Helplessly watching the destruction

One of the enjoyable things we did on our recent vacation was to visit the San Diego Zoo, which is really a most impressive place that I can recommend to all those who find themselves in that neck of the woods. The Zoo covers 100 acres and has thousands of plants and animals from all over the world.

At each animal station, in addition to identifying the animals in the exhibit, the signs also tell how far along any given animal is on the road to extinction and what the causes of extinction are. Impressively for those of us here in America, most of the animals closest to extinction got there, not because of global warming or because of our lust for teak or mahogany, but because of cultural norms in the animals’ native habitats, norms over which we have no control. To put it plainly, they are being hunted to extinction by people who like to eat them or wear them at the local level. This is true for animals in Africa, the Philippines, and various places in Asia.

In terms of animal survival, the only thing we can do is convince indigenous populations that their habits are destroying the animals around them. Failing that, our only other option is to collect those animals and place them in zoos, so that their survival is ensured someplace, if not in their places of origin.

Incidentally, on the subject of preservation, one of the things I liked about the zoo was the fact that the endangerment message, while omnipresent, was not overboard. The zoo acknowledges that humans have to live. So, rather than advocating a return to a pre-industrial world with a limited number of human inhabitants, the zoo simply encourages good stewardship. It advises people to lessen their beef eating, since that requires a lot of water; to recycle aluminum, since aluminum production is apparently responsible for a lot of rain forest destruction; and to think twice about decorative goods made from exotic animals. In other words, my two favorite concepts — (1) waste not, want not and (2) avoid ostentation.

(And, by the way, the message about rain forests seems to be reaching some source countries, since Brazil is boasting that its rain forest destruction is slowing.)

UPDATEThis sweet little guy is a perfect example of the point I’m making in my post.

Anti-evolutionary thought

We were in some nature preserves on our vacation.  In each place, on every informational placard, at least half of the material presented was about the fact that this plant or that animal is going extinct.  Other species are moving in and destroying the whatever it is.  We must stop it!

It all makes for very depressing reading and its typical of any natural history place I’ve been anywhere in the world.  I’ve also noticed that I’m not the only one who has learned to bypass these signs because of their relentless proselytizing.  I miss out on a lot of good information, but at least I’m not consistently banged over the head by the fact that something is losing the battle to something else.

It occurred to me on this last trip, though, that there is something anti-evolutionary about this whole “freeze this species in time” approach to things.  The whole concept of evolution is about change.  It holds that nothing is static, but that the natural world is constantly facing challenges and either adapting or dying.  Some challenges ought not to occur, and do represent the worst type of human intervention.  For example, the hunting to extinction of the gentle Dodo bird was a dreadful thing to happen.  I also have a very hard time finding any excuse whatsoever for the animals in Africa that are being hunted to extinction to satisfy the insatiable desire for aphrodisiacs in some parts of Asia.

Other challenges to a species’ survival — at least in its original form — are man made, but I doubt that many would claim they ought to be undone.  If anyone needs reminding, dogs, cows, pigs, sheep, goats and horses were not originally domesticated.  They became domesticated because humans deliberately interfered with their development, winnowing out the “bad” ones that did not suit human needs so that the only ones left were the useful, helpful and very comforting animals that are an integral part of most human life on earth — and have been for thousands of years.

And then there are those natural challenges:  climate change, which has been occurring for millenia, not just since the industrial revolution; volcanoes, whether creative or destructive; natural disasters, such as floods or tornadoes or earthquakes; etc.  I won’t enumerate them all.  It’s sufficient to note that nature changes without any input from us, the humans on this earth.

My sense is that, at all these national parks, and zoos, and natural history museums, the curators make no distinction whatsoever between the different engines of change that can affect the wildlife (plant or animal) under their care.  In their view all change is bad.  But that can’t be right.  Without change, we’d all still be single cell creatures living in a vast shadowing ocean.  There has to be change, and the parks, zoos and other places would do better, and make themselves more interesting, if they would acknowledge that fact.

A PETA moment in San Francisco

This post doesn’t actually have anything to do with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but it falls in the genre of people elevating animals over humans — hence the post title.

