on the Desert Sun’s website. And there are certainly people in the Berkeley Hills who grumble about the goddamn newts making it take 15 minutes longer to get to the golf course. My casting the Berkeleyside piece as an indication of the more advanced ecological sentiment of people in the East San Francisco Bay area would certainly obscure some important nuance. But I’m gonna do it anyway. Even though I lived for 22.5 years before I ever got there, I think of Berkeley as my home town. Seeing my former neighbors turn the usual “humans versus wildlife” trope upside down makes me proud. And homesick.

mating and egg masses.JPG

Mating California newts with egg masses

Screw those women and neuroscientists, we should let Kant make abortion decisions!

William Egginton has an op-ed in the NYT in which he suggests that neuroscience might challenge Roe v. Wade. It’s long — about 1900 words — and it’s revealing that in all the ambiguous fudging about whether a fetus is conscious, there is no consideration at all for the woman wrapped around it. In fact, she isn’t even mentioned…not once. Yes, it’s another man pontificating on the rights and privileges of the fetus as if the pregnant woman were not there. It’s astonishing how completely women vanish when they get pregnant — it’s as if some people can only see women as an incubator for the Holy and Sacred Child.

It starts out promisingly, discussing an Idaho law called the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”, which tries to outlaw abortions by claiming that fetuses can feel pain. This is a neuroscientific claim. So Egginton asks,

So why not call an actual neuroscientist as an expert witness instead of a scholar of the humanities?

And I thought for a moment that Egginton, who I hadn’t heard of before, was perhaps a neuroscientist offering up his expertise. Alas, at the end I discover that he’s the “Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University”. He’s not making an informed contribution on the science, apparently his goal is to “criticize the hubris of scientific claims to knowledge that exceeds the boundaries of what the sciences in fact demonstrate.” So that was actually a rhetorical question which is answered by the fact that he thinks neuroscientists aren’t actually good witnesses on subjects of neuroscience. OK.

Reminder: it still isn’t an argument in which the rights of the pregnant woman are considered.

Fortunately, he dismisses fetal pain as a criterion for prohibiting abortion — not because they don’t experience pain, but because awareness of pain is not a basis for legal prohibitions. Animals feel pain, for instance, and we don’t outlaw farming and hunting. I would suggest that pain awareness is a general feature, like having a heartbeat or two eyes, that isn’t particularly indicative of a special status that demands protection (that doesn’t stop Pro-Life Across America from putting up billboards with pictures of smiling babies saying, “My heart started beating at 28 days!” — it’s an emotional appeal).

Unfortunately, Egginton then arbitrarily replaces “pain” with another amorphous concept, “personhood”.

Those wishing to abolish abortion believe that “the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.” If, as Justice Harry A. Blackmun continues in his opinion in 1973, “this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment.” If a fetus is a person, in other words, then it is not a potential human life at all, but is a fully human life deserving of full legal protection, and abortion must be murder and punishable as such. The intent of current fetal pain statutes is, clearly, to infer from the ability to feel pain on the part of a human fetus — if it can be established by neuroscience — a claim for actual human life or full personhood.

Reminder: it still isn’t an argument in which the rights of the pregnant woman are considered.

But then, in an interesting twist, Egginton uses the idea of defining personhood as a bat to pound on anti-choice activists. It would be a big mistake, he suggests, to let scientists define what a person is, because, basically, scientists are reductionist jerks, and science “can tell us nothing about the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, or the origin of human freedom”. He’s wrong. There is no god (and those humanist types can’t even freakin’ define this entity, let alone provide evidence for it), the soul is a ridiculous concept, and freedom is an interesting cognitive illusion and a political idea. He can cite Kant at me all he wants, but science has made great progress in explaining the nature of the universe and ourselves to the point where we definitely don’t know all the answers, but we know enough to constrain the wide range of possible answers to something that precludes the primitive guesses of uninformed old philosophers and theologians.

So Egginton isn’t really making an anti-abortion rant: he’s making an anti-science argument. Interesting.

When science becomes the sole or even primary arbiter of such basic notions as personhood, it ceases to be mankind’s most useful servant and threatens, instead, to become its dictator. Science does not and should not have the power to absolve individuals and communities of the responsibility to choose. This emphatically does not mean that science should be left out of such personal and political debates. The more we know about the world the better positioned we are to make the best possible choices. But when science is used to replace thinking instead of complement it; when we claim to see in its results the reduction of all the complexity that constitutes the emergence of a human life or the choices and responsibilities of the person it may develop into; we relinquish something that Kant showed more than 200 years ago was essential to the very idea of a human being: our freedom.

Well, I was trained as a neuroscientist (I’ve since drifted towards developmental biology), and if I were made dictator of the world, I can tell you what I’d say: “personhood” is not discrete and absolute, so no scientist will be able to declare a black & white switch from non-personhood to personhood (although the reverse is easier: we call it “death”). I would also say that even if we could measure it, “personhood” is a matter of degree and also is a criterion like “pain”: it’s not something we can use as a logical bludgeon to deny abortions. Even the one neuroscientist Egginton cites in his article, Antonio Damasio, talks about degrees of consciousness in animals. So much for the demonization of scientists. We are aware of the limits of our knowledge; it’s unfortunate that professors of the humanities don’t seem to be similarly aware of the boundaries of their domain.

Oh, and if I were the dictator of the world, I’d look into the eyes of the teenager who faces the sacrifice of her dreams if she bears that child, the eyes of the woman whose fetus carries a birth defect, the eyes of the victim of rape, and I’d say…”Your choice — do what is best for your life. It’s your life that matters.” That overrides all other considerations.

I’m a little surprised to learn that humanities professors don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing. Maybe we should exclude them from future deliberations on these matters.