Invasive Swans or Infected Journalism?

» February 2nd, 2014

Good news first: the media is covering animals to a greater extent than ever before. A fortuitous convergence of responsible advocacy, advanced science (animal ethology), and consumer demand for animal-related content has fostered a more sustained emphasis on a wider range of animal issues. The bad news, of course, is that most of it stinks. I mean, to high heaven.

There are two main ways animal advocates can react to this stench: with anger or with sympathy. Anger sure feels good, and I’ve been guilty of indulging it. But it leads to snark and snark leads to divisiveness and divisiveness means that the mainstream writing on animals will never improve. After all, if I send a “you suck” letter to every reporter who gets the animal story all wrong, I create a situation for the reporter in which ameliorating the problem validates her own abuse. Not a promising strategy.

Sympathy is different. Have you ever been in over your head and had someone throw you a rope?  Have you ever had this rescue happen without the person reprimanding you for getting into that situation but, instead, helping you figure out how to avoid it in the future? That’s the approach I’d like to take–the tone I prefer to assume–as I go about deconstructing a recent story, a real stinker, by New York Times reporter Lisa W. Foderaro. In any case, I’ll do my best.

…………………..

Before proceeding, take a moment to read the piece here. Virtually every sentence in the article is marked by a problem–and often a fundamental one–but for the sake of brevity and readability I’ll focus on a few clunkers, doing so in an effort to highlight issues that, as they’re circulated in the social media, might bubble up to the reporters who make these mistakes and, one hopes, motivate them to write in a way that at least acknowledges they’re covering the lives of emotional and sentient beings, not objects.

Trouble begins in the first sentence, when Foderaro frames the issue in terms of swans being “an invasive species.” The problem with this characterization is that there’s never any indication of what it is that makes swans invasive–other than the fact they are not native to the region. Of course, by that standard, most of New York’s flora and fauna–not to mention citizens–would also be invasive and, in turn, have to be “destroyed”–the word Foderaro uses to describe what might happen to urban swans–on that basis. So, right off the bat, the article quietly tilts in a pro-slaughter direction, doing so based on an undefined but quite loaded term.

Perhaps by “invasive” Foderaro is implying that the 2,200 or so swans are creating substantial economic or ecological havoc (or both). If this were the case, she needs to make that premise crystal clear and, given that slaughtering sentient creatures is at stake, thoroughly back it up with factual data. (Of course, then we would ask another set of questions.) Instead, she merely writes that the swans are seen as “nasty” for “destroying habitat for native ducks and geese, attacking other waterfowl and people, and posing a risk to passenger jets.” This kind of statement creates compound interest for insidious cynicism: by assuming what you refuse to ground in the data of reality (the actual consequences of invasion) you perpetuate the idea that animals don’t have moral worth, despite the fact that all but psychopaths and Ted Nugent know they do.

Anyway, these claims are too casually made. Every animal has an impact on the environment. So, to what extent, we need to know, are swans destroying habitats for native ducks? Give us perspective on this–say, by referring to how this kind of issue played out in the Chesapeake Bay or elsewhere. Moreover, are other organisms interfering with the ducks as well (uh, humans)? This possibility goes unmentioned, although the piece notes that the swans are yanking up aquatic vegetation and clouding the water and disrupting food chains (but, again, is that such a big deal, really, given that ships and barges are plowing through the Hudson as well?). As far as attacking other animals goes, well, is New York planning to “destroy” other animals that become aggressive with their peers? Or will the city implement a policy that protects native bullying? As for passenger jets, are swans the only birds that pose a threat to airplanes?  And if so, to what extent?  And how does that alleged threat to flight safety compare to other threats, such as overworked air traffic controllers or old airplanes with freaking table trays that won’t properly lock? Aren’t there other, less lethal ways, to make flying safe? And as far as swans harming people, well, please. How many people do you know who have been assaulted by a swan?

