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On the “Eradication” of the European Mute Swan

NPR’s John Nielsen’s Scientists Prowl to Destroy Mute Swan Eggs raises a Gray Matter for me, and I’m probably going to get a mailbox full of negative comments, but here goes . . .

European mute swans (Cygnus olor) were brought here 50 years or so ago by a family living on the eastern shore of Maryland who thought they were pretty. Five escaped in 1962 and started breeding in the wild.
By 2000, there were 4,000, and the population doubles every 4 years.
The birds are allegedly hostile to native birds (such as the wintering tundra swans), and have caused some unspeakable damage to the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). Citizens complaints vary from the all-time favorite–poop–to disturbance of crabbing and fishing, to disruption of recreation on the water. Maryland’s solution? The state authorized shooting them and addling their eggs in the hope of "eradicating" them.

Let’s deconstruct:

  • Clearly, shooting anyone is not humane, so I won’t even address that.
  • We (human animals) created this "crisis" by unleashing (yet another) non-native species on our surrounds. Now, I’m not even sure it’s a legitimate crisis, but in order to get community buy-in for any kind of nonhuman animal management program, the state (usually) has to convince the people that there is significant danger or inconvenience to warrant intervention of the killing kind.
  • Assuming it’s a legitimate crisis, I wonder about whether addling is inhumane. From a rights perspective, I’m not supposed to endorse human intervention in wildlife matters. But how is the mute swan situation that different from the cat and dog situation? I know it’s not identical, as cats and dogs were domesticated by people. But the original swans were brought here sort of as toys, or pretty things to look at, and then because of the irresponsibility and lack of forethought of those people, we have the current situation. How is trapping, neutering, and releasing different (in outcome) than addling? The population naturally dwindles (assuming addling is done correctly), and that’s the goal.

I know that some rights people are against contraception (of elephants, kangaroos, and whatever other species have become a "nuisance") and I’m sure they’d be against addling. But an addled egg does not house a sentient being and I don’t understand how that’s inhumane. Is it the addling and the sterilization or contraception that’s the problem across the board, or is this a case-by-case issue?

Finally, so many animals and plants (oh, and people) are here that are non-native. It’s a tad suspicious that we choose to "eradicate" certain species and not others. Being non-native doesn’t seem to be the real issue, but it’s a great scapegoat. The real issue is: if it gets in our way, we can use the non-native card and do what we want.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Deb #

    My first degree was in biology, which makes me no more qualified to make a determination, but does give me (what feels like) a more layered perspective on some of the issues.

    My first thought when these issues are brought up is that nature finds a way to equilibrium. That's how things work. 50 years isn't much time for the ecosystem to adapt, but probably adaptations have started. What research has been done from that perspective? This could easily be something that would begin to take care of itself if we stay out of it.

    As far as addling goes, I'd be more in favor of egg addling than some other means of contraceptive. When I've heard people talk about putting deer on the pill, I cringe. Ecosystems are not closed systems. You can't add something to one organism and expect it to stay contained. So you then have to research how using contraceptives on deer (or whatever species) is going to impact everything in the ecosystem…and the problem is that it is near impossible to model (and therefore predict) ecosystems. There are too many factors, they are too complex. So egg addling is certainly less intrusive than adding chemicals to the ecosystem.

    On the other hand, I'm bothered by the egg addling because of what I know of history – human interference, no matter how noble the purpose, always seems to end in a worse outcome than the original "problem". Would it necessarily be true in a situation like this? I have no idea, and I'd not be inclined to guess! (The only successful introduction of a non-native species to take care of a problem from another non-native species that I have ever heard of is the introduction of the dung beetle into australia.)

    My best guess is that with no human intervention, some hungry predators will start to prey more on these swans than on other wildlife, simply because they are more abundant, and that makes them better targets. This is where I'd be interested in some research on the topic of ecosystem adjustment to the addition of the mute swans – the increased predation is likely already happening. If it is, we should definitely let nature do its thing. The egg addling isn't a solution that will effect a permanent solution – it would be a constant need, given the rates these swans have multiplied so far. Is it a true solution if constant maintenance is needed? I'm not convinced.

    I didn't speak much to the AR perspective, because it would mean a simple "let them be" type statement. I'm pragmatic enough to point out where my pre-existing biology/ecology convictions match my AR convictions. It is definitely an interesting topic – part of AR, in my opinion, is taking care of the environment. Sometimes these two aims might appear to be in conflict, so how do we determine a course of action if/when that happens?

    May 2, 2007
  2. Great stuff, Deb. Thanks so much for that valuable information.
    I've e-mailed Terry Cummings of Poplar (she was featured in the NPR piece but I wasn't clear about her thoughts). I've also asked Gary Francione and Lee Hall for their thoughts, so I hope to have a comprehensive response to this issue soon, from the AR perspective. (And from someone–Terry–who has the inside scoop. I'm sure that the magic of editing prevented us from hearing everything she had to say. I don't know Terry, so if you would ask her as well, I'd appreciate it.)

    May 3, 2007
  3. Deb #

    Sure, no problem! I'll see Terry this weekend, and I'll make sure to ask her what she thinks, and report back the more-than-a-sound-bite version!

    May 3, 2007

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