What does a deer, a wolf, or a coyote have to do with vegan activism?
A lot. Veganism is the platform for defending the untamed. That’s what the vegan ethic is ultimately all about.
A vegan humanity wouldn’t hunt deer. We wouldn’t run cattle and sheep ranches. A vegan humanity wouldn’t compete against and kill natural predators to keep more deer to ourselves or sell more lambs to the butcher.
Connect the next dot, and we find a link between persecuting predators and killing deer. Go downtown to protest the annual deer kill, and there’s always that one passer-by who shouts (perhaps sarcastically): “Bring back the wolves!”
Well, maybe the wolves are returning on their own. As the Great Lakes wolves mix with eastern coyotes, coyote-wolf hybrids are alive and well—and deer constitute a third of their diets. A third! “Deer problem” solved, right?
Not so fast. For how can coyotes do their jobs with state hunting and trapping rules dead-set against them? Bobcats are targets too, though they’d curb the deer population to some degree if we’d give them a chance. Then maybe there’d be no basis to call deer shooters into towns and cities.
Refuges Become Battlegrounds
Today, not even the parks are safe havens. Valley Forge National Historical Park, outside Philadelphia, wants its deer population down from 1,277 to fewer than 185. Beginning in November 2010 under a four-year plan, Valley Forge shot 1,433 deer—substantially more than the starting population. The deer just won’t keep themselves below the limit! So Valley Forge officials announced they’d keep shooting deer indefinitely.
The Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia followed the same killing strategy. And in Rock Creek National Park in Washington, D.C., managers say taking “no action” against deer would mean “decreased plant diversity, increased invasive exotic plants, and reduced forest regeneration, which would adversely affect a large percentage of habitats for other wildlife (e.g., ground-nesting birds, frogs, snakes, and turtles).”
Of note here is research conducted in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, backed by the National Park Service itself, showing robust deer populations enrich soil, with ripple effects throughout the food web, starting with earthworms, spiders, ants, slugs, snails and insects, snakes and salamanders. Maybe the biological capacity of any given place for deer is higher than most managers know.
Whatever science might tell us, the human “cultural carrying capacity” is the big issue. Park managers were pressed for years by locals who don’t like their gardens nibbled.
The Valley Forge plan states it outright: “The presence of deer on neighboring properties has been linked to loss and damage of ornamental vegetation.” Rock Creek’s plan declares: “An overabundance of deer could lead to increased browsing of landscape vegetation on neighboring properties, having a negative economic impact on those landowners.”
Local attitudes have to be considered in actions taken under the National Environmental Policy Act. Yet the Park Service’s mission “preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values” of its sites. How much should public pressure influence managers to impair what nature produces? Should government biologists follow popular opinion when the time is right to help shape it?
Future Control Plans
Valley Forge managers resolved to add birth control to the plan “when an acceptable chemical reproductive agent becomes available.” Experiments with deer contraception have shown inflammation and pain, severe abscesses, and disrupted social lives. Scientists have published harrowing post mortems of deer subjected to chemical birth control.
Some activists argue that neither the reality of animal testing nor the problematic findings in dissected deer should stop us from supporting the potential of technology to eventually thin the herds humanely. But even if side effects can be fixed, do we really want a patented, FDA-approved pharmaceutical plan to control the destinies of untamed animals? To achieve an officially prescribed “density” of the animals to fit tourism and development trends?
A better advocacy will support animals on their terms. That’ll include coyotes and bobcats too. The National Park Service’s Battlefields plan says that “these species appear to be opportunists that take advantage of specific periods of deer vulnerability and none of these predators has demonstrated a consistent ability to control deer populations.” Yet an approach using best available science, which the National Environmental Policy Act requires, would examine the potential of natural predators to succeed in curbing deer populations. To find out, federal managers could work with state agencies to stop snaring, poisoning, hunting, and trapping these predators.
Now you might be thinking, “Try proposing that wish list to the society we live in today!” Let’s try. Aldo Leopold said something apt: “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”
Predators and Climate Change
Sometimes the call for birth control seems the only available delay tactic when people are loading the guns. But we can’t challenge the subordination of the free-living without rejecting our privilege to micromanage their reproduction. It’s coexistence with predators that we need to insert into advocacy.
We might believe the public isn’t ready for coyotes. The public isn’t fond of running into deer on roads either. Natural predation would reduce that risk. Coyotes aren’t trying to create additional risks. Mainly they’re avoiding run-ins with us, moving at night where they live near us.
And greater danger lies ahead if we do not let predators live and thrive.
Without predators, plant-eating animals will stick around specific areas, eating their fill, putting plants under stress. A Yale study showed plants growing among grasshoppers (herbivores) without the influence of spiders (predators) would breathe out carbon dioxide, rather than absorb it. Where our fish businesses drive out sea otters, sea urchins become unmitigated kelp-munchers, and then the carbon-absorbing kelp forests are lost. This is not to suggest reducing natural dynamics to just a couple of species; but it does point to interrelations between predator extermination, herbivore activity, and greenhouse gas release. In some cases, CO2 emissions might rise in the absence of predators tenfold or more.
For multiple reasons, predators need us to stop repressing them, and to empower them to regroup and return to their jobs. Let’s stop hoping for “humane, nonlethal” deer management—and, instead, demand respect for animals’ interactions on their terms. Such respect can take root. The vegan ethic calls us to cultivate it.