by Merritt Clifton
Chained to fast-falling hunting license sales, with agency revenue and careers at stake, wildlife managers from Florida to Texas are looking toward modestly rising interest in alligator hunting for the miracle that might save them from a fate worse than death––or at least from having to cater chiefly to non-hunting, non-trapping, non-fishing clientele.
Listed as a federally protected threatened species in 1973, but removed from protection in 1987, alligators are now hunted in seven of the eight states that have alligators.
Over the same years, few other forms of hunting have shown a net increase in participation.
But the 50,000-odd hunting licenses sold or distributed free to property owners, and the somewhat smaller number of alligators they kill, may be of less interest to state wildlife agencies than the largely favorable publicity that attends the killing.
In this context, and in this context almost alone in recent years, much of the public accepts depictions of hunters as courageous dragon-slayers, offering wildlife agencies the chance to burnish the image of hunting generally, in hopes of enticing more people to hunt deer, ducks, doves, and other traditional “game” species.
Media that long ago relegated photos of hunters posing with slain deer and birds to the back pages of sports sections put killings of “record” alligators on page one. In response, wildlife agencies in recent years appear to have generated a record number of media releases about “record” alligator kills.
Relatively few people have countered by pointing out that “record” alligators mostly grew to alleged record size because they were out of harm’s way, basking in the sun and minding their own business.
People are understandably afraid of alligators, because we are in fact on the alligator menu, along with our pets, horses, livestock, and favorite wildlife.
And alligators are expanding their population and range, scaring the bejabbers out of ever more suburbanites when big gators haul out to sun themselves along roadsides.
The normal range of wild North American alligators already extends farther north than at any time since the beginning of European settlement. As global warming continues, it is possible that alligators could even re-colonize Chesapeake Bay, which last was alligator habitat when dinosaurs lounged around Washington D.C.
But hunting alligators, as in hunting any species, is unlikely to have any longterm net effect on population range, density, or distribution. If a habitat supports one alligator, it will support another when the first alligator is killed, and if the alligator who is killed happens to be among the oldest and largest residents of the habitat, that alligator will soon be replaced with the equivalent biomass in young alligators. They will compete for the habitat for a while. Then some will disperse to find new habitat, perhaps becoming problematic in an entirely new location.
Deer, coyotes, geese & pigs
If this sounds like what happened earlier as heavily hunted species including deer, coyotes, nonmigratory Canada geese, and feral pigs came to occupy most of the U.S. at unprecedented density, it should: it is almost exactly the same process.
It is opposite to what happened earlier with beavers in the 17th into the 19th centuries, North American bison in the 19th century, and alligators in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because the destruction of beavers, bison, and alligators in earlier times coincided with wholesale destruction of their habitat.
Beavers, bison, alligators
Even when beavers, bison, and alligators bred rapidly back up to the carrying capacity of their remaining habitat, their habitat was reduced year after year by agricultural development. Said to have been hunted out, beavers were more precisely drained and dammed out; bison were plowed and fenced out; alligators were also drained out.
Before trapping and hunting brought beaver, bison, and alligators close to extinction each had already been squeezed into half or less of the range it had occupied just a century earlier.
What this means is that there really is no public safety or conservation rationale for recreationally hunting alligators. If we truly want to reduce or restrict their numbers, we know very well how to do it, by altering habitat to create barriers to habitat expansion. But if the object is to sell hunting licenses, wildlife agencies also know very well how to make “nuisance” animals proliferate to the point that the public accepts sport hunting.
Meanwhile, also of note is that alligators are able to proliferate and expand their range in part because of the increasing abundance of swamp-dwelling feral pigs. Contrary to mythology that these pigs are distant direct descendants of those brought to Florida by Hernando de Soto nearly 500 years ago, and/or have been translocated by hunters, who have been caught translocating some, most are just the descendants of pigs lost in trucking accidents, between factory farms and slaughter.
Trace the spread of feral pigs on a map and the spread of alligators follows it wherever the habitat allows alligators to swim in warm water.
Of course state wildlife agencies are now also encouraging pig hunting––in the name of extirpating an “invasive” threat. But no one has ever succeeded in extirpating feral pigs from mainland habitat. Killing big boars, who are cannibalistic and major predators of piglets, just accelerates feral pig proliferation.
We also have the technology to stop feral pig proliferation. The use of porcine zona pellucida in animal birth control formulations has been known for more than a decade. USDA Wildlife Services is actually manufacturing drugs based on porcine zona pellucida for birth control use in other species. But we are not seeing serious efforts made to chemically control feral pig populations because pigs, like alligators, offer hope to wildlife agencies funded by hunting license fees that sport hunting can be revived, despite a 30-year decline in participation, and can again fund those agencies’ existence.
