Monday, April 30, 2012

Growling Conscience

There is a photo floating around the Internet. A photo taken in Idaho and featuring a wolf caught in a leg trap. As is generally the case with leg traps, the animal is still very much alive, and very much sentient. Snow covers the ground, and in a ten foot circle all around the wolf, the snow is tinged unmistakably with the color of blood.

In the forefront of the photograph is the trapper. He is wearing a grin from ear to ear. His smile indicates that he is clearly proud that the trap he set, here in the chilly wilds of Idaho, has done its job.

But the image seems terribly incongruous, an exercise in polar opposite emotions. Clearly evident joy offset by plainly obvious misery, and what's worse, is that the latter is the reason for the former.

As an avid hunter, I am aware that a successful hunt, speaking in the utilitarian sense, inevitably means that a living creature, with blood coursing hot, will experience pain. What's more, if I have arranged myself in an appropriate place, and if my aim is true, a life will end. If I am targeting birds, sometimes more than one life. This is part of the powerful realism that hunting provides; namely, a stark reminder of what it means to eat meat. I believe very strongly that more meat eaters (people like you, reading this) should experience first hand the taking of a life that you intend to eat.

But as a hunter, my first responsibility is to the animal I seek to harvest. It is up to me to ensure that the task at hand is done quickly, effectively, and with as little suffering as possible. A fast and clean kill is of utmost importance, it is how I define a successful hunt. A shot that seems likely not to kill, but to injure, is not a shot I take. Better to go home empty handed and with a clear conscience, than to go home with thoughts of an animal lost, wantonly wasted, at my own hands.

Trapping is not hunting and trappers are not hunters. But while the means to the end may be different, the fact that when done effectively both hunting and trapping lead to the same end, means that the two activities are linked.

When a goose lands crippled into the decoys, as is sometimes inevitable, an ethical hunter clears his mind of anything but a swift kill. There is no time for photos, for celebrations, for anything, until that animal's suffering has been ended. It should be no different for trapping; the fact that this trapper found the time to snap a photograph, to allow an animal's suffering to go on, at best, a few seconds longer, is unjustifiable.

There is no defense for the existence of this photo. For ethical hunters, we should all pledge to distance ourselves, to shun the company of those who find this behavior acceptable. Whether it be a refusal to hunt with them, or kicking someone out of a club or lease, our conscience should not be asked to tolerate such a direct affront to common decency.

The same standard should be true of trappers. Traps should be checked frequently, and trapped animals should be quickly dispatched. Trappers who fail to abide by these reasonable codes of conduct should be ostracized by the trapping community at large. Yet, that community has, by and large, defended this image, mostly behind the flimsy sham that there is nothing strictly 'illegal' taking place in the photo. But there is a law being broken, a basic tenet of humanity clearly violated.     

You can see a copy of the grisly image here.      

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Farm Divide

In some places, Maryland's Eastern Shore still resembles a Norman Rockwell painting. In just about any Eastern Shore town, if the weather is right, you can still find a kid walking down the street with a fishing pole and a jar of worms; farmers still get together at local coffee shops to talk about corn yields, fertilizer prices, and combine repairs.

But there is a risk in getting too misty-eyed about farms and rural life. There is a danger in thinking that farmers aren't businessmen and women, but are rather museum curators or reenactors; protectors of a pastoral idealism whose sole profit comes in the appreciative smiles of those speeding down scenic rural byways. Unfortunately for everyone involved, aesthetics just don't pay the bills.

It seems obvious that farmers have to make a profit to keep farming. Just like everyone else, farmers have to make a living; but unlike everyone else, farmers have to make that living in an industry that is subject to constantly changing variables; input prices (for things like seed and fertilizer), environmental regulations, market considerations, weather, complex federal farm policies and a variety of pressures from the local communities in which they must live and function. It is often said that on any given day, a farmer has to be an economist, a mechanic, a chemist, a veterinarian, an accountant, a meteorologist, a biologist and a lawyer. And then somehow find time to farm. Farming in 2012 ain't for the faint of heart.

As a group, farmers are often placed in a starring role in the tug of war over the future of the Chesapeake Bay. This presents environmentalists with a Catch-22 they don't like to talk much about; namely, their desire to preserve farmland on the one hand, and a desire for cleaner water on the other. Are these mutually exclusive goals? Absolutely not. Should we expect farmers to follow environmental laws, and be subject to suitable punishment if they do not follow those laws? Certainly.

But if the relationship between environmentalists and farmers is permanently poisoned, to the point where no farmer trusts anyone who works for an environmental organization, it is likely that both keeping farmers on the land AND enhancing water quality will become more difficult. Environmentalists can often be prone to finger-wagging self-righteousness, something farmers find especially revolting. Often, environmental groups will use the same organizing techniques for farmers and rural stakeholders as they use for other target audiences; many have learned this is a surefire recipe for disaster and mistrust

Most conservation organizations have learned (some the hard way) that sending a fresh-from-college social do-gooder to a Farm Bureau meeting, or any other place where farmers tend to congregate isn't likely to meet with success. So now many have transitioned to sending slightly older social do-gooders out to do the same job, only now they do it in what might be called a rural uniform. Carhartt pants, dirty ball cap, boots. But they risk quick exposure the first time they are asked a question about fertilizer application rates or their opinion on air seeders versus seed drills.

The most effective groups have actually put farmers on the payroll; as advisors, organizers, and in some cases, spokespeople. These highly-credible messengers have an inherent rapport, and a much easier time building trust, with those with whom they seek to communicate. But as environmental groups writ large continue to take positions that are easily portrayed as anti-farm, anti-farming, and anti-farmer, conservation groups of all kinds will find that farmers not only aren't interested in coming to work for them, but aren't interested in working with them, either.