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Wanted Dead: Should We Place Bounties on Invasive Species?

photograph of a pair of green iguanas

Iguanas in South Florida have become a problem. Green iguanas, a species native to Central and South America have made their way to Miami Beach. They may have started as exotic pets that were released after growing too large (adult green iguanas may be as long as 5 feet), or perhaps arrived as stowaways on ships importing fruit. Regardless, their numbers have exploded in recent years.

Officials are trying to address the iguana population. Dan Gelber, the Mayor of Miami Beach, says the city is quadrupling its budget for iguana removal – up to $200,000 annually from $50,000. In addition, the city commissioner, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, has suggested implementing a “bounty” program. The plan would be to pay hunters to kill iguanas, with pay coming at a per iguana rate.

There are some concerns about implementing a bounty program. Some worry about potential cruelty towards the iguanas. In 2019, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission “encourage[d] homeowners to kill green iguanas on their own property whenever possible.” The commissioner at the time, Rodney Baretto, later noted that people should not shoot iguanas, but offered no description of what methods of extermination would be humane. Further, the policy could threaten human safety – a worker servicing a pool in Boca Raton was shot by an errant pellet from the gun of someone hunting iguanas.

Yet most troubling is that the bounty program could simply fail. It stands to create what economists call a perverse incentive structure.

Perverse incentives occur when a policy or intervention aimed to address a particular problem instead rewards acting in ways that do not contribute to solving, and may even worsen, the problem.

Bounties on pest animals are literal textbook examples of perverse incentive structures. In 1902, the French placed a bounty on rats in Hanoi. Anecdotes describe British governors in Delhi putting bounties on cobras. Both had similar results – after initial success in reducing populations, the policies eventually led to citizens breeding the bountied animals, to continually collect rewards. After the bounties were ended, breeders released their captive animals into the wild. Something similar could occur with iguanas.

The bounties, after all, do not incentivize reducing the wild population. They simply incentivize killing iguanas.

Suppose we could guarantee the bounty program would succeed. Would that make it desirable? First, we should consider why some call for the program. It’s because iguanas are a nuisance. The iguanas burrow underground, potentially causing damage to buildings and structures like sidewalks and seawalls. They destroy landscaping, eat plants on people’s property, and leave droppings wherever they walk. One woman found an iguana sitting in her toilet, it having apparently climbed through the pumping or other pipes connected to her home.

This way of justifying the policy does so by claiming it resolves a conflict of interest. The iguanas, by posing a destructive nuisance, threaten human interests in South Florida. However, it is not immediately obvious that the solution to this conflict is to declare open season on the iguanas. We are, if we endorse this reasoning, saying that the human interest in avoiding nuisance counts for more than the interests these iguanas have in their lives.

If we think the interests of the iguanas count for something – which is suggested by the fact that officials want to ensure iguanas are killed humanely – then it is not immediately obvious that our interests in avoiding a nuisance are sufficiently weighty to justify large scale elimination of the iguanas.

Perhaps an appeal to human interests would be more powerful if iguanas posed a risk to public health or safety. Though as of now they seem to merely be an annoyance.

A more compelling argument might come from the fact that these iguanas are an invasive species. Invasive species are both non-native to a region, and well-suited to live in that environment. As a result, their populations expand rapidly, and crowd out the native species in the area due to a lack of natural checks on their population like predators. The idea here is that the iguanas pose a risk to plant and animal life as well as the local ecosystem. Within any ecosystem, beings compete for finite resources like food, territory, and nests. Because invasive species have no predators, and their food sources lack defenses against them, they outcompete and overconsume local flora and fauna.

Notice that this rationale for the program shifts what’s doing the work in its justification. Instead of depending on human nuisance, viewing the program through this lens sees it pitting non-human interests against non-human interests. Since we may have good reason to reduce even wild animal suffering, this justification may go some ways.

The interests at stake are all vital interests, namely, the interests that both the iguanas and native species have in an environment capable of supporting them, ensuring their continued survival.

