A tale of two wildlife babies–and human motives for good and bad

Photo: Four Rivers Fishing Co. via AP

A newborn moose calf. A fast-moving river swollen with spring runoff. But for the presence of humans willing to intervene–a fishing outfitter and his client–the calf’s probable drowning in Montana’s Big Hole River would have passed unnoticed. Mom Moose–she herself struggled against the current–would have spent frantic moments scouring the riverbank. And because grief is not the exclusive domain of Homo sapiens, it can’t be said, categorically, that she would not have grieved the loss of her little one.

I would rather a newborn moose live a full life; I’d be heartbroken to witness one’s death. But I also recognize that human values come into play here, and that nature isn’t cruel (as many are fond of claiming)–nature just is. Some animals live; other animals die. Fanged predators eat some animals; disease and rivers eat others. Mom Moose miscalculates. Or Baby Moose isn’t the fittest one to survive. The little body becomes nutrients for others and for the Earth. Wrote Emerson, “…there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.”

But that scenario didn’t play out. “Anglers save baby moose on Big Hole River” read the headline in our local paper the other day. What was bad luck for fish was good luck for moose; the calf was plucked from the current and delivered to the riverbank where mom was waiting. The outfitter posted the happy story on the company’s Facebook page, where it had nearly 200 “likes” within hours. Three days later, it had over 12,000 and had been picked up by Huffington Post, MSN, USA Today, and so many more. A comment posted to our local newspaper summed it up: “I love this story. Anything with an animal in it. Thank God for our humanity in dealing with animals.”

Jim Peaco image

Humanity gone missing and captured on video

Let’s turn the page on the lucky moose calf media sensation in the Big Hole River and peruse the next page on the not-so-lucky bison calves struggling–where are the media?–in the Madison River. Formed by the confluence of the Firehole and the Gibbon rivers, the Madison flows out of Yellowstone National Park swollen with snowmelt in late spring. The Yellowstone area’s shaggy, wild bison use the river valley to exit the park, as well, in search of nutritious, early spring grass at lower elevations. Moms give birth on sunny slopes and eat their fill after a long, harsh winter.

But politics is a cruel taskmaster and native, wild bison aren’t tolerated on land that “belongs” to cattle (including, even, our collectively-owned public land!). Their peaceful respite is shattered when Montana’s livestock industry demands that bison be driven off their own traditional, migratory habitat–even when no cattle are present–and back into the park. Personnel from five state and federal agencies mercilessly haze the animals on horseback, ATVs, snowmobiles and with vehicles and even helicopters, running them for exhausting miles before forcing them into the swift river where calves are nearly overwhelmed in a current so strong that even grown bison struggle. Grassroots advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign has filmed the harrowing river crossing (watch it here) along with brutal helicopter hazing (watch it here; if the tiny, injured–and doomed–calf at 1:50 doesn’t break your heart, you might not have one).

I wish the 12,000+ folks who “liked” the baby moose story just as equally “disliked” the baby bison abuse (but of course, they’d have to know about it, first). After all, they have more invested in it–our tax dollars are funding the persecution. I wish they could see the irony that I see: “Our humanity” and compassion rescue one baby from a perilous river, while our greed and a market for beef drive other babies into a perilous river. Though it’s not as easy as clicking a “like” button, I wish they could take action that might actually make a difference.

If just half–heck, even just a third–of those 12,000+ would send an e-mail to Montana’s governor (click and scroll to bottom) protesting this abusive wildlife action, and/or would send just a buck or two to Buffalo Field Campaign to fuel their grassroots activism (they operate on the thinnest of shoestrings), what a difference we might make!

But “liking” a baby moose rescued from random danger is easy. It’s warm, fuzzy, and casts a collective glow that makes us proud of our humanity. Going to bat for baby bison intentionally put in harm’s way asks more of us individually. It demands moral certitude and effort, and perhaps reminds us that dietary choices aren’t always benign. It demands that we act to correct a wrong–not just click to express a “like.” It requires that we not just thank God for our humanity in dealing with animals, but that we actually exercise it.
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For a more in-depth look at the politics driving bison mismanagement in Montana, visit Encyclopedia Britannica Advocacy for Animals– “Wild bison in the American West: Beloved icons inside Yellowstone National Park; persecuted and slaughtered outside its boundaries”
Comment on this post at animal law blog Animal Blawg.

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