Come we now to feral pythons, ostensibly the greatest threat to Floridians’ health and well-being since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
There are just 11 documented cases on record since 1900 of wild pythons killing anyone: seven in the Philippines, two in Indonesia, one each in Burma and Malaysia. But starving escaped captive pythons occasionally kill people, mostly children. An escaped pet African rock python killed brothers Noah and Connor Barthe ages four and six, on the night of August 5, 2013 in Cambelltown, New Brunswick, Canada. An escaped pet albino Burmese python killed 2-year-old Shaiunna Rose Hare in her crib on July 1, 2009 in Sumter County, Florida.
Pythons are bad pets
Such examples make a strong case for reinforcing legislation to prohibit commerce in exotic pets. But the relationship between the abnormal conditions of captivity and risk to humans is important to understand: attacks such as those that killed the Barthe brothers and Hare occur because the pythons are in situations where they simply do not belong. Pythons in captivity are often very dangerous; pythons in the wild rarely take any interest in humans.
Pythons guard the washerwomen
Of note, I had already recorded several fatal attacks by escaped captive pythons when in 1997 I first saw washerwomen in India set up under a tree with a big python in it, with their children playing nearby. Thinking I was about to see a catastrophe, I shouted a warning. They thought I was crazy. They knew all about the python, I learned––that’s why they chose that tree. The python had lived there for years. Because the python was there, the washerwomen knew that they and their children would be safe from leopards, who would not be in the same tree as a python, and from crocodiles.
Predators of crocodilians
Pythons evolved, long before mammals existed, as predators of crocodilians, the order including American alligators. The constricting method of killing used by pythons and anacondas takes advantage of the “death roll” used by crocodilians to drown prey and fend off attackers. Mammals and birds are secondary prey for pythons, who may grab whatever is easily accessible, but mostly do not bother with warm-blooded species, especially if those species are large or quick. Some deer and pigs are eaten by the several thousand feral pythons in Florida, but the 1.3 million to 1.8 million alligators in the Florida swamps are their primary prey. The proper habitat for a python is habitat that supports their prey.
Fear of predators
The expansion of alligator range, and their increasing numbers, ensures that pythons can extend their range too, and can become yet another “big game” species used by wildlife agencies to encourage hunting. As with alligators, human fear of an animal perceived to be among our predators is likely to hush most opposition to python hunting.
Fear of snakes
Human terror of snakes, especially large snakes, can be traced back far beyond Eve’s alleged misadventure in the Garden of Eden to the instinctive response of practically any primate to anything that even looks like a snake.
The entire baboon population of the Emmen Zoo in the Netherlands, for instance, spent days in terror in 1994, 1997, 2007, and in early August 2013 after apparently seeing a snake whom the keepers never actually found.
Primates evolved as prey species. Thus we, as primates, have an intense instinctive fear of predators, relative to the risks from disease and accidents. Yet the risks to humans from disease and accidents are today proportionately millions of times greater than any risk of predation, now that we have made our world mostly free of predators who may prey upon us, other than human criminals.
Monster of God
Two very good books have in recent years explored the influence of our having evolved as a prey species.
Monster of God, by David Quammen (2003) explores the influence upon our concepts of religion of our experience of having been prey. Quammen goes on to explore the influence of the more recent human ascendance as a top predator upon our philosophical approach to wildlife conservation.
Quammen presents a strong circumstantial case that the protohuman concept of God evolved in response to swift and seemingly random predator strikes, as survivors sought to explain why some survived while others were eaten. The concept of sacrifice, Quammen suggests, meaning the deliberate surrender of food or even abandonment of fellow humans to violent death, began as appeasement of predators.
Quammen points out that civilization emerged coincidental with the rise of humans as quasi-apex predators, able at last to do with weapons what natural predators do with tooth and claw. Quammen also devotes a chapter to human fear of crocodilians.
Man the Hunted
Man The Hunted, by Donna Hart & Robert W. Sussman (2005), demonstrates how the sustained challenge of surviving as a prey species, long before we became an apex predator ourselves, has driven the evolution of human thought.
The experience of predation, Hart & Sussman argue, actually shaped human culture. Among the enduring consequences are societal attitudes toward meat, hunting, choices of mates and leaders, choices of pets, which animals become the icons of athletic teams, which animals attract donor support as subjects of appeals from advocacy organizations, and even what humans most often choose to watch on television and read about on the web.
Though we flatter ourselves that we have evolved far beyond our most distant origins, human news and entertainment consumption habits can be traced back at least to the social behavior of the bats and lemurs who were ancestral to monkeys and humans, and probably much farther than that. Nothing rivets our attention more than the hint that we might be eaten, or see someone else being eaten, if only metaphorically.
Thus formed the intellectual framework that continues to govern politics, including the politics of wildlife agencies and the psychology of defending and promoting hunting.
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