Nothing to Be Proud Of, Part 2

In an earlier post entitled, “Nothing to Be Proud Of,” I hinted at the regrettable fact that I used to fish. I promised that details would be forthcoming, but I realize now that this subject is worthy of a series of posts, starting with…

I’ve always been an “animal” person. The household dog, Jake—a German shepherd malamute mix—was my best friend and constant companion. He was my canine connection with the wolf, which I considered my “totem” animal.

But I wasn’t a one note wildlife advocate; I cared about all the animals of the land, sky and sea. Yet I subscribed to the all too common misconception that human beings had to eat meat. The food pyramid of the era in which I grew up (the 1960s and ‘70s) was as old as the mummified pharos and as outdated as the antiquated Egyptian practices of slavery and human sacrifice.

I was a self-taught naturalist and bird watcher, but I never aspired to be a nutritionist. I thought vegetarianism was a practice followed mostly by Eastern mystics, yogis, Hari Krishnas and the occasional hippie. And I was similarly ignorant about the intelligence of fish. Accepted “science” of the time held fish well below the surface of air-breathing, and therefore “aware,” animals. (Even today, grocery stores advertise “meat and fish,” as if fish flesh is somehow different from the flesh of we mammals.)

At the risk of sounding like an editor from Field and Stream, some of my fondest memories of my father centered around fishing at our family cabin. I was put off by power boating, but instead enjoyed taking the row boat out at first light while the lake was calm as glass and fish were jumping at the surface. As the morning fog lifted, motor boats would invariably break the calm, dragging water skiers around and around, while the fish would dive for cover.

Of course I could have left my fishing gear behind and just enjoyed rowing the boat across the lake, but at the time I went along with accepted thought and considered fish as “food,” perhaps even a more natural and environmentally sound choice than farm animals (I hadn’t even heard the term “factory farmed” yet).

I know now, after witnessing fish swim off trailing hook, line and sinker or flapping in piles on the decks of commercial gill net boats, that fishing is in no way a sound practice. Contrary to archaic, and perhaps wishful thinking on the part of fishermen, fish are part of the animal kingdom and share the same basic responses to pain as birds and mammals.

According to an article in Veganism and Nonviolence, by Gentle World: From salmon making the long journey from river to ocean andimages back, to goldfish swimming circles around a small pond, the inner lives of fishes are a mystery that scientists are only beginning to unravel. One of the key elements they are searching for is the extent to which each fish is sentient or, more specifically, how they process what we would call a “painful” sensation (such as a hook cutting into their lip.)

On this journey, scientists have discovered that fish have nerve structures that are anatomically very similar to those of humans and many other species of animals. Among these common structures are receptor cells called nociceptors, which are found throughout animals’ bodies and are activated by stimuli expected to cause damage to bodily tissues. Tellingly, some species of fish have upwards of 58 different nociceptors located in their lips alone*.

As in human anatomy, these nociceptors are wired by nerve fibers to the central nervous system (the spinal cord and brain.) When the pain centers in the brain are activated by signals from the nociceptors, they trigger the body to respond to the potentially harmful or life threatening events that may be happening.

Fish anatomy is so complex that they have even evolved the same “pain-blocking” substances (endorphins) as humans.** It is theorized that endorphins help animals to tolerate pain from severe injuries in order to help them escape from a predator. This leaves us with the question: Why would fish have endorphins in their bodies if they couldn’t feel pain? And why is there still a debate over their sentience?

Twenty-first Century Swastikas

For over half a century the Nazi swastika—that all too familiar symbol of hate—has been relegated to the dark corners of extremism, never to be openly displayed on a flag or uniform again. The Nazi credo was perhaps as confusing as it was complex, but generally, it was the definitive case of one group vilifying and scapegoating another.

Today, a similar type of blind hatred rules in areas where exploitive or extractive animal industries are considered a way of life. One can hardly drive a mile in parts of rural America without seeing emblems of extremism in the form of hateful bumper stickers touting selfish anti-wolf slogans like, “Smoke a Pack a Day” or, in areas where wolves are still extinct, “Did the coyotes get your deer?” Another popular hate-symbol adorning the back of all too many rural pickup trucks is simply a silhouette of a wolfNT wolf bumpr stickr inside a red circle with a slash through it.

