The Runway and The Snowy Owl: An Ethics Conflict Tale

“One showed up at the airport in Hawaii, and they shot it,” Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute in Montana, told the New York Times.“It’s the first ever in Hawaii and they shot it!” Holt was expressing his dismay at the sad news that a snowy owl, one of the most magnificent of all American birds, had journeyed from its Arctic home all the way to Hawaii and been shot dead for its effort. He was quoted in a Times story about the sudden, mysterious surge in snowy owl sightings all over the country, giving people a chance to see the huge, white predators in places where they had never appeared before. Like Hawaii.

“Aloha!”

Bang!

Here is a lesson in the value of waiting to get the full story before making assumptions. I saw the Times story, and had sketched out a post on the doomed Hawaii visitor, something about mankind’s unethical impulse to destroy beautiful living things to make beautiful dead things like fur coats, trophies and stuffed snowy owls. But my travel travails made it impossible for me to finish it, and it’s a good thing. Honolulu Civil Beat had the rest of the story.

The shooting occurred on Thanksgiving, and the scene was Honolulu Airport. The USDA’s Wildlife Services Division has the job of ensuring that its runways are free of birds that could fly into a plane’s engines and cause it to crash, a real danger to commercial flights. The airport contracts with the USDA to drive around the airports all day chasing away birds—a strange duty but a necessary one.

Try as the bird-removal crew might, they couldn’t get rid of the two-foot tall white owl with the four-foot wingspan. They did their research, and knew it was a snowy owl. They also knew that it was the first ever to come to the islands. They tried everything: it sounds like the plot of a Chuck Jones cartoon. They shouted. They shot off flares. They tried to capture it, using an Acme net gun. Owls are the avian equivilents of Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”: nothing flies better. All the plans and gadgets failed. After two hours of fruitless owl-shooing, the Wildlife Service employees caucused and concluded that they couldn’t take any more chances. They shot the owl.

The shooter were in a classic, if unusual, ethics conflict where the choice is between right and more right. Kindness and respect for living things dictated that the owl be kept alive, and it was also an official duty: this was the Wildlife Service, after all. But the Service also had accepted the responsibility of keeping runways free of the danger posed by birds. Human life comes first, and even though the odds against this one owl causing a tragedy were long, the risk was still too great. The Civil Beat article said that the officials were upset about the decision, and no wonder. But the owl had to die. Between the conflicting duties, they chose the correct one.

Reading the reader comments to the article reveals the unethical act of shameless wahlberging in full flower. All these outraged bird-lovers who just know that the stupid and blood-thirsty USDA professionals made the wrong choice, and that they, in their thorough knowledge of the nuances of snowy owl capture, could have and would have saved the bird.

One writes, “Why didn’t they just walk out the owl and push if off the runway? Trigger happy is how I would describe these losers.” Yeah, why didn’t they call that Harry Potter guy? He’s good with  owls.  Another critical snowy owl expert says, “Two whole hours! That’s what they call exhausting all options?” No that’s what they call, “Professionals who have a difficult decision to make assessing what the options and choosing one without dithering over it until someone get hurt.” It doesn’t matter how long it takes to reach the conclusion that there is only one thing to do, no matter how unwelcome that conclusion is. Professionals, leaders and responsible decision-makers know that there is more risk than benefit waiting. One benefit, of course, is that it gives second-guessers who weren’t there and have no hesitation finding fault with the conduct of those who were there less to criticize. That isn’t problem-solving, however; it’s public relations. “You trying to tell me they couldn’t use a tranquilizer gun?” asks a Dorothy-Lee Huckle. My God, Dorothy! You’re right! The Wildlife service never thought of a tranquilizer gun to remove an animal without killing it! Oh, if only you had been there!

Than there’s Brad Parson, who had another forehead-slapping bolt of inspiration: “Could have tried to catch it and take it to the Honolulu Zoo.” That’s assuming that Brad has a forehead.

Then there’s this, from Occupy Honolulu  crusader Michael Broady, Jr., who personifies Maslow’s Law (“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”) with this fatuous declaration:

“DISGUSTING.. SICKENING!!! Look at that beautiful pueo! I’m sorry but if you can even think of pointing a gun at that living being as if YOU HAVE THE RIGHT to take its life, you have no heart. I don’t care what your “job” tells you to do. It’s disgusting you would take such an evil duty and call yourself “employed” because you kill living things to keep the capitalist machine turning.”

Responsibility, particularly when it requires choosing between imperfect alternatives, can be the most difficult ethical value of all. The Wildlife Service did its duty. May Brad, Michael, Dorothy and the rest perform their duties, and resolve their ethical conflicts, so well.

