When Animal Rights Backfire

Saving the ‘furry’ animals—despite science—can devastate ecosystems.
A deer in Two Harbors, Michigan, on December 21, 2008. (Photo: Stephanie Himango/Getty Images)
Apr 8, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

There are times—too many times, in truth—when understanding and protecting the natural world demands that we band together to stop the killing: The macho practice of shooting wolves in the American West comes to mind as an example. So does the relentless slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa. But at other times, protecting the natural world requires us to kill, and this is the painful reality some animal rights activists refuse to understand.

It’s not a failure to communicate. Animal rights groups are often brilliant at communicating. It’s a failure to reason in the face of scientific evidence, and it comes up almost endlessly for people who do the real work of protecting the natural world.

The latest case happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city wanted to cull a booming deer population that is destroying the forest understory, damaging local landscaping, and causing car accidents (88 last year, double what it was just five years ago). Then both the Humane Society of the United States and the local chapter of the Humane Society—two separate entities—showed up to cry, “Cruelty!”

But, hang on, why should the rest of us care about Ann Arbor, a university town of 113,000 people 45 minutes west of Detroit? It matters, says Christopher Dick, a plant ecologist at the University of Michigan, because “HSUS is pitting its huge resources and cherry-picked science against every small town in the eastern U.S. that is having deer overabundance issues and considering lethal options.”

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Activists put on a reasonable face when they come into town to meet with local officials, typically proposing an experimental project with nonlethal methods, meaning sterilization or contraceptives. Among other things, that experiment requires catching and tranquilizing a large percentage of the deer for either surgery or a contraceptive implant, and it has never succeeded anywhere else. But local politicians rarely know better. Then, “when it comes time to implement,” HSUS imposes “a condition that there can be no killing of deer for an extended period.” It’s all part of the strategy, says Dick: “Start the ‘experiment’ (destined to fail), stall the shooting, and meanwhile help to generate a political storm so that local governance will not want anything to do with deer management.”

It matters well beyond the eastern United States, because animal rights groups everywhere play on our emotions to protect a few favored species at the expense of entire ecosystems. HSUS, for instance, claims to be dedicated to creating “a humane and sustainable world for all animals.” But what this generally means is protecting warm, furry mammals—for instance, outdoor cats. Upwards of 20 million of them now roam the American landscape, and they kill billions of birds. But rather than culling the cats to protect the birds and other innocent victims, HSUS supports the failed policy of “trap-neuter-release.” This effectively creates vast, permanent populations of “community cats” to do their killing, though mostly out of our sight.

Likewise, 58,000 wild horses are now browsing the American West down to nubble, destroying ecosystems on which other species (and the horses themselves) depend for survival. But rather than culling the horses, HSUS advocates “compassion and concern.” That attitude does nothing to stop a developing ecological apocalypse as the horses pound grasslands and the underlying soil to dust. Nor does it allow any sensible alternative to the current practice of housing 45,000 formerly wild horses in “retirement” facilities, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $77 million a year.

But back to Ann Arbor, now home to somewhere between 500 and 1,500 deer. As the deer have multiplied, they have had a devastating effect on habitat. “Almost nothing, even junipers, are spared during late winter when there has been snow cover and the deer are starving,” said Larry D. Noodén, a retired University of Michigan biology professor. “The beautiful spring flora gets devastated…and the orchids are the first to be hit even when there is plenty of deer food.” The deer also like to browse down oak saplings, and they die out, changing the structure of the forest. Barberry shrubs often move in to replace them.

Does it matter? Barberry, an invasive species, tends to grow in dense stands that are habitat mostly for deer mice and deer ticks, a recipe for Lyme disease. And here’s the thing about oaks: They provide homes to caterpillars from 534 species of butterflies and moths. The butterflies and moths, in turn, are essential food for birds. So when you encourage overpopulation by deer, you end up driving out dozens of other species.

The good news from Ann Arbor is that city officials saw through the HSUS smokescreen of nonsense and lawsuits. They went forward with their cull, taking out 63 deer earlier this year. The venison went to food shelters. It remains to be seen whether ecological common sense will endure through another round of emotional assaults before next winter’s cull.

Here is the bottom line, for when HSUS shows up in your community. Because those two words, “Humane Society,” start the name, a lot of people donate to HSUS under the assumption that their gift supports local animal shelters. That’s how HSUS was able to collect donations totaling $135 million in 2014, and it’s the reason even some University of Michigan faculty thought it was almost sacrilegious to criticize the group. In fact, HSUS has no direct connection to local animal shelters, and only a tiny fraction of its budget goes in direct grants to animal shelters. Its main function, according to its tax statement, is “advocacy and public policy”—that is, lobbying.

The people at HSUS are no doubt decent and well meaning, and compassion for animals is a good thing. But they parse out that compassion on extremely narrow lines and largely in ignorance of how the natural world works. That means your gift to HSUS—and many other animal rights groups—supports a vision of a cute, cuddly America, when the desperate need is to stop the decline of a wild America that is already rapidly vanishing around us.