So, the idea may simply be that, on the balance of animal interests alone, it is better to remove the iguanas from the South Florida ecosystem. When invasive species experience population booms, it can cause native species to die through slower, more painful processes like starvation as they are outcompeted for resources. Indeed, continued explosive population growth may also result in harm for the iguanas themselves in the long run. For instance, deer populations in the U.S. are overabundant, leading to greater rates of disease and parasites among deer, in addition to poorer general health due to lesser access to food. So, it may be better for all animal parties involved to reduce the number of iguanas in South Florida through humane killing.

However, this view of the situation may suffer from a lack of imagination. In some cases, population booms of invasive species have led to the rebounding of predator species – saltwater crocodiles in Australia, and Florida panthers have experienced population resurgences, as a result of feeding on invasive feral pigs. Given the ecological role of predators, there is at least some potential that, on a long enough time horizon, the presence of green iguanas could ultimately help rebalance the local ecosystem. There may also be other methods of reducing iguana populations that do not require killing. For instance, despite the ecological damage they cause, feral cats are often trapped, neutered, and returned to the wild in order to reduce their numbers. Showing that we ought to reduce the iguana population does not demonstrate that we should kill them.

Overall, there are several questions we must answer before endorsing a policy like the bounty program. First, we should ask whether it would be effective, or if it may lead to unintentional consequences. Second, even with a well-designed policy, we must determine why we believe the policy is necessary. But before committing to a single course of action, we should carefully consider the options available to us rather than settling on what seems to be the simplest or easiest idea.

Are Self-Spreading Vaccines the Solution to Potential Future Pandemics?

photograph of wild rabbits in the grass

Human beings are engaging in deforestation on a massive scale. As they do so, they come into contact with populations of animals that were previously living their lives unmolested in the forest. Humans are also increasingly gathering large numbers of animals in small spaces to raise for food. Both of these conditions are known to hasten the spread of disease. For instance, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means that it has the capacity to jump from one animal species to another. Many experts believe that the virus jumped from horseshoe bats, then to an intermediary species, before finally spreading to human beings. As a result of human encroachment into wild spaces, experts anticipate that there will likely be rapid spread of other zoonotic diseases in the near future.

In response to this concern, multiple teams of scientists are working on developing “self-spreading vaccines.” The technology to do so has existed for over 20 years. In 1999, scientists conducted an experiment designed to vaccinate wild rabbits against two particularly deadly rabbit diseases: rabbit hemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis. The process, both in 1999 and today, involves “recombinant viruses,” which means that strands of DNA from different organisms are broken and recombined. In the case of the rabbit vaccine, a protein from the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus was inserted it into the myxoma virus that is known to spread rapidly among rabbit populations. The resulting virus was injected into roughly 70 rabbits. A little over a month later, 56% of the rabbits in the population had developed antibodies for both viruses.

Today, scientists are pursuing self-spreading vaccine technology for Ebola, Bovine Tuberculosis, and Lassa Virus. The research is currently being conducted on species-specific viruses rather than on those that have the capacity to jump from one species to another. However, as the research progresses, it could potentially provide a mechanism for stopping a potential pandemic before it starts.

Critics of this kind of program believe that we should adopt the Precautionary Principle, which says that we should refrain from developing potentially harmful technology until we know to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty how the technology will work and what the consequences will be. We do not yet know how these vaccines would function in the wild and how they might potentially affect ecosystems. It may be the case that, without these viruses active in the population, some species will become invasive and end up threatening the biodiversity of the given ecosystem.

On a related note, some argue that we should not use wild animals as test subjects for this new technology. Instead of encroaching further into the land occupied by these animals and then injecting them with vaccines that have not been tested, we should instead try to roll back the environmental damage that we have done. These critics raise similar concerns to those that are raised by critics of geoengineering. When a child messes up their room, we don’t simply allow them to relocate to the bedroom across the hall — we insist that they clean up their mess. Instead of developing increasingly intrusive technology to prevent disease spread from one species to another, we should simply leave wild animals alone and do what we can to plant trees and restore the lost biodiversity in those spaces. If that means that we need to make radical changes to our food systems in order to make such a strategy feasible, then that’s what we need to do.

