Life’s a beach–or an entangled beak (no more balloon releases!)

Credit: The Ocean Conservancy-click image

Michigan City, Indiana is a great hometown–a Great Lakes hometown. Located on the southern tip of Lake Michigan, we Michigan Cityzens were lucky to grow up basking on warm, “singing sand,” diving into big breakers (with dire warnings of the undertow looming large in childhood), and exploring the wild dunes that would eventually become the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. On a recent trip home, I crammed in as many visits as possible to “my” great lake. Even Montana’s Big Sky country can’t quell the frequent longing for that spectacular lakefront, its reeling shorebirds, towering dunes, and waving marram grass.

Stuff I found (plus gull tracks) & arranged for photo

During these perambulations, I made an effort to remove trash that’s potentially dangerous to wildlife. My recent outings (two on national lakeshore beaches, one at the municipal beach, and two on the pier leading to Indiana’s only working lighthouse) yielded tangles of fishing line, some with hook still attached, and balloons, most with ribbons attached. A couple were mylar, most were latex; one still partially-inflated balloon encouraged me to “Eat at Ed Debevic’s” diner on North Wells in Chicago. It had drifted across the lake to arrive on our shore a piece of trash, at best; at worst, a shriveled booby trap, anchored in the sand and bobbling in the wind like a macabre, invasive species.

Balloons from balloon releases fall into the water as marine debris and to the earth as litter. While latex is biodegradable, it can take six months and more for that process to occur. In the meantime, some wildlife are attracted to the bright colors while others mistake balloons for prey. Balloons, ribbons, and fishing line can mean death—sometimes cruel and slow by starvation—for animals who ingest the litter or become tangled in it. And no matter where it lands, balloon litter—like all litter—is unsightly for human visitors.

Paw prints in sand at Indiana Dunes

Currently, seven states and a handful of cities have passed legislation regulating balloon releases, and legislation is pending in several others, though these attempts to clean up the environment are vigorously opposed by the balloon industry lobby. Industry assertions that fallen balloons take no longer than oak leaves to biodegrade miss the point: oak leaves that fall to the ground aren’t litter and harm no one. In Britain, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has advised schools to refrain from balloon releases out of concern for wildlife, other animals (including farmed animals), and the environment.

The hometown newspaper reported just the other day that a Michigan City school recently conducted a balloon release at a rosary-reading ceremony honoring grandparents. Said one teacher, it’s “great to see the grandparents get involved in the children’s education and in their faith,” words that ring true in a world where generations are often disconnected and kids are sometimes adrift with minimal parental involvement in their school lives.

Balloons Blow-click image for website

Still, our actions impact a wider world and other beings, and that’s a valuable lesson for children to learn, also. My hometown, with its stretches of spectacular shoreline, offers teachers and parents a unique, educational “laboratory” to help kids understand some of the consequences of our behavior for other species, providing the impetus to explore alternatives to potentially harmful activities like balloon releases (see also Balloons Blow website for alternatives).

My three all-too-brief shoreline hikes yielded a total of 15 balloons and countless pieces of plastic trash. In the grand scheme, this was a miniscule amount of litter. But if we can raise a generation of children willing to consider the suffering of an entangled bird as a price too high for the fleeting experience of a balloon release, we’ll create more compassionate humans and a cleaner environment with one less peril for the other nations with whom we share the earth.
Learn more:

  • How balloons hurt birds – here
  • Ocean Conservancy Beach Debris Data – here
  • Marine Conservation Society (U.K.) here (check out their “Don’t Let Go!” campaign)
  • Save the Whales balloon alert
  • Beach Chair Scientist, here. There are many more online resources.

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Speciesism: If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention


Branded sea lions – click image for report

If you aren’t angry, it’s possible that you aren’t concerned about speciesism. If you are concerned about speciesism but you’re not angry, you probably aren’t paying attention. Because lordy, speciesism is everywhere and so thoroughly normalized that it’s invisible in plain sight. Once you’ve seen it, though, you can’t un-see it, and then you’re screwed. Because how do you fight an injustice that’s been marketed to us–insidiously, with happy, smiling animals–since birth?

Now I know what you’re thinking–it’s not healthy to live in a state of perpetual, seething anger. And you’re right. That’s why I routinely alternate my seething anger with abject despair. Let’s take a gander at just a few episodes in that wildly-profitable, long-running series, “It’s a Speciesist Life.” But beware: you might end up seeing what others of us can’t un-see, and that changes everything.

Hot-iron branding of sea lions: This ongoing scheme is so outrageous it almost defies belief. In this episode, we learn that sea lions are being captured, tormented, and frequently killed at the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam for–sit down for this one–eating fish. Yes, the hapless pescatarians consume less than 4% of salmon at the dam “while commercial, sport, and tribal fisheries are allowed to take up to 17% of the same endangered salmon and the dam itself claims approximately 17% of adult salmon,” according to Sea Shepherd’s Dam Guardians. In video documentation (watch here), one unfortunate marine mammal is branded four times; the skin actually flames when the fourth iron is pressed into tender flesh. See also Dam Guardians myths vs. facts and Sea Lion Defense Brigade on Facebook.

