Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Space Bunnies Must Die

“I love to use rabbit, particularly very young ones (kittens) because they’re sweet and tender,” says chef Mark Best. “It’s a very versatile beast with marvelous eating qualities. We like to break it into shoulders, the saddle and the legs – each requiring very different cooking methods. The legs braised in hot butter in a nutty crust, slightly rare on the bone.”

In good sporting (not to mention, colonial) fashion, Thomas Austin, a member of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society, released 24 rabbits he had brought from England onto his property near Geelong for sport hunting on Christmas Day, 1859. Oops. Rabbits were introduced to Australia only a few years earlier, in Tasmania. Over the thirty odd years after Christmas 1859 the bunnies went bonkers, spreading quickly into New South Wales, eventually reaching the Northern Territory and Western Australia, several thousand miles away. The rabbit spread across Australia faster than any recorded colonization by a mammal anywhere in history, aided by the previously occupied burrows of now dispersed native species and the rabbit’s symbiosis with European human modifications to the natural environment. Which is to say: rabbits were great at taking over in the bush and did just fine on farm land, too. Not so for most of the native species. “Rabbits are now one of the most widely distributed and abundant mammals in Australia.” Oh the woe a homesick Brit can cause.

Rabbits have fantastic reproductive potential, outdone in the animal kingdom in a contest of sheer sex drive perhaps only by rats (which, if you haven’t read the authoritative book on the topic (Rats, by Robert Sullivan), you’re really missing out [Ed.]). In any case, they do, after all, screw like rabbits. A single pair of rabbits can produce between 30-40 offspring a year. They live both under and on ground, in warrens and tunnels through underbrush. The diseases and parasites common to European and American rabbits are largely absent in Australia. Australia has few predators in general and completely lacks wild mustelids such as ferrets or weasels: the predators who, elsewhere, hunt rabbits where they live (cunning bastards!). Because Australia is virtually predator free, largely disease free, temperate and fertile, there are quite a few very successful invasive species: goats, feral rabbits, feral camels (what?!?), cane toads, feral cats (house), red fox, feral pigs, on and on. The rabbit outdoes them all in population, if not in destruction: though Oz may be good for the bunny, the bunny is baaaaaaaaaaad for the Oz.
“Rabbits are Australia’s most widespread and destructive environmental and agricultural vertebrate pest. Impact on agricultural production is greatest in drier areas where pasture production is low and rabbits can increase to high densities and compete with stock.”

The impact of the alien species: damage to vegetation through ringbarking, grazing, browsing; and the prevention of regeneration of native plants (they eat the seeds), all resulting in detrimental habitat change. Rabbits threaten native mammals (including the Bilby, the rabbit-eared Bandicoot) through competition for food and shelter, and by incubating outbreaks of RHD – Rabbit Haemmorhagic Disease or Calcivirus and Myxomatosis. They also overgraze (little gluttons) causing soil erosion, changes in quality and quantity of flora and fauna, and damage to native vegetation. And so on. My biologist friends shudder, I’m sure. My French Canadian and Sonoma-n chef friends, however…

What to Do? …1080 Poison

Imagine my surprise, the morning after my first encounter with the feral Eurasian rabbit on Australian soil, an encounter that, like all encounters with rabbits makes me think of my dear friend Claire and her hysterical anthropomorphic physical comedy routine whenever running bunnies are sighted (“Oh God! Gotta run fast, gotta, run, ‘cause I’m soooo tasty!”), waking up to a fit of ideas and tiny beady eyes crashing around in my head, when I opened the sad, free newspaper on my doorstep, two cups of gritty French press coffee in (which must be savored no matter how disappointing: we have but a slow hand operated coffee grinder and less than half of a pound of our smuggled, favorite espresso beans left), when I read the news: VICTORIA RABBIT ERADICATION PROGRAM: 1080 PROGRAM BEGINNING MARCH 5. Hello moral validation for an uncertain conscience…. I took my coffee straight to the library.