29 thoughts on “The Runway and The Snowy Owl: An Ethics Conflict Tale

  1. This a common responce on at airports. And it doesnt just apply to birds. The Marines I was stationed with at Kadena AFB learned very quickly that it was better off for the dogs loose on the flight line if we tried to catch them then calling in animal control as they would only try to catch them for so long and then they shot them.

  2. Then there is also the issue of trying to keep the habitat in Hawaii balanced properly. Hawaii, last I heard, has problems with wild pigs destroying the forest. They also have problems with keeping snakes off of the islands to protect the wildlife which has never seen a snake before in their life.

    How much damage would the owl have created if the creature stayed? Foreign animals in a new habitat usually end up destroying the ecosystem. Look at the waterways in America for proof.

    • Unless snowy owls are capable of pathogenesis, I doubt that this was a concern…after all, only one had arrived since, well, forever, and the likelihood of a breeding pair, especially since the owls breed in their native habitat and not their winter digs, approached nil. That, and the fact that the bird’s snow camouflage doesn’t exactly afford it maximum protection in Hawaii, so its a poor candidate to run amuck.

      But generally speaking, yours is a good point.

  3. Living in a rural area, I see many just shoot things to shoot things. It isn’t for food or trophy mounts. I am one of very few that say ” They need to live too.” Not too long ago, a couger was making it’s way through the area. A couple of guys chased it into a culvert and shot it with an AK47. They say they did it because of the fear of coming close to their kids or their live stock. But then they took pictures of the dead cat with their kids sitting by it and posted it on Facebook. I have never understood why people hunt with assault rifles. They were designed to kill people not animals. I carried them almost every day at one time. Assault rifles are interesting when it comes to military history but I prefer a hunting rifle. I also enjoy target shooting with a .45. I understand hunting, protecting human life or humanely putting an animal down. I would never have shot the cat on first sight. I would have been curious as to where it was going and to see what it’s possible intentions were. I would only engaged it if it had anopportunity to do harm to people or any domestic animal. It is illegal to shoot cougars in my neck of the woods. However in the instance at the air port, birds are dangerous. If they get caught in the jet intake they can do damage and compromise the safety of the passengers. Also it might be more humane to the animal to shoot it rather than it live through a trauma such as that. Although I seriously doubt a bird would survive a jet intake.

  4. Logan Airport in Boston where I live attracts Snowy Owls every winter. Sometimes lots of them. They don’t shoot the owls. They have hired a local expert on the owls who traps them and moves them to a safer location. Last I heard he has caught SIXTEEN this winter alone! So it certainly is possibly to safely remove Snowy Owls from airports. The problem here was the people in Hawaii had never seen a Snowy Owl before and didn’t know how to handle it.

    • I’m sure you are right. They are not the easiest birds to trap, and it takes the right experience and equipment, neither of which were available in Hawaii.

      Why do the birds like airports so much? They’re big, but not THAT big!

  5. While I doubt there were not many other options in this case I will be willing to bet that if the item out there on the airport had been worth millions of dollars they would have found a way to remove it without killing it. As it is it really is like all of the rest of us. What, maybe 1.95 worth of chemicals? We living things really have no value in this age and god help us if we would have to slow down for something crossing the road.

  6. The wildlife service (interesting title in this case) seem to have their own version of Maslow’s Law whereby if all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target. Did anyone really expect more than 2 hours of concentrated effort on any problem from them? Two hours is a long time to think all in a row you know.

      • Yes and all that noise probably makes it hard to hear themselves think as well. The challenges to solve seem almost overwhelming.

        • I’m sure it was their stupidity and laziness that was the issue. I bet you would have found a simple way to trap or scare off the owl with what was on hand or could be found quickly. I also think you could have stopped the 9/11 attacks, defused the situation in Waco, and foiled the Joker’s plans, all without spilling your ice tea.

          • I don’t drink iced tea and I can’t even imagine a situation where my phone would ring because there was anything happening at the airport since I rarely fly. I do have a friend in customs but I doubt he would call me for anything in a pinch when he was at work. I also try not to joke about 9/11. I wasn’t there but had friends who were. And the Joker is Batman’s problem, I don’t spend any time worrying about him. But thanks for the vote of confidence. It is possible to think others made bad decisions without elevating oneself to the status of hero in the situation. I think the overkill choice was not well thought out, I didn’t say I would have run and pushed the Owl off the runway…. heck, I didn’t even suggest they do that!

            tgt, I read your comments all the time. Often, you force me to think about something in a way I wouldn’t have without reading. Jack does it to. It is why I continue to read what I almost never agree with. Because I enjoy exploring his point of view. Once or twice, one of you have swung my opinion. It is very interesting to me when that happens. But, you really need to consider sticking to a conversation. I mean really, I haven’t even had my first coffee and you are assuming my position on Waco and 9/11 as well as my preferences for superhero’s and beverages. So for future reference, I am more of a Wolverine girl.

