“Some parrots are legale but
why cage exotic birds at all?”

—Chris Wille, NAS

Don’t ask me, was my first thought. The last parrot I owned was—I swear—killed 10 years ago by an ex-friend who, with Joseph Krutch, believed that hunting was the ultimate evil. He left the bird loose in a room with my cats. Still, the larger implications of the editorial “Wildlife Caught in Miami Vice” (in NAS, the “News-Journal” of the National Audubon Society, April ’86) continue to bother me.

On the surface, the editorial looks like a conventional piece of modern conservation wisdom. These days, the idea that you shouldn’t “use” endangered species seems self-evident. Once this is accepted as a given, the notion that you probably shouldn’t own animals, in whole or in part, begins to make sense at least to the unreflective. But has this always been so?

I am a member of several conservation groups. I write about animals, nature, and sport for my living. For nearly 20 years I have given my time to many and varied unselfish nature-oriented causes. As far as animals and wildlife and such go, I’ve always considered myself one of the good guys, as well as fairly normal, at least for somebody more interested in ecosystems and the identity of that sandpiper that just flew by than in baseball.

Lately, some of my allies in the conservation trenches have been giving me funny looks, especially some of the more recent volunteers. The whole matter has got to the point where I feel that not only hunters (already second-class citizens in some circles, despite their unarguable contributions to conservation) but even naturalists of the traditional kind are looked upon with the scorn previously reserved for those who build shopping malls in pristine habitats. There is something unhealthy going on here, something so fundamental that a refusal to face it may permanently cripple conservation as we know it. A kind of Puritanism is abroad in the land that seems to reject any involvement with nature more intimate than through the TV set. For those of us who do not believe that “Nature is made possible by your local Public Television Station” (as they tell us here), this could bring on a disaster of the soul.

Let’s start with this matter of owning animals, if only because it’s such an obvious part of my life. My house is always full of inquilines. First, I have five dogs. Most people don’t object to that—yet—at least since they stopped putting mustangs in cans. Although, since I breed dogs, not one is spayed or neutered, which is becoming a sin in some quarters. Next: I, like Darwin, keep a loft of pigeons. They are neither friends, exactly, nor practical; I don’t need them. They are an at-home demo of natural selection, an addition of diversity to my oikos. Like the dogs, they are domestic, though some are rare breeds of endangered gene pools from Moorish Spain, kept only by me and one other fancier in the States. No huge problem here except—let me whisper it—that I have been known to eat individuals of the commoner kinds. I don’t really like killing animals that I know personally; humans form kinship bonds with anything that lives in their homes at their invitation, even fish. But their numbers increase, and—let me whisper even lower—I like the taste of pigeon.

A cat. Everyone, even vegetarians, keeps cats, maybe because they so obviously dominate the symbiosis.

A hawk. Oh-oh. A falcon, worse still. A hunting falcon—a domestic-bred hybrid falcon, half peregrine. A half-endangered species, genetic contamination, hunting, probably dominance and sadism. Falconry, surely a perversion morally equivalent to Nazism. Didn’t Goering keep hawks?

My conscience alerted, I can see more evidence of a warped personality. Skulls, bones, feathers from my prey and the hawk’s. The skulls of a horse, a sheep, a pig, a pronghorn. A for-the-moment-empty terrarium, with a snake stick leaning against it. A butterfly net, pointing to boxes full of (dead!) insects. And there’s worse to come. Opened, the freezer reveals wrapped packages of whitetailed deer, wild pig, and Gambel’s quail. How can a person with wildlife art on his walls and a room full of natural history books sink so low? Very easily, I’m afraid. I’m what’s always been called a naturalist.

