In Shakespeare’s classic romance, Juliet tells Romeo his being named Montague is unimportant: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Well, it would indeed. But there is more to it. Names can make a difference.
Several years ago, an unusual red-tailed hawk showed up in our neighborhood. Almost pure white and technically a leucystic genetic strain, this bird was easy to spot and clearly distinguishable from any other hawk for miles around. At the time, there weren’t any devoted birders in the neighborhood but the white hawk soon became a quasi-celebrity. Some neighbors began calling him “Whitey”. When he was not spotted for a few days people began inquiring about his whereabouts. When he resurfaced word went around that he was back.
This is not a case like that of Pale Male, the first red-tailed hawk known to nest on a building in Manhattan. That event led to a documentary and several children’s books. Pale Male even made several appearances on the Late Show with Conan O’Brien http://(http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/12/22/legend_doesnt_live_up_to_reality_of_pale_male/). We live out in the country. We have always had plenty of plain old red-tailed hawks in our area and no one cared. But Whitey was an individual. One with whom we became familiar, whom we recognized and came to know, about whom we cared enough to name. Not just one of “them”.
Since 2004, Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island – home of the Newport Jazz Festival, renowned America’s Cup races and exemplary mansions of the country’s Golden Age – has been the site of a rigorous study of coyote-human interaction. It has been sponsored by a scientific, non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of natural biodiversity http://theconservationagency.org/narragansett-bay-coyote-study/. One of the study’s goals has been to develop best management practices for human coexistence with coyotes. Populations have been assessed, pack territories mapped, and many coyotes on the island have been outfitted with radio collars. Recently one of the collared animals seemed to have lost his fear of humans and regularly sauntered through populated areas in broad daylight. Anticipating trouble with human/coyote interactions, the study’s lead scientist recommended that the by then familiar coyote, nicknamed Cliff by townsfolk, be killed.
Unfortunately for the police chief issuing the order, but fortunately for Cliff, the animal had become something of a local celebrity. Within days the police chief rescinded the order in response to an online petition of 25,000 signatures. A crowdsourcing campaign rapidly raised $8,000 to pay for the trapping and relocation of Cliff. A number of people commenting on the crowdsource cite urged rehabilitating Cliff instead of “imprisoning” him in a zoo. (https://www.gofundme.com/2qpxhyk) All this is against the background that nearly every state in the country has a coyote hunting season and the state of Colorado actually offers a bounty for each coyote killed.
The story brings to mind the worldwide outrage following the killing of Cecil, the lion, shot by a dentist who’d paid $54,000 for the lion hunt. More recently, Harambe, a male lowland gorilla was put to death while interacting with a toddler who had fallen into his zoo enclosure. This event, too, sparked global outrage and within a matter of days garnered over 300,000 signatures demanding that the boy’s parents be held responsible for the gorilla’s death.
These incidents and many others like them exemplify the complexity of wild animals and humans in close contact and the contradictory nature of the relationship between Homo sapiens and other species. As human habitation expands, wild habitat for other species shrinks. As wild animals, especially iconic ones, venture into people’s back yards biophilic bonds emerge, particularly if a particular animal changes from “one of them” to “he or she.” Sharing food, then naming is evidence of growing fondness and trust. In the case of Cliff the coyote, tracking made possible by his radio collar showed him making the rounds to a number of houses on the island. This certainly makes it looks as if he was being fed by certain households in spite of a town ordinance, put forward by the same agency sponsoring the study, forbidding intentional feeding of coyotes..
Why do we care more about Cliff than we care about all the other coyotes being shot countrywide? Does becoming an identifiable individual – even of another species – create an empathy bridge across the “us” and “them” barrier? Does the same thing happen among different ethnic or cultural groups within our own species? If biophilia merits a definition in some dictionaries as “an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world” does Cliff’s situation represent a subset of that phenomenon – let’s dub it “idiophilia” – a genetically determined affinity for identifiable and familiar individuals of another species. And finally, are there lessons to be learned here? Could conservation efforts make more use of this phenomenon by aggressively showcasing individual named members of endangered or persecuted species as ambassadors for the rest of their kind?
Life on earth is badly out of kilter. The intricately interlocking branches of its ecosystem – one which has taken billions of years to construct – are being drastically truncated at an unprecedented pace. Its rich tapestry is now daily diminished and simplified as species wink out. (100 species per million species per year as opposed to a pre-human rate of 0.1 species per million species per year – bacteria and viruses not included.) (http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/current-extinction-rate-10-times-worse-previously-thought/) The trend is unsustainable. We need every trick in the book to turn it around. Perhaps individual named species’ ambassadors ought to be one of them.
Late this summer, a conventionally colored red-tail was seen following Whitey around, calling regularly. Neighbors speculated that this was one of Whitey’s recently fledged offspring being taught how to hunt by its parent. Previously bird-neutral folks remarked with interest. All because of a little quirk in the coding of one hawk’s DNA. Perhaps with a little constructive genetic modification we could create more species’ ambassadors by making some individuals more easily identifiable as individuals. Come to think of it maybe someday we’ll even be tweaking the genes of our own species to upgrade our level of idiophilia!