Endangered Species Handbook

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Persecution and Hunting

Predator Prejudice

     The Roman tradition of persecuting predators spread throughout Europe and intensified in proceeding centuries, reaching superstitious depths in the Middle Ages.  Beliefs that “werewolves” existed resulted in the persecution of wolves in Europe and Russia that continues today.  Fairy tales are still recounted to children, in which wolves and bears are depicted as voracious killers.  These stories, especially those by the Grimm brothers, frighten small children with tales of wolves, that pursued and ate small children and adults alike.  "Little Red Riding Hood" and other stories instilled horror and hatred of predators.  In Russia, the destruction of wolves was considered a great benefit to people, as well, with folklore embodied in tales such as "Peter and the Wolf."  Persecution of wolves in that country continues to this day.  With the spread of domestic livestock throughout Europe, official programs were instituted to destroy wolves (McIntyre 1995).  Wolves were not the only animals killed in these programs.  Lynx and Brown Bear were also eliminated from all but the most remote areas of Western Europe.
     When Europeans settled in America, they brought these prejudices with them, treating native predators as vermin.  Most colonies passed laws similar to Massachusetts' 1630 law requiring that "every English man that killeth a wolf . . . shall have allowed him one penny" (McIntyre 1995), and South Carolina's 1695 "Act for Destroying Beasts of Prey," which mandated that all Native American braves be required to bring in one skin of a wolf, panther, or bear, or two Bobcat skins each year.  If he failed to do so, he would be "severely whipped," but if more than one skin was provided, he would receive a reward (Nowak 1972).  In the East, these programs systematically killed off Gray Wolves, bears and Cougars.  Large predators were effectively eliminated in the eastern states by the early 1800s, except for the Black Bear, which became greatly reduced in range and numbers.
     The US government ran predator control programs throughout the country.  Traps and poisons were the major tools used.  Poison was liberally spread over most of the West.  Thallium sulfate, strychnine, Compound 1080, and cyanide were distributed in great quantities, killing not only wolves, bears, and Coyotes, but foxes, weasels, ferrets, eagles and other birds.  Any animals that ate the poisoned bait died, as well as those feeding on their carcasses.  All these poisons caused a painful death, and most killed slowly.  Poisoned animals could take hours to die from Compound 1080, and sometimes days after ingesting thallium sulfate.  Strychnine, an extremely painful poison, can make water supplies lethal, killing humans, dogs and livestock.  The wild predators that consumed Strychnine would vomit while dying from convulsions.  Their bodies spread more poison, which remained toxic for a year or more.
     Trapping was equally indiscriminate in its victims.  Irrational prejudices against predators resulted in the total extermination, even in remote wilderness areas, of America's wolves and almost all its bears through bounty systems, federal subsidies and government control programs.  Trappers and poisoners combed the countryside, randomly placing poison and traps.
     Prejudice against predators affects a wide spectrum of animals, from foxes and bears to bats and birds of prey.  Although the number of species that have become threatened as a result of control programs and random killing is less than those threatened by habitat destruction, the ecological consequences have affected a host of species within their habitats.  These animals have co-evolved with their prey, the wolf making the deer fleet; wild cats making gazelles, zebras and hundreds of other ungulates agile.  Although there is dispute as to the effect that predators have on the populations of their prey, overpopulations of deer and other ungulates have occurred in many parts of the world where predators have been eliminated.  When ungulates overpopulate, they tend to overgraze their habitats, eliminating many types of vegetation, as well as birds and other wildlife dependent on that vegetation for feeding and habitat.  Thus, thousands of species may be adversely affected when predators are destroyed.
     Many species of snakes, as well as small carnivores such as foxes, eat large numbers of rodents, performing important roles in preventing population explosions of these prey animals.  Bats, as the most important predator of insects, control insect populations, as documented by many scientific studies.  These mammals, although more abundant in number and diversity than carnivores, have declined radically in recent years, as evidenced by the enormous number now listed in the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  From a humane point of view, predator control has brought out the worst in human character, suppressing reason and compassion to allow fear and hate to dominate.  As science has learned more about the importance of predators, and they are being protected and reintroduced in a growing number of areas in the world, prejudices remain, as do centuries-old ways of raising livestock that involve killing predators.  These latter problems need to be addressed with the same vigor that has elevated predators to their rightful place at the top of their food chains in the eyes of conservationists and scientists.

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