“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.
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.