The failure to address any of these questions dooms this piece from the start. What this false start means for the reader is that, before getting past the second graph, he’s already convinced, albeit without any evidence, that swans are an invasive animal destroying the Hudson, driving out native ducks, harming people, and posing a threat to airplane traffic. Get over your romantic attachment to these menaces! They deserve to die! All of this without a shred of context or supporting data. Those omissions strike me as bad journalism, the kind you could only get away with if you were writing about an animal without a formal voice on the matter and an editor who knew that geese weren’t going to picket his office or call his boss and complain. (Yeah, I know, I got a bit snarky in there.. . . )

……………

The article gets worse when Foderaro recruits quotes to buttress what she implicitly presents as a fair article on a tough ecological issue. To support the “destroy” perspective, she quotes what appear to be a phalanx of expertise: a State Department of Conservation authority, an Audubon Society expert, a wildlife scientist at Cornell. Representing the anti-destroy position are, by the reporters own admission, “animal rights activists and park goers.” Needless to say, the use of the term “activist” here is code for “loony tunes” and, as for those park goers, these vagabonds are presented as sitting around “tossing bread and pizza crusts” to the swans. (Although one guy had a great comment comparing human immigrants with non-human ones, a point Foderaro might have explored). But, you know, how about quoting an animal ethologist who might be able to provide another explanation–a behavioral one–for what Foderara sees as so “nasty”?

Perhaps being pressured to lend at least some anecdotal support to her earlier suggestion that New Yorkers are under grave threat of swan attacks, Foderaro ends her piece by quoting a bird watcher who “recalled the time she was canoeing with her husband and young son and was attacked by a swan. She fought it off with a paddle.” But was this woman actually attacked? The terrorized woman explains, “It was hissing like crazy and tried to get in the canoe with us .  . .  they make themselves look huge.”

As do the misrepresentations in this poorly written article.

35 Responses to Invasive Swans or Infected Journalism?

  1. Laura says:

    These writers are nothing more than mouthpieces for humanity as a willful disease. People’s calling any other species “invasive” really is galling. Wow, the irony! Nothing is more of an invasive cancer on this planet than the human race. All we have to do to stop being a cancer is to realize our humanity and act on that, with kindness and respect for life always at the top of our priorities. As it should be. Then the bullying and resulting school shoot-ups, the torture-murdered Baby Brianna’s, and all the rest of our horrors would be so extremely rare and freakish as to be virtually nonexistent. True civilization cannot exist without real, consistent, high regard for life.

    • Mountain says:

      You’re free to think of humanity however you wish, but I’d recommend losing phrases and concepts like “willful disease” and “cancer on this planet.” I’m not saying they’re wrong (though I’m not endorsing them, either), but for veganism to succeed in lessening harm to animals, it has to persuade people. Phrases like that tend to make people defensive and resistant.

      Again, you’re welcome to take whatever approach you think best. I suspect focusing on specific harms will be more successful than a generalized “cancer on the planet” approach.

      • Marianne says:

        First, this is not about veganism. This is simply killing fairly harmless animals because they exist. As for generalizations…nobody does that better than the DEC and USDA WS trying to justify killing. They kill geese ‘to keep planes safe’. Well the facts are, geese aren’t even listed as a cause of fatal plane crashes. I would hope you criticize the animal killing agencies for their vague generalizations and demonization of wildlife like this too.

        • Mountain says:

          This is a good illustration of what I’m talking about. In spite of what I thought was careful wording, you read my comment as an attack on veganism, and got defensive and antagonistic in response. I wasn’t trying to attack veganism, I was making a suggestion that I hoped would make vegan advocacy more effective. Vegans are currently 2-3% of the population. I’d like to see that number climb into the 10-15% range.

          Also, I won’t be suggesting ways for animal-killing government agencies to improve their messaging, since I don’t want them to be successful. In this case, the agencies’ ham-handed approach to swans has actually raised awareness and opposition to their plans. That’s an outcome I’m happy with.

      • Marianne says:

        David Attenborough called humans a plague on the planet. This is accurate. I do not believe it is exaggeration at all. These descriptions are to make people think and question not whine about being called names.

        Sir David Attenborough, the famed British naturalist and television presenter, has some harsh words for humanity.

