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Condors and Cages

Can animals think? Do they experience emotions? Until the mid-twentieth century, the generally accepted answer to both questions was no. Following in the footsteps of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, psychologist John Watson, and behaviorist B.F. Skinner, scientists and properly educated people ordained that all animal behavior could be explained through the simple agency of cause-and-effect. A dog wagging her tail and barking when you arrived home wasn’t “happy”; she was exhibiting a reflex behavior triggered by the stimulus of your arrival, behavior that through trial-and-error, the animal had learned, would lead to the rewards of food and shelter. The key to understanding any animal-related phenomenon was measurement. If something could be measured as, say, salivation in a dog could be measured, it was worthy of study; if it couldn’t, as happiness could not, it didn’t exist.

Today, scientific appraisals of those questions and their answers have undergone an earthshaking turnabout. Crows fashion tools, we now know, parrots arrange words into sentences, chimpanzees learn American Sign Language, elephants grieve for their dead.[i] Modern-day behaviorists continue to cling to time-honored notions of stimulus and reward, but must search farther and farther down the chain of animal life for creatures to study, as ever-simpler species are found to exhibit intelligent or emotional behavior. I wrote about one such in my book Mountains of the Great Blue Dream.

Consider the tiny planarian worm, a resident of seashore and swamp for some six hundred million years. One of the simplest forms of life on earth, the planarian enjoys neither brain, digestive system, circulation system, nor, except on occasions so rare they must surely have acquired among members of the species the status of Christmas, sex. To gather its news of the world, to think, worry, appreciate, and plan, the planarian relies on a single pair of nerves connected by two ganglia.

That is it, about a trillionth or so of what each of us can turn to the same purpose. Given these modest gifts, the planarian must have a level of awareness scarcely higher than that of the matchbox or the spoon. Yet in ways no one can fathom the little creature can learn, remember, choose sensibly, and....exhibit topophilia [the proclivity to grow attached to a particular landscape]. Planarians prefer to eat in places they know well--comfy places, homey places. Offered food in a strange location, they'll take twice as long to begin eating as will their cousins on familiar ground. Give them an opportunity to know a spot, to stretch out and learn the lay of the land, and they'll quickly grow attached to it, taking their meals there as apparently contentedly as you or I might in our favorite chair at the dining room table. It’s pleasant to speculate that planarians may have a rudimentary understanding of home, and that home would live forever in their hearts, if only they had hearts.[ii]

Once opened, our eyes find much to see. As a puppy, my golden retriever Goldie learned to stand at the back door and bark when she had been outside for a while and wanted to come in. Not long after, she began barking to alert me that, while she fully intended to stay outside, the family cat was at the door and would like to come in. Goldie instituted this useful service on her own, without lessons and without liver snacks.

Then there’s this, a story that grew to the status of legend in my family. Each night when I was a child, my dog Buster was consigned to the dank, dark cellar of our century-old farmhouse in northwestern Pennsylvania, there to spend eight or ten hours alone in the gloom.

He hated it. As early evening progressed toward its inevitable climax, he made himself scarce as best he could, dreading what lay ahead. When the terrible moment arrived, my father would take the dog by the collar and lead him to the cellar door, open it quickly, then give a little boost to send the poor creature on his way. The following morning Buster would be at the top of the steps early, ready to escape his imprisonment the second the door opened.

Buster’s best friend, a collie named Penny, lived across the street. The two animals were nearly inseparable, spending much of each day together. One morning, crossing the street to our house, Penny was struck by a car and killed.

Buster saw it happen; he watched as adults and neighborhood kids crowded around, some of them crying. Eventually the scene was cleaned up and Penny was taken away. Shortly after returning to our house my mother saw Buster standing at the cellar door. Somehow understanding his intention, she opened the door. Of his own accord, he descended to the basement. There he remained, through that day and night and the next as well. On the third morning a bark was heard at the door. Buster stepped into the kitchen, at peace with the world, ready to go on with his life.

* * *

One might expect that the sea change in our understanding of the inner lives of animals would result in greater respect for their needs, and more humane treatment. And, indeed, in many cases it has. In one important area, however, an area that enjoys the overwhelming support of wildlife biologists, government officials, and the public alike, it has not. I’m speaking of the well-meaning but deeply flawed solution to the problem of saving endangered species by breeding them in captivity. Promoted as compassionate and necessary, most such programs are designed to serve the needs of future generations of animals, with little concern given for the needs of the animals that are captured and caged today. In what can only be regarded as a specious twist of logic, freedom is judged unworthy for those imprisoned creatures, but something to be sought after for imagined animals that may or may not be born years in the future.

Consider the California condor, the largest bird found in North America. It’s an amazing beast, weighing in at some twenty-five pounds, its wingspan approaching ten feet. Taking off, a condor will glide about for a while till it catches a warm updraft, then begin a slow, spiraling ascent around the rising column of air. The bird may not beat its wings again for half an hour, when it levels off two or even three miles above the ground. Reversing course, it begins its descent to feed, landing perhaps forty miles from its takeoff point. In a day, the bird might travel 150 miles.

