If it's alive and it lives wild, it's wildlife.

Kevin J. Cook                                              Kevin@WildlifeWindow.com

A Naturalist’s Blog

Number 3: 20 October 2009

    Our eyes met for a long while, then we each returned to our own affairs, I following a water shrew that I might feed my natural history curiosity, the Coyote sniffing out voles that he might feed his belly. Neither of us bothered the other though we kept track of where each other was.
    I watched my first coyote 37 years ago and have been watching them ever since. Through all those moments and glimpses, minutes and hours, Coyotes have taught me much about humanity; and what I have learned reduces down to one simple realization: we got it backwards.
    Somewhere, somehow, sometime, we got life backwards.
    Perhaps it began with the name.
    Etymologically, the word "coyote" has a colorful history involving no fewer than four spellings in three languages before it came into popular American usage about 1830. By all the principles of phonetics and orthography comprising the grammar that governs how we use our language, this should be a two-syllable word with neither long "i" nor long "e" sounds. It should either be pronounced "coy-ote" rhyming with "boy" and "oat" with a silent "e" or be spelled differently.
    Spelling and pronunciation problems foreshadow endless disagreement about this animal and its relentless intrusion into the human world. Wherever we go, there it is.
    Once the archetypal foe of rural life, scourge of ranching and farming, the Coyote has seemingly shifted its nefarious ways to threaten the safety of life in the city.
    Or so claim the newscasters hungry enough for the story but not hungry enough for the facts. Listen long enough and you can become convinced no woman or child, cat or dog is safe from the aggression of Coyotes.
    Never mind reality.
    If you raise livestock in Coyote country, you will have Coyotes among your livestock. If you build your house on the fringes of a city or in a small rural community, you will see Coyotes. If you levy a sales tax to generate revenue to buy undeveloped land to protect as urban natural areas, you will attract Coyotes. And if you walk through such natural areas, you will encounter Coyotes.
    Rhetorically asking, exactly where is it permissible for a Coyote to live? Rhetorically answering, anywhere but here, wherever here is.
    Wherever they go, there we are.
    We got life backwards. And the Coyote is the allegory that illuminates this unhealthy reversal that formidably dominos through our culture.
    Instead of teaching Coyotes to be afraid of people, we teach people to be afraid of Coyotes; and in like manner instead of teaching strangers to be afraid of hurting our children, we teach our children to be afraid of strangers. Backwards.
    Instead of keeping fearful people out of urban natural areas where they might encounter a Coyote, we accommodate the timid by sanitizing the natural areas by killing the Coyotes.
    And the allegory elaborates in all directions from here.
    Some people believe you should not defend yourself against a bully but rather allow the rule of law to protect you. Rule of law. Rules. Like those that we use to govern our speech and writing, rules that we capriciously enforce or disregard according to common misperception?
    If you can explain how our rules of phonetics, orthography and grammar allow "coyote" to be acceptably pronounced "kie-OH-tee," I will gladly listen.
    If not the name, perhaps you can explain the other Coyote problems.
    When we teach a 150-pound person to be afraid of a 30-pound Coyote, when we establish natural areas then selectively eradicate species that frighten people who have been taught to be fearful — when these things coalesce — we have politically institutionalized biological illiteracy.
    By what tortured logic can one defend the notion that resolving conflicts between wildlife and people based on a public policy grounded in biological illiteracy is acceptable?
    Killing Coyotes for being Coyotes is not so very different than punishing children for being children. The outcome is radically different, but the underlying motivation is the same: flawed reasoning. Poor thinking leads to inappropriate actions that produce unacceptable outcomes.
    Perhaps I just hear that different drummer Thoreau warned us about, but I think rules of language matter, that strangers should be afraid to hurt my children, that people who fear Coyotes should stay out of natural areas. But mostly, I think we should reverse the backwards thinking and get life moving forward.
    In the meantime, I have "kiotes" to watch.




