Degenerated Science Part 2
How the timber rattlesnake got to Washington
There is no precedent for any viperine serpent becoming extinct in the New World during this century. This is important to note. A scientific hypothesis, if it is scientific, should have a precedent, lest it meet Langmuir's fourth definition of pathological science ("a fantastic theory that contradicts previous experience").
Contradicting all previous experience, we read that the timber rattlesnake is now on the brink of total extinction. No mere insular population (e.g., Bothrops insularis, endemic to a single small island), but a species whose distribution range comprises almost half the landmass of the contiguous United States. And yet what is even more unparalleled about this extinction is that it is occurring not only from the loss of a specific habitat, but within the habitat itself. How has this tragedy happened? Moreover, under our very noses, while larger, rarer species requiring a great deal more habitat (like bear and alligators) persist among us, and in some cases even thrive? In this modern Tulipomania, credulous scientists from all over the world recently met for a conference in Kenya to discuss a way to save these snakes that, as Greene (1997) describes them, are "emblematic of American freedom and independence."
Throughout the history of human popular delusions, some of the greatest minds of the epoch have been the most seduced, and the greatest seducers. In keeping with historical precedent, we see the great minds pitching in with the poorest, the cries of their greater intelligence and influence enabling them to sell more tickets to the bandwagon ride, whose last stop is, after all, at nothing more useful than a witch-burning. The timber rattlesnake folly is only one tiny paragraph in the great and awful book of human folly that yet remains to be written. What seems alone certain is that when mobs of men gather together behind a cause, reason gets lost in the shuffle. Harry Greene (1997) writes about the timber rattlesnake's "decline":
In this one passage Greene (probably summarizing from Brown ) has emulated all the major symptoms seen in pathological science. Lending maximum effect to causative agents of barely detectable intensity (4000 timber rattlesnakes sold over a 30-year period amounts to only about 133 per year; probably more than 4000 are killed on roads during any given summer in New York State alone); providing fantastic and misleading contradictions to previous experience ("endangered or already extinct throughout their former range") claiming great accuracy of measurement ("reduced by 60 percent in this century"—as if we knew what the populations of timber rattlesnakes were a century ago, and are now; "75 percent of the dens in the state [Pennsylvania] are in jeopardy of total extinction"—by what superhuman method has he or his informants determined this in a state of 45,333 square miles?); trivializing the effects of habitat loss in order to exaggerate the more spectacular and eye-catching aspects of den exploitation, as though sheer persecution had caused their decline; and finally, offering us no solution of where (in what habitat) to put the excess rattlesnakes if we were somehow enabled by a miracle to restore them to the previous populations that he implies (by a fantastic theory) we have at some point in history accurately recorded.
Ultimately the argument becomes self-refuting, for while we are led to believe that the rattlesnakes have so declined that they are on the brink of extinction, we are told (in a later paragraph) that the meat is still sold in a fancy restaurant in Washington, D.C., and that Pennsylvania still permits sport hunting of the species, suggesting that the rate of encounter has not yet plummeted so far that people aren't still finding these common rattlers despite his argument that they are extinct or disappearing. He tells us that in New York State the population has been reduced by 60 percent in this century, leaving the attentive reader (who has not been boondoggled into accepting the extinction idea) to wonder what the population of these snakes was a hundred years ago. By this estimate, if there were say, a million of them in New York in 1900 (and there may well have been) then there must still be no less than 400,000 of them there now (a pretty healthy number!). Correlating this "60 percent decline" with snake hunting, he forgets another correlation, that forest cover in New York State has also been reduced by at least 60 percent in this century, so where does he expect a conceivably "restored" population of the snakes to live, in shopping malls? Claiming great accuracy of measurement, the writer leads us to believe that a dozen field-tripping herpetologists (his informants listed in the citations) wandering in 29 states (a land area of 1,200,000 sq mi) have been able to peer to the bottom of every rock crevice (extending dozens of meters below the surface in a myriad of directions) beneath every boulder and into every stump hole and root system, and more amazingly, actually tabulate the numbers of whatever snakes are wintering inside them. And somehow discounting in all this, the enormous body of information that still shows timber rattlesnakes to be plentiful enough that any first year herpetology student has little trouble going out and finding one for whatever experiment he chooses, and the religious snake handlers still dance with them on their heads, and dealers still have plenty for sale, and hundreds if not thousands of people still go on being bitten by them from sheer accident.
And what is the reason given for the snake's disappearance? Because common people have nothing better to do all winter but climb mountains and gas and dynamite rattlesnake dens for fun. To be sure it happens, but only when you ascribe a maximum effect to a causative agent of barely detectable intensity can you make anything of it. And how will the Extinction Prophets save face when in ten years the extinction prediction does not happen? Fabricate a reason, of course. Pathological science is the science of fabrication, not discovery. It is a degenerating program.
Now CITES is all ears for this type of info, and when it comes from the mouth of a great herpetologist like Greene... He believes it, why shouldn't we? The chance that he's been bamboozled himself will not occur to us (like ourselves, he is only reporting what he has read). Only when we look closely do we spot the illogic of it all. Four thousand rattlesnakes may seem like a lot of rattlesnakes; but when you consider they came from three states (totaling 65,669 sq mi) over a 30-year period, it is just not much of a harvest. Over that same period there were several hundred thousand more born. More than 4000 bears were shot as game in those 30 years (e.g., 3,843 bear harvested in Maine last year; 915 in Virginia), and am I to believe there are fewer rattlesnakes than bear? Harvests of white-tailed deer were in the tens of millions, and can we be at all certain that there are less timber rattlesnakes than deer in these states, or that rattlesnakes depend on large dens to the extent portrayed? Compare to Berish (1998) who concluded that over 700 C. adamanteus (and C. horridus) per annum was an insignificant harvest in North Florida/ South Georgia, alone (only about 10,000 sq mi, much of it developed; see further sections). And Fitzgerald and Painter (2000) who, after determining more than 100,000 western diamondback rattlesnakes to be taken annually for the skin trade (2 million over 20 years), could not determine any long term trends affecting populations of the snakes. Even the idea of the decline is an anachronism: comparing any animal population with those Colonial times is inherently ridiculous: one might as well say that American Indians are declining too.
