A Zoo Or Park Is Not Nature

Recently the state environmental department announced plans to control an introduced species, which is on the verge of becoming seriously invasive.   In the areas where it’s currently established itself, it caused serious damage wetland and aquatic plants, has displaced – and often attacks – native species, created public health hazards, and injuries to the public.  Once confined to a relatively small area of the state in limited numbers, over the past few years it has spread to new areas, and numbers are increasing.  The state plans to reduce this population in the wild to zero over the next ten years.  Pretty open and shut, right?  Not really, since all such plans have a “public comment period” attached to them, and there’s a good percentage of people against it.

Why are they against it?  Because it’s … pretty.  This is the species:

Mute Swan

Mute Swan
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, Mute Swans, the swans you often see swimming in park ponds or lakes.  Those are the domestic ones, but unfortunately over the years, many have been released into the wild, and they’re increasing:

Mute swans are most numerous on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, but they have expanded their range in recent years especially around Lake Ontario. Mute swans can cause a variety of problems, including aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation.  ….

Mute swans are a non-native, invasive species first brought to this country from Europe in the late 1800s for their aesthetic value. Initially introduced in New York’s lower Hudson Valley and Long Island, mute swans were kept by breeders as domestics on the ponds of private estates. The release of domestic swans into the wild on Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley has led to well established populations in those areas. The largest known releases occurred from 1910-1912 and consisted of about 500 birds.

By 1993, New York’s mute swan population had increased to about 2,000. The population peaked at more than 2,800 birds in 2002 and is currently estimated at about 2,200 birds statewide. The largest numbers of swans still occur on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, but a rapidly increasing population has taken hold in the Lake Ontario region (see the map of mute swan breeding locations in New York).

This has created controversy with rather loud cries from those who are against it:

That’s one way of looking at it. “We have so little opportunity to experience wildlife in New York City,” said David Karopkin, director of animal advocacy group GooseWatch NYC, “and now they’re targeting the most beautiful animals that we do have. The fact of the matter is, they’re part of our community.”


As one Queens resident told the New York Times, “If they were born here, they should be considered native by now.” And some think the swans’ heritage is being held arbitrarily against them. “If Mute Swans were native to North America, they would not be viewed negatively by state wildlife agencies,” said ornithologist Don Heintzelman, an author of bird-watching field guides who is working with Friends of Animals, a New York-based animal advocacy group, to oppose the plan.

In other words, it’s pretty, it’s visible, and people feel an attachment towards them. There’s also the “animal rights” factor in this as well.  What do you notice?  It’s an emotional argument, not a scientific one.  It’s why I often find myself in conflicts with various “environmental activist” groups.  I happen to think swans are pretty as well.  I think they look nice in a captive and controlled situation like a city park.  But I’m also trained as an environmental biologist and I’ve done quite a bit of work with invasive species.  When they’re not in that controlled situation, they don’t belong, and yes,  I do view them negatively.  To answer the ornithologist, yes, if they were native, wildlife agencies wouldn’t view them negatively, but they aren’t.  There aren’t any naturalization procedures for them like we have for human immigrants.  There also happen to be two native species of swan, the Trumpeter and the Tundra, and the Trumpeter swan is a species of concern because it has been extirpated across much of its original range.

Many of the species of great concern were brought here because someone thought they were “pretty,” or decided they were “useful.”  Garlic mustard is an example of one that was brought in as a garden herb, but in the wild creates serious problems.  Lionfish were “pretty” aquarium fish, but in the Atlantic Ocean?  They’re top predators who are wiping out many native fish species.  Golden clams and Eurasian milfoil were “pretty” and “useful” aquarium species, except that in the wild they destroy native lakes.   All of them are costing huge sums of money to try to remove them or minimize the damage.

The furor over New York’s plan to remove all wild Mute Swans is an example of what happens when feelings and beliefs about nature are based around what has been seen in a controlled and confined environment.   If you’ve only been to zoos and parks, and watched various nature shows on television, you have an opinion of “what it is” and “what’s right” based on those experiences.  All of those experiences serve a valuable purpose in getting people interested in the environment, and helping to protect it.  The down side of it is that it also can cause people to act in ways that don’t protect it, or come to a mistaken belief that “real nature” is like it was on the show or in the park.  I’ve got a large store of tales about people who have found that out the hard way, and it’s an ever-growing one.   People are are basing their opposition on what “they know” about the Mute Swan.  As I said, I like them too in their place.  Unlike the opponents, I realize that their place is not “out in the wild” in this state.  It’s not good for the environment and they have to go.   If that hurts your feelings, so be it, but “feelings” aren’t always going to mean protecting the environment.  That’s because nature is not a park or a zoo.



Filed under Parks, Politics, Science

16 responses to “A Zoo Or Park Is Not Nature

  1. Like most other people, I love the swans, but you make a very interesting point and I find your post very informative, thank you.

  2. Frustrating. It’s unfortunate that “animal lovers” can’t be better educated to become more environmentally aware.

    • True, and a part of my job is “public education,” particularly during the summer at the campgrounds around here. Too many people think they’re being nice to the animals, when in reality, they’re setting those animals up for either health problems or death, sometimes a very painful one.

    • BTW, I’ve bookmarked your site … I like the recipes. 😆

      • Thanks! In mid-May we’ll transition from our home in the Arctic to home on our sailboat in Seward, Alaska. And in late July, we’re off to Mongolia where we have two-year teaching contracts… so stay tuned for lots of cooking and a little fishing and nature viewing mixed in.

  3. Becky

    I am a high school student doing a research project on this issue. Where can I find mute swans in the Hudson Valley?

  4. churchlady320

    I certainly don’t disagree. But one question not raised or answered is how the reduction is planned. I think everyone is fearful that authorities will kill the swans, and that seems pretty repellant no matter what. Can you explain the plan?

    • Actually, yes the original plan was to kill them. However, that is now in flux, but the plan includes oiling of eggs (prevents them from hatching), and removal where possible. You can’t really do – easily – a capture, and sterilization isn’t possible either. Even with a round-up (assuming it’s possible), there’s still the question of preventing escapes and what to do with them.

      • Oiling the eggs seems the most humane approach. That actually is a relief to know – NO one faces the killing of animals easily, so that will help ease the concern. Thank you!

        • Not to totally ruin my liberal credential, but “No one” is not me, depending on the situation. In this case, doesn’t bother me at all.

          • OK – but we won’t out you as a swan killer! I’m not unaware of the need, but there’s enough harm done to animals to encourage us as humans who created the problem to find more humane solutions to that problem. I hope it works and is sufficient to ending their presence as an invasive species.

          • This is what I mean by the emotional side. 😉 Realistically, there’s no good places for them to be put in the intervening years – they can live well over 10 years – that doesn’t already have domestic swans. That’s besides the issue of keeping them there. Oiling the eggs is a “one generation” fix that is going to need repeating every year, and assumes you can locate all the nests. Dragging out the process isn’t helping the environment, either. So, practically, there needs to be a set of culls.