Number 2: 25 March 2008

      Dog owners enjoy giving snack treats to their dogs almost as much as the dogs enjoy getting them.  Perhaps you are a dog owner and know this particular warm-fuzzy feeling.
      Well, you should also know something else.  When you buy those little Snausages that are yellowish outside and pinkish red inside as if to imitate a little sausage in a bun, or when you buy those biscuits that are color-coded red for meat, yellow for cheese, green for vegetable, and brown for bone meal, you are buying those Snausages and biscuits for yourself not for your dog.
Your dog is functionally color blind.  So is mine.  All dogs are functionally color blind.  So are all their relatives in the entire canine family: Gray Wolf, Coyote, Red Fox.  Anatomy of the canid eye favors acuity, particularly in low or dim light, over color perception.  Simply put, a dog probably has some awareness of certain blues and yellows but is clueless about reds and greens.
Your dog might know one biscuit from another by taste or texture or by some subtle variation of blue or gray, but it does not know a red from a green biscuit.
This became particularly relevant when an animal control officer in Boulder fined a woman $1,000 for having dyed her dog pink.
I do not know the woman, I do not know the dog, and I do not know the person who issued the fine.  I do know a few details from various news reports.
The woman dyed her white dog pink using beet juice.
I also know a few details based on being a dog owner for 50 years, having an academic background in biology, chemistry, and wildlife biology, professional contacts in the field of veterinary pathology, two years of working in a zoo, and 34 years as a practicing naturalist.
Specifically, that dog has no idea what color it is, none of the other dogs that see it knows what color it is, and beets are a primary ingredient of many dog foods, especially those formulated for low-protein diets recommended for older dogs and dogs with kidney disease.
This is not a wild animal that has had its ability to survive compromised; this is a pet that survives off the largesse of a person and is used to champion a medical cause.
The offense in this case was not against the dog but against the dog owner.  This dog owner was penalized not from a position of biological scholarship but rather from a position of biological illiteracy magnified by undisciplined emotions.
This might be worth cogitating as you feed color-coded snacks to your color-blind dog.

