Animal lives matter

By Leonard Hitchcock

understand, from a column in the ISJ, that it’s time for hunters to grab their guns and head out to kill “varmints.” Until recently, I thought that the word “varmint” was an obsolete, colloquial expression that was used mainly to caricature uneducated, backwoods residents of Appalachia and the Deep South. I stand corrected. The word is alive and well in Idaho.

It’s convenient, I’ll admit, to have a single word that is used to designate a wide variety of animals that have little in common except the fact that some people regard them as pests and would like to see them dead.

It’s also a word that has a certain quaintness. It takes us back to the Old West, to simpler times, to the pioneers. We like to wax nostalgic about those doughty early settlers whose unwavering goal was to expropriate and exploit whatever land they could lay their hands on. Of course their natural inclination was to treat whatever happened to be already living on that land, whether plants, animals or Native Americans, as intruders that they could deal with as they pleased. Killing them was a popular expedient.

And no one inhibited their doing so. For in the case of animal intruders at least, there were no such things in those days as licenses and hunting seasons and bag limits and rules about “unsportsmanlike” ways of killing. The settlers killed whichever animals, whenever, however and in whatever numbers they wanted to. All animals were varmints in the good old days. Now, to the great regret of those dedicated to killing for fun, the number of species that can be hunted without regulation is somewhat smaller. A favorite target these days, as I understand it, is the coyote.

The word “varmint” is a variant of the word “vermin.” In England and Scotland, hunting rules treat vermin as we treat varmints. Esther Woolfson, who has written an informative and eloquent book about birds in the genus Corvus (crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws), says, “‘Vermin’ is a word that still sanctions all, explains and allows every inventive, malign, brutal method of destruction, every way in which birds and animals were and are trapped and netted and shot, ways elaborated and refined through time…and illuminating only the boundlessness of our own savagery, our feral cunning, our knowing less about our prey than about the methods of its destruction.”

There are certainly circumstances under which the unrestrained killing of animals is not only allowable, but necessary. The Burmese python, an invasive species from Asia, is wreaking ecological havoc in Florida. It was introduced into the wild by pet owners. Even PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) does not oppose killing the snakes; they only request that it be done humanely. Unfortunately, eradicating this snake may prove to be impossible.

Are there similar circumstances in Idaho that call for the killing of the “varmints” that this state’s hunters now pursue? No. Most of them are native animals and have long been integral parts of the local ecosystems. Coyotes, in particular, have made their home here for hundreds of thousands of years. They are an adaptable and clever animal, one of whose roles in the ecological scheme of things is that of predator, primarily on small rodents and rabbits. The naturalist Edmund Jaeger, in his book Desert Wildlife, quotes a wildlife biologist who wrote: “Coyotes are a desirable and indispensable part of a collective predator population which serves to regulate prey populations on wildlife lands. They perform a useful function as scavengers and they do more good as rodent destroyers than harm as killers of livestock.” No one denies that coyotes occasionally kill lambs or calves, but it’s worth noting that when they do so, according to Jaeger, it’s often when “…overgrazing makes it impossible for rodents to exist in any numbers, owing to lack of food and cover.” “The sensible remedy” he says “is not to get rid of the coyotes, but to stop misusing the land…”

To say that an animal is a varmint, is essentially to say that it deserves to be killed. For many people, apparently, it takes very little for an animal to be so categorized. For many, an animal has only a minimal, if any, right to live to begin with. If it merely annoys us, it forfeits that right. If we simply enjoy killing it, that’s enough to justify its death. And, of course, if it dares to eat our crops, or kill our livestock, there’s no question about what it deserves.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if transmigration really existed, and those varmint hunters were destined to be reborn again and again as the animals that they now kill with such relish? Sooner or later, even they would experience a glimmer of understanding, and perhaps even a twinge of regret.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.