        “We are a plague on the Earth,” Attenborough told the Radio Times, as reported by the Telegraph. “It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so.”

        http://www.livescience.com/26473-david-attenborough-humanity-plague.html

  2. Ingrid says:

    I’m quite familiar with this issue, having immersed myself in it when one of my Mute Swan photographs was used without permission by a state wildlife department to promote this level of extermination. If the reporter were to have engaged the “activist” side with any earnestness, she would have found ample reason to be cynical about the motives here, particularly in light of erroneous conclusions and suspect evidence.

    But, as you say, the journalistic laziness persists, where writers most often parrot talking points from the very resource department entities whose paychecks depend on the hook and bullet club, and who often have contracts benefitting the most egregious extermination unit of all, USDA’s Wildlife Services.

    My involvement with wildlife issues has taught me to be suspicious from word one, but especially when the term “invasive” is used. There’s obviously a huge branch of invasives biology now driving many land-use decisions, decisions that rely upon black-and-white reasoning without the nuance necessary to truly understand the complexity in these ecosystems.

    As you say, the most critical component in these “problems” is glossed over or denied — and that is our own species’ rapacious hoarding of the earth’s dwindling resources. Our actions are at the root of nearly every human-wildlife conflict scenario, through habitat displacement and development, technology, pollution, misguided extermination policies and, of course, through our initial placement of these species in areas where they weren’t originally breeding.

    As we always say, you need only follow the money trail to see the truth here.

    • mynamefluffy says:

      Exactly – invasiveness is in the eye of the beholder. An estimated 208,900 ducks were killed by hunting in New York State in 2012 (http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/Portals/9/pdf/WLMgmt/Harvest%20Report%20July%202013.pdf).

      As we know, hunters have a very strong lobby presence and I have no doubt that the main driving force behind this is the desire to preserve duck hunting territory (known by most of us as duck habitat).

      The other problem with the kind of writing exhibited here is the reality of human arrogance and presumed domination. The default position is always that it is the “right” of humans to kill or otherwise remove any living creature who gets in the way of whatever it is they might want to do, including killing other living creatures for sport. That is the default – it is presumed guilty until proven innocent. It falls on the “activist wackos” (also known as reasonable people who care about other living creatures) to present a case as to why the killing should not take place.

      In other words, it’s ass-backwards and always tilts towards those who want to kill.

      ~Linda

      • Marianne says:

        I believe hunters are still trying to restore the trumpeter swan population for hunting and they think mute swans have displaced them. It’s crazy…they kill a bird to extinction then want it back to kill some more. Once they have killed a species to that extinct they should not be able to make heroic efforts to restore it just to kill again.

        • Ingrid says:

          I believe the various wildlife departments in states where Mute Swans are being exterminated, anticipate our cynicism over this idea. Some of the official documents talk specifically about how they are not restoring native swans for the purpose of hunting. Right. Look at what’s happened with Snow Geese, as just one example. I’ve witnessed the rampant slaughter of these birds that occurs now, ostensibly to protect their Arctic breeding habitat. Where there’s a will, hunting groups will find a way.

  3. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    The issue I have is that once a thing is seen, no one seems to want to UN-see it…

    I advocate most strongly for wild horses and burros. I have read many Environmental Assessments – the documents authored by the Bureau of Land Management to illustrate reasons for their removals.

    There is an anecdote passed around freely in these documents about an incident observed by a Nevada Department of Wildlife agent in 2005, where a larger, more dominant wild horse chased a prong horn away from a water source. This has become a herald, yet another raison d’etre for removing wild equines from their environments.

    Except…

    In any natural setting – and by natural, I mean circumstances where humans are most likely viewed as an uninteresting landscape feature – there are animals that will dominate by order of size: In this case, wild equines, elk or deer will ‘bully’ the smaller prong horn, who in turn will probably ‘bully’ jack rabbits. It’s the pecking order. But this ‘observation’ is used frequently – and in documents for geographic areas where the story has absolutely NO bearing. A morsel of juiciness taken as gospel, now poorly and frequently administered as if it were a work of great literature – completely out of context.

    It’s unfortunate that words – in media, in Federal documentation – seem to be taken at face value, without questioning their viability or source. And those that read and decipher between the lines are becoming rare.

    I thank you, Mr. McWilliams, for a gifted and unjaded eye.

