“Smart Collars”: Taking the wild out of wildlife–and putting it on Facebook?

Idaho Nat’l Lab photo

Spend enough time in Yellowstone and you’ll see an ever-increasing number of radio or GPS-collared animals. Elk, bison, wolves, and the occasional coyote are species easy to spot sporting the bulky neck gear. Research must be big business.

I once watched as wolves skirmished at Blacktail Pond. One in the group wore a collar, and this same animal sat down–repeatedly–to scratch like a fleabag at her itchy neck. Even after her pack mates bedded down for a siesta, the unrelenting torment kept her from resting; she’d jump up again and again to have another go at it.

Even though it’s likely that some research is duplicative and conducted mainly because it’s lucrative, it’s easy to understand how insight into migratory patterns, for example, or denning preferences can help the human species accommodate the needs of other animals whose survival is increasingly jeopardized by habitat loss and, now, global warming.

Take the secretive wolverine, for example. Without a research tracking device, biologists would have had no insight into the 500-mile journey of one subject (photo)–from the Tetons to Rocky Mountain National Park–revealing valuable data on what it takes to be a Gulo gulo success story in what’s left of the wild. Will research collars help humans help them to survive? We can hope. (But when will Montana finally quit sport trapping them? In a two-year study, half of the research-collared animals were killed by trappers!)

It’s no stretch to fathom how tracking a species’ every move can be used against them, however–especially predators for whom no love is lost. Need to wipe out a wolf pack for predation? Dial up the frequency! Should ranchers have access to collar frequencies? That debate has played out in New Mexico, where Mexican wolf numbers have dwindled as collared wolves have disappeared.

According to the Idaho National Laboratory, data from collared coyotes (pictured above) has the potential “…to fundamentally change the body of knowledge surrounding both lethal and non-lethal control…” of coyotes who prey on domestic sheep. Will fewer coyotes be killed if researchers can pinpoint which ones are depredating? Is this even the right question to be asking?

Currently, radio and GPS collars reveal primarily where an animal’s been, where he is, or which direction she’s headed. But now, “smart collars” will challenge the remaining mysteries of wild animal life:

Researchers, using mountain lions trained to run on treadmills, have established “data points” that indicate a lion’s every endeavor, from walking to chasing prey to sleeping. Rabbit for lunch–or deer? Each has a different “signature,” so even the cat’s menu is up for scrutiny. Wolf and coyote collars are currently in the development process.

But high-tech spying on collared critters’ lunch buckets isn’t the ultimate goal of this $800,000 project, financed by National Science Foundation grants. Aspirations are much grander than that.

Predictable wild behavior–isn’t that something of an oxymoron? How far, exactly, might this go?

A state wildlife manager suggested that the “new human-wild interface” could incorporate social media, “with data from the collars posted online as it comes in.” Facebook pages for collared animals could be created, he added.

Animals-other-than-human, the largest and most exploited class of beings on Earth, are not afforded any claim to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own interests. Moreover, the man swarmis obliterating wild habitat through rapacious development and global warming. Now comes “smart collars,” and wild animals are forced to relinquish the last thing not already stolen from those who survive the onslaught–the ability to conduct the intimate, every-day details of their lives without human intrusion. Up next: a world where the heretofore mysteries of the wild are transformed into data points for human consumption. Is this the world we want?

No. No thanks, professor. You can keep your data points and signatures, your intrusive, soulless technology, your engineered safety and your human superiority. While your motivation might be the reduction of conflicts, restraint from our own species and accommodation of wild animals with the respect they deserve and the breathing room they need could accomplish the same, couldn’t it?

I’ll take my chances with the vagaries of the wild. My heart beats a little faster when I hike in grizzly country, and that’s how I like it. Returning from a run at dusk on a winter’s afternoon, I scan my surroundings more frequently for the mountain lion I imagine watching me pass by. I’ll take my chances with my fellow animals in the “splendour and travail” of Henry Beston’s vision:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

And I willnot log on to Facebook, “friend” a grizzly, and check to see if he ate a hearty breakfast before I lace up my hiking boots. For the animal shall not be measured by man.
This post first appeared at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.