Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Ancient Mariner Meets the Lord of the Flies

One of the bloodiest news stories about endangered species I’ve read in a long time involved six students and recent graduates of a prestigious Honolulu prep school on a camping trip in westernmost Oahu in December 2015. For an unfathomable reason that somehow calls to mind William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, they used a bat, a machete, and a pellet gun to kill and dismember at least fifteen nesting Laysan Albatrosses; researchers found seventeen nests with smashed, dead, or missing eggs. The culprits chopped off  the birds’ feet to collect their I.D. bands as souvenirs and posted photos of the mutilated birds on social media. They also stole $3,100 worth of seabird monitoring cameras and sound recording equipment.

Seventeen parent albatrosses feeding at sea returned, one by one, to discover the destruction. Each was a separate tragedy. For example, one male who had been mated since before the current research project on Kaena Point began in 2004 lost his mate in 2008. No one knew how old either bird was or how long they’d been paired, but after losing her, he returned faithfully from 2008 through 2015. As he waited all alone on his hill year after year, he adapted to the researchers’ presence and became a popular presence—they called him Lonesome George. Then in late 2015, he finally attracted a mate. She laid an egg and then headed out to sea to rest and feed while he incubated the egg from December 8 through December 20. Then she returned to incubate and it was his turn to go to sea. Researchers found him nine days later, standing over a smashed egg and his mate’s severed feet. He remained for a day, but then disappeared never to be seen again. I guess he’d had enough of human beings.

These endangered birds are 31 inches long—the size of toddlers—with wingspans, at 7 feet, larger than the arm-span of all but the basketball player sized people, yet albatrosses weigh just 5 to 9 pounds, as little as newborns. Why couldn’t they escape the horrifying slaughter? Their wingspan is so large and their legs so short that it’s impossible for them to either run away or spring into flight. They need a very stiff headwind to take off, and usually launch themselves from the edge of a cliff, the air below catching their spread wings to keep them aloft. They are very protective of their single egg, and so some of the carcasses were found right at their nest.

That one murderous rampage set conservation efforts back ten years and caused more than $200,000 in damage, according to state and federal investigators. The nesting area is crucial because so many other albatross nesting areas are expected to be lost due to rising sea levels. This is the only predator-free, high-elevation breeding colony in the main Hawaiian Islands. And the culprits could hardly plead ignorance to the importance of the nesting colony or the defenselessness of albatrosses, because albatross conservation is specifically taught within the curriculum of their Honolulu school.

I can’t wrap my head around this horrifying crime, nor of the legal aftermath. Three of the mutilators weren’t charged at all. Two were charged in juvenile court; the disposition of those cases has been kept confidential because of their ages. The sixth, 18 at the time of the rampage, pleaded not guilty at first, claiming he hadn’t touched any of the birds. Last week he admitted to killing two of them, but his attorney said that despite the fact that he was the oldest of the six, he was just a follower, not the “architect of the of the crime,” and that he did not cut off any of their legs or tie them up. He was originally charged with 19 criminal misdemeanor counts, including theft, criminal property damage, and animal cruelty, but in exchange for pleading no contest regarding the deaths of two albatrosses, 14 of the charges were dropped. He could have been sentenced to a year in prison and up to $7,000 in fines, but on Friday he was given a 45-day sentence for the killings and a $1,000 fine for the stolen property.

I don’t know what the wisest, most effective way is to deal with adolescent boys who have committed such an atrocity. Imagine if an urban gang caused $200,000 damage and theft of over $3,000 of property belonging to some corporation. Leave out the violent criminal attacks on and mutilation of living creatures. There is no way on this green earth any of them would get a mere 45 days in jail and $1,000 fine. We value corporations above people, and privileged people attending prestigious schools who can hire good lawyers above everyday researchers expending their blood, sweat, and tears on protecting endangered species. And we don’t seem to value nature at all. I’ve seen these hand slap resolutions on cases involving shooting Whooping Cranes, too.

I’ve heard people call humans the only species on earth with a highly developed intelligence, the only species that can feel empathy, and the only species with a conscience. If so, we're also the only species on earth that can ignore so readily what we are taught, that can so willfully and directly cause suffering, and that can commit acts that so violate conscience.

In Coleridge’s poem, the Ancient Mariner killed just one albatross, using his cross bow. He didn’t club it to death, he didn’t mutilate its carcass, and he didn’t boast about it on social media. But even way back in the 1790s, people realized that the killing of even one of such an innocent bird was a crime against man and against nature. The six boys won’t have to wear an albatross around their necks for the rest of their days, they won’t have to make any restitution to the people and institutions that worked so tirelessly to help insure that these albatrosses had a safe nesting area, and they certainly will never bring back the lost creatures they murdered.  And they got away with barely a hand slap.

We have truly lost our way.