Obviously Harry Greene loves rattlesnakes and his ire is stirred at the thought of the barbaric attitudes of human beings toward this elite creature. And rattlesnakes have certainly "declined" in New York and in other states since Colonial times, just as he says they have (although not from the reasons he gives). But no timber rattlesnake extinction event has yet happened in any state during this century; indeed, extinction cannot even be proven (albeit it may have occurred) in the outermost fringes of its range. To suggest they are nearing extinction throughout their range is to ignore some pretty big obstacles preventing it, not the least of which is the sheer size and inaccessibility of many of the localities where these snakes are found. Fly over the Appalachian mountains in an airplane and you will wonder if you are still in the United States, or in some as yet unexplored world. Attempt to hike across them and (if you do not die in the process) you will wonder that any person could ever succeed in making the merest dent in populations of snakes for which there is no end of hiding places, from the myriad tangled root systems of trees to the infinities of leaf litter submerging vast rock crags. Climbing mountains is hard enough work for puny humans without complicating it with hunting venomous snakes along the way, and granted you could find any, having to tote their weighty bodies down out of the hills for scores of miles afterwards. Given the flimsy reasons for this "extinction" (den exploitation), the most deliberate effort to eradicate the timber rattlesnake could not possibly succeed. As Greene himself concedes, bounties were offered for decades in some states and local organizations promoted hunts as commercial activities. What this suggests is the extreme resilience of this invisible predator in the face of wide-scale deliberate persecution since Colonial times—a persecution that is very much reduced in the modern day. (It has been replaced by a phenomenon far more menacing: a "bounty" paid on the habitat itself! See further sections.)
Greene's alarm is understandable. But in minimizing the more pressing causes of extinction in all creatures (he affords urban and agricultural development a scant sentence in this discussion) we are led to believe, whether intentionally or not, that it is deliberate persecution that is the problem, and ending this persecution is the cure. The fact that it never can be ended is as manna to the police factions waiting in line for this new type of job assignment.
Let's look at the CITES list for 1995 (still being issued to the public as of this writing). Note that there are no North American venomous species of snake on the list. (Only the Latin American Crotalus durissus is represented among rattlesnakes; a widespread and common species rarely exported to the U.S. [same non-logic as for Bothrops asper]). Of the roughly 30 kinds of rattlesnakes in North America, CITES now intends to take under its "protective wing" the most common and widespread of all North American rattlers, the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). This rattler occurs in no fewer than 29 states—a range equal to roughly half the landmass of the nation. In Kentucky alone there are probably not less than 200,000 rattlers; ditto for Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, on and on. Even in New York State (with its area of 49,576 sq mi), if their numbers do not exceed 50,000 the rate of encounter would be so low that no one could ever find one (and they can and do find them, often and easily). And yet claiming great accuracy of measurement, what pathological science does not see does not count; the effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability. The scientist does not find rattlesnakes for some unknown (to him) reason on the days he goes looking, and assumes from this that there are no rattlesnakes, and judges falsely from his failure. If this "intuitive" snake-survey method were workable, I would have to conclude that the American opossum is nearing extinction as well, since in all my years walking in the North Carolina woods I have only seen one or two (their carcasses on the roadbed, however, would soon disprove me). We might ask these supernaturally gifted herpetologists how many opossums they saw on their field trips into timber rattlesnake country, or how many foxes, and ask them to give us their expert opinion on their "decline" too!
Now let's turn our camera back to North Carolina and the "Scientific Council," whose membership, composed of USFWS agents and state-paid employees, is working assiduously to "protect" these rattlers on the smaller scale. The chance to "protect" a species of venomous snake in eastern North America is so outrageously lovely to many herpetologists that it tantalizes even hardened scientists into imbecilic support. "At last!" they rejoice, and patting themselves on the back as they go, "We are finally getting somewhere! And next we'll stop the disgusting rattler round-ups in Georgia, and from there, Texas! We will save the whole genus!" This is a very misty eyed view that is soon to get gloomier when they realize that they are not protecting the species from anybody but themselves, for while nobody else will obey their inane law, their institutional affiliations will require they get a special permit every time they want to collect or study one, or import one from another state, and all the real troubles facing the snakes will continue as before, proliferating unhindered while they sit holding their little nub's worth of "protection".
The question must finally emerge: why the timber rattlesnake, of all rattlesnakes? To be sure there are more validly threatened species than C. horridus out there, that would make more sense to be on CITES (like the little ridgenose rattlesnake, Crotalus willardi). Even the eastern diamondback, found in only five states, as opposed to 29, is a better candidate for CITES. Be reminded that we are in the world of politics now, not science. Common sense or logic has no currency; it is only power that has validity here. What power would C. willardi give CITES? It is found in only one state and adequately protected by local law. And unlike the timber rattlesnake, the eastern diamondback has not yet attained "endangered" status in any state. Thus is it the timber rattler that is ripe for the picking. And found in no less than 29 states, it is this snake that is most coveted by CITES and its brother the ESA.
The more states involved, the more power to CITES. And CITES being the stepping stone to the already gigantically powerful ESA, this will mean power to dictate who does what not only with the snakes, but with the land the snakes inhabit. This means federal control of an animal formerly only under state control. This cuts the federal government in on a big 29-state pie!
This means more federal agents in your state, and in each of the 29 affected states. And even if they add only five new agents to each of these states to police the five tattooed rattlesnake collectors living there, or the 20 teenage readers of Reptiles Magazine, that's still 145 agents more than the 875 total they have now: a nice round increase in personnel. And surely worth a proportionately bigger budget to take care of them (at the current budget of just over half a million dollars per agent). And federal agents, I should remind the reader, are not biologists. They are gun-toting policemen.
And so we can see why CITES has picked C. horridus to "protect." We have a pathological science to back them up; and we have huge monetary incentives going to federal and state police agencies. Granted there are a dozen technically more "endangered" snakes in North America, with more restricted distributions, but because the timber rattlesnake has the largest distribution of any rattlesnake in the U.S., extending federal power to the greatest number of states, there can be no better or more useful candidate. Few other animal species in North America can compare with the grand effect offered by the timber rattlesnake to a growth hungry bureaucratic constituency. But the timber rattlesnake is only the beginning.... For once this big hurdle is over, and precedent is established for an American venomous snake, CITES will begin a more widespread campaign to recruit other North American crotalids as well, starting with C. adamanteus once North Carolina takes the bold first move of moving it to state-listed "endangered" status. This will give CITES the needed precedent. A doubled, and redoubled USFWS is the plan, and a geometrically expanding ESA is the means.