            • Danielle—you have exactly the right attitude toward the blog. The objective is not to inflict my opinion on the world as the last word, but to use it to inspire a shared inquiry into difficult issues. When Ethics Alarms becomes an echo chamber frequented only by fans and head-nodders, I’m out. It doesn’t seem that there is much danger of THAT, however.

            • It is possible to think others made bad decisions without elevating oneself to the status of hero in the situation.

              No complaint from me there.

              What you did in this situation, though, is call them lazy and stupid. You implied that anyone with half a brain willing to put in a little effort could have solved this situation in a better way. You don’t even state how we could have ended up with a different result, just that it should have been done.

              tgt, I read your comments all the time. Often, you force me to think about something in a way I wouldn’t have without reading. Jack does it to. It is why I continue to read what I almost never agree with. Because I enjoy exploring his point of view. Once or twice, one of you have swung my opinion. It is very interesting to me when that happens.

              I love when the internet works!

              But, you really need to consider sticking to a conversation. I mean really, I haven’t even had my first coffee and you are assuming my position on Waco and 9/11 as well as my preferences for superhero’s and beverages.

              An Arnold Palmer girl maybe? No, I got it. You’re my drink twin. It’s canibalized christians all the way. (Jack & Coke, splash of Grenadine and amaretto and/or Cointreau. Extremely tasty.)

              Feel free to substitute in other personal details and historical situations where, after the fact, people said the solution should have been simple.

              So for future reference, I am more of a Wolverine girl.

              Duly noted. I take Batman over Wolverine, but that might be bacause all the other X-men drag Wolverine down. He clearly was the best of the X-Men.

              • LOL! Except I don’t drink alcohol. If we voted on prohibition tomorrow, my vote would be yes. So I will take my canibalized christians with pink grapefruit and tangerine please.

                I called them lazy and stupid because I think they are lazy and stupid. At least in this case.

                If not Wolverine, why not Spiderman? Batman really is nothing without Alfred.

                • I called them lazy and stupid because I think they are lazy and stupid. At least in this case.

                  What is your reasoning for them being lazy and stupid?

                  If not Wolverine, why not Spiderman? Batman really is nothing without Alfred.

                  Spiderman’s an emodiot. I just want to slap him.

                  • My reasoning is that I think enthusiastic, smart people would have come up with a better solution. The better solution, in my mind, would have the owl alive in the end. Since they band Snowy Owls, I know there is an alive owl solution possible. I don’t know what it is but I bet Norman Smith does. I wonder if they called him, or the Audubon Society of Hawaii, or any of the groups banding birds in Hawaii, or….it’s working backwards I know but there you go. Lazy, stupid is my assessment.

                    I feel the same way about Spiderman ever since Tobey Maguire.

                    • Just because the result wasn’t what you wanted, doesn’t mean actions were bad or intelligence and effort were lacking. It’s a common mistake to assume that good results always come from good actions and bad results from bad actions.

  7. I forgot to say. A bird that size going into an engine of an aircraft taking off would most likley cause that aircraft to crash kiiling everyone on board.

  8. The owls are even showing up in urban and suburban areas, along highways, on signs and fence posts, and in other places where people can more easily spot them. It has been a good snowy owl year at Logan Airport in Boston, too. Because the airfield looks like tundra, snowy owls tend to flock there, and they must be trapped and removed.

  9. REPLYING TO TGT AFTER THE THREAD RAN OUT:
    “It’s a common mistake to assume that good results always come from good actions and bad results from bad actions.”

    In fact, that’s the essential flaw in consequentialism. Right decisions can and do lead to terrible results, and unethical ones come out aces. If we let that confuse us, we lose the ability to distinguish between them.

  10. I’ve assisted in trapping and banding different predatory birds and the worst was a Snowy owl. They are beautiful but they are large, powerful and mean. If you don’t know how to handle them properly which I doubt Hawaii officials do, are very dangerous and can seriously injure a human, also trapping a bird like this without proper knowledge or equipment can seriously injure the bird or result in it’s death anyway. Where I volunteered there was a Snowy Owl being rehabilitated after it got hit by a car, she recovered beautifully, she attacked every one who went near her cage, feedings were difficult. She was released in Northern Ontario where she was eventually recaptured and euthanized as she continued to attack humans. She caused one park ranger( I think it was a park ranger) 20 or thirty stitches to his face and arms. As much as I love these glorious birds I believe shooting it was in everyone’s best interest. Sometimes hard decisions have to be made.

    • Thanks, Kara. That’s great information. In the movie “the Big Year”, the snowy owl was mentioned as one of the most elusive bird watcher treasures to find. Seems like there has to be a way, with such a creature, to avoid killing it.

      What if it had been a unicorn?

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