Jim Sterba's 'Nature Wars' describes a jungle in the backyard

Jim Sterba loves animals -- and humans, too. He makes a solid case for killing animals that become pests or worse


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About 10 years ago, Phyllis Marchand, the mayor of Prince-ton Township in New Jersey, hired a nonprofit company called White Buffalo Inc. to use sharpshooters to cull the deer population, which had grown to 94 per square mile. Protesters staged demonstrations and candlelight vigils. Deer guts were splattered on the roof of Mayor Marchand's car. The township's animal control officer -- after his cat was crushed to death and his dog was poisoned --began wearing a bulletproof vest.


"NATURE WARS: THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF HOW WILDLIFE COMEBACKS TURNED BACKYARDS INTO BATTLEGROUNDS"

By Jim Sterba
Crown ($26).


Conflicts like this one, involving geese, turkeys, beavers, black bears and feral cats as well as deer, now occur in hundreds of neighborhoods throughout the United States. Communities remain polarized, according to Jim Sterba, a veteran reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, because many formerly scarce wild animals and birds have used suburban sprawl, which offers them an "almost perfect ecological niche," to become overabundant, constituting a clear and present danger to human beings and other species. Many Americans, who spend 90 percent of their time indoors, embrace pets and wild animals as "sentient creatures" and have been socialized by movies like "Bambi" and "Gentle Ben" to feel repulsion at the idea of harming them. They believe, mistakenly but with the best of intentions, that all God's creatures will survive and thrive if left undisturbed.

In "Nature Wars," Mr. Sterba, a hunter and self-styled conservationist, takes on the "unrealistic and highly reductionist" claims of animal rights and animal protection advocates. He makes a provocative, controversial, but quite compelling case that we should not -- and cannot -- opt out of active management and stewardship of wildlife.

Gardens, lawns, mulch bins, bird feeders and pet food, Mr. Sterba points out, have a substantial impact on local (and global) ecosystems. If he had his druthers, he'd be willing to kill some creatures (of overpopulated species) who destroy crops, cause car crashes and spread disease.

"Nature Wars" is especially informative about the dangers posed by "lovable" creatures -- and the paucity of practical alternatives to culling by killing.

Among the most invasive species on the planet, feral cats devour hundreds of millions of birds in the United States each year. After decades of neutering, moreover, only one out of a 100 ferals has been sterilized. And those who have been "saved" invariably live short and miserable lives.

Responsible for more damage than any other wildlife species, beaver have exceeded their ecological carrying capacity (the point at which the species adversely affects the habitat) in some areas. Most citizens do not realize, however, that trapping and relocating them, the solution offered by animal protection advocates, is illegal in many states and, in any event, puts the animals in a strange environment where their survival rate is low.

Mr. Sterba concludes it often takes a dramatic event, like the January 2009 emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549, which had sucked geese into both its engines and was guided into the shallows of the Hudson River by Capt. Sully Sullenberger, to rouse public support for "euthanization."

Such events, of course, are rare. What we really need, Mr. Sterba declares, hoping perhaps that wish will give birth to reality, is a new generation of Americans better connected to the land and the natural world. They must be willing "to get dirt under their fingernails, blood on their hands, and even a wood splinter or two in their kneecaps or butts." Further, they must be willing to entertain the idea that if we are to be "species partisans," it's appropriate for us to be partisans of our own species -- and take action to reduce the numbers of some creatures "by lethal means if necessary."

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Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.


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