Recently my Facebook friend Lorrie Deck posted a thoughtful entry entitled “Snow Geese” on Splendippity, her wonderful blog. With Lorrie’s permission, I’ve included several excerpts from that post here, because it inspired me to do some thinking about the issue of hunting and the birds and animals involved. Here is my abbreviated version of her post.
Over to you, Lorrie:
I awoke yesterday morning to the sound of hundreds of snow geese in the farmer’s fields behind our home. They show up every year to rest and to glean the leftover corn to fill their bellies before moving further north. Ultimately, they will arrive at their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra. I look forward to their annual visit because they’re the only Arctic animal I get to see living here in Pennsylvania and because I’m amazed at the length of the journey they take every year, flying from the Arctic to the southern United States to winter in warm marshes, and then back to the far north every spring.
They arrived a month early this year. Most years they show up in the middle of March, but spring arrived early here in Pennsylvania, and I knew that the geese, true harbingers of spring, would not be far behind.
I grabbed some tea and stood at the window watching the geese and planning on how I was going to approach them to take photographs without being seen.
After watching them for a while, I headed upstairs to get showered and dressed. While in the bathroom, I heard seven loud gunshots. I looked out the bathroom window and saw the geese in the sky, honking and flying away. I ran downstairs and went outside – still in my pajamas – to see two hunters picking up dead birds and heading back to their vehicle.
I was stunned. These geese have been coming here for years and as far as I know, they have never been hunted here. The field behind our house does not belong to us; it belongs to a farmer who lives down over the hill, and I have no reason to believe that the hunters did not have permission to hunt in the field, nor do I think they acted illegally. Not only is hunting snow geese legal, but the number of geese hunters may take has been increased because snow geese have made such a great recovery from their depleted numbers in the past that their breeding grounds are now being threatened by overpopulation.
Despite this, it saddened me, because it turns out that snow geese do mate for life and now some of them have to continue the journey to their breeding grounds without their mate.
[Click here to read Lorrie’s entire post.]
I too was saddened by the thought of some of those geese having to fly away from their mates, shot and lying dead in that field. To me, the fact that snow geese mate for life seems to make it even more unjust that mated pairs are so cruelly separated.
When I became a Buddhist, I accepted the Tibetan Buddhist teaching that we humans have no right to knowingly take the life of any creature. Early on, however, I had to reconsider my approach to this aspect of Buddhist thought. For instance, unlike many Buddhists, I simply do not thrive on a vegan diet, although I’ve tried many times over. Each time, food intolerances have forced me back to what is now called a paleo diet. I’m a meat eater, plain and simple.
For another example, if I see an insect in my home, I either carry it outdoors or – with apologies – I kill it. Now, you and I both know that apologizing to a creature that you’re going to kill anyway seems specious, at best, as an approach to respect for all life (So sorry for the inconvenience, SMASH!), but I’ve discovered that if nothing else, at least it contributes to a degree of mindfulness about what I’m doing. If I have to kill or eat the results of others’ killing, I’m not doing it thoughtlessly.
Most people, I think, would agree that killing ugly, nasty insects is one thing; on the other hand, killing Bambi and The Snow Goose is entirely another kettle of fish. How can we even think of killing creatures so beautiful, so harmless? Nevertheless, the issue is the same: how to control creatures that, through absolutely no fault of their own, have become pests.
The city created grassy areas in this wooded park, with picnic tables and soccer goalposts, so that families could come and play in the summer, and there’s nothing the park’s resident Canada geese enjoy more than juicy, freshly-mown grass to feast on – and eventually deliver themselves of (about a pound a day per goose of the messy green stuff).
Some Canada geese still migrate, but a percentage of them (known as resident Canada geese) have adjusted to living near people. They no longer migrate in the winter. And why would they? Global warming has made deep snowfalls and frigid temperatures much rarer nowadays. Visitors to the park feed the birds year-round, so (except during the nesting season) they’ve become almost tame. In Canada, firearm restrictions apply everywhere.
In addition, thanks to the rapid growth of our suburbs, which have appropriated fields and woods formerly the home of local wildlife, resident geese no longer suffer the predations of such natural enemies as raccoons, coyotes, skunks, and foxes that would normally keep down their numbers.
Whereas migratory Canada goose populations are held in check by predation, migration accidents and late winter storms, resident populations, safer and better fed, begin nesting at a younger age and produce larger clutches of chicks than migratory Canada geese.
As a result, their numbers have risen well past the point of sustainability and are, in fact, increasing every year.
These birds are fast becoming little more than pests. They’re overrunning our city parks, golf courses, and farmers’ fields, crowding our wildlife refuges, and causing hazards at airports. There are even concerns about public health and water quality from their droppings.
Within an hour’s drive of our city, one of our beautiful provincial parks suffers the same problem, but here the challenge is to limit the overabundance of white-tailed deer.
Deer populations have flourished in recent years, leaving biologists and conservationists with the problem of what to do with the glut of animals that all compete for the same food, stripping the areas in which they are contained of that particular food.
Beautiful as these animals are, the absence of any checks and balances (natural predators like cougars and wolves and coyotes, among other things) leaves them free to reproduce far beyond what nature intended to maintain ecological equilibrium. In order to sustain species diversity – a forest with a rich variety of flowers and shrubs, and animals – the deer population has to be reduced.
Some say overpopulation is biologically impossible, and that if too many deer, for example, are trying to live and feed in one contained area, they’ll simply die off naturally of starvation or disease.
Indeed, this is exactly what nature herself does. However, forced illness and starvation wouldn’t be the “solution” for so many wild animals if they had been able to continue living in their wild habitat, subject to the laws of nature and the natural predators that keep it all in balance. Living and dying would proceed as they have done for centuries.
Non-killing might have been a manageable ideal in the Buddha’s time, when global warming, industrialization, and constant growth and development had not yet overrun the forests and fields where wildlife made their homes; but I don’t think it’s possible in the overdeveloped, urbanized world we live in today.
It is we humans, with our constant, ongoing expansion into the natural world, who have cramped its wild creatures into tiny areas that are no longer ecologically balanced. Having played God with the environment thus far, we now have the responsibility of filling whatever ecological niches we’ve ruined, taking the place of the natural enemies that would have culled the animal population if human expansion hadn’t intervened.
Nowadays, in an effort somewhat analogous to closing the barn door after the horses have escaped, attempts are being made to fulfill that responsibility in a variety of ways: eggs are destroyed, birds and animals are relocated to wilder areas (although I have to wonder how a creature born and raised in proximity to civilization suddenly manages to survive in the wild), or they are culled by means of controlled hunts. Various approaches are being attempted for other species that must now be managed (including, for instance, wild turkeys, moose, elk, black bears, wolves, and coyotes).
Various approaches are also being attempted for other species that must now be managed (including, for instance, wild turkeys, moose, elk, black bears, wolves, and coyotes). At the end of the day, it’s all artificial culling, in one form or another.
And this Buddhist, who wholeheartedly agrees with the necessity for action, is still trying to pick her way through the minefield of modern practical concerns on the one hand and the ideals of spirituality on the other.
It’s not an easy journey.