Columnist’s note: I’m taking a break from writing about gardening this week to share an important new discovery in Texas!
I’ve been tolerant of death most of my life. Growing up on a farm, it’s a valuable skill. We witnessed all kinds of deaths. Tomcats killed kittens, dogs killed cats, chickens killed each other. Cows got sick, horses colicked, and dogs died from cancer. I’ve lost countless cats and dogs, three horses, and farm animals I can’t even remember. Etched in my heart, though, is the time two very young calves in the barn got pneumonia. My Dad called the vet and he injected them with antibiotics and adrenaline as a last resort. He and I knelt in the stall, hugging the calves to our chests, trying to keep them upright so they could breathe, hoping the adrenaline would work. They were struggling, gasping for air, tiny hearts pounding. We were murmuring and pleading with them to live, to keep breathing. It was cold, and our breaths frosted, mingling together for minutes, a half hour? The calves didn’t make it. We laid them on the straw and walked out of the barn, me trailing my Dad, silent. I walked back to the house, he to the chicken house. But at one point, we turned to look at each other, tears in our eyes, and nodded. “Yes,” that nod said, “it hurts. But we keep moving. There will be other calves.” I was 12.
Curiously, none of this hardened me. At 12, I was already a budding naturalist and between my wild explorations and farm life, I learned to tolerate and even accept death, even as my love for animals and nature stayed steady.
There is, however, one kind of death that I cannot tolerate. Extinction. Yes, I know. A huge meteorite caused the dinosaurs’ extinction (probably). And the megafauna of the Pleistocene — think mastodons and cave bears — is gone (probably a combination of climate change and human pressure). Extinction happens. But now, almost all of it is because of us.
“It doesn’t take a lot to make a species go extinct,” said Advait Jukar from George Mason University. “…all you need is a stressed population and just enough hunting pressure to keep the fertility rate [below replacement levels]. Eventually, the population will collapse.” This is exactly what has happened to large predators in North America: wolves, grizzlies, and eastern mountain lions. Habitat loss is, of course, the primary reason for species’ endangerment, but for predators, it has been deliberate extermination as well.
Imagine my surprise and delight to find that a pack of wild dogs on Galveston Island is actually part red wolf (Canis rufus), a species that once roamed the southeastern U.S. and Texas — and one of the most endangered species on the planet. Listed as endangered in 1967, and declared extinct in the wild in 1980, today less than 40 red wolves live in the wild in North Carolina after reintroduction in 1987, with an additional 200 in captivity.
The Galveston canids share distinctive genes with red wolves, but also a unique genetic variation that may be left from a population of red wolves that remained undiscovered in the wild, a “ghost population.” According to researchers, at least one of the genetic specimens was 100 percent red wolf.
Deliberate extermination is not an acceptable form of death. It presupposes that some animals do not belong on the landscape, that some simply do not matter. We know that they do, and the tears in my eyes today are tears of joy rather than pain. There is hope for at least one endangered species.