Animals as scapegoats: Badgers, Dodos and Thylacines

In previous posts I’ve touched on the idea of animals as scapegoats, in particular when we looked at fox hunting and human – lion conflict.  Cats have also been the victim of scapegoating over the years, for example being cast in the role of the familiar during the witch persecution.  Here I want to explore how other wild animals have been treated as scapegoats, including two extinct species which I hope will serve as a warning.

Scapegoat: Wild animals that are erroneously blamed for one or more real or perceived problems (usually environmental) or that are considered a nuisance, problematic or in competition with personal or business interests/activities and who are persecuted as a result.

Zoo Check

Scapegoated animals include: Eagles, magpies, beavers, deer, horses, coyotes, wolves, bears, foxes, dolphins, seabirds, fish, turtles, seals, sea lions, ruddy ducks, mink, flies, crocodiles and rats.  They can be any type of animal and any size, it is human perception which turns them into an icon of blame.

Badgers

Badgers, in the UK, are held responsibly by many for the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB).  The name alone sometimes makes life hard for badgers as it is sometimes, incorrectly referred to as Badger TB…

Before we get into the badger in more detail, I first want to make it very clear that I understand the devastating impact any disease has on livestock.  It can destroy livelihoods and families and cause financial ruin.  Managing infected cattle is an expensive business and in 2015, there were 36,000 infected cattle slaughtered in Britain at a cost to the taxpayer of about £100m.  It’s clear that action needs to be taken but what is not clear, to me, is the role of the badger.

The debate around badgers, bTB and badger culling is one which is often depicted as farmers against badger lovers and this makes the conversation much more emotionally charged.  In reality, I think pretty much everyone on both sides wants the best for the cows and the badgers.

The first known badger death from bTB was in 1971, after cattle spread the disease to the badger.  And periodically since, we find ourselves with headlines and claims such as “badgers are responsible for bTB” which in themselves are not helpful.  The badger is not an active agent in this, they are not going out looking to infect themselves and then others.  This is a disease which they may get and if they do they suffer.  Infected badgers experience breathing difficulties and struggle to forage and thus lose weight and condition.  To solely blame the badger is to deny the cow’s “involvement” in spreading the infection and as most bTB comes from other cows this is irresponsible and misleading.

This focus on the badger also overplays the role they have in transmitting the infection.  The Guardian in 2016 reported that badger to cattle infection is estimated to be directly responsible for about 6% of herd infections.  If you listen to debates around the issue then you would expect this number to be at least 50%…  We also know that cows are susceptible to many other illnesses and causes of death.

Only looking at the badger’s role in bTB could be preventing work from looking at other sources and ways of controlling the disease.  Despite evidence that cows and badgers rarely, if ever, meet*, the number one guideline from the government’s bTB Biosecurity 5 step plan is to reduce contact between the two species.  And yes, reducing indirect contact may well help, but why put all your time, effort and money into preventing something which isn’t happening…?  The badger as a scapegoat seems to have blinded those involved in the discussion despite the small role it plays.

As well as badgers, bTB also affects deer, goats, pigs, camelids (llamas and alpacas), dogs and cats, as well as many other mammals.  Yet these have not been scapegoated as the cause of bTB or culled because of the association.  Perhaps instead of blaming the badger over and over again, we should be looking more widely at what perpetuates this devastating disease.

Cows are affected by other diseases** and not just bTB so why is the badger bearing the brunt of this? Perhaps because disease management is difficult and expensive and is in some ways like herding invisible cats.  You can’t see what it is you are trying to contain, but you can see badgers.  If culling is found to be successful it would give people something to focus their efforts on.  They can do something to try and gain control over the infection.  And some degree of control is what people most want in uncontrollable situations.

*the disease is spread through indirect contact between badgers and cows, such as badgers flipping over cow pats to look for beetles and cows not avoiding badger scat.

**According to Farmers Weekly, the two main causes of death in beef cattle are pneumonia and clostridial diseases.

Dodo

What you think is a dodo, probably isn’t.  They are victims of misrepresentation both in terms of appearance and behaviour.  We have no evidence of the dodo beyond the skeleton and illustrations from the time, often painted by people who had not actually seen a dodo.  As no skin or feathers survive, any model of a dodo is going to be based on guess work and descriptions and as such are probably inaccurate.  Instead of the bird we think of as the dodo, it is likely that they were fluffier, stood higher with strong long necks and had powerful beaks.  But they were portrayed as being small, comical, dumpy and low to the ground.  This is significant in shaping how we view the dodo.

