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No Harm Done

Published in our Summer 1993 issue of Wild Earth Journal, Mollie Matteson’s haunting essay on the perils of extreme interference with the natural world paints a dark picture of a possible future with unexpected, insidious consequences. Mollie explores the nature of the relationship between humans and animals, both wild and domestic, as she urges us to respect the inherent dignity of all of life on Earth.

No Harm Done

New Variation on an Old Theme

Thin lanky canid with dark red and brown coat walks in grass and takes a peek at the photographer
Coyote. William C. Gladish

She dances along the perimeter of a dew-glimmering, early-morning meadow. Muzzle low to the ground, stop and start, she is keeping a pact with the voles, the pocket gophers, the Peromyscus. Long ago, their kind agreed to run, to hide, and to breed maniacally. Her kind assented to search out the slow, the stupid, the unlucky, and to also breed, though not so profligately as those they chased. And all made a bargain with death. Like a moody, glacier-fed river, the rhythms of death could be unpredictable, sudden, sparse, overwhelming. The answer was this: to suck down air and push lungs to bursting, to feed, to leap, to rest, to fight or hide, and always, to make more of one’s kind.

The Coyote lifts her head to catch a tantalizing current. The pungent, oily smell emanates from the direction of the gravel road. She knows this line of dust, mud, and weeds brings both good things and bad. Roaring, unstoppable monsters that crush jackrabbits, snakes, deer, even Coyotes. Men that crawl out of the bellies of these monsters, pointing long, odd limbs at her brothers and sisters, and making them dead. But this road seems good to walk on too, when in winter she is weary of falling through snow. And when another is unlucky on this road—a hare smashed by a monster that rolled through in the night—she is in luck, and puts meat in her belly.

A dead coyote along the side of the road, with a truckload of people about to drive by
A coyote killed by a vehicle on Mexico Highway 2. Photo: Jan Schipper

The odor draws her on. Her nose seems the only part of her eager for discovery. The rest hangs back, stretched out and low to the ground. When she reaches it, she stares. It is quiet and round, like a stone. But unlike a stone, it is glistening, rumply, white, and redolent of one languid fall afternoon, when she and her family feasted on a fat bull Elk, fallen in the trees, beyond the reach of a hunter who had aimed badly. She is cautious, clever, but young. She snatches the tallow ball, gulps it like she would a deer mouse, and glancing up and down the long scar of bare earth, sprints for the woods.

She lives. She will hunt more pocket gophers, take battered roadkills, converge on fawns with the aid of another meadow-dancer/vole-seeker whom she encounters, and with whom she stays. But that day, without her knowledge or consent, her pact was broken. She will not make more of her kind.

This is a scenario we may anticipate if researchers at the University of Wyoming are successful in a new enterprise: developing a vaccine to permanently sterilize targeted animals. There are benefits mostly for the animals we have made irretrievably dependent on us, or those species shoved to the brink of existence by swelling non-native populations. Overall, though, I see a dark future, for the wild, stretching out of a dark past. Barren, instead of bloody; silent instead of screaming. But dark and wrong, nonetheless. We will have found yet one more way to kill the wild, and with this technology, will be able to kill even before there is a life to take away.

This latest, insidious attempt to domesticate what remains wild, to control what has not yet totally submitted to our dictates, to break the pacts binding species and natural systems together—this must be recognized and resisted.

At present, the vaccine is available in injected form only. It will take time to develop an active oral vaccine and testing is now confined to domestic sheep, lab mice and rabbits. The immediate goal is to be able to control the reproductive capacity of livestock, pets, and other captive and domestic animals, without the use of expensive and sometimes brutal surgery (castration). The technology may help to solve the problem of wild (but non-native) horses on fragile Western rangelands, exotic goats on Santa Cruz Island, or introduced Mountain Goats in the Olympic Mountains. An animal welfare group, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is funding the research project, so the interest in more humane treatment of animals is clear and to be commended where it extends to domestic animals and troublesome exotics. The difficulty comes when the misguided, the fearful, the arrogant and domineering lose sight of proper limits and attempts to sweep a net of control over the whole world.