“Rockchuck” Derby: How eager are they to kill marmots? So eager that their website features a countdown timer. The five-day derby starts May 14th and offers two registration categories: adults and kids 14 and under. Rules? You bet–chucks may not be weighted, wet, or frozen (heaviest chuck wins!), and each hunter is responsible for disposing of his/her own chuck. (Post-weigh-in status: garbage.) Last year’s derby registered 300 hunters (it was a memorial fundraiser that year) who descended on Bliss, Idaho to blast away at yellow-bellied marmots–social animals who live in colonies, communicate with a variety of vocalizations and whistles, and serve as a food source for other animals and birds of prey. It’s doubtful, though, that any of this would matter to the derby killers in Bliss, where ignorance is, um…you know.

LiveLeak-dot-com-31c_1388593848-1502484_611878518847577_1125349963_n.jpg.resizedAvi-FoamGuard and Poultry Blinders: Now let’s bypass anger and move directly to despair…for our own species as well as others. Avi-FoamGuard, approved for use in 2006, is a “foam depopulation system” that’s “100% effective in depopulating infected poultry houses.” Because factory farms are crowded, filthy places filled with stressed, damaged, and suffering “production units,” they’re also breeding grounds for contagious diseases like avian influenza. But humans–using our large brains and amazing creative capacity to do speciesism’s nefarious work–have developed a way to mass exterminate chickens by covering (hence suffocating) them with a firefighting foam that blocks their tracheas…eventually (video). “Crews can depopulate a large commercial broiler house in less than an hour using our proven technology”; it’s so easy to use that it represents “an enormous savings in cost and time” (product webpage). If that spin makes you dizzy to the point of nausea, get a dose of reality (also sickening) at United Poultry Concern’s article (from winter 2006/2007), “Government approves firefighting foam to exterminate birds.”

Then there are “peepers,” or poultry blinders. It’s not enough to debeak chickens and turkeys and cut off turkeys’ toes without pain relief; impairing their vision can also be part of that package of misery! To be clear: debeaking and toe chopping occur in factory farms, where birds are so cruelly confined, crowded, and stressed that they peck and stab each other raw, sometimes to death. Blinders, which wouldn’t be cost-effective in industrial settings, seem to be the domain of backyard chicken enthusiasts and “game bird” breeders who want to prevent feather and egg pecking (see photos). The blinders sit on the beak to block forward vision, thus preventing the wearer from zeroing in on the target to be pecked. The super-cruel model uses a pin that, inserted in one nostril, pierces the septum and exits the other nostril to secure the device in place. (See it pictured at a discussion forum where the advice-seeker is told, “A little blood is no big deal.”) Pinless models, probably marketed as “humane,” feature two short prongs that are inserted in each nostril. Many variables are responsible for pecking–diet, temperature, artificial lighting (to induce egg-laying), crowding, co-confinement of differing breeds–but one thing’s certain: sentient beings expected to provide eggs, meat, and sport are ultimately commodities whose stress behaviors have to be managed. If they weren’t brought into existence for exploitation by humans–well, problem solved.

raven waitingScapegoating ravens in Idaho: Idaho is a lousy place to be a raven right now, especially if you’re one of the targeted 4000 who will consume poisoned chicken egg bait. Ravens must die because sage-grouse (an imperiled ground-dwelling bird dependent on sagebrush ecosystems) must not. Sage-grouse habitat has largely been degraded by human impacts, making them candidates for Endangered Species Act listing; according to Defenders of Wildlife, “remaining sagebrush habitat is fragmented and degraded by oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, unnatural fire, invasive weeds, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors.” Still, a biologist for ID Department of Fish and Game asserts that “we can’t directly say that (sage grouse population decline) is from ravens, because we don’t have that information.” So you see, it makes perfect, speciesist sense to kill ravens–whose diet includes sage-grouse eggs–since ESA listing for sage-grouse would inconvenience humans and impede our enterprise.

On a daily basis similar episodes from “It’s a Speciesist Life” bombard us in newspapers, in emails, and on computer screens: a proposed sharpshooter deer cull at a “nature preserve” in Bloomington, Indiana (Facebook); beavers killed in underwater body-gripping traps at Lee Metcalf National “Wildlife Refuge” here in Montana–lethally removed for “water level management”; dead trophy animals splattered across Facebook news feeds and newspaper pages–this one picked up by our local paper the other morning; five million piglets killed by porcine epidemic diarrhea virus because BACON! and so much more. Who sees the speciesism in charity hog roasts that help humans with medical expenses? In fly fishing retreats for wounded veterans and breast cancer survivors? Who dares criticize these endeavors to help our own? (Well…I do.)

Once we’ve seen and can’t un-see speciesism, how do we handle our anger when its source is omnipresent? Perhaps the answer lies in the words of the Peace Pilgrim, who advises us to channel the “tremendous energy that comes with anger”: “Do not suppress it: that would hurt you inside. Do not express it: this would not only hurt you inside, it would cause ripples in your surroundings. What you do is transform it. You somehow use that tremendous energy constructively on a task that needs to be done…”

You somehow use it. Ripples (or deluges) of anger aren’t constructive and won’t vanquish speciesism. Individually and collectively, it’s up to us to transform anger and use that positive energy to change hearts, minds, and laws–tocause ripples…waves…tsunamis of compassion and justice for our sentient nonhuman sisters and brothers.


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