In the case of genetically engineered crops, there have been some unanticipated consequences for local ecosystems. There have been instances of “transgene escape,” which means that some of the genetic features of an engineered organism are spread to other plants in the local ecosystem. In the case of crops that have been genetically modified to be pesticide resistant, this has led to the emergence of certain “superweeds” that are difficult to eliminate because they, too, are resistant to pesticides. That said, most of the soy and corn grown in the United States are crops that have been genetically modified to be pesticide resistant with very few negative consequences. Nevertheless, in the case of crops, we are dealing with life that is not sentient and cannot suffer. When we make use of these vaccines, we are delivering genetically modified deadly diseases to populations of animals without fully understanding what the consequences might be or if there will be a similar kind of transgene escape that has more serious side effects.

In response to this concern, advocates of the technology argue that we don’t have time to press pause or to change strategy. Deforestation has happened, and we need to be prepared to deal with the potential consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic had devastating impacts on human health and happiness. In addition to the death and suffering it caused, it also wreaked economic havoc on many people. It turned up the temperature of political battles and caused the ruin of many friendships and family units. Advocates of self-spreading vaccines argue that we should do everything in our power to prevent something like this from happening again.

Advocates of the policy also argue that these vaccines would benefit not only human beings, but wild animals as well. They could potentially eradicate serious diseases among animal populations. This could lead to a significant reduction in suffering for these animals. As a practical matter, wild animals can be very difficult to catch, so relying on traditional vaccination methods can prove quite challenging. This new method would only involve capturing a handful of animals, who could then spread the vaccine to the rest of the population.

Some object to this strategy because of a more general concern about the practice of genetic engineering. Those who offer in principle critiques of the process are often concerned about the hubris it demonstrates or worry that human beings are “playing God.” In response, advocates of genetic technology argue that we modify the natural world for our purposes all the time. We construct roads, build hospitals, and transplant organs, for example. The fact that the world does not exist in a natural state unaltered by human beings is only a bad state of affairs if it brings about negative consequences.

This is just one debate in environmental and biomedical ethics that motivates reflection on our new relation to the natural world. What is it to be environmentally virtuous? Is it ethical to use developing technology to modify the natural world to be just the way that human beings want it to be? Ought we to solve problems we have caused by altering the planet and the life on it even further? Or, instead, does respect for nature require us to restore what we have destroyed?

Power, Pollution, and Golf

Photograph of a golf course showing a pond in the foreground, a distant person with a bag of clubs, and trees in the background

Despite the closure of over 800 golf courses in the last decade and the fact that young people have virtually no interest in the sport, golf may be the emblematic pastime of the 21st century. So many of the key issues our society must grapple with in the next hundred years or so, from environmental change to the concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of an elite few, are borne witness to on the vast stretches of meticulously maintained green. Given the ethical ramifications of those issues, it’s pertinent to ask whether or not the continuation of the sport of golf itself is ethical, and what the prevalence of this sport might say about our future.

The first and most pressing objection to golf is its environmental impact. Apart from impact of pesticides, environmental scholars note that “Golf course maintenance can also deplete fresh water resources [… and] require an enormous amount of water every day,” which can lead to water scarcity. A golf course can take up nearly 150 acres of land and can displace the area’s native flora and fauna in favor of an artificial and homogenized landscape. Furthermore, the impact of a golf course can be felt beyond the land it physically occupies. From 2017 to 2019, a teenage diver found over 50,000 golf balls underwater off the coast of California, the byproduct of five nearby golf courses. This is especially concerning to environmentalists, because, as the NPR reporter who covered the story noted, “golf balls are coated with a thin polyurethane shell that degrades over time. They also contain zinc compounds that are toxic.” They eventually break down into microplastics, an especially insidious form of pollution.

However, some argue that golf courses enclose and protect rather than damage fragile ecosystems. One such often-referenced paper, “The Role of Golf Courses in Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management,” was written by Johan Colding and Carl Folke and published in 2009. After examining the effect of golf courses on local insect and bird populations, Colding and Folke concluded that “golf courses had higher ecological value relative to other green-area habitats,” and “play essential role in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management.” They argue that golf courses can be a refuge for wildlife that’s been pushed out from other areas, and that golf courses can foster biodiversity by working hand-in-hand with conservationists. However, this paper was published by Springer Science+Business Media, a global publishing company of peer-reviewed scientific literature that had to retract 64 scientific papers in 2015 after it was discovered that the articles hadn’t actually been peer reviewed at all. Seen in that light, this research (and the conclusion it draws) becomes questionable. Another study, “Do Ponds on Golf Courses Provide Suitable Habitat for Wetland-Dependent Animals in Suburban Areas? An Assessment of Turtle Abundances, published in The Journal of Herpetology in 2013, examined the potential for golf courses to contain turtle habitats with mixed results. The researchers noted that turtle habitats within golf courses did have the potential to foster wildlife, but were negatively impacted by residential development projects, which many golf courses today contain. To summarize, there is no clear consensus on this issue, though researchers uniformly note the very act of building a golf course in the first place does disrupt wildlife, whether or not conservation efforts are made after the fact.

Golf may have an ultimately negative impact on the environment, but its continuance has ethical implications for our social and political landscape as well. Golf has long been considered an elite pastime, and President Trump’s fondness for the sport is often used to demonstrate his insufficiencies as a leader. Rick Reilly, a contributing writer for ESPN’s SportsCenter and ABC Sports, released a book in early April of this year entitled Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump. In an article for The Atlantic explaining how Trump has sullied the reputation of golf through his propensity to cheat and tasteless displays of wealth, Reilly laments,

“[The situation] stinks because we were finally getting somewhere with golf. It used to be an elitist game, until the 1960s, when a public-school hunk named Arnold Palmer brought it to the mailmen and the manicurists. Then an Army vet’s kid named Tiger Woods brought it to people of color all over the world. We had ultracool golfers like Woods, Rickie Fowler, and Rory McIlroy, and pants that don’t look like somebody shot your couch, and we’d gotten the average round of golf down to $35, according to the National Golf Foundation.”

However, it’s difficult to stand by Reilly’s assertion that golf has entirely outgrown its elitist roots. In an interview with Golf Digest, Trump remarked,

“First of all, golf should be an aspirational game. And I think that bringing golf down to the lowest common denominator by trying to make courses ugly because they want to save water, in a state that has more water […]

I would make golf aspirational, instead of trying to bring everybody into golf, people that are never gonna be able to be there anyway. You know, they’re working so hard to make golf, as they say, a game of the people. And I think golf should be a game that the people want to aspire to through success.”

Replace the word “golf” with “power,” and you’ve got an almost eerily succinct and transparent summary of capitalist conservative dogma (in which the playing field is never intended to be even, the environment is devalued in favor of aesthetics, and the American dream is only illusory for the masses). But furthermore, Trump’s comment encapsulates many of the elitist attitudes and expectations that still attend golf today, regardless of the price for a single round at a public course. The resorts and country clubs frequented by Trump and his ilk are beautifully manicured arenas of power, places where politicians and businessmen can solidify ties and network over club sodas. When he was attacked for misogynistic remarks about women, Trump’s defense was that he’d heard Bill Clinton say worse things about women on the golf course, going so far as to call Mar-a-Lago, the resort attached to a golf course owned and frequented by Trump, the “The Southern White House.” The words “golf course” have become shorthand for private spaces of leisure for powerful men, a place for unethical behavior sheltered from the public eye and more traditional structures of power by miles of dense greenery.

Unlike sports that are not as white or monolithic, like basketball and football, contemporary golf is not fertile ground for political or cultural resistance. Golfers are notably non-vocal about politics. As golf correspondent Lawrence Donegan points out, many famous pro-golfers are pressured to play golf with the president, and show almost uniform deference to him out of fear of losing corporate sponsorships. This deferential attitude is taken up by most elites who play golf. Donegan says,

“The acquiescence of golf’s leading figures and governing bodies [to the Trump administration] is amplified […] down the sport’s hierarchy, especially in the (sometimes literally) gilded country clubs of states such as Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, which depend on a narrow, and narrow-minded, membership of wealthy, white couples who pay their subscriptions as much for the social cachet as for the sport. Within the confines of the club, they are free to rail against minorities, free to declare Trump the greatest president since Lincoln, free to act like the genteel segregationists they prefer to be.”

The fact is that golfers tend to be wealthy, and that the golf course is a place where hierarchy and prestige are not only respected but built into the very foundation of the culture.

Many agree that golf is both a waste of resources and a symbol for the mechanisms of capitalism, but these two issues have become intertwined in recent years. Golf, some have argued, has been yoked in the service of capitalism and corporate “greenwashing.” Rob Millington explores this idea in his paper “Ecological Modernization and the Olympics: The Case of Golf and Rio’s ‘Green’ Games,” published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2018. He defines ecological modernization as “the idea that capitalist-driven scientific and technological advancements can not only attend to the world’s pending environmental crises, but even lead to ecological improvement, thus allowing sustainability and consumption to continue in concert.” This idea is promoted by corporations who want to greenwash themselves, or to appear green to consumers without changing their essential business models. It is very similar to the conclusion drawn by Colding and Folke, who argue that environmental destruction in the name of leisure and consumerism can take place alongside conservationist efforts without contradiction.

Millington notes that “In response to the growing tide of environmental opposition since the 1960s, the golf industry took up an ecological modernist approach to promote golf as a natural, green, and environmentally friendly sport that allows people to connect with nature.” According to Millington, this is precisely what happened in 2016 Olympic games at Rio De Janeiro, for which a golf course was built on environmentally protected land in the spirit of ecological modernization. The design of the course was presented as enhancing rather than fighting the natural landscape, despite the fact that any incursion into a natural space can disrupt the ecosystem. In this sense, the continuing relevance of golf can be employed for neoliberal ends, under the guise of environmentalism or unity between nations.

In “Is Golf Unethical?”, a 2009 article published in The New York Times, writer Randy Cohen covers the basic environmental impact and bourgeois ethos of golf. On the question of whether or not the sport itself is ethical, he concludes that “perhaps the only moments of grace and beauty and virtue in any game occur during actual play, and we should not look too closely at its broader culture and implicit ethics without expecting to be dismayed.” This is just one defense of the sport, that the skill that goes into mastering it outweighs any moral scruples we should have. Another thing often said in defense of golf is that it, like any sport, builds bridges and creates a sense of fellowship across the world, that it gives us a common language in which to communicate our values and abilities across international lines. But does it actually build bridges between nations or just import elite bourgeois culture and sources of pollution to other parts of the world? The act of swinging a golf club has no objective moral value attached to it, but the trappings of golf, the privilege and waste and unnecessary consumption of resources, certainly do.  

The Real-Life Consequences of Demonizing Sharks

Photograph of a great white shark swimming in the sea

Sharks have rows of razor-sharp teeth, can swim at speeds of 34 mph, and have a reputation as the ocean’s top predator, which is enough information to make many of us uneasy about swimming in open waters. Although we might be guilty of enjoying movies and television programs which explore the depths of the ocean, it may be time to thoroughly evaluate the negative effects of demonizing species as crucial to our oceans as sharks really are.

This past summer came to a close with the release of The Meg, a movie which explores the Megalodona prehistoric sharkas the newest threat to beachgoers’ safety. The list of movies in this genre is endless, adding to the mass hysteria associated with sharks that arguably started with the release of Jaws in 1975. In fact, heightened levels of anxiety while swimming in the ocean were not the only side effect of this movie’s public release. Statistics from the Florida Program for Shark Research stated that increased levels of shark hunting decreased populations of these predators by as much as 50 percent in the years following Jaws’ publication. This increase in the hunt for sharks was partly encouraged by Jaws’ characterization of these fish as man-eating killers, while failing to correctly illustrate their importance to ocean ecosystems. As a result, many fishermen became aspiring shark hunters including Mr. Potts from Montauk, New York, who affirmed, “The more sharks you threw on the dock, the better the day you had and nobody questioned it for years.”

Interestingly, an article by BBC explores the plight of the Great White Shark after Jaws’ release. In fact, Jaws author Peter Benchley expresses his remorse in writing about sharks in this manner, stating, “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today.” He spent the remainder of his life campaigning for the protection of sharks around the world.

Benchley’s remorse does not change the fact that his publication paved the way for a media industry which profits from inducing fears of these mighty creatures. However, many do not understand just how detrimental taking sharks out of ecosystems can be. Deaths of coral reefs can be attributed to a loss of sharks, as Oceana describes: “By taking sharks out of the coral reef ecosystem, the larger predatory fish, such as groupers, increase in abundance and feed on the herbivores. With less herbivores, macro-algae expands and coral can no longer compete, shifting the ecosystem to one of algae dominance.”  

A popular method for increasing awareness of the plight of these animals is through educational TV programs such as the infamous Shark Week which is shown on the Discovery Channel every summer, and has become one of the most highly anticipated summer television events. Initially, the purpose of Shark Week was to focus on conservation and education; however, shark researchers have noted that recent programming has become increasingly entertainment-focused. Derrick Alcott, a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology, discusses this shift in attitude through a survey conducted on addressing the impact of Shark Week on the general public’s view on sharks. This study included coverage of a video depicting a violent shark attack followed by a PSA about the importance of conservation efforts. Essentially, the results depicted that watching even a re-enactment of an attack created unrealistic fears in individuals’ minds about their likelihood of being attacked by a shark. In fact, the PSA following the video had no effect on alleviating these feelings of anxiety.

On the other hand, it has been proven that increased knowledge about sharks is directly correlated to an awareness about protecting them. In this manner Shark Week provides some much-needed exposure to a variety of shark species and allows for individuals far from the ocean to contribute to conservation efforts. Shark researcher Kat Mowle, who grew up in Colorado, weighs in on the importance of Shark Week in inspiring the next generation of marine biologists. “I was fascinated by the beauty of sharks, and eagerly awaited Shark Week’s arrival each summer and knew that I wanted to be one of those scientists who could help people understand the beauty and importance of sharks to our oceans.” There is a proper way to watch Shark Week and marine biologists like Melissa Marquez still believe there is value in watching programs like this about marine animals, and she hopes that with the increasing viewership, more conservation organizations will be able to relay their messages effectively.

With increased education, conservation can take various forms beyond from donating money. For example, Montauk, New York, known for their shark fishing craze, made a major breakthrough to protect their local sharks. For years annual tournaments took place in which catching the biggest shark resulted in prize money in the hundreds of thousands. However, environmentalists convinced the fishermen to try something new in their upcoming festivities. The following year all of the sharks caught in the contest were photographed and released, they were also caught using circular hooks believed to inflict less damage to the fish. This successful example of a community coming together to respect tradition, yet also acknowledge a changing environment in which their old habits are no longer sustainable, is exactly the kind of action necessary from individuals around the world. In order to protect the future of not only our finned friends but also the universal health of our oceans, members of every community must step forward to acknowledge dangerous levels of overfishing, and work together to ensure reliable education through the media.