Art or nature?: considering the post-mortem poaching of rhinos

Dali faces his muse in this photograph by Philippe Halsman. Photo courtesy of the Salvador Dali Museum.

The surrealist artist Salvador Dali believed the horn of the rhinoceros to be among the most perfectly constructed objects in nature for its logarithmic spiral that maintains the same curve as it grows. Upon being given one as a gift, he exclaimed, “This horn will save my life!” Dali strived to mimic its pattern in painting, trying to lift the delicate horn from the lumbering form of the whole rhinoceros.

A string of post-mortem poaching is now forcing us to consider whether rhinoceros and their horns are art or nature. Since May of this year, rhino horns and heads have been stolen from museum exhibits in England, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and France. Another was taken from an auction house in Essex. While at first the idea of thieves making off with monstrous rhinoceros heads may conjure comical images, these unexpected robberies are well-organized and increasingly successful.

In the Belgium town of Liege, a man pulled a rhino horn off a specimen in the zoological museum, tear-gassed the guards, and took off towards the Netherlands in a car waiting outside. When the car was apprehended at the border, the two thieves told investigators they were supposed to leave the horn at a statue in Helmond, for an anonymous buyer paying them $4275 for the heist. At the Natural History Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, three men smashed through a window with their stolen rhinoceros head and successfully fled the scene. In the most recent robbery, in Blois, France, thieves dragged a two hundred and twenty pound rhinoceros head along the natural history museum’s floor and escaped successfully with the trophy.

The string of robberies has caused concern in the museum community. The Natural Science Collections Association has recommended museums remove rhino horns from public display, and even suggest hiding information about rhinos and rhino horns in their collections from public view on websites and collection databases.

Valued for traditional Chinese medical treatments and Middle Eastern dagger handles, rhino horn has been known to sell at a higher price than gold. But rhinos all over the world are endangered. Along with these museum robberies, poaching in Africa has also been more frequent this year than in recent memory. Some scientists and conservationists have even begun to label rhino poaching a drug war. But why has it spread to European museums?

Two years ago, the European Commission ruled that rhinoceros trophies, including the horn, could be legally sold and traded. Their intent was not to encourage the trade in rhino horn for medicine, but to create a free market for rhinos as art and artifact. Previous to this ruling, all rhinos—living and dead—were protected by endangered species laws. Stuffed and mounted rhinos shared the same protection as their living descendants. Recently, the Commission updated its regulations, working with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to institute a ban on the trade of all rhino horn. Only horn that has been carved (thus making it more art than nature) before 1947 (more artifact than commercial commodity) is excluded.

The Heads and Horns collection of the Bronx Zoo, now dismantled, is at once art, artifact, and nature. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The taxidermied rhinoceros heads stolen are at once art, artifact, and natural specimen. Displayed in the halls of museums, they represent the nineteenth-century era of trophy hunting. They are visual symbols of African colonization. And they are associated, sometimes, with famous figures of exploration or royalty. Even if the horn has not been carved, taxidermy itself is an art form. Thus, when a rhinoceros head is stolen, it robs us of an object of historical and artistic worth.

The problem of post-mortem poaching is a problem for those regulating trade in art and in animals. It calls attention to the perceived value of animals outside of their natural habitats. If a rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, should we not invest in rhino futures? Or, will we simply lock all specimens away and forget the living animals associated with such priceless objects?

References:

Rylan Miller appears to have coined the useful term “post-portem poaching” in his article on the subject, “Thieves Just Stole ANOTHER rhinoceros head from a European museum,” Business Insider.

Andy Bloxham, “Police investigating international smuggling ring after theft of rhino head,” The Telegraph.

“Rhino head stolen from Brussels museum,” Saving Rhinos.

Categories: Animals, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mountain lion in Connecticut: the re-wilding of eastern forests

Earlier this month, a mountain lion wandered through the campus of a private school for boys in Greenwich, Connecticut. Staff snapped a quick photograph through a window and, though a bit blurred, even skeptical experts agree it appears to be a mountain lion.

This photograph taken by school staff in Greenwich, Connecticut started talk of mountain lions in the region earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Time/Greenwich Police Department

Mountain lions have not lived in significant numbers in the eastern states since at least the 1930s. Viewed by early Americans as a threat to domestic animals and competition for wild game, mountain lions were relentlessly hunted. In addition, their forested habitat became deforested for lumber supplies and farmland.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently reported the native subspecies, eastern mountain lion, or eastern cougar, extinct. Their study, released in March of this year, maintained that despite nearly six hundred reported sightings in northeastern states, the subspecies itself is unlikely to exist. The USFWS recommended removing the extirpated animal from the endangered species list.

Last Saturday, a woman in an SUV crashed into a mountain lion on a highway near Milford, Connecticut. There it was—evidence in the form of an actual animal body that mountain lion roam the forests of the Northeast. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived on the scene and took the corpse for further study. They insist it is the same animal seen in Greenwich and will be comparing scat found at the previous site to the DNA of this animal. They will also be determining if the mountain lion had escaped from captivity by looking for signs of veterinary treatments and its relationship to the South American subspecies, which is normally the type kept as pets .

The DEP insists that the animals are the same solitary cat who must have escaped captivity, despite evidence to the contrary. The dead mountain lion had not been declawed or neutered. What’s more, on Sunday—the day after the dead animal was found—sightings continued around Greenwich. Even physical evidence in the form of cougar prints around a deer kill, did not seem to be swaying the experts.

A healthy skepticism?