In the words of Don Young, Chairman of the Congressional Resources Committee, "The USFWS is running amuck"
Having already "misplaced" $45 million of sportsmen's money, chased through three congressional hearings and faced with impending legislation about misuse of another $500 million, the USFWS is grabbing for every straw they can to justify an already precarious existence in the Endangered Species business (Miniter, Outdoor Life, March 2000). As Miniter notes:
Now the "trade" (such as it is) in timber rattlesnakes might be controlled much more easily and effectively at the source simply by putting a quota, or "bag limit" on take by the state governments affected. But this is an issue carefully avoided by the USFWS whose usefulness would thereby be challenged if the 29 affected states could themselves solve the problem internally without the help of Big Brother. The "pet trade issue" would dissolve into the smoke screen it is, and this would minimize the importance of CITES and friends (see further sections). But Big Brother does not like to be cut out of the picture; most of all He wants to sit on top of it. And 29 states is a fair chunk of the nation.
I have asserted that no science was conducted before electing to elevate C. horridus (and most other common snake brethren) to Government Ownership and Control. If you can put a common Bothrops species (whose population exceeds that of the human beings who share its range) on CITES, you can do anything. Nothing more than propaganda, persistence and incentive is required for the monster CITES to snatch up a new animal or plant species. And here is our "Scientific Council," composed of USFWS and state paid employees trying to look very unbiased and scientific for all their unpublicized affiliations. And now, with mysteriously exact timing, USFWS has prepared a law proposal coincidentally going before CITES (in Kenya), the NCWRC (in Raleigh, North Carolina), and a related proposal going before yet another committee in Columbia, South Carolina, all within the same 30-day period. Since USFWS controls all three agencies and in effect sets the timing of all three events, only a very naive individual could think this orchestration is mere coincidence.
At the public hearing: "We have the data!"
State and local governments like to the give the public fair warning about what is in store for them when a law is to be passed. You are invited to a brief public hearing and given a chance to express your opinion. This may make you feel better having said something, but it will have very little affect upon a committee that has, in fact, already made up their minds before you got there. If they had not made up their minds there would be no hearing. They are not there to take orders from you. You are there to be publicly informed of their intentions. The law says they must.
At our public hearing we encountered a "rent-a-mob" of activists composed primarily of the 11 "Scientific Council" members, their kith and kin, and their numerous students (a number of council members are teachers at the nearby campus). Encouraging their students to "get involved," apparently—and granting them leave from their classes in exchange for their carcasses. The majority of these were young women whom, I suspect, would have fled in horror from the sight of a live rattlesnake, and would have been the first to order their boy-friends or husbands to shoot the abhorred viper if such turned up in their own backyards. Why women in particular should have suddenly adopted rattlesnakes, of all animals, for maternal nurturing is inexplicable. Was this an accidental phenomenon—a mysterious convergence of reptile loving femininity on the capital city? —or had these girls been chosen by their sponsors to alleviate our fears that the fair sex would not approve of a law that put the lives of rattlesnakes over their own children? Listening to their dreamy-eyed commentary as they one by one got up to espouse their teachers' views (like a band of displaced cheerleaders chanting "2, 4, 6, 8, who do we protect-o-rate? Rattlesnake, rattlesnake!") I had the queer sensation that if it had been TV Muppets they had come to protect and not snakes, they would have provided the same response on cue. After all, who but a cruel person would not want to protect something? "Protect" is such a warm, loving word—and not to protect, so cold and heartless.
In just slightly lower numbers than the young women were the employees of the State Science Museum itself, only three blocks away. This is where the "Scientific Council's" Chairman Alvin Braswell is installed, and its echo, the N.C. Herpetological Society, which holds its meetings at the Museum and is commandeered by other members of the "Scientific Council". Between these and other state employees, the few non-state connected persons could barely squeeze into the room. Farmers are not known to leave their tractors to drive hundreds of miles into the confusion of the Big City in order to contest a law they have not the least intention of obeying, and this goes double for hunters. I have since been informed of a survey done in the Wilmington, North Carolina, area by a property rights activists group who found that among "real people," at least, of 300 persons petitioned at random by knocking doors, all opposed the ruling without exception. The vast majority (298 of them) said they had never heard of the new law, had no intention of obeying it in any case, and were shocked to hear that it even existed. The "kangaroo" nature of the public hearing was remarked in the Washington Daily News, although in politically more correct verbiage than I have ventured here.
What is most interesting about the public hearing process is this: while the public's opinion is invited, they do not get to ask questions. Or rather, they can ask them but not expect to have them answered. And one naturally wants one's questions answered first before making a decision. Since the pamphlets offered by the state did not cover any justifications for the ruling except a vague "decline" said to be occurring in the populations of the snakes, I naturally wanted to know what had caused the decline (or what they thought caused it) before deciding if so unusual a proposal could have any effect in rectifying it. I also wanted to know how they had determined the "decline."
My attempts to validate this matter were answered with a discursive "we have the data" and then I was summarily silenced. When at last it became apparent to me that there was no data, and when before the whole room I contested the existence of this data, and pressed them to show this data to me, I was given a speedy dismissal. "Please just state whether you are for or against the ruling," the auditor (Cobb) retorted. And I replied, "How am I know whether I am for or against your proposal if you cannot provide me any data?" Apparently it was considered a strange request to want to review actual information before making an informed decision. No one else in the room needed data, why did I? Indeed, NCWRC did not need data either.
Subsequent inquiries into the scientific documentation backing up the proposal were never answered. David Cobb, Chief of Game Management did at least make the effort of phoning me later. He agreed with me that such studies he knew of had not been published and he was very dissatisfied to learn this himself. Evidently the material submitted to him (by the "Scientific Council") reflected only a couple of localities. No, he agreed, those two studies did not reflect the state as a whole.
It got worse the further I investigated. I requested under the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] that NCWRC send me copies of the putative studies, so that I could review them. What Randal Wilson, Chief of Non-game, finally sent me was a very strange package indeed. It was a folder containing the council's recommendations, but no studies! I realized sadly that the NCWRC didn't really know the difference. To them, a recommendation was the same thing as a scientific study! Rather like not being able to tell the difference between a verdict and a trial.