    • Ingrid says:

      Yes, so true, Lisa. And many times (not always), that hierarchy is a matter of course as understood by the animals. They can adjust. The photo of mine which was used by the wildlife department showed a Mute Swan reaching out to peck at a duck … precisely the reason the image was used without my blessing. It supposedly illustrated the dire consequences of having “non native” swans in these habitats. But that photo was one spec of a moment in an otherwise peaceful coexistence on this very pond … during breeding season. The ducks and swans were foraging for greens with just this one minor incident.

      That’s not to extrapolate a single anecdote to the whole of the issue. But, I spend so much time with wild animals, even without biology credentials, I’m savvy enough to avoid such stark characterizations of deeply layered situations. It really gets to me when people who should no better don’t show the same intellectual restraint.

  4. Mountain says:

    I’m happy to see you’re conducting a campaign to inform and persuade now, rather than a war.

    I suspect much of the problem is that you are reading The New York Times. It’s been garbage since I became aware of it as a kid, and it’s still garbage. Its breadth of coverage is greater than most, but its quality is not.

    Consider the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect that Michael Crichton wrote about years ago. The media’s handling of animals is likely no different from its handling of any other topic. But you’re an expert on animals, not on those other topics. So you notice all the errors and faulty assumptions in stories involving animals, but when you read stories about other topics, you don’t realize those stories are also loaded with errors and faulty assumptions, too.

    At any rate, feel free to attempt to educate the members of the media. I suspect they are beyond help. But animals and media are two areas of expertise for you, so I suppose you might as well try.

    • James says:

      Mountain,
      As long as we’re going to be sticklery about words, the last “campaign” I conducted was in the 9th grade when I ran for president of the “Outdoor Education Society.” And I f***ing won! So if you insist on “campaign,” I say: can I have your vote, sir?
      JM

      • Mountain says:

        If it’s sticklery you want, it’s sticklery you’ll get. “Campaign” has military roots, as well, coming from the Latin campania (Italian campagna, French campagne). Politicians adopted the word, as they have so many other military terms. So, though the military roots of campaign are less obvious and well-remembered than “war,” we’ll need to drop it as well.

        “Camping,” by the way, shares the same origin.

        If you want my vote, you can have my vote. My vote is for “approach,” which you used in the third paragraph of the post.

  5. Mountain says:

    Also, James, this is your nanny state at work. Rounding up burros, shooting coyotes and wolves, making plans to exterminate swans. I’m not opposed to some government that can step in if a species is truly devastating an ecosystem, but once a govt agency exists, how do you limit it to those extremely rare cases?

    I understand invasive species upset existing ecosystems. I understand they threaten other plants and animals. But that’s life. No system stays at equilibrium forever. It may be unfortunate that many of these species were brought here (intentionally or accidentally) in the first place, but the best thing the government can do is just let it play out.

    The media, by and large, is just a mouthpiece for those in power. Except in the rarest of occasions, they don’t speak truth to power– they speak power to truth.

    • Ingrid says:

      Mountain, I disagree with your “nanny state” categorization. It’s quite near the opposite, actually. There exists in this country a wildlife oligarchy of sorts which serves the interests of the few — a minority of American citizens, most often hunting and extractive interests, driven by money like Pittman-Robertson funds. That elements of our government strong-arm environmental policies, sometimes against public good and majority protest, hardly qualifies these agencies for nanny status.

      • Mountain says:

        Ingrid, I agree with you completely that these agencies serve the interest of the few rather than the public good. That’s the hallmark of a nanny state; that’s its very nature. Regulatory agencies are always captured by special interests. Always. That politicians use of the rhetoric of “for the public good” or “for the children” doesn’t make it so. I suspect most politicians know their rhetoric is a lie, but even when they have good intentions, it never actually works out that way.

        Wildlife Services uses our taxpayer dollars to shoot wild animals on behalf of ranchers. The USDA serves the interests of Big Ag, not the small farmers or the consumers or the animals. Section 8 housing (and HUD in general) serve the interests of slumlords and developers, not the people who live in the slums. Prison guard unions, defense contractors, green energy companies, etc. It’s nanny state cronies all the way down.

