Pest control run amok

By Michael H. O’Donnell

His name was Jack and he had accepted the noble task in our neighborhood of exterminating pests. In this case it was mosquitoes or gnats. The “g”
was silent and so were the insects that were treated with the insecticide of choice at that time – DDT.
DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was the magic potion developed in 1940s and used to control insects around the world for decades. Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller was given the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine for developing the formula in 1948. At the time he had no idea that his
chemical compound killed more than pests.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that DDT killed Jack, a family man who had taken a part-time job with the county in the San Luis Valley of Colorado keeping insects at bay. Jack was in his early 30s when he was diagnosed
with cancer. He left a wife and a couple of kids behind when he died.
What I remember most was an image of Jack sitting on an open and small tractor on the edge of the rural road that was part of our subdivision blowing a combination of water and DDT all over the foliage on the side
of the road. The thick spray would cover not only the sage and weeds, but Jack. As was the practice at the time, he wasn’t wearing a protective suit or breathing gear. He was just doing his job until he died – prematurely.
That memory always made me leery of organized efforts to dispose of “pests.”
However, this understanding eluded me when jackrabbits were the target of control in Colorado in the 1960s. Because of the ample sagebrush expanses in the San Luis Valley, jackrabbits thrived. And the large bunnies raided grain and alfalfa fields with abandon during the winter months. Eventually they turned to haystacks and other sources of protein. This made the rabbits the object of scorn among ranchers and farmers in the valley which led to organized killing events. “Rabbit drives” they were called. And the victims didn’t go to waste. Mink ranchers in the area paid 10 cents a jackrabbit carcass for feed for their captive fur-bearers.
These organized drives, which featured low-cost shotgun ammunition and free chili for lunch, donated the proceeds to help fund local school districts.
Nothing will ever dull my memory of two-ton trucks hauling the carcasses of dead jackrabbits away from the killing areas. The method was a simple one. Surround a large area of sage with hunters and move into the center.
As the range closed, the “let them out” signal was shouted. Shotgun blasts that had taken place prior to the alarm were restricted to rabbits fleeing outside the circle.
Tens of thousands of rabbits were and many pots of chili were consumed, but no humans were injured or even harmed.
Within a few years of my moving back to the West, the jackrabbit horde was reintroduced into my world of conscientiousness.
The big awakening came in 1981 when the great Mud Lake “bunny bash” took place for several months. What struck me most was that shotguns and organized drives had given way to baseball bats and hand-to-paw combat. Hordes of people armed with clubs beat hundreds of cornered bunnies to death. Many folks seemed to find joy in the task of controlling the threat to the immediate ecosystem that was perceived as being in jeopardy.
It was gruesome business and it attracted national news attention.
Perhaps there was a noble mission to control a runaway rodent problem in the mix, but it was lost in the carnage of humans beating smaller, furry animals to death with zeal. Idaho became the scorn of national attention.
Now I’m not about to compare this episode in Idaho history to beating baby seals to death in the North Seas to make boots, but there seems to be a common thread of cruelty that surrounds those who are sponsoring the
slaughter of coyotes and wolves in the Gem State this year and others who justify slaughter. The Salmon blood festival is being billed as a wolf derby in central Idaho and winners can collect part of a $2,000 cash prize pool.
A Salmon guide and promoter, Shane McAfee, has said it’s just part of an effective way to control pests. He also maintains that wolf feces are infecting domestic dogs. Somehow, that seems like a load of — well you know.
There are humans who are quick to identify things they consider pests on our planet and participate in their annihilation. We do it to each other, so why should animals, plants or insects be any different?

Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State
Journal.