And yet, I felt, there must still be room for wisdom in a representative government. I pinned my hopes on the NCWRC board of directors. These consist of about 20 individuals from all parts of the state. They, not the "Scientific Council", and not the Raleigh game department, would be deciding on the matter on May 17, 2000. There was still time to appeal to their wisdom and honesty.
Not that history has given us much evidence of either wisdom or honesty in government. Indeed, what is government but a continual process of correcting the blunders its predecessors? The widespread use and proliferation of DDT began as a government program to control mosquitoes; it was poured en masse into our rivers, lakes and streams. The results were catastrophic, just one of which was the near extermination of many bird species. Kudzu, choking our roadside forests, was again the result of some sleepy commissioners naive trust in his equally sleepy advisors, who just happened to have scientific connections. The list of such blunders is longer than this page. There have been attempts at "conservation" so bizarre it is difficult to believe they could ever have existed. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the 1930s was such a one. The weird outfit declared war on "pest animals" from hawks to bobcats to porcupines, and all snakes. Government "conservationists" who dynamited dozens of rattlesnake dens in the northern states and slaughtered thousands of other harmless species in our national parks. In N.C. presently, we have the Department of Transportation which has, disproportionate to the size and population of the state, created the largest number of paved roads in America (and thus the world), single-handedly destroying more natural areas than all the forest fires of a millennium, and killing more wildlife than all the "poachers" that have existed or will ever exist . . . no, our state and federal wardens have been exceptionally generous with their idiocy over the years. Men who would have served us better if they had just stayed home in bed. But we are hard-headed. We want to believe (because it makes us feel safe) that when the commissioners' doors are closed and the secret deliberations are being made, that the secrecy is not so that they may deceive us, but to permit them to think clearly and weigh carefully in an aura of calm deliberation the often weighty matters with which they have been entrusted. Even if they cannot tell the difference between recommendations and studies—a verdict and a trial—we want to believe.
Wanting to believe, I mailed out copies of this report to the 20 odd appointees of the NCWRC. Only one replied that he had received it (but did not reply that he had read it). Some others, when I later called them up, complained that they could not be bothered to read so many pages, even though, I, a private citizen and whose responsibility this issue was not, could obviously have been bothered enough to write those many pages. Most (but not all) the commissioners were cold to the point of insult; men whose brief contact with power had so overwhelmed them that they forgot that they were public servants, not public commanders. My concern over this matter was simply a bother to them, and they wished me out of their hair. One commissioner complained that I was "taking up his time" and "monopolizing his fax machine" with the material I sent him. Most absurd was a very high ranking individual (John Pechmann, Chairman) who determined that my having anything to do with snakes disqualified my input from the start. I was in his mind one of the elusive "exploiters" he intended to stop. This man, whose sarcastic and accusatory tone was utterly offensive, had the gift of becoming uncomfortably familiar when it suited him (sort of "one good ol' boy to another"). "Okay then, we both know about snakes," he admitted finally, granting my knowledge an equal footing with his; and then he explained in ponderous epigrams his many encounters with snakes in the woods, and how he "knew all about them," meanwhile informing me boyishly how "rattlesnakes are cool and ought to be protected"—as though one might misuse the whole ESA to suit his tastes.
The personable Game Chief, David Cobb (who did read an earlier draft of this paper) seems to have kept his eyes open long enough to look for flaws in the document, but not long enough to understand what he had read. Thus when Cobb phoned me, it was not to try to understand why timber rattlesnakes might not be endangered in N.C., but to try to undermine the factuality of the writing in such a way as would support his preconceived view that they were. This time it was from Cobb that I learned how "cool" rattlesnakes were (a sort of "Masonic sign" between them?), and that "snakes deserved a break" and protection would "increase public awareness" even if it would not stop people killing them. No hint of how he had determined that rattlesnakes were "endangered" was ever produced, nor did he seem to care if they actually were: the snakes were simply "misunderstood" and for that reason alone deserved protection. Evidently, the elasticity of the ESA was by now taken for granted by all government agencies: you could do whatever you wanted with it, make it mean whatever you wanted it to mean, mold it to serve your own sentiments. It didn't matter whether or not the animal was really endangered. It didn't matter if the protection you offered could do any good. It was the thought that counted! And the impression you left that something "positive" was being done. To hell with the human lives you affected in the process. I realized soon enough that Cobb and I were at opposite ends of the world. I naively expected the ESA to have meaning, and carry weight; but his ESA did not require meaning: it was as airy and buoyant as his own imagination. As for John Pechmann, it was simply a "nice gesture, something to do for the snakes." It didn't go any deeper than that. Having led the way at the hearing, promoting the "decline" in the newspapers, Cobb's place at the head of the southern franchise of the northern bandwagon was already firmly established, and it would have been an embarrassment for one of Chicken Little's rear guard to turn back now. "Until death deny!" He had taken the first step into pathology: the willful subordination of truth for the sake of an ideal.
My invitation to Cobb that he visit southeastern NC with me to look at rattlesnake habitat first hand, where we could also interview local informants about the numbers of snakes they had seen, was not accepted. Why should the Emperor bother with such details, when he had a plethora of court jesters to keep reinforcing his opinion about the status of his new clothes? He had enough echoes to keep him busy at home in the Big City, far away from where rattlesnakes actually lived. He must have realized himself that in this game, truth was inessential: it didn’t matter what was real and actual: what mattered was what his cohorts believed was real and actual—and were yet willing to believe, when he himself put in his own "experienced" two cents. I use the words "two cents" literally, because David Cobb is a newcomer to N.C., having moved here from Florida less than two years ago. It is not likely that he has ever seen a live N.C. rattlesnake outside of the nearby museum where his friends keep him "informed." Yet what was strangest was that he was willing to discount the opinions of almost everyone in the state who had seen rattlesnakes, and saw them frequently, in favor of the views of those who had not seen them, and lived far from them, and spent all their time inside a Museum. It seems significant that the State of Florida had dismissed law proposals of this sort while Cobb would have been working there (when biologists actually did study the matter, and not just speculate about it as in N.C.; see further sections). And not two years after Cobb appears here, this new regulatory proposal springs up behind him. Which comes first, the law, or the law maker? And when do the creation of laws further the careers of those who make them? Answer: when those laws increase the bureaucratic power base of the office in which they work; and/or the bureaucratic power base of other offices that give them support. CITES needed N.C. to get the ball rolling in the south. It will look pretty good on Cobb’s resume when he skips out of N.C., as he did out of Florida, to take a bigger, better job with the Federal instigators that are no doubt already smiling upon him.