If you’re at all familiar with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, you know that it is an extremely urban park.  It’s a strip of green framed north and south and east by acres and acres of residential buildings, with a little more housing and the Pacific Ocean at the extreme west end.  It has a wonderful museum, will soon have a remodeled Academy of Sciences, an Arboretum, and a Japanese Tea Garden, a windmill, a rose garden, and at least two playgrounds.  Children are very welcome there.

The other day, a woman was walking four dogs — two big, two small — when two coyotes suddenly went after her little dogs.  Fortunately, the big dogs chased them off.  She reported the incident, and Animal Control officials went on the hunt.  They eventually spotted the two coyotes and, when the animals appeared to be guarding turf, shot them.  I think that’s a good thing.  I’m sorry for the coyotes, but the fact is that you cannot have a pair of wild, aggressive, carnivorous animals wandering around in a park that caters to small children and that welcomes people with domestic dogs.  This being San Francisco, of course, others aren’t applauding the park services’ appropriate actions:

Authorities defended their decision to shoot and kill two coyotes in Golden Gate Park even as the action triggered a lively debate Monday between those advocating public safety and those arguing the coyotes posed no real danger, or should have been relocated.

Carl Friedman, director of the city Department of Animal Care and Control, expressed regret at the outcome but said there was little choice, given the threat to humans and pets, the odd behavior of the coyotes and the difficulty of trapping and relocating them.

“It was really one of the most difficult and sad weekends we’ve had,” Friedman said. “We were really hoping people would stay away from them and the animals wouldn’t cause any problems, and we could live peacefully together.”

Officials from the state’s Department of Fish and Game decided to shoot the male and female coyotes Sunday night after the animals attacked a pair of large dogs on leashes Saturday, causing one of them minor injuries, and then showed up again Sunday, following a dog walker in the park. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials were brought in to carry out the killings.

The demise of the San Francisco pair fueled heated reaction on both sides of the issue.

“I’m more afraid of the vagrants in the park than the coyotes,” said one of dozens of comments posted to, The Chronicle’s Web site, Monday.

Another wrote: “We don’t need coyotes in Golden Gate Park ready to attack some poor little leashed dog … or, God forbid, a toddler too close to their lair. Get serious, folks … coyotes are scavengers and don’t belong in the city.”

Most wildlife experts sided with the decision to kill the coyotes.



SFGate readers forcefully responded to the news that two coyotes believed to have attacked a pair of leashed dogs in Golden Gate Park on Saturday had been shot and killed by officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some of their comments are excerpted below; their authors granted permission to The Chronicle to use their names. To see more comments on this topic, go here.

Andrew Walker, San Francisco

Outrageous. I’ve run across these coyotes in the park, they are very timid around humans, as are all coyotes. They wouldn’t attack unless provoked or protecting young. Somehow I doubt the dog that fought with the coyote was leashed. I worry more about the humans I come across than the coyotes. And I worry even more about the Feds’ shoot first, shoot last, shoot everything policy.

Christine Quiroz, San Francisco

People suck, and they are trigger happy. There was no need to shoot them. I run in that park almost daily with my dog … if she had been attacked, it is part of nature. A simple warning to avoid the area would have been best. I have encountered people in that park that are much more dangerous than a coyote. Ugh, this just pisses me off. Seems that people won’t be happy until every other creature is wiped off the planet or caged up in a zoo.

Rita Miller, San Francisco

I hate to agree with the authorities on this one — because I love coyotes and all wildlife and to kill these wonderful animals is a tragedy. But coyotes are normally shy, reclusive animals. If you happen to see one, you’re most likely to see the tip of the tail disappearing through the brush. These coyotes were different. Either there was something seriously wrong with them physically — disease or injury, perhaps — or they’d gotten so used to the presence of man and dogs in their territory, they lost their fear entirely. A normal coyote won’t ever attack something bigger than itself — especially not a bigger dog with a human nearby. There was something wrong with these coyotes and, perhaps, the only answer to keep them from attacking more pets or even a small child was to shoot them. Relocation doesn’t work very well with coyotes because they have excellent memories and directional ability. They can always find their way back to the home turf they’ve established.

Russell Mondy, Oakland

Did they even “try” to catch them? If they did not, there is no excuse for this brutality.

