A few rabbits can’t do any harm

The action in TC Boyle’s latest novel, When The Killing’s Done takes place on the Channel Islands – not Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark et al, but a chain of eight islands located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California. The islands host some 2,000 animal and plant species, including many that can only be found there. Five of the islands are part of the Channel Islands National Park. In Boyle’s tale the islands are the battleground for a conservationist, Alma Takesue, whose mission is to protect endangered biotic communities and Dave LaJoy, an animal rights fanatic, who violently opposes the idea that humans have the right to choose which animals will live or die. They come into conflict over the best way to protect the natural environment of two Channel Islands – Anacapa and Santa Cruz. The title comes from a quote by LaJoy: “I’ll be civil when the killing’s done.” The killing refers to the eradication of invasive species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy, which aim to return the ecosystems of the islands to their original state,

The history of human-animal interaction is one that features prominently in Boyle’s oeuvre. He has a short story, A Bird in the Hand, about Eugene Schiefflin, who planned to introduce every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare into the New World.* The part about Shakespeare may not actually be true, but whatever his motivation his plan  was to have far-reaching effects. Schieffelin belonged to the American Acclimatization Society, which sought to promote the exchange of plants and animals from one part of the world to another. These societies were very prevalent in the 19th century. With what we know now Schieffelin’s actions seem naïve and even foolish. But at the time it was seen as good practice.  

In March 1890 he released 60 starlings into New York City’s Central Park; the following year he turned loose another 60. Schieffelin had imported the birds from England. Scientists estimate that the United Statesis home to more than 200 million of their descendants. They are now considered an invasive species in the USA, and they have wrought havoc on public buildings as well as agriculture. Fortunately, his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks were less successful. On the 100th anniversary the New York Times had this to say about Schieffelin:

Skylarks and song thrushes failed to thrive, but the enormity of his success with starlings continues to haunt us. This centennial year is worth observing as an object lesson in how even noble intentions can lead to disaster when humanity meddles with nature. Today the starling is ubiquitous, with its purple and green iridescent plumage and its rasping, insistent call. It has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and most noxious birds on our continent. Roosting in hordes of up to a million, starlings can devour vast stores of seed and fruit, offsetting whatever benefit they confer by eating insects. In a single day, a cloud of omnivorous starlings can gobble up 20 tons of potatoes.

If there is one country that has suffered from acclimatization, that must surely be Australia. In Down Under Bill Bryson tells this story. Thomas Austin brought 24 rabbits to Australia in 1859. He was upbeat about the experiment:

The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” Rarely has a human prediction proved more so wrong. Less than a hundred years later there were more than one billion rabbits, the fastest spread of mammals ever recorded. Only with the introduction in 1950 of myxomatosis were they able to control the rabbit population. .Harmless to humans and other animals, it had a mortality rate of 99.9%.  However, the small number of rabbits that survived then bred a genetic resistance to the disease. So the cycle started once again. Scientists don’t know the precise numbers, but there are now hundreds of millions of rabbits

Now, you would think that people might have learned a lesson from Austin’s blunder, but alas no. Just as the rabbits were doing their thing, other species of animals were being introduced in great numbers. They were introduced for different reasons – for sport, by accident, and sometimes just to spice things up a little, as Australia was seen as biologically deficient. And why stop with British or European animals? They could create an African veldt in Australia, with giraffes, springboks, and buffaloes. They wanted herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain. In 1862 Sir Henry Barkly, governor ofVictoria, called for the introduction of monkeys into the colony’s forests “for the amusement of wayfarers, whom their gambols would delight.” Barkly’s replacement as governor, Sir Charles Darling, rejected that idea – only to suggest boa constrictors instead. Neither of these madcap schemes came to fruition but scores of others did. Foxes, camels, donkeys, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, foxes and cats have changed Australia for ever. There are so many introduced species, that the red kangaroo is now only the thirteenth largest animal in the country. About 130 mammals in Australia are threatened. Sixteen have gone extinct—more than in any other continent. And I haven’t even mentioned the effects on flora.