Door to door salesmen (or con men) when out canvassing a neighborhood will frequently point out their successes next door in order to convince the "sales prospect" of the worth of the item they are selling. This strategy is being used in North Carolina, with advocates often justifying their views with nothing more than "Johnny did it up North." And Johnny did do it up north, to great complaint from the citizenry. In New York State, pathological science had struck again in the form of two of the most dubious works in the history of herpetology: William Brown’s Biology, Status and Management of the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus): A Guide for Conservation; and a shorter sequel, A Case of Herpetological Conservation: Notorious Poacher Convicted of Illegal Trafficking in Timber Rattlesnakes, again by Brown, with Len Jones and Randy Stechert.
These works, masquerading as science, were in reality nothing more than tirades directed against a single "commercial exploiter'', Rudy Komarek, who 20 years ago made the mistake of getting on the scientists' wrong side. Komarek had committed the unforgivable sin of collecting snakes in the scientists' study areas, in effect sabotaging their experiments. Their response, in print, was a grudge match heard round the world. Called a "conservation manual" by the author, it is in fact nothing more than a collage of tall tales derived from the prior fabrications of four old buddies (Brown, Martin, Harwig, and Stechert) who were determined to ban the practice of snake hunting not only in the north, but in every state. A conglomeration of hoaxes, exaggeration, and misdirectives in a clever magic act that looks like science to non-scientists but when analyzed becomes as farfetched as a 17th Century tract on demonology. Brown, in the role of Grand Inquisitor, aided by his friend Stechert, broods over the proceedings with all the smug audacity of a Mathew Hopkins sniffing out symbolic witches for a waiting pyre. His three comrades-at-arms are waiting in the wings to be dragged in at a moment's notice to corroborate everything he says, and each exceeding the other in the magnitude of their lies. (See Degenerated Science 2: The Great Northeast Hoax for a debunking of the works of Brown, Martin, and Stechert.)
"Scientific Council" Chairman, Alvin Braswell, had clearly read the Brown papers and absorbed them verbatim into his thinking. Witch-burning was clearly to his tastes: he had his own imaginary "Komareks" to settle with. But so great was his zeal to get the fires started, he gave little regard to the fact that, even if the Brown works had merit in situ, they still dealt with an essentially northern phenomenon having little relationship to the south. But conservation herpetology is an extremely "soft-science" (some might say that it is not properly a science at all); the rocket doesn’t have to fly, it only has to look good on the launch pad when the inspectors arrive. Never mind this minor problem, if you gear your creation to the tastes of the inspectors, then you will pass the grade. In conservation herpetology it is "okay" to have biases and even to advertise them—provided they are the right biases. It doesn’t matter that any bias disqualifies the work as science, so long as the scientists who review your work have the same biases you do. Brown preached to a choir of which Braswell, with his seat on the same Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) that published Brown’s manuscript, was already a member of good standing. In Reptiles of North Carolina (1995; co-authored with William Palmer) Braswell boldly proclaims his bias against all aspects of commercial trade in herptiles.
Because his book is merely a Museum inventory—a field guide—he doesn't have to supply any facts and figures: only his own unfounded opinion. Accustomed to seeing his mere recommendations accepted by the state government without question, why should he bother with justifications? He gives himself away early on, in the introduction. He writes that laws against collecting activities are being made in other states to the north, should they not also be made here in the south? This opinion is then echoed by the "Scientific Council", which is headed by Braswell himself, the rabble-rouser of the mob. At the public hearing we hear it come out again, replayed as from an already old hat script. The museum herpetology club (N.C. Herpetological Society) which he helped to found, is there to mimic the idea. To an outsider it looks like a unanimous consent from cognizant herp people from all across the state: in fact, it is merely the ranting of a mob guided by a single organizer who have ganged into the hearing room to grind the self-same axe. "Other states protect rattlesnakes why shouldn't we?" they parrot. The oft-reported statistic "snakebite death is rarer than being struck by lightning" haunts the proceedings as though the protectionists have just discovered it for themselves. The fact that North Carolina has the highest incidence of snakebite in the nation (85 times higher than New York State on which they model their protection laws) is not mentioned, nor are the annual 1100 bites. That one might correlate snakebites with numbers of snakes, hasn't occurred to them. But you see, these are people who "know about snakes"—they’ve seen them on TV—some of them have actually seen them in the woods once or twice—people who think, "snakes are cool". They live in the city where people never see snakes; naturally snakes seem rare and "endangered" to them. And they don’t have to worry about snakes biting their kids. "Let them eat cake!" As for snakebite itself, apparently one has to die before becoming a meaningful statistic at NCWRC. A rotting hand or foot doesn't count, nor do the weeks or months you may spend in a hospital.
Viewing North Carolina as a microcosm of a Newspeak environmental trend stemming from a political, not scientific agenda, we realize sadly that the federal bandwagon, roaring through the northern states into the very different south, depends not on science, but on emotionalism from a moral agenda. This bandwagon will go on rolling so long as lawmakers (who are not scientists) continue to be impressed or "bowled over" by the institutional connections of individuals with an environmental axe to grind. Such individuals need not bring with them any studies to validate their claims (they keep them in a smoky box offstage). The lawmaker would not be competent to review or analyze such studies in any case. The lawmakers merely accept the idea given to them on the basis of the scientific connection, not the science.