Most research on animals, including wild ones, is aimed at a select few: those we use, or those that get in the way of our use; those we love and those we hate. The research and work directed toward animals that get in our way has focused primarily on ways to kill more. But death, particularly the kind brought about by agencies like Animal Damage Control (ADC) can be ugly. Coyotes, skinned and piled in a heap. Mountain Lion, foot clamped and mangled, left to scorch in the desert sun. Poisoned birds. Drowned Beaver. Stiffened Bobcat. Public outrage, and subsequent effort to reform or eliminate ADC, have forced the agency, and others involved in the business of controlling “damaging” animals, to rethink the emphasis on mortality. Unfortunately, the change seems to go only so far as finding other, less blatantly hideous, means of control.

Stocky, dog-like wild animal looks at camera while lying in a grassy field
Coyote. Photo: Daniel Dietrich

They still don’t get it. Unfortunately, the public may not get it either, once the killing slows and a quieter campaign begins. UW researcher Ray Field demonstrated his inability to truly perceive the issue: “It would not do any animal any harm,” he says of the vaccine. He refers specifically to non-target species that may ingest a dose of Coyote contraceptive, but his wording suggests that not even the target species is being harmed. Perhaps he really believes this, but would he, and others involved with management of wildlife populations, find it acceptable if contraceptives were scattered widely for valuable game species—Elk, trout, Bighorn Sheep—to consume. What he really means, what state fish and game departments mean when they berate anti-hunters for ”worrying about individuals,” what ADC officials mean when their rejoinder is “Well, we aren’t going to make ___ (fill in the blank) extinct,” is this: Harm is being done only when populations are not increasing or decreasing the way we would like, and when they are not the size we deem acceptable. There is no harm when Coyote numbers are shrinking. There is no harm when multitudes of deer and Elk are blasted in an autumn orgy of killing, the biggest and the strongest hauled away in the beds of pick-ups. “Objectivity is what does not happen to you,” says feminist author and activist Andrea Dworkin. I would add that harm is what happens to you that you do not favor.

Multiple bison grazing in prairie
Bison. Photo: Juan Carlos Bravo

In addition to Coyotes, Bison, prairie dogs, Beaver and other species may be targets for sterilization. According to UW researcher Bill Murdoch, the ability to “deliver” oral contraceptives to wild animals is still a decade or two away. Nonetheless, he expects “…the day will come when we’re controlling animal populations without surgery.” The attempted suppression of populations by pushing down natality, like the old-fashioned method of forcing up mortality, will no doubt be followed by unexpected, perhaps undesirable (even to the wildlife controllers) consequences. Target species may undergo changes in social structure and behavior, changes in distribution, and changes in the functional role they play in their native ecosystems.

This latest, insidious attempt to domesticate what remains wild, to control what has not yet totally submitted to our dictates, to break the pacts binding species and natural systems together—this must be recognized and resisted.

We must imagine another scenario, a day when a sweep of glistening grass will be unbroken by any road. A day when the meadowdancer will scent only the clean wind, find only foods that will nourish and strengthen her. She will know no roaring monsters that crush brothers and sisters, that vomit death-makers. And she will make many of her own kind.

Postscript

The author urges readers to support the development of effective, safe, inexpensive and readily available contraceptives for the species that really needs them: Homo sapiens. Also, if someone could figure out how to produce a handy little bovine birth control pill, to be scattered discreetly on one’s favorite grazing allotment..

Mollie Matteson’s work as an advocate for wild nature has included promotion of New England wilderness and wolf recovery with Forest Watch, and defending imperiled species such as the northern long-eared bat, Canada lynx, and Bicknell’s thrush with the Center for Biological Diversity. More recently, she has focused her energies on facilitating reconnection and renewal within the human psyche and heart, as a body-based psychotherapist and ecotherapist. She practices at a residential treatment center in Vermont.

2 thoughts on “No Harm Done

  1. Yes…a birth control pill for all domestic animals (pets included). Ending war and the practice of animal domestication gives us time to figure out the remaining details of human population times consumption.

  2. The engine of evolution by design runs on violent and reproductive abandon from the amoeba to the man. Is there a better way? I would hope so.

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