Islands’ closed ecosystems are especially interesting because any animals arriving or introduced will have unforeseen consequences. Island fauna has some particular characteristics. The first of these is known as island tameness, a tendency of such animals to lose their wariness of potential predators. They lose those defensive behaviours and adaptions that allow them to deal with new predators. Zebras, on the other hand, have to be extremely wary to have a chance of surviving on the savannah. Island animals can be extremely vulnerable when humans introduce predators, such as pigs, dogs, rats or cats, intentionally or otherwise. The second one is Island gigantism. This is a biological phenomenon in which the size of animals isolated on an island increases dramatically in comparison to their mainland relatives. Large mammalian carnivores are not present, allowing their ecological niches to be filled by birds or reptiles, which can then grow to larger-than-normal size. Being small can be invaluable for herbivores to escape or hide from predators. In the absence of such predators, these birds and reptiles tend to grow larger

Dodos are a paradigmatic example of what happens when these animals are exposed to new dangers. This large flightless bird, related to the pigeon, was living happily on the island of Mauritius. We need to remember that flight is very expensive; flying uses up a lot of calories. Birds fly to escape enemies. But the dodo didn’t have any enemies and had lost the ability to fly. That left it defenceless when humans first set foot on the island. You have to put yourself in the shoes of those sailors. They had been on navy rations for months and suddenly they saw these huge, fat, delicious pigeons. They were just asking to be roasted. The naïve dodo didn’t stand a chance and now they have become fodder for idiomatic expressions.

In When The Killing’s Done Boyle also tells us about the invasion of Guam by the brown tree snake. They are believed to have arrived around the time of World War II. They arrived on the undercarriages of planes. InIndonesia they had lived in relative equilibrium with other species. In Guam this balance did not exist and now they have taken over the island, wiping out most of the native forest vertebrate species. They have also affected human life. They cause thousands of power cuts and have been found biting and/or coiled around infants and small children in their beds. Guam is a major Pacific transportation hub and there is a very real danger that these snakes could be introduced inadvertently to other Pacific islands. To counter this risk, trained dogs are used to search, locate, and remove brown tree snakes before military and commercial cargo and transportation vessels leave the island.  

In When The Killing’s Done Takesue and Dave LaJoy represent two starkly contrasting visions of we deal with nature. The islands are vital to Alma. Indeed, she wouldn’t be alive without them; they’re what saved her grandmother from drowning at sea when she was shipwrecked in 1946. She plans to exterminate the two animals that threaten “her” islands – rats and feral pigs. The former arrived on Anacapa after a shipwreck; the latter were originally imported to Santa Cruz as domestic farm animals in the 1850s. The pigs cannot be returned to the mainland because their long isolation would make them potential carriers of disease. Dave LaJoy is a successful businessman who leads the FPA, an animal-rights activist group which thinks that the animals have to be saved from people like Alma, who he accuses of playing God. But he also tries to manipulate nature introducing animals to the islands.

Boyle’s book doesn’t offer any easy solutions – the problem isn’t black and white. In fact I may have been more confused by the end. Are we responsible for re-balancing these eco systems? Or, are we doing more harm when we try to manipulate the fragile balance of the natural world? Nature is not a paradise but a highly complex terrain in which animals struggle for survival in an ecosystem radically altered by our impact. One of the characters in the books has a question: What if we just left everything alone like the world was before us—like God made it. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

However, we can’t go back. It’s just not possible to return the earth to its previous pristine state. It was said that a squirrel could cross Englandwithout touching the ground. But with nearly six billion people on our planet nature has been transformed forever. I detect a certain misanthropy in many environmentalists. They seem to want to portray civilisation itself as a force for ecological destruction. Humans are seen as an invasive species or even a virus. Ty Tierwater, protagonist of one of Boyle’s earlier novels, A Friend of the Earth, proclaims: “To be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people.”


*Those of you interested in which birds appeared in Shakespeare should try The Birds of Shakespeare, published in 1916 by the Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie. They are, in alphabetical order: Blackbird, Bunting, Buzzard, Chough, Cock, Cormorant, Crow, Cuckoo, Dive-dapper, Dove and Pigeon, Duck, Eagle, Falcon and Sparrowhawk, Finch, Goose, Hedge Sparrow, House Martin, Jackdaw, Jay, Kite, Lapwing, Lark, Loon, Magpie, Nightingale, Osprey, Ostrich, Owl, Parrot, Partridge, Peacock, Pelican, Pheasant, Quail, Raven, Robin, Snipe, Sparrow, Starling, Swallow, Swan, Thrush, Turkey, Vulture, Wagtail, Woodcock and the Wren.

One Response to A few rabbits can’t do any harm

  1. Alberto says:

    Congratulations fot this last entry, and enjoy your summer!

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