February 2014 – Take the Moment is dedicated to our habitat and its denizens, the creatures who live in it beside us (and over, under, and in). Its goal is to paint a picture of the patterns of life on our Earth: we all live, feed on other living beings, try to carve out a place for ourselves and our young, and are finally recycled for some other life form’s use. The process is the great dance of life and death, terrible and beautiful.
This site is also about keeping up with the growing knowledge of our wild neighbors – not all of them, that’s too big a canvas. But so far, about birds. But that could change at any time! Watch the section called Take This Moment for updates on what’s new in research and sometimes just new observations.
December 24, 2013 – A Heart-felt Wish for the Well-Being of Our Planet
Let Us Take Care: The Lives We Protect May Be All the Life There Is
December 13, 2013, headline in many national papers: “This week, the Food and Drug Administration announced new policies to curtail the widespread use of antibiotics in cows, pigs and chickens raised for meat.”
Later headlines: The US administration allows the killing of eagles in wind farms in order to further our search for “clean” energy.
People who work closely with wildlife rehabilitation organizations and ecological concerns have known for decades about the dangers of irresponsible use of drugs and chemicals. The story behind the development and final banning of DDT and DDE, the “miracle” pesticides of post-WWII agriculture, is a telling example. They first decimated our smaller, more susceptible cousins, the birds. Years later, their adverse effects began to appear in humans, as well. We are bigger creatures, and the toxic effects of chemical accumulation in our tissues takes longer to show up. Mammary glands are store houses of accumulators. And mother’s milk in the 1970s tested very high in DDT, causing liver problems in some nursing infants.
In the same post-war era, powerful antibiotics, such as penicillin, were introduced in the general market, as “miracle drugs.” They too were quickly over-used and misused, to the point that decades later, our water-table is contaminated in many areas, and disease pathogens we had “conquered” are once again surfacing, now immune to the antibiotics that once protected us from them.
These are the most widely discussed effects of drug misuse. But others are equally disturbing and deadly. The FDA is finally beginning to acknowledge the terrible consequences of widespread antibiotic use in domestic animals. These, and growth hormones, were long administered to cattle designed for our tables because in order to get the rich, marbled flesh we prize in ever-larger herds, cattle must be fed grains. Cattle are not grain eaters, by design. They are grazers – grass eaters. And grains distress their digestive systems, causing inflammations and infections. When the cattle are given antibiotics to off-set that problem, they are also given growth hormones to speed growth so the animals will live long enough, despite stress, to put on the flesh that makes them so valuable in the meat market.
We quickly turn away from problems in our food industry practices until the mass of evidence tips the scale, and then we, the people, panic and make a clamor. Generally not soon enough to prevent problems with wild animals. Monarch Butterflies. Bald Eagles. Peregrine Falcons. Finally, humans.
The internet is a powerful spreader of news, so this time the cycle is sending ripples far and wide. For example, in recent decades, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, was routinely administered to cattle in Asia for the reasons given above. The cattle tolerated the drug well, but it accumulated in carcasses, and did not break down with the animals’ death. Instead, substantial amounts remained in the flesh that was consumed by scavengers. (Incidentally, humans eating these cattle may also be building toward a late effect, as happened with DDT.) But once more other species, this time the scavengers, are our new canaries in the coal mine.
Here is the broad picture: India, Pakistan, and other countries in south Asia have for many centuries depended upon the services of large vultures to clean up their waste animal products. Town dumps and open spaces and even city streets have been kept clean and disease-free by millions of vultures who can quickly consume any carrion, and whose digestive systems are able to destroy most common natural pathogens. But diclofenac caused the vultures to die of kidney failure. In the late 1980s, into the 1990s, scientists recorded a swift and alarming drop in vulture species in these areas. Millions perished in a matter of 20 years. Many scientific groups sought the cause, and in 2006, the Peregrine Fund identified the culprit, diclofenac, and convinced several areas in Pakistan, in particular, to limit or ban the use of the drug in animals. Some of the vulture species began to recover quickly, but the largest and once most numerous and useful have not made much of a comeback. The surviving populations are too small, and breed too infrequently by nature, to rally.
Most recently, India, which had instituted a partial ban, is once more killing its vultures. Veterinarians have found a loophole in the ban and are again treating cattle destined for the meat market with the toxic drug. And once more, vultures are paying the price.
That’s not all: other problems are growing. Rabies, a disease carried by mammals but not by birds, has begun to spread in south Asia among humans. The feral dogs, who have taken over the garbage areas of India and Pakistan in the absence of vultures, are spreading this fatal disease by biting humans who come near them or try to drive them away. And that is only one disease. Vultures are thorough and swift. Other scavengers, even microbes, are not. And the garbage areas once quickly cleaned by the birds are today stinking, disease-ridden sumps.
The death of the vultures is having a cultural effect, as well. In Asia several ancient societies have for thousands of years counted on vultures to consume their human dead. It is not only part of their death and burial rituals, but often it is key to their beliefs in not contaminating the planet. Burial and cremation, they say, make the air and water impure and are not acceptable forms of disposing of the dead.
”Vulture panel” from the ancient city, Catal Huyuk. This artwork, showing vultures feeding on human corpses, dates from about 8,000 years ago.
So in India and Pakistan today, a number of living societies are facing a difficult problem: to somehow provide protection for the vultures they count on in their burial rituals, or else give up their age-old rites of passage.
There is no easy cure for our mistakes, after we have made them. But we can prevent them. Or at least reduce them. It means another cultural jolt, however: we, in the West, must put quick profits aside and spend time counting the consequences before we make changes. Today, that means not only drugs, but energy production and genetically modified foods as well. Built in pesticides in plant seeds are killing the pollinators.
On this beautiful planet, we are all connected. And if we want to, we can surely act on the knowledge that when we seek changes for our human purposes, we would do well to consider before acting the consequences not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors and for the whole. It means first of all acknowledging the universal web of life, and second, putting that general life above our smaller desires.
Monarch Butterfly: A Vanishing Miracle
How do we get to this point? It’s been said many times that we don’t protect what we don’t love, and we love what we know and need. So clearly education is the first step. The second, more radical, to my mind, is that we somehow must encourage the deep belief that the life of the planet and its denizens is a religion more powerful than any other. Powerful and full of miracles, and toned with the voice of the whirlwind.
Many creatures, over the eons Earth has existed, have arisen and passed into extinction, most long before we walked upright and began to turn the world to suit our restless brains. It was usually, but not always, a long, slow process. Today we are increasing the spread and speed of changes, however, and if we don’t take care, we run the danger of presenting Earth with more than she, in her beautiful fashion, can absorb and contain. We need to learn to respect and care for this cradle of life. Treat Earth like the universal shrine she is. Take time. Pay attention. Be patient. This means, for example, not allowing wind “farms” to kill birds because it would cost to much not to kill them, but agreeing on styles of wind turbos that will allow birds to see and avoid them. And so with every one of our schemes.
Some day the Sun, in its natural evolution, will kill Earth, burn her up and blow her away. But it would be a sad irony if before then, one of her most successful species, instead of working to preserve and perhaps move life elsewhere in the Universe, destroys the very base of that life. And Earth’s life, if it began in the singular accidental moment some biochemists now suggest, may well be the only life there is.