Why do experts doubt the ability of locals to identify creatures in their own backyard? Some of their skepticism comes from mistaken identities. Bobcats and coyote are known to live in Connecticut and officials have found several reported sightings of mountain lions lead only to evidence of these other wild critters.

The nearest established populations of wild mountain lions are in Florida and Missouri, both different subspecies than that which was native to the Northeast. However, reported sightings have increased in the last decade in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. People have also seen mountain lions on U.S soil, east of the Mississippi in the states around the Great Lakes and the Midwest. Connecticut is now more forested than it has been in historic times, perhaps creating a welcoming environment for wandering species.

Mountain lions in Connecticut--a thing of the past? This photo by D.D. Burnham, "A mountain lion in the wild," depicts the western subspecies in Colorado.

The controversy has garnered several stories in local, as well as national papers, including the New York Times. Headlines have called the mountain lion both “beautiful,” “elusive,” and “mysterious.” Though many Connecticut residents are fearful, the image of this large, wild cat roaming only seventy miles from the sprawling Manhattan metropolis also inspires wonder.

The sublimity of re-wilding

Whether or not it is the original native species, or simply the western species migrating to new territory, in its juxtaposition of urban and wild, a mountain lion in Connecticut is a sublime sight.

The recent report of the USFWS begs the question: why are there so many reported sightings now? Is it an odd coincidence—or is there more to the story? While we await the results of the necropsy of the dead mountain lion, we are left to wonder if the news of eastern cougar extinction hit someone (or some group) so hard, they launched a plan to reintroduce a related subspecies, secretly, into Eastern forests. The other, more likely possibility, is that people who had previously seen mountain lions had been too unsure, or too afraid of being called crazy, to report their encounters.

There are several “ghost” species roaming (or not roaming) American forests. We saw an uproar just a few years ago when scientists in the swampy forests of the South reported seeing ivory-billed woodpeckers—a species long thought to be extinct. While some doubted the veracity of the sighting, many locals admitted to knowing the birds inhabited their forests. Those who had reported such information previously had been dismissed as ignorant of the very landscape in which they live.

Sightings of supposedly extinct animals have become a dialogue between outside “experts” and local peoples. Anthropologists have studied traditional environmental knowledge in remote corners of the globe. Now, such studies might be needed in America’s own wild, or in the case of Connecticut, re-wilded landscapes.

References:

“Eastern Cougar,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Mosi Secret, “Claims of Mountain Lions Roaming in Connecticut Drew Groans…Until Saturday,” New York Times

Barbara Heins and Ronald DeRosa, “DEP: Slain Mountain Lion Was Held in Captivity,” TollandPatch

MariAn Gail Brown, “DEP’s stance on mountain lions disquieting,” Connectictut Post

Connecticut Mountain Lion: Cougars of the Valley

Categories: Animals, Culture, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Not that nature: on dog-walking with wildlife

Culture or nature? Predator or prey?

Strolling with my dog recently, I spied a hawk soaring above with the limp corpse of a squirrel dangling from its talons. Instinctually, I pulled on my dog’s leash, as if yanking my pup from the world of nature into my own, cultural realm. The dead animal body flopping in the breeze made me recoil into my own world where meat is eaten several steps removed from the site of its demise. More than my repulsion at the dead squirrel, however, my automatic pull of the dog’s leash gave me pause. As a non-human animal, isn’t she more attuned to the world of the hawk and squirrel, than to my own?

The nature that contains such predator-prey relationships is decidedly not the same nature we associate with our pets. As I yanked on my dog’s leash, I realized the irony of my instinct. There I was, a human, pulling an animal away from its own kind. But that is the question, really. Is a pet dog more like wildlife or human life? Both are forms of animal life and, I suppose, in a species-ranking scenario, as a small furry mammal, my dog would fall closest to a squirrel. Perhaps it was that association with the fallen prey that released my immediate tug.

When ecologist Aldo Leopold paused to reflect on killing a wild wolf, he suggested that nature had its own ideas about itself—ideas that were not in alignment with those of humans. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he explained, after putting a shot through the creature. “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.” Leopold confessed that, as a young man, he was trigger-happy, but also explained that it was at the time commonplace to shoot wolves. “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Leopold expressed an issue we struggle with to this day. Does the wolf have a view? Humans have long lauded over the natural world, but have now begun to ask if that world has its own agenda, desires, and consciousness? Moreover, if the wolf has a view, does my pet dog?

Illustration of Buck rising to his wild instincts from Jack London's Call of the Wild.

I recently had a discussion with a table of academics during which I discovered that there are animal rights activists so extreme as to assert that owning a pet is a form of enslavement. While I saw the crux of the argument (that humans should not hold such a heavy hand over nature), I wondered what would happen to all the pet dogs if they were set “free.” Many would likely seek the comforts of human homes, as that is where they had previously found safety, be rejected, and starve. Others might enjoy wide-open, natural spaces and, like Jack London’s Buck, succumb to the “call of the wild.” (Imagine the sight of mongrel packs of golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, and pugs roaming the fields off the New Jersey Turnpike!)

It is the outlandishness of that image that calls for some clarification when talking about nature. Some animals we call wild. Others we call pets. While humans maintain a relationship of distance from wild animals, they develop close relationships with their pets. Though some suppose that pets bring them closer to nature, that idea gives me pause. In my encounter with the hawk, I felt the opposite. My tug of the leash was a declaration that my dog was not that nature. But the exact outlines of that divide are increasingly difficult to map.

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