Australia has been battling the invasive rabbit population for years. They have tried everything to get rid of the little beasties: introduction of diseases, fencing, and something called biological control, whatever that is. One effective longer-term form of rabbit management is destruction of the warren networks. Destruction of rabbit cities can cause havoc, dispersion, and death, effectively reducing the ‘unwanted others’. Like Kanye West’s delightfully spot on assessment of George Bush’s New Orleans policy, perhaps? No, seriously friends…back to the bunnies… This is no problem that can be solved with a mere shoddy levee and a few bumbling public safety appointees: we need WMD. Bollocks to city-smashing, we’ve got the bunny bomb: Poison1080.
1080 is a dynamic poison, effective for controlling all the badies: foxes, pigs, rabbits. It occurs naturally in native pea bushes, so many native species have a tolerance to it. So it’s kind of like the inverse of cholera blankets, right? Gets rid of the outsiders, protects the natives. The vehicle: carrots. (Evil giggle.)If there is a risk of other animals eating it (determined how?) they dye it green (which stops them how?).

And...what about me?
“ 1080 can be highly toxic for humans, but to get sick you would need to:
• eat at least 100g of carrot baits (1080-laced carrots are dyed bright green so they cannot be mistaken for normal carrots), or
• drink over 5000 litres of water, in one sitting, from a waterway directly contaminated by a poison drop, or
• eat at least 37kg of meat, in one sitting, from a sheep that died of 1080 poisoning (the meat from about 2.5 average-sized sheep).” (New Zealand Food Safety Authority.)

Be assured, lest my war-mongering glee convince you otherwise, we do these deeds thoughtfully and with great care to suffering. 1080 has been touted as the most humane available. It is illegal to use jawed traps, to torture, etc, as determined by decades of research and careful consideration. Under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, every state that participates in programs to eradicate non-native feral species must develop committees, under the control of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy, to assess the “relative humanness” of pest control methods.

Uh-oh. RELATIVE. HUMANE. NESS. Here it comes. Well, at least we’re on familiar ground. I have met this ethical conundrum before. Regretfully, I come from a place where the Death Penalty is still used in conjunction with a legal system known to produce false convictions. (No, not Iran, silly!) In any case, Relative Humaneness – humane-ish-ness, I suppose: the approximation of the humane – is the ace up the sleeve in that dirty debate and can get you out of the inevitable bind of participating in backwards, medieval witch hunts gone awry. “Might’ve killed the wrong man, but at least we did it humane-ish-ly.” The glitch lies in the lack of precision with regard to what’s humane-ish, of course, but that’s what racism, deliberate ignorance, and Jeb and George Bush are for, right?

Well, let’s hope not here, at least. What Is Humane is one of the critical questions of my choice. What is suffering? Can we understand the suffering of an animal? Of another human being? Of an event that leaves no first hand account? Aren’t we just animals? Is suffering not an essential aspect of living? Does that get us off the hook? My husband is from a place with wolves and bears and snow. He says that animals kill or are killed every day. Brutally, bloodily, without committees…It’s natural. He also says that the word humane doesn’t pertain. It’s our word: it’s about human consideration of the issue at hand (suffering) and has no bearing on the natural order itself. It’s not even a word for our judgment of the natural order and its suffering, but is limited to the judgment of human participation in that order, specifically, whether that human participation exhibits compassion, benevolence, and mercy, concepts that are regrettably not characteristically human but are nonetheless uniquely human. In addition, we have, at out fingertips, a goody bag of technology: poison, jagged jawed traps, seal bombs, death cones, pellet guns, meat hooks, mouse traps, snares… And in our quest for human-ish-ness, we try to limit the suffering. Yet, as I weigh my options, I find myself wondering: FOR WHOM?

“RABBIT CONTROL [TOWN MEETING]… Throughout the evening, techniques such as warren ripping, bait laying, fumigation and warren destruction…will be demonstrated. [Members of the Rabbit Neighborhood Group encourages attendees]to undertake a six-step programme, which includes: Talking to neighbors to co-ordinate control works, planning your rabbit control programme, assessing the density of rabbis, laying pindone carrot bait, burrowing fumigation and warren destruction. ..”

What responsibilities do we have when we electively cause death? I.E., HOW TO CATCH A BUNNY?

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