There would seem to be no question that Alvin Braswell has used the new proposal as an extension of his previous (and failed) 1998 attempt. Banning public use of 148 species of North Carolina native herptiles was a pretty broad step. But its political motive was perhaps even too obvious for state government at that time to seriously consider it. Moreover, the cost of implementing it would have been phenomenal. Every critter-catching kid below the age of 20 would have to be jailed in order to enforce it! (The sinister pet trade is, after all, composed largely of children.) Apparently Braswell and his "Scientific Council" have now realized that it was biting off too big a chunk of public property to ban the use of every reptile and amphibian in the state, all at once. With the new rattlesnake law, Braswell's "Scientific Council" has adopted the strategy of working slowly. Their connections with USFWS kept their state bandwagon abreast of the federal (CITES) bandwagon so that they could both arrive together, a winning team at the same finish line. However, so great is their zeal (from their previous failure) that this out-of-touch fraternity did not reckon on one dinky little flaw in their program: what did they plan to do with all the snakes they took away from the public?
Euthanasia: The last gasp — you can't judge a death camp by its cover
Somewhere in that queasy half-world between hilarity and horror, lies irony. Writers look for irony in things because it adds punch to ideas, rendering situations memorable, in some cases unforgettable.
One does not have to look far to find irony in the present issue. Here is what the state of North Carolina plans to do with all the protected species they "rescue" from you and me: They plan to kill them.
Whether you're a keeper of them in an expertly managed terrarium; whether you've rescued one off the highway with intent to release it somewhere; or whether you're a fearful homeowner confronted with a live rattlesnake in your backyard. It doesn't matter. Once entering your domain it belongs to the state. And the state has no provisions or facilities for maintaining live reptiles, or for releasing them.
Having heard of such horror stories in other states (where other "Scientific Councils" had left their mark), I was naturally concerned about what the state planned to do with all the snakes they confiscated now that they were getting into the reptile business (indeed, the biggest reptile business in the state). I was not supposed to ask questions, but I did succeed in getting this one answered. Reporters scrambled for their note pads, and TV news cameras blazed away on the auditor's face (Cobb) as he admitted the unbelievable truth. And the next day I read the answer in a dozen newspapers, confirming that what I had heard was real and I had not gone mad.
The procedure would be to euthanize (kill) all incoming reptiles from the onset. The law does not permit any dangerous animals (rattlesnakes) to be released and no program exists to maintain them alive. And once reasonable suspicion existed of an offender's guilt, the animal had to be retained as evidence in the courtroom. Thus a dead carcass answered as well as a live animal. In sum, once the state got involved, "protection" would cease and death would take over. The new law would not protect rattlesnakes. It would put the North Carolina State Government into the business of killing them en masse, and make the NCWRC the biggest single killer of snakes in North Carolina history!
Protect equals Kill in the NCWRC vocabulary. Which is fine if you hate rattlesnakes. But even if you do hate them, do you want to put the state government into the business of killing them—and worse, have to pay for it?
And so this was the end result of the new law to protect rattlesnakes: A glorious rattlesnake round-up paid for by the state of North Carolina! Take them from the public, take them from the farmer's field and the homeowner's backyard—take them, and then take their lives from them. First, restrict under penalty of law the public's God-given right of access to wild resources; second, demolish the hobbyist/herpetocultural experience in North Carolina; and third, exterminate North Carolina herptiles en masse.
Nor did this ruling extend only to venomous snakes. Any reptile confiscated from the public could meet the death camp standard. After all, captive collections may sometimes carry exotic diseases, communicable to other reptiles. Quarantining the seized animal for the appropriate time periods was something else again the state could not provide for. Moreover, there was the question of specimens that were acquired from out of state or from unknown localities within the state. Where could these animals be released even if they were proved after six months time not to have diseases? Thus those harmless species taken away from little boys and girls and their grown-up counterparts would also have to be treated to the same death-row service.
After all this horrifying news, there was one only thing that disturbed me more at the public hearing. It was the strangely placid, still dreamy-eyed smiles on all the young college girls as they sat unmoved after learning that the Muppets they had come to protect were going to be killed by the state. The expressions of the wildlife police, who would carry out any mindless order that was handed to them, remained as dull and uniform as their clothing. The "Scientific Council" members, who sat like willing chess pieces behind them, looked strangely pleased. The auditor’s (Cobb’s) own face, as he spoke tonelessly the word "euthanasia", returned my gaze with a look that seemed half smirking. There was a sense of unreality about the whole thing—and a nightmarish helplessness. One felt a terrible repulsion sitting among them. It was as though something in these people’s brains had been removed surgically and replaced with unfeeling Styrofoam. Their voices reached us through special transmitters, stale old pre-recordings resurrected from pre-war Europe, wireless microphones to the brains of extinct dictators, mouthed through ventriloquist dummies that went on grinning foolishly no matter what horrible things their masters told them to say. Over-logical monsters, logic was yet lost on them; they had lost the habit of thinking consecutively; could not even detect the blatant inconsistency of their plan to kill snakes in order to protect them, and knew not enough even to be ashamed of it. I was reminded of a movie I saw a long time ago about children whose who had come from another planet. Born into this world, their parents soon realized that their offspring were without human emotions, although attractive and intelligent from the standpoint of creating advantageous positions for themselves. As the film progressed, the children began murdering any human children among them who opposed their alien plan, and soon began killing their own parents. That film was called "Village of the Damned."
Kill them before they fall into the hands of the enemy!
Five hundred years ago in Italy a religious reformer and political mob-organizer named Savonarola banned certain art and books, and confiscating them from the public, began burning them publicly in the town squares. The articles, he adjudged, were sinful and should be destroyed. Today, the maintaining and keeping of certain forms of wildlife has also been judged sinful by an elite few. Evidently, what is sinful must be burned to make the primitive sacrifice complete, for once killing the animals, the state will have no choice afterwards but to incinerate them at the public's expense.
The "Scientific Council" may be equated with a group of religious reformers. They don't bother doing science, and they're not daunted by trifles like State Death Camps. These crusaders are on a moral war, and whatever works is ammunition for their cause. Clearly the snakes must be killed—they might fall into the hands of The Enemy! And who is The Enemy? This the clever men do not exactly say, for fear that it would reveal their real intention to misuse the ESA. For the war they are fighting is not to protect an endangered species; it is a war to shut down the reptile hobby—the ESA is only a means to make that happen. These men, who shamelessly acknowledge before the press that they intend to murder animals en masse in order to enforce an unenforceable law that they themselves have fabricated to that purpose, are frauds of the worst kind. Protected by the general apathy of a larger public who could care little for the fate of the ugly rattlesnake, supported by dubious committees who mistake mere recommendations for science, the Braswellites gang up against what they perceive to be the weakest of helpless prey.