Number 1: 2 March 2008

Dearest of all treasures is the mind. Yours. Mine. His. Hers. A healthy mind and the freedom to use it outmeasure the wealth of all gold and silver, all rubies and diamonds. And nothing sparkles more brilliantly than the twin caveats to this appraisal: a healthy mind and the freedom to use it.
Our wildlife needs this of us. But things got complicated from the beginning.
    The human propensity for thinking and for exchanging thoughts became seminal to the founding of our nation. Our founders exercised freedom to communicate when they denied American fealty to the United Kingdom, when they composed documents that defined the character of American governance, when they set in motion a lifestyle never before seen on this world. So crucial was this notion of communication that it became the substance of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
"Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..."
Powerful idea this. But free speech spawns a litter of corollaries.
A person who has the right to speak his mind likewise has the right to form his own opinions. Thus we have birthed and weaned a nation on the axiomatic – if not cosmic – truth that everyone has a right to form and to express his or her own opinion. So, what about the unintended consequences of acceding to this notion of everyone having an opinion? What if someone else does not like your opinion and tries to elevate his own opinion by stepping atop yours?
For this we have meetings at which people we elect to represent our interests must listen to us give voice to our opinions. But what makes an opinion worth forming, worth expressing, worth heeding?
We so dearly treasure the freedom of our minds that we go to extraordinary lengths to train, to cultivate, and to discipline it. From birth onward we engage a relentless pursuit of teaching children to discern: dog from cat, ball from block, red from green, hot from cold, right from wrong, liberal from conservative, believer from nonbeliever. We formalize the training in mandated education from childhood through adolescence bracketed by voluntary preschool and college plus extracurricular programs beyond listing.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic, and all their progeny, become the consuming focus of training the healthy mind. And somewhere along the way we season the academics with a sprinkle of Robert Fulghum: "Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours...."
His are the brilliant desiderata of every person’s formative years. And yet, without detracting one bit of their brilliance, they alone are not enough.
For all the effort we devote to training the intellect, we dedicate an equivalent amount of noneffort to training healthy emotions. For productive, disciplined emotions, every person must labor on his or her own. As a consequence, people grow up, moving from childhood to adulthood, with even more disparate emotional views of the world than intellectual views, mainly because they do not bother to train their emotions. They just don’t do it.
Hold this thought for one more point.
The collective body of human knowledge is so enormous that no one person can master it all. A person may go through 13 years of public school, four years of college for a baccalaureate degree, three more years for a master’s degree, and four more years for a doctoral degree and achieve due recognition as a scholar. But in these 24 years that scholarly person may take no more than one year of biology classwork and that at the high school level. This person may enter the working world and exert considerable influence over commerce, education, politics, resource management, law, or governance.
Thus, a biologically illiterate scholar may be the final voice, the crucial vote, in an issue of preserving an ancient forest or an endangered species. And this person’s job may include listening to other biologically illiterate people as they express cherished opinions based on undisciplined emotions rather than on trained intellect. The fallback position is almost always a matter of "common sense."
Everyone understands common sense. It’s what you know to be true despite a profound lack of supporting knowledge. If you cannot use knowledge to explain your opinion, you simply assert that it’s just good old fashioned common sense.
You know. Common sense. It’s been around for a long time.
Common sense long held that the world was flat, that the Sun revolved around the Earth, that sin and wickedness caused plague, that foul odors caused cholera, that household garbage produced flies, roaches, mice, and rats. Every explanation was based on common sense, and every explanation was wrong. Completely, utterly wrong.
But these were the issues of yesterday. Today, we have a different set.
Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park; Meadow Jumping-Mice on the plains; beetles in our Lodgepole Pine forests; endemic fishes in the Yampa River; Gray Wolves in Colorado; pit bulls in the neighborhood; eradicating or preserving steppe-squirrels; mosquito control; blue-grass lawns; birdfeeding; walking off trail in natural areas; controlling weeds; deciding what is and is not a "weed"; and a thousand other things.
Correcting yesterday’s common sense beliefs required daring thinkers who could pluck truth from the nonsense. One such thinker was John Snow, who looked at the facts and defied common sense by associating cholera with tainted water rather than foul air. For today’s wildlife issues, we still need, allegorically, John Snows to take the handles off the water pumps; such thinkers need the freedom to form meaningful opinions and to communicate those opinions.
But not everyone is a John Snow even though everyone has an opinion.
Ironically, Congress may not impose restrictions on speaking one’s mind; but we the people abridge our own freedom to have an opinion and to express it. We do so in a nexus of ways. We stop learning as if no new knowledge is ever acquired. We do not train our emotions with the same rigor as we train our intellects. We allow ourselves to think with these undisciplined emotions. We elect biologically illiterate people to public office and expect them to make intelligent decisions based on common sense.
Such a nexus sabotages what we value most.
Of all our treasures we hold most dear our minds: the freedom to think our own thoughts and the freedom to express those thoughts. How tragic that we betray our own values by expending so much energy to express opinions based on untrained, undisciplined emotions rather than on trained and disciplined intellect!
This tragedy profoundly influences our living world.
Biologically illiterate people and people with undisciplined emotions and inadequate scholarship will make the decisions about today’s wildlife issues. Yes, biologists will offer advice; the decisions, however, are inevitably made by those who cannot pass a high school biology test.
In all matters of wildlife conflict, common sense will prevail.
An opinion that is worth having and worth sharing, an opinion that is worth listening to, an opinion that is worth using in decisions about how people interact with the rest of the living world – such an opinion is worth working for. An opinion of merit – an opinion that honors the spirit of freedom of speech – involves acquiring knowledge, eschewing "common sense," reflecting long and hard, flexing when new knowledge changes circumstances, and disciplining the emotions so that they are trustworthy and meaningful.
Intellect is only half the human mystique; emotion is the other half. The best opinion about our living world is the opinion that draws upon both in appropriate measure.
And what would those appropriate measures be?
That’s what you can expect here: a naturalist’s ruminations on timely issues that involve some element of biological literacy. I’ll present the issue, the knowledge, the emotion, the common sense. You must then provide your own opinion.


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