    • mynamefluffy says:

      I agree with you that it is hard to decide where to draw the line as to govt intervention in ecological issues. Especially because, as Ingrid points out, the govt agencies are largely in collusion with industrial polluters, big ag, and hunting interests and are really serving THEIR agendas rather than actually protecting anything. I hate to see government get involved in these matters, but unfortunately since they often screw it up trying to serve corporate masters, they have to get involved to fix things later.

      Also it is important to remember that many “invasive” species traveled here with humans or in packages of imported food and other products. Just another sad but silent example of how we keep getting screwed by “free trade” agreements. Jobs go out, and new species come in.

      ~Linda

      • Ingrid says:

        True, and you also have situations where animals have adapted to originally non-native plant species now long established here — and where eradication of those species presents a cascade of effects. Eucalyptus in California is one such non-native tree species, where Monarch butterflies rely on the trees during their migration to areas like Pacific Grove on the coast. Any remedial measures need to be as nuanced as the ecosystems they’re serving.

        • Ingrid says:

          We’re definitely in agreement in principle, Mountain, maybe not on semantics. You realize that the term “nanny state” is most often used in this country to justify cuts in public benefits programs, slashes in environmental regulations and so forth …

          • Ingrid says:

            Sorry, Linda … meant this reply for Mountain.

          • Mountain says:

            My example of Section 8 housing, above, is something people usually think of as a public benefit program, but I would love to see it slashed. Slumlords build or buy buildings knowing they’ve got guaranteed income through Section 8 housing. They then don’t take care of the buildings because they know their income is guaranteed regardless, and having a nicer building isn’t going to raise their rental income. So poor people have a housing subsidy, but it leaves them stuck in slum conditions that a landlord has no incentive to improve. Meanwhile, slumlords have a low-risk way to grow their wealth. It’s called a benefit for the poor, but who really benefits?

            If people want to help the poor, give them money. Don’t develop a nanny state to tell them how to spend their money. If people don’t like how poor people spend their money, then give them less money. But don’t try to tell poor people how to live their lives.

          • Mountain says:

            Applying this reasoning to animals, if people are concerned about native species being out-competed by invasive species, feel free to put in place measures to try to keep more invasive species from showing up, but don’t kill the ones who are already here. Also, if people want to restore aspects of an ecosystem that give native species a better chance to compete with invasive species, that’s fine, but don’t kill the invasive species that are already here. Don’t kill the swans, don’t round up the burros, don’t shoot the coyotes.

            Species invasion happens. Native Americans aren’t even native. They’re an invasive species that came over on the Bering land bridge thousands of years ago. They wiped out all the megafauna of the Americas. Then a more concentrated dose of that same species (humans) came over about 500 years ago, and accelerated the devastation of native species. We can help ameliorate specific situations, but there’s no stopping the larger trend.

        • mynamefluffy says:

          If non-invested scientists were making the decisions about what “invasive”species were causing problems to other species, I would not be as concerned. But it is officials at agencies being influenced by other interests (mostly corporate, hunting, and big ag), so even if they have a science degree, I don’t trust them. ~Linda

  6. Thank you as always for your words James. Without going into too much detail for lack of time, for the record, I spoke with Lisa Foderaro for nearly 30 minutes in advance of her piece. I made clear to her many of the points that you have stated much more eloquently – that a great deal of nuance and perspective is needed to present this issue fairly. We have collected a lot of information since the DEC announced their plan, which we’ve uploaded to our website: http://bit.do/swans

    I was very disappointed that so much of what I explained was lost on her. On the bright side, her article has done wonders for our efforts to halt these plans, people have not stopped contacting us asking how they can join or assist our efforts.

  7. Mountain says:

    Hey James,

    I don’t mean to dog you, but the pace of posts has been a bit sluggish lately. Cat got your tongue? Feeling like a sloth? Having a hard time flexing those literary mussels? Or just swanning around at seminars and speaking engagements?

    Whatever the case, do be a deer and post something soon. Even if it’s nothing to crow about, I’m sure it won’t be boaring. Bear with me; you’ll duck whatever carping comes your way. Ewe can do it!

    Best, etc.,
    Mountain

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