In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this week, a militia group known as the Mai-Mai fighters, in its long-running insurrection against the government there, murdered at least six rangers in the Virunga National Park. One of the world’s most beloved and important parks, but also known for intrusions by murderous poachers, Virunga is a haven for perhaps a third of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas.
There’s a long history of terrorist groups in Africa — from Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army to Somalia’s Al-Shabab to the Janjaweed in Darfur – killing people at one turn and then elephants, gorillas, and other wildlife on the other. Their money gained from trafficking in the parts of animals enables the terror groups to purchase sophisticated weapons, too often empowering the outlaws to outgun the brave African rangers and wardens who are sworn to defend the animals with their lives.
Attacks on wildlife reserves for political purposes is not restricted to the African continent. In January four years ago, a group of right-wing extremists in the United States occupied one of America’s most spectacular nature reserves — the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a gathering point for migratory birds and myriad other wildlife species. The assault on these federally protected lands in southwest Oregon was led by the Bundy family, led by Cliven Bundy, whose patriarch had been illegally grazing animals on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in Nevada. Cliven Bundy and other followers of his beliefs — including William Perry Pendley, Jr., appointed by President Trump to run the BLM — want to privatize America’s vast holdings of public lands and turn them over to ranchers, oil developers, miners, and other resource extractors. These lands are the home of wolves and pronghorn, black bears and elk, desert tortoises and desert foxes and all manner of other species. They are essential holdings for wildlife protection in America.
The federal government had been telling Bundy to remove his animals from federal lands because the beating hooves of the livestock threatened the very existence of the endangered desert tortoises who live there. In short, he was obligated to move his cattle to save a species from extinction. He’d thumbed his nose at all sorts of laws and willfully refused to pay millions of dollars in grazing fees, and in the process a group of cranks and even some pundits rallied to his side.
For those ranchers who do obey the law and pay for grazing rights, they enjoy below-market rates to graze their livestock on our public lands. In fact, taxpayers pay 94 percent of their grazing costs, despite millions of cattle eroding and fouling riparian areas and also causing desertification of the land, while the ranchers falsely complain about fewer than 100,000 wild horses and burros living on millions of acres of public lands throughout the West. There’s an additional subsidy that comes to them — the federal government, on the taxpayer dime, slaughters wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes, bobcats, and other predators so cattle and sheep can occupy habitats cleansed of predators.
An assault on the civil society
Thoughts of the Malheur occupation raced through my head as I watched last week’s assault in Washington, D.C., with the stirred-up throng temporarily seizing the halls of the U.S. Capitol and causing lawmakers to scatter for cover and find their bunkers.
The image that sticks in my mind was the wailing of a young male police officer caught on the front-line of a defensive stand by police as the mob pushed forward. He was on one end of the line and had been caught between the mob and a metal door and was being crushed, unable to raise his arms and defenseless. Despite his pleas for help, one of the protestors was pulling at his mask and jabbing his bloodied mouth. I thought, does this assailant have no compassion for the plight of this human being who stands before him in need of help?
Police forces, in the last year, have had their share of warranted criticism, and the zenith of the outrage about police behavior came with a different video — showing the dispassionate face of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin driving his knee into the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes while the victim was splayed on the ground and his arms bound behind his back with zip ties.
The images of those two men vocalizing distress — one a police officer who survived and the other a private African American citizen who’d done nothing to warrant an assault and who was killed by the officer — reminded me of so many images I’ve seen of animals who cry for help, and there’s often no one who answers. The sick, crippled “downer” cows, no longer productive milkers, shipped to slaughter plants and dragged by chains into the kill box with the aid of heavy moving equipment. The pigeons shot for target practice and who flop helplessly on the ground while people laugh at the spectacle. The joey pulled from the pouch of a kangaroo mother slain by a shooter’s bullet for the sake of soccer cleats.
The reality is, whether human or animal, suffering is suffering, no matter the species. The one thing that the persecutors have in common is they detach themselves from the suffering of others. In the end, the victims are either the deemed an enemy or the adversary, or they are just treated as a commodity or a unit of production. It is a process of objectification.
Mob rule undercuts our work
The horde that formed last week in Washington, D.C. came to town on a lie. These people had been told that the election was stolen. The allegations came before the courts — dozens of cases had been tossed by Republican and Democrat judges — and there was no evidence of anything out of the ordinary in American elections, and nothing that could have reversed the outcomes of the vote in three states. Some of the insurrectionists clearly came to hurt lawmakers, since they possessed the tools of battle, including bombs, firearms, metal poles, and zip tie cuffs for hostages. The only thing that stopped them, in some cases, was a line of courageous yet badly outnumbered law enforcement officers who sustained assaults to protect the rule of law.
After the insurrectionists had been cleared out, solid majorities of lawmakers did show an ability to discern truth from falsehood and certified the electoral college results. Their work is grounded on the principle that when election law is established, it must be observed.
The strength of our civil order is predicated on the notion that the law is, in a sense, an organic thing — it can be improved upon, expanded and retracted as each legislative session grinds ahead. Our goal at Animal Wellness action is to strengthen the law to protect animals from those who would harm them for greed, self-aggrandizement, or mere amusement. Our work, too, depends on the functioning of a civil society, and a key element of that is the work of men and women enforcing the law and our shared codes of conduct.
This week, our team is already back at it, lobbying for new policies for animals and calling attention to the Bear Protection Act, the Preventing Future Pandemics Act, and the Animal Cruelty Enforcement Act, and so many other important reforms. We do that work despite the rioters distracting lawmakers and detracting from the truths that we confront — truths that need addressing now. The slogging work of changing the laws to address animal exploitation depends on a sufficient level of political stability, so that we can make our arguments to lawmakers and allow them to discern truth from falsehood.
The thugs who attacked police officers and terrorized our elected lawmakers this week are not patriots and we should not give their lawlessness any cover nor should we give any credence to their hollow rhetoric about “freedom.” A more apt description of them would be “persons of interest” or “criminals.”