In certain towns along the Pacific Northwest coast, where commercial fishing is a dying “way of life” (because dams and overfishing had nearly wiped out the salmon), the trendy stickers of ignorance and intolerance feature a sea lion with a fish inside a red circle and slash. The message is clear, sea lions can starve and die off, the humans have claimed the fish for themselves.

And although sea lions are indeed starving and dying off, it isn’t happening fast enough for some small minded, self-serving fishermen who shoot them, in defiance of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, just as the wolves in the tri-state and Great Lakes regions become victims of those who claim all land animals as “resources” and can’t stand the competition from those natural predators. Blatant Nazism may be a thing of the past, but speciesist extremism is alive and well all across America.

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Otters—a Pinnacle of Evolution

As is often the case, I awoke this morning to the sensation of our cat walking gingerly across my head. Sleek and silky, with luxuriant dark fur, Winnie reminds me of the river otter I saw yesterday afternoon crossing the road and heading upstream into our backyard beaver pond system.

I’d been hoping the otter I have been seeing in the waterways nearby would find our ponds, which are fed by several small streams flowing out of the surrounding hills. Though the ponds turn a light brown this time of year from the clay-rich soil leaching from their banks, they support a healthy variety of life, from frogs, fish and crawdads; to ducks, herons, kingfishers and osprey; to beaver, muskrat, raccoon, mink…and now otter.

A descendant of the diverse weasel family, the river otter is a pinnacle of evolution if ever there were one. While their kin adapted to every other habitat in North America—the ermine and pine marten, to the snowy north woods; fisher, the ancient forests; mink, the riparian zones; badger, the arid plains; and wolverine, the mountainous high country—river otters are masters of inland waterways and freshwater lakes. To those who know them, “otter” is synonymous with the word “play.” Among the most spirited of species, they clearly enjoy themselves in the water, delighting in games with each other like tag and hide-and-go-seek. They also enjoy snow sports: otter “slides” are a familiar sight on snowy slopes along frozen rivers in winter.

Like every other fur-bearer on the continent, otters were nearly decimated during the mindless fur trade era. Unbelievably, otters are still killed in traps set by nineteenth century throw-backs even today. Others are shot by selfish humans unwilling to share aquatic resources that otters had adapted to hundreds of thousands of years before Homo sapiens reached the Western Hemisphere.

The threat of human greed is even more pervasive for sea otters, who have all but lost their ability to move about on land, giving themselves and their terrestrial origins up to their oceanic habitat. Unlike commercial fishermen, they don’t sit out the storms in a cozy home or a dry shack heated by an oil furnace; they spend day and night floating among the coastal kelp beds.

River otter are more than welcome to stay as long as they like here in our beaver ponds. Hopefully we’ll get an occasional glimpse of them swimming fluidly by, or moving on land with their trademark weasel-esque, undulating lope. I’m just glad Winnie is lighter afoot when she tip-toes across my head in the morning.

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Scientists Should Wake Up and Smell the Fish Farts

When studying something which can be tested in a lab, scientists don’t hesitate to employ the tried and true formula: if it looks like shit, and smells like it, chances are it’s actually shit. When it comes to literal excrement, some scientists are real whizzes. Even without a DNA test, they can tell you with near-certainty through which species of animal’s anus a particular scat has passed. But when it comes to animal sentience, some scientists still don’t know shit (pardon my French—throughout).

Thanks to his creator, author Arthur Conan Doyle, the criminologist Sherlock Holmes famously pointed out that, “If you’ve eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains must be the truth.” Well, scientists have spent centuries toying with every other possibility to avoid the obvious fact that non-human animals are conscious, thinking, feeling beings.

Incredibly, there are some who’re still grappling with the question: “Are animals aware?” What the fuck—of course they’re aware! Most animals are far more aware of their surroundings than the average human, for that matter.