Does a California condor enjoy spiraling three miles into the sky around a warm column of air? While doing so, is it thinking noble thoughts?

Who can say? What we know is that there’s nothing to eat up there and the bird could reach a delicious animal carcass—condors are scavengers—much faster by flying low and keeping an eye out for other feeding scavengers. Why doesn’t it take the beeline?

Again, consider that the view up yonder is grand and there are no other creatures around, and by their behavior condors have shown that they like quiet and solitude. They’re not tame or inquisitive creatures that perch dilatorily beside highways or search for food in suburban backyards. They nest and carry out their other affairs in remote locations, as far from civilized activity as possible. When humans intrude, the birds will quickly move elsewhere.

Condors have roamed the skies of the American West for 10,000 years. Slowly over the last half of the twentieth century the population began to crash, the fallout from multiple human-created threats to the reclusive birds that have included pesticides such as DDT, illegal hunting, land clearance for homes and expanding suburbs, oil exploration, electrocution by high-voltage power lines, collision with wind turbine blades; most insidiously, lead fragments from bullets that the birds ingest in animal carcasses and gut piles, and which can be lethal.

By the early 1980s exactly eleven California condors remained in the wild. Alarmed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in, proposing that the eleven be captured and put to work as a seed population for new generations of condors that would eventually be released into the wild. The proposal was quickly endorsed by a Who’s Who of conservation and research organizations that included the Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution. The eleven surviving birds and some of their eggs were captured and transferred to breeding facilities at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Fifteen of the eggs hatched, bringing to twenty-seven the total number of condors held in captivity as the recovery program began. (The total included a condor named Topa-Topa that had resided at the Los Angeles Zoo since 1967.)

Thirty-five years later more than two hundred cage-bred California condors soar the skies above the mountains of Southern California, Arizona, and Utah. Two hundred more compose the breeding stock at the two zoos and at several additional facilities that have been added in recent years. The program has been widely lauded as a huge success.

Is it?

For three reasons, I don't think so.

  • Condors hate cages. To reach this conclusion, one needs only to observe the freeing of a cage-bred condor. In a remote mountain location the bird waits in a large cage while officials and often members of the press or the public mill about. The cage door is opened. The condor wanders over to the door. We might imagine that he or she now considers the options. Do I go or do I stay? It’s a tough world out there. I’ve never been on my own before and I’ll have to fly a hundred miles a day just to feed myself. Maybe I’ll just take a short flight and then return and hop back in the cage. I have it pretty good at the zoo.

Actually, none of that happens. What happens is that the condor vaults through the door and takes off like a bat out of hell. Captivity, it turns out, stinks, and no condor about to be released has ever decided to stay in the cage. If an earthquake hits Los Angeles and cracks open the cages where scores of condors are currently being held, you can be sure that a jailbreak of unprecedented proportions will ensue. (Check the San Diego Zoo and Los Angeles Zoo websites. You’ll find soaring paeans to the grandeur of wild condors in flight and photographs of same, but no photos of grounded condors in their breeding facilities, which are off-limits to zoo visitors.)

  • The goal of the breeding program is precisely to establish a self-sustaining population of condors in the wild. Condor freedom is understood by the program’s supporters to be the point of it all. Having acknowledged the validity of that principle, it’s a mystery how those supporters can justify applying it arbitrarily, granting its benefits to the condors of the future, while denying them to some 200 condors that are held in captivity today.

  • The hazards that led to the decline of the species in the first place are still present and will continue to kill wild condors. Foremost among them is lead poisoning resulting from the ingestion of carrion killed by hunters using lead-based ammunition. In a 2015 article in Ecologist magazine, writer Dawn Starin reported some chilling statistics. From 1992 to 2013, 237 condor deaths took place in the wild. Where the cause of death was known, 37 percent were due to lead poisoning. Half of the American Southwest’s free-flying condor population had blood-lead levels high enough to require recapture and hospitalization. A California law banning the use of lead-based ammunition is due to take effect in 2019. The measure is strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association, which is lobbying to have the legislation overturned.[iii]

* * *

And so, to the obvious: If California condors are not bred in captivity, the species may in some dark future year go extinct, to be remembered by those of us who are alive today and by our descendants as a remarkable but unlucky species. Such an outcome would be a tragedy of incalculable proportions. Not only would we lose condors, we would be compelled to confront the disquieting fact that our pesticides and our second homes in the mountains and our bullets were responsible for their demise. Which would be better for us now--to continue to involve condors in a face-saving scheme that trades the freedom of many of the birds alive today for the dubious promise of those that may or may not be born tomorrow; or to dedicate ourselves to the creation and preservation of wild places where animals can live out their lives naturally, unthreatened by pesticides, second homes, and bullets, where they can stretch out and learn the lay of the land, where they can breed in peace?

Does a California condor enjoy spiraling three miles into the sky around a warm column of air? While doing so, is it thinking noble thoughts?

* * *

Photo credits: United States Fish and Wildlife Service


[ii] Robert Leonard Reid, Mountains of the Great Blue Dream (North Point Press, 1991), pp. 179-180; reprinted in Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West (Counterpoint, 2017), pp. 300-301



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