All through the 19th century, and well into the 1950’s when I grew up, my habits were seen by most as eccentric but scarcely evil. Hunters, biologists, zoo keepers, and animal breeders were united in what Harvard’s E.O. Wilson called “biophilia”—a fascination with nonhuman living things that makes a person realize that there is more to life than Homo sapiens. Wilson says: “We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted.” But Wilson, the author of the best book to date on the roots of the conservation impulse, is hardly an advocate of animal liberation or hands-off practices. He is a field entomologist, an old-fashioned naturalist, a celebrant of Ortega y Gasset and the hunter’s ethic, who looks beyond the compiling of knowledge to a higher synthesis where “the excitement of the scientist’s search for the true nature of the species recedes, to be replaced in part by the more enduring responses of the hunter and poet.” He has written (in Biophilia, Harvard University Press) the best essay to date on the conservation ethic and why it exists.

How did he get there?

When I read Wilson’s book, one of the things that impressed me most strongly was how much alike our childhoods were, despite differences in age and geography. He grew up in the Florida Panhandle in the 30’s, “Like most boys in that part of the country set loose to roam the woods I enjoyed hunting and fishing and made no clear distinction between these activities and life at large. But I also cherished natural history for its own sake and decided very early to become a biologist.”

I was born after World War II in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a blue-collar neighborhood of Boston that features narrow streets lined with three-decker wooden houses. My earliest memories are of backyard ant nests, of watching rats and pigeons from a roofed porch, of a mouse that drowned in my bedside water glass, of sparrow and starling nests blown down by a hurricane. When at the age of four I moved 20 miles south to then-rural Easton, it might as well have been Africa. I wandered from dawn to dusk in the farm fields and along the railroad tracks.

I brought home everything. At one time a friend and I maintained for an entire summer a colony of toads, a pair of spotted turtles, a hognosed snake (we caught extra toads for it, being unwilling to sacrifice any of ours), a bluejay, a robin, and a terrarium of deer mice. I collected—killed, to be clear about it—insects. My father kept racing pigeons and gave me a little loft of show breeds when, at about eight, he judged me capable of caring for them. These in turn attracted hawks, which my father was enlightened enough not to shoot. In the fall he hunted, bringing home black ducks and ruffed grouse. In the winter there were always bird feeders, thronged with chickadees and nuthatches, jays and starlings, and sometimes a startling “rarity” like the evening grosbeak.

Later I, too, learned to hunt; then I took up the more demanding discipline of falconry. Still later, I lived in a tent on Mount Tom for a summer, working for the Cornell peregrine team as a small cog in what has become the most successful endangered species project yet accomplished. Each level was a direct result of the one before it: the animal-obsessed collecting kid became the hunter-naturalist, became the active conservationist.

My childhood, except in detail, is the childhood of all the naturalists who have given us their visions of the living world: Darwin, Hudson, Richard Jefties, Theodore Roosevelt, William Beebe, Aldo Leopold, Konrad Lorenz, Edward Wilson, and Gerald Durrell. These are the thinkers who have shaped our perception of the nature and value of life, the crusaders who have battled for its preservation. Paradoxically, I fear the future existence of such biophiles is threatened by groups who claim to speak for the animals that the naturalists have made it possible to understand.

A critic, however, once said that fanatics are people who can’t ever be bought. She meant that people who have no price, be it family or love or community, are warped. England’s hunt saboteurs and hard-core “anti” strike forces have gone this far. They routinely endanger horses, hounds, and human hunters. They have released minks from farms into a countryside full of small animals with no natural defenses. They claim to have put rat poison into candy bars to protest experimentation and brag about having acquired automatic weapons. Some even say they would prefer that an animal become extinct rather than allow it to be hunted.

After Audubon magazine ran a couple of pieces neutral—not “pro”—on the subject of hunting, it received hundreds of letters. A few were sensible. Some advocated bloody death for hunters. Some called articles tolerant of hunting “obscene.” Many wrote to resign from one of the country’s more effective conservation groups. One even went so far as to lament “the demise of a once sensitive, humane organization.” These letters come from gentle, “humane” readers with just a touch of antihunt fanaticism. They are people who, though they might recoil in horror at reading it, wish to ban outright anything they do not understand—sort of like the creationists they deplore. They are the new puritans.