Jennifer Golick, Pope Valley

I think I heard it said once (by Gandhi?) that you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals. Sad commentary on S.F. and our society at large when we are so quick to end a life that is just as entitled to open space as humans are. I’m sorry the woman’s dogs got hurt and that she was frightened, but isn’t jumping to extermination as the first resort somewhat reactive and lacking in further exploration of the options?

Leake Little, San Francisco

Seems like they could have tried to understand the situation first, like the population size, its territory, distribution, feeding habits, etc. before simply exterminating two random animals. For instance, maybe brush could have been cut or cleared to make these animals less comfortable with that part of the park. We have had the same issue here in the Presidio recently, and over the course of the past couple of months but our encounters did not result in removing the animals. A reputable wildlife biologist who specializes in dog/coyote interaction suggests moving things around, clearing, and creating more human activity in public areas where coyotes become more territorial with people and dogs, in particular. He especially recommends against culling the mature females since all young females will begin to mate when the older, more dominant female is removed. He recommends culling the pups instead, and only where control is necessary. This action was misguided.

Karen Nichols, Castro Valley

I’m furious that after saying they would take time to assess the situation, they killed the coyotes (especially if they were protecting their young). How long did they assess the situation — all of 3 minutes before they locked and loaded? Was it impossible to tranquilize and relocate them? Coyotes are skittish and given the option, will leave alone if left alone (unless they’re protecting offspring). Advising dog walkers to stay out of the area and recommend that nearby residents keep pets inside should have been sufficient. Coyotes do not attack people without provocation — this is not a situation where the populace was in imminent danger. I sympathize with those whose dogs were attacked, but future attacks could have been avoided easily enough.

Peter Coyote, Mill Valley

Without demonizing Fish and Game personnel, readers should know that more than 22 million coyotes have been poisoned, gassed, shot, and strangled with snares by F&G trappers since the 1920s. The result has been to spread them all over the United States from their original, limited Western range. It’s not that the coyotes were shot, but that they were shot as a first resort that makes the story another example of the failure of humans to respect the other species with whom we share the planet. Had every other remedy been attempted, had there been other attacks, then it might have been necessary to remove them. I might also add that F&G are not stupid. Had the mother been lactating and had there been pups, the odds are very good that we would never have heard a word of it. I mention this only because lots of experience with these critters leads me to believe that there was some extraordinary reason they attacked two large dogs.

By the way, the last commenter is probably actor Peter Coyote, a Marin resident.

After you’ve read all of the above, let me repeat a key element in my post:  Golden Gate Park is a mecca for families with small children.  Golden Park is not a nature area, but is a spot of urban green that was developed more than a hundred years ago for the use and enjoyment of San Francisco’s human residents.  People who would risk the lives of children to protect two coyotes have their values wrong, wrong, wrong.

Saintly or silly unto death?

A man who was both a hero and an obviously fine human being died a tragic death in San Francisco the other day. However, I also wonder if it wasn’t something of a pointless death:

Michael James Keenan, who risked his life once before to save a stranger from drowning in the bay, died Monday at St. Francis Memorial Hospital of complications from burns he suffered while rescuing a friend’s dog from a fire.

Mr. Keenan turned 44 in March while being treated at San Francisco General Hospital. He was moved to St. Francis for continuing care of burns he had sustained over 80 percent of his body in the Feb. 6 house fire on Russian Hill.

An artist and sometime carpenter and fashion designer, Mr. Keenan grew up in Maine but spent most of the past 20 years on the West Coast. He started a hip clothing line with friends that honored his home state, called Maine-iacs, featuring durable designs and vibrant colors.

“He was the kind of guy who would walk into any pub and walk out with 15 friends,” said Owen Kelly, who knew Mr. Keenan since childhood.

In 2001, Mr. Keenan saw a car drive into the bay near the St. Francis Yacht Club. He jumped into the water, broke out a window with a heavy wrench and managed to pull a woman to safety. Her husband drowned.

“He will always be my hero for life,” the rescued woman, Heather Rosnow-Laarif, said Monday.

Mr. Keenan had been house sitting for a friend on Bonita Street, waiting for renovations to be completed on his own apartment, when the early morning blaze broke out. He made it out of the townhouse safely before realizing the dog was still inside.

Mr. Keenan was a lifelong dog lover. He later told a longtime friend, Frank Hsieh, that he had thought he could get the dog quickly, but found he had to search a while before finding the 10-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Bobby, cowering under a bed.