Dodos inhabited Mauritius for hundreds of years, surviving volcanic activity and climate change.  Then in 1598 a boat carrying starving and desperate dutch men was shipwrecked in the area.  The men arrived on the island in urgent need of food.  In the jungles they found these birds which they called the dodo.

By 1662, when a German was shipwrecked on Mauritius, there were no dodos left on the mainland.  There were a few remaining on a little island cut off from the main island by tides.  This was the last dodo colony ever recorded.

The dodo was said to be hapless and ill fated and thus, it was said, the dutch just sped up it’s extinction.  Probably better than accepting responsibility for wiping out an entire species…

It was assumed that the dutch killed them for food but some descriptions say the meat was said to be tough and oily, the dodo lacked in breast meat and they weren’t easy to catch.  Other reports say that the dodo was easy to catch and that some people hunted dodos only for their gizzards, as this was considered the most delicious part of the bird.

There is much we don’t know about the dodo and about the circumstances surrounding it’s extinction.  But I do think that the dodo, portrayed as hapless victim waiting for man to put the species out of it’s misery is propaganda.  Whilst many believe that humans didn’t hunt to species to extinction, it is highly likely that we were the cause.  The dutch introduced invasive plants and animals, which competed with, and killed, the dodo.  Pigs and other animals, not native to the island, disrupted their ground laid eggs, causing a considerably impact as they only laid one egg per clutch.  In addition to pigs, other animals were introduced including including dogs, cats, rats, and crab-eating macaques.  As the dodo had not evolved alongside ground mammals, they could not compete with these new species.

The cumbersome images play into the idea of the dodo as an inevitable victim, a mishap of evolution and responsible for it’s own extinction whereas the truth is inevitably much more complicated than that.

Scapegoating of dodos continues today, long after the last one died, as dodo is used to suggest someone stupid despite us knowing so little about the lives of dodos.  The dodo is also used as a symbol for extinction and for obsolescence, continually reinforcing the idea that the dodo was destined to die and abdicating man of responsibility.

Thylacine

Tylacines are interesting creatures which went extinct in 1936, leaving us with just a little snippet of black and white film to remember it by.

They were large carnivorous marsupials which were in competition with the Tasmanian Devil.  Bigger than the devil, these ghosts are often compared to the wolves of the northern hemisphere in terms of appearance, behaviour and the similar niche they fill in the ecosystem.  This association would be one factor leading to their extinction. They pursued their prey, kangaroos, to exhaustion and found themselves up against the dingo which also eats roos.  In addition to competition for food, the dingoes are also thought to have hunted the thylacine.

We don’t know a lot about the thylacine but they’ve been described as shy and secretive, generally avoiding humans.  Despite this, they were also rumoured to be fierce, a description probably cast upon them by farmers who weren’t pleased with loss of livestock.  It is likely that a proportion of this was actually down to dingoes but the thylacine was used as a scapegoat, bearing the brunt of anything which went wrong on farms. A well circulated photo from 1921 by Henry Burrell of a thylacine with a chicken probably helped solidify their reputation as thieving from farmers, although some people say the photo is of a dead specimen, posed.

Regardless of whether their killer appetite was fact or fiction, they became feared, loathed and hunted.  A relentless persecution was carried out and a bounty was placed on their heads.  Wikipedia tells us that:

The Van Diemen’s Land Company introduced bounties on the thylacine from as early as 1830, and between 1888 and 1909 the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head (the equivalent of £100 or more today) for dead adult thylacines and ten shillings for pups. In all they paid out 2,184 bounties, but it is thought that many more thylacines were killed than were claimed for.

Whilst there are a number of factors which contributed to their extinction, their alleged impact on farmers was certainly one of them and definitely led to the thylacine being scapegoated.  Today, there are no thylacines left but dingoes run wild across Australia, possibly the original culprits but shouldering little of the blame.

Next I’ll be looking at supernatural scapegoats!

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