“Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall” – a short review and an interview with Krista Schlyer


The 700-mile long “fence” – the Border Wall – between the US and Mexico has not stopped illegal immigration, which is the purpose for which it was built by the US government.  But it is proving to be lethally effective at stopping the natural movement of wildlife along its length.  Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall, by Krista Schlyer, is a beautifully written and photographed essay on the ecological and sociocultural impacts of this preposterous wall.  I’ve been showing the book to everyone who enters our house, and now I’m bringing the enlightenment campaign to you.

In Continental Divide, Ms. Schlyer first introduces readers to the biomes of the Borderlands – the desert and grasslands, and the lower Rio Grande valley – then takes them on a tour of the Border Wall itself, describing its inception and political history, and the devastation it is already wreaking on wildlife and human families.  Her intimate knowledge of the region is evident on every page.  The photographs are stunning, and often jarring.  In one, two javelinas are shown wandering away from the Wall, back toward where they started, after walking along the fence looking for a place to cross.   This particular section of the wall is especially devastating: “The stretch of wall in Arizona bisects the San Pedro River corridor, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state and a haven for wildlife traveling north and south.”

But any stretch of impassable fencing is devastating to any creature that cannot fly over it.  As the author notes, animals of the borderlands have “a similar essential need: the ability to move freely to adapt to changing conditions.  Unlike politically imposed boundaries, natural boundaries do not begin and end at a single straight line.  Instead, they gradually blend and overlap and move fluidly with the changing climates of Earth.”  Of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or an ecologist – to anticipate the effect of placing an impenetrable barrier across a wildlife corridor. But the US government made sure these considerations would not slow construction of the border wall; it simply waived any environmental regulation in its path.  Sadly, we’ll now have plenty of empirical evidence to back up our intuitions about what happens when you prevent border animals from reaching seasonal sources of food, water, or genetically diverse mates.

Schlyer also describes and illustrates the economic and cultural impact of the Border Wall on the people of the region – where “concrete and steel” now separate communities “that had coexisted as neighbors, friends, and families for centuries.”  And as she points out, the wall has not stopped the determination of those who want to cross into the US for better jobs or the opportunity to reunite with family members; it has only made their determination more desperate and deadly.  Each year, hundreds of people die trying to make it through the desert into the United States.  Meanwhile, the business of “coyotes” (those who smuggle humans across borders) has become “almost as lucrative as drug smuggling…”

In her concluding chapter, Schlyer writes, “the wall and anti-immigrant essence of the current policy cuts to the heart of how we define ourselves as a nation and it begs an important philosophical question that we as a society must answer: What are we willing to sacrifice for the perception of safety?”  If you haven’t spent much time thinking about the Border Wall, this book will be a revelation.  If you have, it will fill your head with unforgettable images of what this “perception of safety” will cost.

I mentioned awhile back that I was reading this book, and that I hoped Krista Schlyer might agree to an email interview.  To my delight, she did!  What follows is our “conversation” about the book and her work as a professional photographer (my questions are in plain font; her responses inset in color and italics).  The wonderful photographs shown above and below are used with her generous permission.

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A creaturely manifesto


Darkling beetle (photo by Whitney Cranshaw; used under Creative Commons license)

Recently we purchased two enormous book cases from a local bookstore when it (alas) went out of business.  The new real estate allowed me to open some cartons of stored books and bring them back into circulation.  I had been reading several of them (slowly) when I had to pack them away to move into our smaller habitat in 2009.  They stayed in Rubbermaid bins in the garage while I finished comprehensive exams and my dissertation and then started a new job.   It felt like Christmas last month when I opened those boxes.

One of the books was the marvelous Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, by Ellen Meloy.  Last night I pulled it off the shelf to read before bed, hoping to de-electromagnetize my brain after hours on the computer.  One page into the chapter called “March,” I encountered a manifesto (p142):

Wherever you are, wherever you go, there are untamed creatures nearby that need your attention.  Unplug your modem.  Slam shut your self-help books.  Quit standing around like a wall trout.  Get to work.

Invite warblers to your neighborhood with shaggy plots of greenery.  Learn everything you can about the bandit-eyed raccoon that stares at you through your sliding glass door, demanding enchiladas.