The science of animal behavior has come a long ways from the dark days of Rene Descartes, thanks to the likes of Donald Griffin, Marc Bekoff and other pioneers in the study of cognitive ethology. Just last summer, an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” The document stated that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” and concludes that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”

Having witnessed remarkably intelligent actions on the part of individuals throughout the animal kingdom—from the family dog leaping to his feet at the whispered mention of a “walk” or “car ride,” to a herd of wild bison mourning over the remains of their dead—my response to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals is, “Well duh, tell us something we don’t know.”

Speciously, the Cambridge Declaration drew an arbitrary line and left the world of fishes out in the cold when it comes to animal consciousness. Far too many of today’s “behaviorists” still ascribe to the long outdated notion of fish the way science had long thought of all non-human animals—as automatons: mindless machines going through life without any more than random responses to stimuli.

Now I’m in no way anti-science—far from it, in fact—I just think that sometimes a scientist will spend an exorbitant amount of time chasing his or her tail when the answer they’re looking for is as plain as the nose on their face.

Take the question of animal communication, for example. We all know whales and dolphins are able (when they can find a quiet stretch of ocean—devoid of the deafening drone of ships or navy sonar) to communicate with one another through songs or clicks, respectively. But lately observers have learned that even fish have devised clever ways to keep in touch. According to an article entitled “Fish Farts: Herring Use Flatulence To Communicate” in the Huffington Post, apparently some types of herring pass gas to “speak” to each other without alerting other fish.

Researchers Bob Batty, Ben Wilson and Larry Dill made that Nobel Prize-worthy discovery after studying Pacific and Atlantic herring in Canada and Scotland, noting (importantly) that the gas is not caused by the digestive process. Instead, the fish swallow air from the surface and emit it through a small opening near their bung holes. Thus, profound as they may be, the bubbles aren’t really farts in the stinky, human sense.

So, it seems to me a bit arrogant to write an entire class of animal life out of a “Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals.” Granted, herring may not be flatulent enough to recite the Preamble to the Constitution, but then, as Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote, “Only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to.”

Time for skeptical scientists to wake up and smell the sentience when it comes to fish.

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WTF’s Up w/MFWP?

What the Fuck (WTF) is up with the Montana state wildlife officials these days? Now they want to make it even easier to hunt and trap wolves in their state.

Last year, just after wolves were removed from federal endangered species protection, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department (MFWP) seemed comparably tame (well, compared to Idaho anyway). Though they wasted no time in implementing the state’s first season on wolves in seventy-some years, at least they spared wolves the torment of trapping.

Ignoring 7,000 letters in support of wolves, this year they added trapping to their wolf assault and upped the original “bag limit” from one to three per trapper—before the season even started. Instead, they’re bowing to the whims and whinings of ranchers, hunters and trappers who have called for an expansion of wolf killing and more liberal rules than the state had last year, when “only” 166 wolves were ruthlessly murdered. MFWP officials responded to anti-wolf, anti-nature, anti-environmental pressure by making the 2012 season longer, eliminating most quotas and allowing wolf trapping for the first time.

The agency is now mercilessly asking for additional measures in the form of a state House Bill, HB 73. Their proposal would let hunters and trappers buy multiple tags; use electronic wolf calls; reduce the price of a non-resident tag from $350 to $50 and eliminate the potentially life-saving requirement that hunters wear fluorescent orange outside of elk and deer season. (Okay, I’ll go along with that last one—who cares if wolf hunters shoot each other?)

“We want to get a wolf bill out of the Legislature so we can implement those things that can potentially make a difference,” said FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim, adding selfishly, “More management flexibility. That’s what we want now.”

The House committee will also take up a second bill by Republican Rep. Ted (oh shit, not another Ted!) Washburn, of Bozeman, which would also limit the total number of wolves allowed to live in the entire state (we’re talking 147,046 square miles) to no more than 250. Washburn’s plan also asks for an Oct. 1-Feb. 28 wolf hunting season and an even longer season for special districts next to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks!!

No doubt you all remember that fateful day in 2011 when congress lifted federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, handing management over to those openly hostile states.

Meanwhile, the nefarious Montana state wildlife officials are currently opposing federal Threatened Species protection for the depressingly rare wolverine, down to only 35 breeding individuals in the lower 48.