Clearly, Keenan was a truly altruistic man, one who had no problem placing himself at risk to save others. People like that are admirable, and humans definitely need that type of man in the gene pool. But doesn’t there need to be some balance and common sense along with that innate altruism? I’m absolutely crazy about dogs, I truly am (to the point where I have a dog in my lap as I write this), but I question the wisdom of someone taking what proved to be a deadly risk to rescue a dog. As the above quotation shows, when he went in, he thought the risk would be minimal but, even when that proved untrue, he didn’t pull back. Why not? Was he bad at measuring risk? Stubborn? Or did he accord a dog’s life equal value to a human’s life?

If it’s the latter, that’s quite troubling. No matter how wonderful dogs are — and they are wonderful — they’re not human. To begin with, their lives are measured in a scant percentage of human years. Should I live out my full life, I can expect to have had at least five dogs in my life who lived with me from puppyhood through to old age. Dogs pack a lot of living into their short years but it doesn’t erase the fact that those years are short. For a human in the prime of life to put himself at serious risk for a dog that was already 50% or more of way the through its own life doesn’t make sense to me.

Dogs also don’t have human thought capacities, and that’s no trivial thing. A rich dog life involves eating well; sleeping well; satisfying levels of physical activity; and having a nice pack, whether human or canine. That’s it. There is no room in this life for invention; science; religion; philosophy; poetry; nation-building rich, multi-layered memories; politics; space travel; emotional connections that transcend food and cuddling; or any of the other sophisticated mental and emotional interactions that make up even the most basic human life.

Significantly too, dogs do not have an existential sense. Even as Bobby the dog was crouched under the bed feeling fear, it was almost certainly unaware of imminent death. That’s an overwhelmingly big difference — and certainly the one that enables me to eat meat with impunity. The cow, the chicken and the pig that I routinely consume do not stand around in pasture-land bemoaning the fact that they’ll soon be led to slaughter. Their feelings are limited to their immediate physical sensations, so I try to eat the cow that had room to graze, the chicken who could peck, and the pig who could root, with the hope that each was slaughtered in the most humane way possible.

I’m uncomfortable criticizing the ultimate choice Keenan made, because I wasn’t in the burning house with him as he made it. However, I’m also deeply saddened by the thought that a valuable human being is no longer on this earth because he might have elevated a dog’s life above his own.

I’d be very interested in what any of you have to say on this subject.

UPDATE:  Incidentally, on the subject of fires and the decisions we make, the nine firefighters who died in S.C. did all the right things — based on the information they had, they made the right decisions for the right reasons.  Their deaths are a tragedy, unclouded by logical or moral ambiguity.  I offer my sincere condolences to those they left behind.  Little Bookworm summed it up perfectly:  “That’s really sad.”

Making the world safer

When Dianne Feinstein starts wading in the partisan political waters, she as icky as the next politician. When she puts her head down and does her job, I often like her:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California proposed legislation Friday to crack down on animal rights activists who make threats or commit violence against people engaged in research using animals.

The bill, which the Democrat introduced with Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, would toughen federal criminal penalties for causing physical harm to people or making threats to researchers or their families. It would also boost penalties for causing economic harm to companies or universities engaged in research using animals that are frequently destroyed in the course of lab work.

Proposed penalties in the bill, which is a modification of legislation Inhofe had previously offered, include life in prison for incidents in which someone is killed.

It’s unlikely the measure will reach the Senate floor this year, with just about a month left before Congress expects to recess for the fall campaign.

The killing of animals for research, along with nonlethal practices that activists say amount to animal torture, has spurred some to violence, including an August 2003 bombing outside the Emeryville laboratories of Chiron Corp., another bombing a month later at Shaklee Corp. in Pleasanton, ongoing threats against UCSF researchers and the firebombing this year of the home of a UCLA researcher.

“The deplorable actions of these eco-terrorists threaten to impede important medical progress in California and across the country,” Feinstein said in a statement Friday.

I hope this bill passes.  I strongly believe in treating animals humanely, and have had pets all my life (including a particularly loveable little dog right now), but I still recognize that they’re not people.  The eco-terrorists, who will cheerfully bomb a human being to save a chicken, have such perverse values they need to be reined in.