Mark the direction of jet black darkling beetles marching up a red dune like a troop of miniature helmets.  East?  South?

Let black widows live in your soffits.

Lie on your back on a breezy sweep of beach and stare at the undersides of magnificent frigate birds.  Master a hyena’s laugh and use it when in the presence of politicians.

Admire the male midwife toad, who carries fertilized eggs on its back for a month.  Understand that certain species of mollusk can change their gender.  Know that from a ball afloat on tiny filaments inside its fanned shell, a sea scallop can tell which way is up.

Crane your neck.  Worm your way.  Wolf it down.  Monkey with things.  Outfox your foe.  Quit badgering your tax attorney.

Take notes on the deafness of coral, the pea-size heart of a bat.  Be meticulous.  We will need these things so that we may speak.

I closed the book right there, hoping the words would inspire animal dreams, and clicked off the light.  (I dreamt about fleas.  Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.)

What Marius represents


(Photo attribution: to be determined!)

(Cross-posted at The Moral Mindfield.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning. In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable. So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats. That, of course, is equally unacceptable. But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. First, they are finite spaces with finite resources for maintaining captive species populations of relatively constant size and genetic diversity; the only effective ways to achieve this are (1) birth control, (2) euthanasia, or (3) reintroduction of “surplus” animals to protected wild spaces (the latter being the most ideal, but – for numerous reasons – least likely option). Second, the zoos’ philosophy of captive management is strictly utilitarian; individual charismatic animals might lure in the paying public, but for the purposes of captive management, their value is in their genetic uniqueness, and only as it relates to the rest of the captive population. In the words of a spokesperson from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), “the giraffe Marius, unfortunately, cannot add anything further to the breeding program that does not already exist.” (I, for one, am glad my value has not been assessed by the same measure.) And in a CNN editorial defending the zoo’s actions, the Executive Director of the EAZA, Lesley Dickie writes “While we understand that some members of the public are upset by the euthanization of the giraffe at Copenhagen zoo, the protection of the species as a whole must be our priority” (italics mine).

The event also calls attention to a philosophical difference between European and US zoos concerning avoidance of captive overpopulation and inbreeding. Zoos in the US favor birth control, while European zoos more often euthanize – after letting animals reproduce and parent young. In a New York Times article two years ago, Copenhagen Zoo’s director of conservation said, “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible… We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” It is true that manipulating hormones alters natural behavior and whatever remains of autonomy in captivity. Of course, so does euthanasia (or, as some zoo personnel refer to it, “management-euthanasia” – or as game park managers call it, “culling“) – in a decidedly more permanent way – after animals have been allowed a short but comparatively more “natural” life.

If these events and considerations bother some of us, perhaps we need to be thinking harder about the role of zoos in 21st century conservation and education, and the ethics of keeping animals in these settings. Attendance at US zoological parks and aquariums is higher than attendance for all four major league sports combined. Zoos have – you’ll pardon the pun? – a captive audience for education and outreach, and that is the often-cited rationale for their continued existence. Whether they accomplish education and attitude change in an empirically verifiable way remains open to question.

But zoos might also have a role in preserving the last of certain declining species. For example, without the breeding and reintroduction programs developed by the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos, the California Condor would be extinct. Do these trade-offs justify the unpleasant realities of captive species management? Would public interest financially sustain zoos that chose to function only as centers for the preservation and restoration of seriously endangered species?

In her CNN editorial defending the Copenhagen Zoo’s actions, Lesley Dickie points out that only five giraffes have been euthanized in EAZA zoos since 1828. She then puts that number in perspective for those protestors who might be expressing their outrage at the killing of a zoo giraffe even as they dine on beef or chicken: “Compare this to the 60 billion+ healthy, young animals killed each year worldwide for human consumption.” (For additional perspective, it’s worth noting that the “bolt gun” that was used to euthanize Marius is the same kind of device used on cattle in slaughterhouses.) Hinting at hypocrisy is a bit of a diversion (who knows? maybe all of the protestors are vegetarians), but now that she’s mentioned it: Why do those “livestock” animal deaths not raise the same degree of indignation in the public? Why is killing Marius to feed lions any different?

It’s not different. It simply points to the larger problem: the death of Marius is just one more example of how humans instrumentalize the value of animal lives.