For, while Braswell and his advocates in NCWRC acknowledge that probably no-one will stop killing snakes because of this law ("it will at least raise public awareness about them," he says), they do note that it will have the "beneficial" effect of shutting down trade. And since this is predominantly a trade of young folk, it is primarily the activities of helpless young folk he will be shutting down. What an enemy he has picked! Bored teenagers who abandon their video games temporarily to go foraging through trash piles to find snakes! The Braswell war, the Randal Wilson war, the David Cobb war, the "Scientific Council" war, is a war against 13-year-old kids who, learning of the wisdom of their elders in high places, might sum up this situation with the greater wisdom of their youth: "Can't even catch a damn pignose snake now! Might as well sell drugs. I ain't gonna do less time!"
Believing that few people would advocate the keeping of venomous snakes in captivity, Braswell begins where he expects the least resistance, as year by year his list of "declining" species grows and grows, and his 1998 proposal gets implemented the hard way: slowly, spiced with a few new common harmless snakes, frogs and salamanders along the way, as though by a convenient after-thought. The more species he can show to be in decline, the more jobs given to his office at North Carolina Museum of Sciences. For declining species need some vague, pointless and impossible thing called "monitoring." Monitored for their protection, don't you know! And which but his office will be given the job of "monitoring" the "declining species" when the grant and support money comes around?
In order to achieve his goal, however, he had one big stumbling block, which he learned to his dismay when his 1998 ban proposal failed: North Carolina state law does not give NCWRC power to shut down commercial trade in what is classified as a "nongame" animal. In order to halt the pet hobbyist trade, Braswell could only influence state lawmakers to "protect" the species from everybody. Hence his proposal required "endangerment" to make it saleable to state government. Braswell was using the ESA in a covert way as a shortcut to a bigger highway—the goal of a banned pet trade. And if he had to put Farmer Brown and his family at risk from snakebite in order to achieve it—if, indeed, he had to become High Executioner of snakes himself in an ongoing state-funded slaughterhouse—then it was a small price to pay.
Have we become so jaded in the twenty-first century that we are willing to accept the misuse of public trusts like the ESA for covert purposes like these? Implementing programs that are themselves barbaric and cruel—crueler indeed, than any inadvertent affect of the pet hobbyist, because done with forethought. If it were murder, it would be murder of the cold-blooded kind.
How much trade in native snakes is going on in North Carolina to warrant this ruling? How does the hobbyist trade affect reptiles and amphibians in North Carolina? What are the primary causes of "reptile decline" and is the hobbyist trade significant among these? And if it is significant (I will show that it is not) couldn't it be controlled just as well by putting a quota on take?
In this critique we will give repeated evidence that the conclusions of the "Scientific Council" did not arise from the use of scientific references, materials, methods, experiments, demographic studies, or any other formal avenue of scientific investigation, and that no proper investigation into the effects of human persecution and/or the pet hobbyist trade in herptiles has been conducted. Nor does any member of the "Scientific Council" possess any recognized expertise in the pet hobbyist trade, the area they have taken it upon themselves to condemn. Because they have no connection with it, they exhibit a pronounced naiveté in this area. Most importantly, the true causes of herptile decline have been ignored in favor of single-minded attack on an insignificant minority who do not have the means or interest to do the sort of damage imagined by the Council. Since we hold that to cure an ill one must begin by attacking the exact cause, not a fanciful one, the Scientific Council's recommendation will be ultimately damaging to the "patient" whose illness will go essentially untreated—while giving the rest of us a false sense of security that something positive is being done to treat the disease.
The perceived problem: Declining populations of North Carolina herptiles
The "Scientific Council's" 1998 proposal seems to have arisen in reaction to a perceived problem with commercial trade in all native herptiles and the declining populations that are being impacted by it. In the new 2000 proposal regarding venomous snakes, the problem was re-explained as "persecution"—meaning the law was supposed to prevent the killing (or catching) of the snakes and this would prevent (or retard) further decline. In fact, the new proposal is but a rewriting of the old one from 1998, however limited to those few species the "Scientific Council" deemed safe to target. With the national campaign to include the timber rattlesnake under CITES occurring simultaneously, this was the propitious moment.
There were a few bugs in the machine. It would have been incongruous to assign the common timber rattlesnake the same status as the extremely rare (in North Carolina) eastern diamondback. This is what the musical chairs ride of "Special Concern," "Threatened" and "Endangered" is all about. This gives the state maximum discretionary power. A species doesn't really have to be endangered, it only has to provoke someone's "special concern." Once this whim is satisfied, the merry-go-round is engaged and "endangered" is in the offing. And so the diamondback, for whom "Special Concern" and "Threatened" did nothing, is now scooting over into the last and best chair, state-listed "Endangered" (O happy serpent!), in preparation for its federal ride into the most coveted seat of all—the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
But there were some flies in that ointment too. There was no precedent for state-listed Endangered protection of eastern diamondbacks in any U.S. state. But there were precedents for timber rattlesnakes in some of the northern states. And so to absorb the diamondback (which was nowhere protected) into CITES, pending absorbing it into the federal ESA, the logical first domino was to begin with North Carolina where it was already listed as "Special Concern." This gave CITES a precedent for C. adamanteus. Realize, however, that herpetologists have only found about a dozen eastern diamondbacks ever in North Carolina. Technically, the species qualifies—even if it no longer exists except on paper.
There was little hope in succeeding at this game in South Carolina (it had already been attempted and Alvin Braswell had attended those meetings). And Georgia, with the "rattlesnake round-uppers" in Claxton and Whiggins, had their big sportsman's club and festival to oppose such notions. So North Carolina was the first and best choice for USFWS to begin its program of dominoes—beginning in the overdeveloped north, where habitat destruction had made rattlesnakes rather scarce, and moving south where a friendlier climate and less development had made rattlesnakes abundant "pests."
In none of these proceedings, you will note, does science have any place. These are not scientific issues, or even biological issues. They are political and bureaucratic issues. The snakes are only names to be moved about on paper to a specific end—very powerful names when incorporated into a federal ESA that has the power to control what you do with your land. This power has made many state governments afraid of the ESA, and understandably so.