Not many hunters can honestly say that they don’t mind sharing “their” elk, moose or deer with the likes of wolves, cougars or coyotes. But those few who claim to support a diversity of life need to realize that every time they purchase a hunting license and a deer or elk tag, they validate wolf hunting and trapping. To game managers, every action, right down to the purchase of ammo and camo at Outdoor World, is a show of support for their policies—including killing wolves to ensure more deer, elk, moose or caribou for hunters to “harvest.”

A far cry from living up to their laughably undeserved reputation as the “best environmentalists,” hunters are just foot-soldiers carrying out a hackneyed game department program of “harvesting” ungulates and “controlling” predators. It’s an agenda based not on science or the time-tested mechanisms of nature, but on the self-serving wants of a single species—Homo fucking sapiens (HFS). Modern hunting is about as anti-environmental as mining, clear-cut logging, commercial fishing or factory farming.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2012. All Rights Reserved

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2012. All Rights Reserved

Compassion For All, Not Just the Endangered

On Friday I drove out to spend a peaceful, sunny afternoon at an ocean beach, but instead of finding serenity, I came across an emaciated female California sea lion. I learned from locals passing by that she had been seen there for the past 5 days!!  She was obviously sick or injured and had been starving for a long time. I couldn’t see any bullet holes, but there were over two dozen commercial fishing boats (trawlers) visible just offshore. There has been a rash of 20+ dead sea lions with gunshot wounds washing ashore this spring, and no one has any doubts that they’re being shot by the fishermen who view them as competition, the same way elk hunters in the Rockies see wolves. 

I called a nearby Aquarium who has been performing necropsies on the dead sea lions in the area, but they said they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do anything about her. Everyone I spoke with to try to get some help for her said they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get involved because they feared the National Marine Fisheries Service would “bankrupt” them with fines (no great threat to me as I’m pretty much broke anyway). The so-called Marine Mammal “Protection” Act makes no allowances for protecting injured sea lions–especially not a member of a species, such as the California sea lion, which isn’t currently endangered. 

When I told the people at the Aquarium that it might be a Northern sea lion (an animal on the list of endangered species, thanks to historic sealing and the ongoing over-fishing of their food supply), they showed a bit more interest, but still not enough to come out and do anything to ease her suffering. There was a strong undercurrent that no one would do anything to help a wounded animal which “competes” with fishermen for salmon and other commercially valuable fish. They told me there is a “hands off” approach regarding sea lions (no doubt because of what they eat). This is ironic since their policy of branding them with a hot iron, fitting them with cumbersome radio tracking devises and killing them if they are caught eating salmon at the dam upstream on the Columbia River is anything but “hands off.” 

It was a prime example of how the powers that be don’t allow any compassion for an individual animal whose species is not currently on the brink of extinction. Fisheries agency representatives have the same kind of detached attitude as land-based wildlife “managers,” showing no concern for individuals who may be suffering, only for animal populations as a whole. 

As you can see in the photos, the sea lion is starving. Judging by how little she was able to move around, she is surely unable to feed herself. I spent the afternoon shielding her from getting run over by the many rigs driving up and down the beach, and asking people not to stop and gawk (she would lift her head up whenever anyone pulled alongside her). I left for a while, and when I returned she appeared to have passed on. So I went home, but when I called on Sunday to someone who lives there to find out what happened to the body, he said she is STILL ALIVE! He nonchalantly echoed the attitude of the locals and the authorities alike, “She’ll either pull out of it, or she won’t.” 

Why isn’t there something we can do for her? There are plenty of veterinary and medical facilities nearby, but no one can legally help ease or end her suffering. The authorities say they don’t know who is shooting sea lions out at sea (and they’re not doing anything to try to find out), but they’d love to bust anyone they thought was “interfering” with “nature taking its course,” even if it’s for humane reasons. 

Earlier in the week I discovered a dead juvenile porpoise that had net marks above his tail. It most likely drowned in a fish net and was pitched overboard as bykill. These are just two of the many examples of the hidden cost of that fresh-caught salmon or fish filet in shrink wrap at your local market.