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WEEK EIGHTEEN - Cruelty or Conservation?

May 13, 2017

     A woman named Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once wrote the words “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Although she may not have originally meant them this way, I’ve always understood those words to mean that great changes are rarely made by people content to sit back and stay silent. That’s probably because I’m not the stay silent type. I’ve a habit of being outspoken on anything I have an opinion on – and I have a lot of opinions. For example: I believe we need to increase funding for schools, I believe food deserts are a problem, and I believe Led Zeppelin is (with one possible exception) the best band ever formed. This trait sometimes makes me unpopular, especially with folks in positions of authority.


     Case in point: the pig situation. St. Catherines Island is home to numerous creatures of the porcine persuasion. I’d hazard a guess and go so far as to say that the pigs outnumber the armadillos. They certainly outnumber the lemurs. Originally, domestic pigs were introduced to the Georgia coast by the Spanish, back in the 16th century. The island just north of here has a variety of pig prized by artisanal pork enthusiasts. These Ossabaw hogs, named after the island, are thought to be the closest genetically to those original Spanish pigs. They’re listed on Slow Food USA’s Arc of Taste as endangered. I suspect that the pigs on Ossabaw mix with the St. Catherines pigs, since Ossabaw is within swimming distance (yes, pigs can swim). However, the official word is that our swimming swine came over in the 1930’s as livestock from the mainland. Regardless, they are feral now; no longer valued for their meat.


      In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a vegetarian. Not only does the idea of carving up and eating dead flesh thoroughly gross me out, but I also think pigs are kinda cool. There’s a German company developing video games for pigs and a recent study out of Sewanee found that our pigs specifically may even practice their own form of farming. The island’s pigs are also downright adorable. As pigs are super good at reproduction and can have litters of about six piglets twice a year, I often see troops of piglets rooting through the underbrush. I love their little grunts and snorts, their stubby legs and floppy ears. And so, learning early on that the pigs on St. Catherines Island are routinely shot, I was characteristically outspoken about the subject. So much so, in fact, that I wound up butting heads with local management on more than one occasion.


     One great thing about being outspoken – it tends to lead to conversation. Conversation often leads to information. The pigs, quite clearly, don’t belong here. They are considered an invasive species, one of many worldwide which were introduced by human activity and flourished in the absence of competition or predation. Like many invasives, the pigs are very destructive, but it’s their penchant for raiding nests which concerns the caretakers here. Beautiful and charismatic, both the American Oystercatcher and the Loggerhead sea turtle lay their eggs on our coastline. Eggs, it seems, are on the menu for pigs. This presents a problem for the many students and agencies who study the turtles and the birds, aiming to learn about their conservation. It is clearly also a problem for the turtles and birds, which I care about too. On my aforementioned bucket list, at number 23, is “help baby sea turtles find their way into the ocean.” That has a chance of happening here on St. Catherines, but only if the sea turtle eggs survive long enough to hatch. That puts me at odds with my porky little friends. We’re not the first folks to have trouble controlling a non-native pest. In fact, I can think of only one successful example of biological control of invasive species: the cactus moth. In the mid 1920’s, rampant prickly pear cactus was giving Australia quite a bit of trouble. But cactus moths from Argentina were introduced and, less than ten years later, the invasive cactus was under control. The moths are still doing their job to this day.


     And so, the ecologist and the animal rights activist within me are at odds. I want no violence for pigs, but survival for the turtles. I recognize that island swine don’t belong here, but it’s a problem “we” created and perpetuate. Pigs don’t eat eggs out of malicious intent; they eat eggs because they forage for food. Pigs will be pigs, so to speak. The oystercatchers, on the other hand, need to nest and procreate. My conversations with management have been, for the most part, respectful on both sides. I think the majority of people here are here because they care about animals. However, the status quo is clearly ineffective. The dilemma between cruelty and conservation is, I’m afraid, not an uncommon one. At any rate, it’s not one that I can solve in the remaining eleven weeks I have left on St. Catherines Island. I didn’t become an ecologist because I give up easily and I’m not outspoken because I tend to back down. So, I will continue to hunt for a solution and try to find a way for at least a few of the species here to live in harmony.



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