While researching and writing an article on the controversy surrounding plans to bring monk seals down from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — you can read it here in Honolulu Weekly — I got to thinking about how we treat wild animals. Or more specifically, their rights. Because they’ve got ‘em, whether we want to admit it or not, and generally, we don’t.
All of our discussions and actions regarding protection and management of endangered and threatened species are pretty much dominated by the human perspective: our wants, needs and rights; how much it’s going to cost us; ways in which we may be inconvenienced; scientific research (and careers) that can be advanced; laws that must be followed.
I heard just one speaker, Dr. Gordon LaBedz, address the issue of animal rights in the recent public hearing on the monk seal translocation proposal:
“Abducting these animals out of their neighborhoods is cruel,” LaBedz said. “These are highly intelligent, sentient creatures. They have a right to live in their home.”
While I’m willing to believe that those involved in monk seal research and the volunteer monitoring programs have good intentions, I’m not at all convinced their actions are in the best interest of the animals.
Take, for example, this account, posted on the Kauai Seals blog, of how much one seal has been messed with, and it’s not even an adult:
On July 13, PIFSC scientists returned to Kauai to get a full suite of biomedical samples from her, and to change out her larger cell phone tag for a smaller satellite tag. She was also given a de-worming medication to help maximize her nutrition intake by lessening her parasite load.
This de-worming is done regularly, and researchers want to do more. Yet according to the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement created for the monk seal recovery plan, deworming is described as a “potential enhancement tool, should research determine it is effective,” while another reference found it to be ineffective because worm counts didn’t go down and the animals didn’t put on weight.
Scientists also want to use antibiotics, human vaccines and other drugs on the seals, which prompted objections from Dr. LaBedz, as well as Dr. Carl Berg:
“We don’t know the doses and we don’t know the side effects,” LaBedz said, with Berg adding, “We don’t know the true risks of these things.”
But that’s not all that’s ahead for the poor seals:
Plans also call for trying to train seals to stay away from boat ramps, harbors and fishing gear through the use of loud noises, electric shocks and other hazing techniques, as well as chemical behavior modification or euthanasia of aggressive, unruly males. Scientists are also looking to develop new “adversive conditioning” tools in a bid to reduce interactions between seals, dogs and humans, especially fishermen.
Getting back to the seal blog, it reports that weaned seal pups are routinely given flipper tags, pit tags (like the microchips put on pets, some of which have been linked to inflammation and other health problems) and cell phone tags so that every aspect of their lives can be monitored. Researchers also regularly take tissue and blood samples from seals that are lounging around on the beaches, and swab their orifices. All of this is supposedly done for the good of the seals, yet despite all the info collected, their numbers continue to plummet.
Meanwhile, as I’ve reported previously, quite a lot of trauma is inflicted on the seals in the process of data collecting and monitoring. I can’t help but wonder how much stress is caused by the constant surveillance and frequent handling. And couldn’t that be a factor in their decline? But scientists, whose salaries and careers are built on such meddling, and volunteers, who like to be part of that special clique that can get close to the animals and tell others to stay away, are never going to look at, much less admit, how their actions might be harming the animals they supposedly care so much about.
Just as animals have the right to be left in their home territory — and that applies to the Lihue airport nene slated to be sent to internment camps on Big Island and Maui — they also have the right to be left alone, and to have some privacy as they mate, rear their young and live their lives.
The latest proposal to kidnap pups and haul them down here, then take them back to the compromised habitat of the NWHI in three years, while possibly well-intentioned, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. It's also pissing off fishermen and ocean users, and turning them against the seals in the process.
Instead of going through all these controversial contortions, and pursuing intensive, expensive and questionably effective management actions, why not focus all efforts on improving the habitat? Because as we have seen over and over with Hawaii's endangered species, that is where the bulk of the problem lies.