Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#438: The Star Thrower

Many of my readers, at least those from the island, are aware that I left my position as Vice President for Science, Education and Ecological Restoration at the Catalina Conservancy a little over a decade ago. At the time many thought I was a scapegoat for all the negative publicity generated by our attempts to rid the island of the feral goats and pigs. These animals, which are not even native to North America much less the island, were impacting the native species it is the Conservancy's mandate to protect. Some day I'll reveal the real reason I was fired from that position, but today I want to talk about life... and hypocrisy.

Those opposed to the removal of the goats and pigs essentially came from two camps: people who hunted them (largely for food), and animal rights activists who were horrified that they would be killed. I will admit that although I have eaten pigs I have killed myself, and we fed the students at the Toyon school occasionally with many I helped kill and butcher, I did not anticipate the degree of opposition that would come from the first group. However, the protests by animal rights individuals and groups were easy to predict. After all, no one should really enjoy taking life in any form. However, I will admit that I did not expect the dozen or so death threats against me from these individuals and groups.

Over the last decade I have focused on my first love, the marine environment and its critters. I came to Catalina to teach people about this incredible undersea world. Fortunately the only really serious non-native invader in our waters during that time has been the nasty Asian seaweed, Sargassum horneri. I don't anticipate many protests when we try to destroy it... IF that were even possible now that it has gained a strong foothold in our waters. Hopefully it can be harvested and used to produce biofuel or for its anti-cancer and other medicinal benefits.

I decided to write this week's column last year after passing by a shop then owned by one of the most ardent of the animal rights folks who objected to our non-native animal removal. I was absolutely shocked to see something in front of their former shop that in my opinion nullified that person's objections and made me wonder about what I view as hypocrisy. I do not intend to reveal that person's identity and vilify them, as my purpose in writing this is of a more philosophical nature rather than a personal attack. Since that individual no longer owns the shop in question, I see no reason to involve them or the current owner. What I saw there was a display of many dead starfish, apparently a species native to California, for sale as souvenirs. There was no way I could reconcile the sale of these formerly living things and the beliefs that the former store owner (who originally displayed them) professed to.

A while back I wrote that I consider all living things to be "sacred" in the sense that we all are part of the same ecological/evolutionary matrix or Creation if you prefer. To kill any life should involve a measure of reflection beforehand. During our educational programs relating to feral animal removal, I mentioned that we all kill living things directly or indirectly. It may be a mosquito that is biting us, a fish we catch for dinner or even the lettuce we grow in our garden for salad. It may also be the critters that suffer from the pollution we humans create. Many of us have outsourced the killing to slaughterhouses and grocery stores, and prefer to receive our "kills" wrapped in plastic. However, none of us live without causing death to other life, even if it is the potential for life in the embryo of a seed. Hmmm, eating nuts, fruits and berries could be considered a form of abortion. We are all part of "the Mutual Eating Society."

Many of you are not aware that the name of my nearly 30-year old business is StarThrower Educational Multimedia. It comes from a short story by biologist Loren Eiseley called "The Star Thrower" published in 1969, the year I moved to Catalina. Eiseley's story is told by a narrator who is walking along a lonely stretch of beach after a storm. He comes across a man who is combing the beach, but not for shells or dead sea critters to collect. This individual is searching for starfish (now referred to by the P.C. crowd as sea stars) that are still alive. He gently picks up each one he finds and casts it back into the sea so they may keep living.

Perhaps seeing all the starfish lying dead in the display, for sale to someone who wanted a "souvenir" of their visit to the island, was what really triggered my concern. The sea shells in the other baskets did not have the same impact since they could have been found abandoned on a beach. Were the starfish dead when collected, or were they captured and dried while still alive? My understanding is that it is illegal to take starfish in California without a scientific collecting permit. Even if these starfish were raised in captivity, should they be killed and sold like this? Was the former shop owner able to rationalize selling them because they were invertebrates and not "cute, cuddly" mammals like the pigs and goats that at the time were causing great damage to our island's native flora and fauna?

Back in my early days here, when I was teaching marine biology to the likes of Packy Offield and Steve Quinn at Toyon, I never required a dissection in any of my classes. I felt that killing live animals to study "life" was a complete contradiction. I focused on the living systems and how organisms interact within them. To me all life is sacred... even if we take it for sustenance (although I am open on whether mosquitoes are sacred!). If one accepts the stories about the "Native" Americans (and there is evidence at least some overharvested their resources), they felt the same way. I hope you do, too... but I'll overlook it if you do swat mosquitoes!

© 2011 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Dead starfish on display for sale as "souvenirs."

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2011 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia