Monday, 16 September 2013

To Kill a Dove

By Barry Kent MacKay
Director, Animal Alliance of Canada
Canadian Representative, Born Free USA

This blog is not about Syria or foreign policy, but the subject I am about to discuss did arise in early September, 2013, just as world leaders debated the appropriate response to the images of citizens dying from gas attacks in or near Damascus.  Luridly horrific descriptions of how sarin gas kills, filled newscasts. A “red line” had been crossed, and the Canadian government was agitating for a military response, as were
other countries, while still others demurred, out of fear of the situation and still more innocents dying in subsequent retaliatory warfare.   Some argued that anti-government rebels used the gas to discredit the government.  Other wondered why this kind of death, however ghastly, was so significantly different from the previous deaths of equally innocent children, women and men by “conventional” weapons any less deserving our condemnation and intervention?

And throughout the debate I wondered, how could we, any member of my own species, do such things?

And at the same time, September 8, news surfaced of the inquest into the death, 11 years ago, of Jeffrey Baldwin, aged five.  He was systematically starved and beaten, and, at the time of his death he weighed 21 pounds, one pound less than he weighed on his first birthday.  His grandparents…grandparents!...were charged.

How could we, members of our species, do such things?

I have, over the last few years, read many books and scientific papers that reference scholarly efforts to determine the source, the cause, of our inhumanity, but when we see innocents abused, the reaction is emotional.    And ever since childhood, especially in childhood, I have been told (and taught) “don’t be emotional”.

But I am; we all are, although obviously different in what we are emotional about.

I know from experience that I’ll be castigated for daring to do what I am about to do, but I don’t give a damn.   What I am about to do is compare what I have written with something else that happened in early September; the federal and Ontario provincial governments – meaning Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, calmly decided to open a hunt for Mourning Doves in southwestern Ontario.

© Carol L. Edwards Photography
Of course there will invariably be those who snort that I’m putting animals ahead of people – an accusation animal protectionists frequently hear from the small-minded types who can’t conceive of enough compassion to go around.  Look, both children and doves are innocent and harmless, and both are capable of suffering.   Doves can live at most only a couple of decades…most die much sooner, and yes, they never develop the cognitive ability that makes us humans so proud of ourselves.   No dove will ever create great art, pen profound thoughts, develop a scientific theory or contribute to a just cause.  No dove will drop bombs, or sarin gas canisters, either, or trigger mass extinction or beat and starve little tots.

I get all that; honest.  But why should they therefore suffer or be killed for, what, sport?   Why should their lives be ended?   Why should they suffer?

Most of us don’t really want them to.   To us they are a garden bird, a familiar visitor to bird feeders whose gentle cooing in late March or early April is a placid portent of spring.  Occasionally they will nest in the yard, and often do so precariously, making a frail little platform of twigs where they lay two eggs, rarely more, and sometimes only one.   Because they nest from April to September, some will be nesting, with dependent young, while gunners legally search them out.

© Carol L. Edwards Photography
Mourning Doves eat weed seeds and other vegetal matter, and, in the nesting season, snails (the shells of snails provide the calcium used in forming their eggs), making them ecologically friendly friends of the gardener and the farmer, one might think.   They please us with their gentle beauty and many of us enjoy their softly modulated cooing and are delighted at the way the courting male puffs his neck out and bows in front of his lady, mating for life, which, for a dove, tends to be short, thanks to us.   So even those “masters of the universe” who think animals should only be valued to the degree they serve our needs, would, you would think, treasure these birds as the rest of us do.

Even if you think it is okay to kill them, given that they will eventually die (an odd viewpoint that I would not apply to anyone, but I’ve heard that argument made – kill it now so it won’t get a disease or be caught by a predator and suffer later) it is in the nature of dove shooting that many will be wounded.   They fly fast and shotguns fire handfuls of small, round pellets that spread out in a “pattern”, losing velocity and becoming ever more broadly spaced as they leave the gun’s barrel.   Ammunition manufacturers’ experiments show that on average, if six or more pellets hit a bird, it will likely be enough to kill or severely wound it.

Hunters prefer that the pellets are made of lead, a highly toxic substance whose weight increases the ballistic qualities of the pellets, giving them greater penetrating ability.   Now non-lead shot must be used, which, hunters claim, will increase wounding, but is not highly toxic.  Even now, years after lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting, ducks, geese and swans still die horribly from lead poisoning when they mistake the pellets for gravel, called “grit”, which they swallow to aid digestion.

But why not our alternative…the one that you, I, and the vast majority of Ontarians choose: just don’t hunt them at all?   That way we don’t have to worry about increased wounding vs the horrors of lead poisoning, and guess what?   We haven’t had a legal Mourning Dove hunt since 1955, when such a hunt was held for one year and stopped in response to public opposition.   We don’t need one now.    The amount of meat on a dove’s breast, the part that is eaten by hunters, equals about half a wiener.   It’s not worth the shot gun shells needed to kill the birds.

Yes, yes, I understand what the pro-hunt people are saying…that there are enough doves around that those kinds of people who like to kill things can do so without wiping them out.  That applies to American Robins and Blue Jays, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Savannah Sparrows.   Is that the only concern?   If there is enough to kill, we should kill?   Surely we can do better.

And of course we should not forget that they said the same thing of the only other species of dove native to Ontario, at the time the most common of all our birds, the Passenger Pigeon.   Even so, they don’t make that argument any more about it, since it has been extinct for 99 years.  The last one known and documented, named Martha, dies in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.   But the Passenger Pigeon lived in a time when we didn’t know better, and when cruel practices against people and animals abounded.    Do we not progress?

We do, and that could be why the gentle doves, symbols of peace in part because they are so utterly harmless, are now killed.   Too few hunters.   In Ontario sport hunters are in decline.   As Scott Petrie, Executive Director of Long Point Waterfowl and a staunch proponent of killing doves, has been quoted as saying, it will be good for young hunters.  “Because we have so many,” he said, referring to doves, “it’s a good opportunity for them to get out and shoot and practice their skills.”

And that brings me back to the reading I mentioned at the beginning…why are we cruel?   Part of it is through the mechanism of teaching.   Show me a boy who hunts and the statistical odds are that his father and grandfather hunted as well.    Hunters are dwindling…they like to kill and they want more to do so.  Usually they mount some arguments to justify the killing…the species is “too common”, or it is dangerous or that there is some conservation need, or at least for food.   But no…this little creature, the Mourning Dove, is to be killed for practice…practice in killing.   Don’t these people ever read the papers?   Are we not good enough at killing?

And it is that tiny minority who feels that way who have convinced the Harper government, in charge of Mourning Doves, that we need to teach kids to kill, to be better killers.   This tiny minority hopes we don’t notice or care…and why should we in a world full of horrors…the terrible things we do to each other are so ghastly and horrific; those are what should occupy us.  Ah, but stopping the dove hunt, is something we have done before.  I was just a little kid at the time…now it’s my turn, and yours, to do what we can do to reverse this stupid, ugly and cruel decision.

If you agree, write to:  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2

Phone:  1-800-62206232
TTY: 1-800-465-7735
Fax: 613 941-6900


And to:

Premier Kathleen Wynne
Legislative Building
Queen’s Park
Toronto, ON M7A 1A1

Phone:  416 325 1941
TTY: 1-800-387-5559
Fax:  416 325 9895