A perfect example of the puritan attitude is contained in the editorial I quoted in the beginning of this piece. “Some ivory,” says Wille, “is legal, but why have ivory at all?” His only answer pops up in the next paragraph; “It is human nature to covet that which is scarce and unusual.” Let’s forget for the moment the problems of the elephant and whether controlled harvest might encourage its conservation. The issue here is that rarity, except to the middleman, is not what anyone covets in ivory. Ivory is a warm, biological substance, beautiful on or off the elephant, pleasing to the touch. Love of ivory has its roots in biophilia whether or not its possession is justified. To ignore this, or call it perverted, suggests a certain removal from the natural world.

The rage to ban is a curious passion. To think that anything not banned will automatically be done is crazy, not to mention totalitarian. It is the epitome of puritanism. If the federal government rolled back the ban on shooting songbirds tomorrow, nothing would happen. (This does work two ways, of course; no ban on shooting them is likely to work in northern Italy, where eating songbirds is sanctioned by custom.) Attitude is everything, and conservationists—all conservationists, whether anti- or pro-hunting—should concentrate their efforts and money on, first, habitat preservation, and, second, on fostering the kind of interest in the natural world that will ensure its survival into the 21st century.

Besides, we owe it to ourselves to maintain some sort of physical contact with nature lest we begin to doubt our right to exist. In 1976 John Crowley wrote the wonderful science fantasy novel Beasts. In it, a group of nouveaux puritans withdraws from the earth into an “arcology” called Candy’s Mountain, which sits in the middle of a vast wild reservation. They grow all their food hydroponically in the immense building; they never touch the earth. “Withdraw,” their founder preaches. “You have done enough damage to the earth . . . make yourself scarce, you can do that. Leave the earth alone; all its miracles happen when you’re not looking.”

Such is the logical end of the nature-puritan and animal liberation movements today. No one with a biological conscience would deny that, at some level, all species have an equal “right” to exist. This, however, has never kept any species from interacting with another. If you would go as far as the inhabitants of Candy’s Mountain, why not, like some religious sects with similar notions of purification, take the whole philosophy to its logical end and withdraw entirely from a messy world? It’s hard for this naturalist to see such attitudes as any saner than those espoused by the Reverend Jim Jones and Company.

I guess you can see where this argument is leading. I’m a fierce hands-on naturalist. I believe that a certain amount of active physical and psychological contact with animals, including but not limited to hunting and pet keeping, is not only tolerable but in fact downright necessary to the development of biophilia in the individual. Now let me take it all one step further: I believe this cannot take effect on the government level. Only individuals, never governments, can have a passion for animals. Governments can’t, either economically or in their absent souls; in these days of Gramm Rudman, they won’t; perhaps given their fickleness, they shouldn’t. At very least they are not going to do anything lasting for conservation without enormous private help. I might point out as examples the Peregrine Fund and the Nature Conservancy, which have been more effective at their given ends than any government on earth.

And how can we, as individuals, increase biophilia?

For starters, I think we should get rid of the rules that make it impossible to keep live things at home, rather than throw up barriers to private involvement with animals. There would probably be an increase in pet-trade animal deaths, at least at first. But allowing individuals to possess native animals would undercut sleazy profiteers. You might also remember that many imported animals come from demolished rain forests, the loss of which is the most serious conservation problem facing us. If informed individuals could possess and breed such animals, they would provide a reservoir of priceless genetic material. This is not theory or propaganda: it has already happened. Consider Pere David’s deer, preserved by Chinese aristocrats and the Duke of Bedford; the eared pheasants, of which there are more in captivity than in their native Central Asia; the peregrine, rescued from its North American collapse by the quixotic dedication of the Cornell and P-Fund teams, hands-on naturalists to a man. Aviculturists have better reserves of many rare birds than their native Third World countries do. The breeders may or may not be selfish; what they are at the moment is more concerned about the various species than any government is. When the time comes, if the time comes, they can give stock back to the ancestral habitat.