Now in North Carolina the proposed solution to saving these species was to stop piecemeal human persecution of the snakes. Since nobody could stop habitat destruction or roadway mortality, with the house on fire, lawmakers decided to repair the barn. Farmer Brown's bloody hoe was to be outlawed and replaced with jail time if Farmer ever got caught; and Bobby snake catcher would have to look for other hobbies. This made the state herpetologists sleep better knowing they had done their best, but it didn't do anything for the snakes but cover up the problem—the same gnawing problem that got the snakes where they are in the first place and gave the herpetologists the opportunity to get their noses out of their pickling jars and make flattering appearances in public offices. It is always a good boost for the ego when a lawmaker so values your opinion that he is willing to act on what you say. Only a man with strong character could resist.
The temptation was in fact strong enough for Alvin Braswell to reverse his own statements made about eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and the worth of attempting to protect them from persecution, showing just how flexible he can be when it serves his purpose. In a January 1999 update of his recommendations to State of N.C., first prepared by William Palmer in April 1996, Braswell (or Palmer) writes:
Leaving one to wonder why he has prepared this regulation in diametric opposition to his own recommendation: for the regulation does nothing more than ban persecution. But they have broadly defined persecution as to include the keeping of snakes in captivity. The Braswellites are not stupid. They are well aware that simple snake killing (even though it out number snake-keeping by thousands of times) can never be controlled by any law. Their objective is simply to shut down the reptile hobbyist trade in N.C. They are willing to misuse the ESA to see their objective met.
Because the North Carolina Nongame Office does not possess the legal power to halt the hobbyist trade per se, they can only begin by assigning these species various levels of protected status. Because "Nongame" is not "Game," they can't even set a "bag limit" at the present time without putting forward a law amendment more complicated than the present one to alter the status of nongame animals. So much easier to just "protect" a new species, which amounts to just writing in a new name on an old well-used form already dignified by well over 150 predecessors for whom protection has done nothing either.
While no responsible researcher would deny that the overwhelming problem facing all wildlife today is habitat destruction and degradation, the "Scientific Council" was yet "charged" to assess (by the Nongame Committee) the potential susceptibility of individual populations of herptiles to stress from commercial collecting activities. This the Council has failed to do. Their 1998 report does not demonstrate any scientific evidence of the effects of any form of human persecution of snakes in North Carolina, least of all the hobbyist trade. They are not scientific studies: they are only recommendations. Similarly, the new report (2000), which is also only a recommendation, cannot tell us how many rattlesnakes are killed (or have been killed) deliberately in any given year. Nor can they tell us how many rattlesnakes (or any other kind of snake) were taken from the wild for commercial purposes in North Carolina last year, or in any other year.
They do not know because NCWRC has long opposed a quota system or bag limit on take. (The N.C. Herpetoculturists Assoc., [not to be confused with the N. C. Herpetological Soc.,] has been asking them to implement a sensible bag limit on all herptiles since 1998, to no result.) Instead, they allow a collector to take as many specimens as he desires for a single $5 license fee. Ergo, NCWRC can have no idea of the impact or even the potential for impact of trade on any reptile species: there's never yet been a head count.
Thus when North Carolina Nongame chief Randal Wilson states that "these species are being impacted by commercial collecting" and "the North Carolina pigmy rattlesnake has a reddish color, unlike the gray or brown coloring of pigmies elsewhere, making them especially attractive to collectors," he is telling us about a potential for collection, but cannot tell us in numbers what that potential means. Does the potential mean 10 or 200 examples per year? Likely more are killed on N.C. roads on a single spring night. Is the total wild population of pigmy rattlers in the tens of thousands, or in the hundreds of thousands, or millions? Nobody knows. Thus the wording "impact" is highly deceptive—and in such a context, meaningless. We should rather ask, is there a significant impact? And if it is insignificant, that is, below a certain level of detectability, does it qualify as impact at all?
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) provides an example of how facts can be twisted by a biased mind-set in order to satisfy a particular belief. These large rattlesnakes were always rare in North Carolina, and perhaps not much more rare today than they were 50 years ago. A bounty on these snakes (by Tote-em-in Zoo, eastern North Carolina's largest zoo) brought in no more than about 10 examples in 47 years (pers. communication, G. Tregembo, proprietor). The State Museum’s collection of preserved specimens is composed largely of these very specimens.
Why are there so few diamondbacks in North Carolina? It is too cold. North Carolina sits at the very northern extremity of the diamondback's range. A mere fringe population, even calling North Carolina part of their distribution range has only a sort of vague historical meaning. In neighboring South Carolina, no diamondback has been reported north of the Santee-Cooper River since 1980. The Santee-Cooper River lies about 100 miles south of the NC border. Thus the N.C. population, if it exists at all anymore, is a disjunct population existing only in isolated localities. For the record, I have been even less successful at finding these snakes than George Tregembo's zoo. In 30 years of looking for them, I have never seen a live one in the field (I once found a dead one on the road)! In sum, I had no better chance of finding a diamondback rattlesnake in 1970 than I do today.
Are we to imagine that commercial trade has affected this locally rare species? Pretty unrewarding work: you can't hunt out what you can't find. Can we state then that commercial trade at the Tote-em-in Zoo, with their 10 specimens in 47 years, has had an impact on diamondback populations in North Carolina? Only if we employ pathological science. The same can be said for the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius). Not more than about a dozen examples have ever been found in North Carolina. So when a protection advocate like Dave Davenport, Curator of Reptiles at the North Carolina State Science Museum, declares, "I challenge anybody to find coral snakes or eastern diamondbacks anywhere in the state," he is in fact saying nothing at all (he could have made the same statement in 1960). But he is saying a great deal about the private agenda of the North Carolina State Science Museum, and the self-dubbed "Scientific Council" that sits under its banner.
And here we see further signs of pathological science creeping its inexorable way. For two species that are so rare that 47 years is not enough to find a handful of them, cannot suddenly have become "endangered" by human collection and persecution. If they are endangered, it is other pressures that are responsible—pressures of a more widespread type than the sort of protection now being offered by the state can ameliorate. The urgency now to elevate diamondbacks to state-listed "Endangered" from their not-uncomfortable file in "Special Concern" is therefore political—not biological. The musical chairs ride doesn't change a thing for the snakes. The only change that takes place is in the regulators' offices. Their bureaucracy grows.
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