Dizzy as a bee


Photo by Guerin Nicolas/Creative Commons

As titles go, that’s a bit glib for a post like this, but “the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket” seemed too obvious.

A friend forwarded this item from last week’s Huffington Post (Canada) about widespread contamination of western Canadian prairie wetlands by a class of neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids (sometimes called “neonics”).  A University of Saskatchewan biologist, Christy Morrissey, has found that neonicotinoids are showing up in wetlands in her study area in concentrations “at least three to four times higher than what has been deemed habitable for insects.”  And it is not just a regional problem; Morrissey estimates conservatively that tens of millions of acres in western Canada have been treated with neonicotinoids, and that – based on her team’s samples – 80 to 90 percent of surrounding wetlands are contaminated.

This is a really big deal.  There is mounting evidence that neonicotinoids are moderately to highly toxic to several species of bees – causing changes in flight and foraging behavior, navigational abilities, cognition (yes, you read that correctly: bee cognition), communication, metabolism, and appetite.  Not surprisingly, neonicotinoids have have been implicated in honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  From Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2012 New Yorker article:

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Field study documents chilling effects of elephant culling

Several years ago, I read an editorial by Richard Leakey in which he gave his reluctant endorsement  to a South African plan to reinstate culling (aka “killing” – to thin a herd) as a last-resort method of managing elephant populations where they have outgrown their habitat (i.e., culling would be used only after trying contraception and/or moving some elephants to other locations).  Noting that he found the practice “repugnant,” Leakey said he could nonetheless see the sense of it in certain scenarios: “…I do accept that given the impacts of human induced climate change, and habitat destruction, elephants in and outside of protected areas will become an increasingly serious problem unless some key populations are reduced and maintained at appropriate levels.”  

And then he made a breathtaking recommendation… Breathtaking in the sense of sucking the wind out of one’s lungs, because of everything the idea conveys about the nature of elephant-being(s) and the evil of this “necessity:”

“If culling is deemed necessary, then I would personally like to see the management authority ensure that entire families or bond groups are removed intact to eliminate or minimise the emotional trauma to remaining individuals…”

For years, Gay Bradshaw and others have been warning about the psychological and social impacts of culling (and poaching, and other violent or hostile encounters with humans) on elephant survivors.  Here are a few examples:

Now comes direct evidence of what happens to surviving elephants when culling and “translocations” are done randomly, conveniently, and with no regard to social structures and bonds.  A study published in October in Frontiers in Zoology tested two populations of wild elephants, one that had experienced culling decades earlier (the Pilanesberg elephants), and one that was largely intact and comparatively undisturbed (the Amboseli elephants), to see how their members responded to playbacks of elephant “contact calls” recorded in each population over the years.  The researchers hypothesized that if the elephants were able to discriminate important social cues (indicating age, dominance, and familiarity) in the calls, they would respond accordingly – acting relatively relaxed when the calls signaled low threat (young or familiar elephants), and showing defensive behaviors and heightened attention when the calls signaled a potential threat (older or unfamiliar elephants).

The Pilanesberg group – the group that had experienced traumatic culling – showed no indication that they could discriminate these calls or respond appropriately.

This is a big, sad deal.  In an interview here, the authors explain: “These results highlight for the first time how traumatic experiences have the potential to disrupt the cognitive abilities and social functioning of elephants in the long-term, with direct implications for population integrity. Furthermore, they provide key insights into the likely impacts of trauma on other long-lived social species including primates and cetaceans both in the wild and captivity.”

The effect of culling is twofold: (1) the initial trauma has a lasting psychological impact, and (2) younger group members lose the opportunity to interact with and learn from older members that could – as the authors point out in the study – “act as appropriate role models or repositories of knowledge” (p2) and are comparatively socially unmoored.

Some argue that culling (or translocations, when that is feasible) will remain necessary (and even morally justified) in situations where an immediate solution to crowding, aggression, and habitat destruction is required.  But contraception is vastly more humane, and proven effective in the longer run.

Of course, the administration of contraception raises a different ethical question.  Should wild animals be treated as having a kind of autonomy – in the form of freedom from human manipulation?  And if so, do we owe some kind of restitution when we interfere with that autonomy?  It’s a legitimate question for some ethicists.  Imagine living in the kind of society that would ask it, let alone answer it in favor of the elephants!