Once you begin to think about helping nature by private initiative, any number of innovative solutions become possible. Take a look at ducks. Right now, their populations are in the middle of a crash. Reid Buckley, in an article in Sporting Classics magazine, asked duck hunters to consider paying a once-in-a-lifetime fee for a license, to be followed by annual payments of from $200 to $3,000 for different bag limits, the money going to habitat improvement. My point is not that this is the only way to go. It’s that only a sportsman, a duck-o-phile, would suggest paying that much to save the ducks. I would submit that very few pure “lookers” would do so. (On hunting in general: I’d rather hunt my meat than buy it. Aesthetically; on grounds of kindness—death by predation is “natural”—even for conservation’s sake, since game uses fewer resources than farming. I believe hunting is superior to agriculture. But I’m not prejudiced, at least against small farming; a gout, chacun.)

What about roadkills? I’m serious! Right now it is illegal to pick up and in any way preserve an avian carcass or part thereof that you can find beside the road! Yet study skins and skulls are intricate, thought-provoking objects, biophilic relics that can help us think about evolution adaptation and conservation. Surely it is not perverse to want to keep feathers? Two years back I was driving near dawn in the high forest of the Mescalero Apache reservation, when my bird-hungry eyes lit on a feathered lump at the edge of the roadside ditch. When I backed up, the lump resolved into a freshly killed spotted owl, a rare, endangered species, the only one I have ever seen. I took it home and skinned out its beautiful wings. I kept them for six months, but a not-too-irrational paranoiac voice kept telling me that if any federal officer on a routine falconry permit check ever wanted to bother me about them, he had grounds for putting me (and my hawks) in jail. I finally tossed them in the dump, which—I have come to think—is more of a crime than having taken them home, though not one punishable by law.

But, puritans object, people would trade in feathers! Though I doubt it, I might allow that trade in authentically endangered species parts be under heavy license. As for other things, if your bureaucratic mind demands tidiness, why not a roadkill permit? I don’t really think it’s necessary, but it should satisfy even rules addicts.

Hawks? Other birds? Read Bill Gilbert in the May ’85 Audubon: “The solution is to make it easier and more respectable for [a blue-jay scholar] to enjoy blue jays rather than making it more difficult for others to enjoy hawks.” Gilbert is one of the best spokesmen for hands-on I know; he argues that hands-on experiences “benefit wildlife by expanding its genuine constituency.”

One more example: the California condor. Is it really biophilic to allow a species we have brought to the edge of extinction to go out without a final heroic effort? What possible harm would it do to either the individuals (who surely have no abstract conception of freedom) or the dying species to allow a zoo or even a private raptor breeder to attempt captive breeding? Thirty years of government-abetted hands-off have not prevented the present disaster.

Enough. There is a thread running through all this sound and fury—that only individuals have passions for animals. That biophilic individuals will donate their time and money to save living things. That biophilia is best developed by hands-on intimate contact of child and animal. (No, I don’t think petting zoos are enough.)

We cannot just stand aside and observe without losing more than we gain. Today, our species dominates the planetary ecosystem; we are stewards, like it or not. “Handson” breeds empathy and respect. Despite their squabbles in recent years, there is no fundamental quarrel between the traditional naturalist and conservationist and the Burkean conservative. (The hard-core libertarian may resent any restraint or may innovatively say that conflicts would bf minimized when all resources are owned privately and so accountable.) “Politically speaking, not all conservationists may be conservatives,” said James Kilpatrick a few years back, “but if the appellation has any meaning, every principled conservative should count himself a conservationist.” A world with healthy traditions benefits from and is enriched by hunter naturalists, keeper naturalists, and backyard explorers, all proponents of the old ways of direct study. We need Konrad Lorenzes and E.O. Wilsons to give us a perspective on our lives. If we encourage hands-on methods, we fertilize the ground in which they grow.