(For some good, fact-based information on “managing” wild elephant populations, read the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s beautifully illustrated brochure, “Elephants: Facts & Fables.”)

Please sign this petition


Photo by Andrew Winn; used under creative commons license.

Today, the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, seems a good day to ask you to head over to the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and sign their petition to stop the installation of wind turbines in the Lake Erie Marsh Region, a Globally Important Bird Area for breeding bald eagles, raptors, migrating waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds.  There should be a lot more signatures on that petition!  Put it on your Facebook page, “tweet” it, forward it…  Read what Ken Kaufmann had to say about this ill-advised, poorly planned, inadequately scoped project on his blog several years ago:

The stopover habitat in northwest Ohio is like a major airport for migrating birds, like the world’s busiest airports rolled into one – except that these vast numbers of birds are mostly landing or taking off in the dim light of dusk or pre-dawn, when visibility is at its poorest.  A badly placed turbine adjacent to such a zone could be smashing birds out of the air by the thousands.

I am a big fan of wind energy done right.  In the words of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, “Climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife,” and renewable energy is essential to addressing the problem.  But one need only look at the bird-killing record of the Altamount Pass installation in California to see how much location matters when placing wind turbines.  The installations around the Lake Erie shoreline are being rushed in order to take advantage of government “green energy” incentives (to make those incentives even more enticing, the Obama administration recently extended wind companies’ “license to kill” bald eagles from 5 years without penalty, to 30 years – 30 years during which wind energy companies can kill bald eagles without any motivation to develop technologies that might reduce bird mortality).  They are being installed in the worst possible location:

Stopover habitat changes the entire equation because birds are dropping in and taking off in these areas. In other words, if a commercial jetliner’s cruising altitude is 30,000 feet, you still wouldn’t put wind turbines at the end of the runway. Moreover, the birds are generally arriving and departing during predawn or dusk, when visibility is poor and obstacles present the greatest threat.

The project is already underway.  Please sign the petition to stop further installations!

Quick! Another good matching gift opportunity!

ImageI’m quite helpless when it comes to distinguishing the age or sex of a brown pelican, but that fine indeterminate pelican-being over there to the right, sporting the bright blue “K-15” leg band, was hanging out on the pier in Pacifica last winter when I wandered past with my camera.  The bright blue leg band means “K-15” was once a patient of  International Bird Rescue (and yes, I let them know where he/she was spotted!).  IBR is kept far too busy caring for seabirds that have been incapacitated by oil spills or leaks, sickened by algal blooms, injured by fishing gear, or malnourished by food shortages.  Sadly, they’re likely to have their hands full of starving seabirds again this year, given the crash in the west coast sardine population.  

Today, your donation to IBR’s rescue, rehabilitation, and research efforts will be doubled by an anonymous donor.  So, please,  go give!

(You can also help them when you make Amazon purchases through this link.)


Help for the birding brain

From left to right: Peterson's Guide, Waite's Birds of America, and Audubon.

From left to right: Peterson’s Guide, Waite’s Birds of America, and Audubon.

I’ve got four bird identification apps spread between my iPad and iPhone.  I purchased the Peterson app shortly after it was introduced and long before the price was cut by two-thirds (not that I’m bitter about that).  Since then, I’ve added iBird Pro, Waite’s Birds of America, and Audubon’s bird app.  Each has its strengths and appeals, and I will occasionally refer to all four to answer an identification question (yes, I often need that much help).  But I’m completely dazzled by search features on Waite’s and Audubon’s apps that let you narrow the search list to birds found immediately around you – wherever you are standing.  Waite’s new feature is in fact called “Birds Around Me,” and it uses GPS and the date to serve up a list of the likely birds in the region.  Audubon goes a step further and links to e-bird data to show what birds have been recently reported in the vicinity.  Of course, the usefulness of that information depends on how many diligent e-birders are in your vicinity, but the Bay Area is thick with ’em.


I still love my (inordinate number of) old-fashioned bird books, but the ability to quickly narrow the universe, line up images of birds with similar markings, and listen to recordings of their calls (quietly!) is making it much more difficult for me to “identify” birds that don’t actually occur here. 😉