DEAR DR. FOX: I enjoyed your series on beef and the urgent need to change our eating habits. You mentioned the extermination of the buffalo/bison, and I wonder if you saw Ken Burns' two-part series “The American Buffalo: A Story of Resilience,” and if so, what you thought of it. I was moved to tears and rage. -- K.L., Fargo, North Dakota
DEAR K.L.: I share your emotions, including a kind of moral outrage that I can barely articulate. But many of the people Burns interviewed -- such as Dan Flores, whose book “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History” is a great read -- articulated this feeling with clarity and eloquence. It is difficult to imagine some 30 million buffalo (the long-popular name for bison in North America) being reduced to a few thousand by a wholly uncivilized people, who ironically regarded the land's Indigenous peoples, such as the Anishinaabe, as "uncivilized."
There was one thing missing from Burns' piece, in my opinion, and I consider it a reprehensible oversight: No attention was given to the vital role of many veterinarians in maintaining and protecting the health of the last of the buffalo. They save the animals from brucellosis, tuberculosis and other diseases they get from cattle, and which in turn can reinfect the cattle, which should never have been there in the first place.
I hope Burns will do a follow-up film that documents the ecocide of the cattle industry and the plowing of the buffalo’s grasslands to raise corn and soybeans for the poultry, beef and pig industries at home and for export. Animal factory farms are an environmental abomination and a risk to public and wildlife health. There should be more public exposure of these CAFOs -- concentrated animal feeding operations, as the industry calls them -- wherein animals are confined, overcrowded and stressed, thus susceptible to diseases for which they are given ever more vaccines and medications (as well as drugs to make them more “productive”).
Gone, or greatly reduced, are many populations of plains mammals -- various species of wolves, foxes, ferrets and prairie dogs. But there is a glimmer of hope for the great prairies as buffalo herds increase and fewer people eat beef. Replacing annual crops that do not hold the soil with a perennial grain such as Kernza, developed by my friend Wes Jackson, would be a long-overdue act of prairie CPR -- conservation, preservation and restoration.
So, I appeal to Burns to do a sequel that includes these related issues. It is a false hope simply to have a few breeding herds of buffalo in parks and ranches, since their resilience is ultimately dependent on how we all choose to live. We must go further toward “rewilding” the plains: restoring the vital plant and animal species that maintain these ecosystems.
It is a challenge to restore and protect natural biodiversity and to control invasive species, including our own. But every effort for the good of the whole will be good for the health of all.
DEAR DR. FOX: My husband and my teenage son are not getting along, and maybe you can help. My son does not want to go duck or deer hunting, or even fishing, which are family traditions. My husband says it’s OK to do these things because the animals are properly managed by the state department of natural resources. My husband is against trophy hunting, but says hunting is in our blood and we have been doing it for thousands of years.
There are plenty of ducks, fish and deer whose numbers need to be kept under control. What is your opinion? -- Anonymous, Fargo, North Dakota
DEAR ANONYMOUS: Does your son eat what his father kills? He may want to stand firm in his beliefs and become a vegetarian/vegan, as many young people are doing today for ethical as well as health reasons. His father is right that humans have been hunters and fishers for millennia, but now, with a human population of more than 8 billion, our appetite for such foods must be reckoned with.
The bioethical insight of the ancient prey-predator relationship, as between wolves and deer, is that life gives to life, but the takers are always fewer in number than the givers. Humans will not survive if we continue to take more than we give. This ethic is the antithesis of our current extractive, consumptive global economy.
Wild animals keep ecosystems healthy, and they have been doing so for millions of years before human encroachment and decimation. Contrast that with today, when some deer hunters want all wolves exterminated so they can have the deer for themselves. Many still refuse to stop using lead shot, which poisons eagles and other animals who eat the remains of killed deer left in the woods. It has taken decades to get duck hunters to stop using lead shot and to get fishers away from lead weights/sinkers.
Beyond harming the environment, we humans have created the incredibly cruel practices of bear-baiting, trapping animals for their fur, holding coyote-killing contests and other activities, none of which I can accept.
The sustainable hunting and fishing communities of Indigenous peoples are governed by various rules and rituals in order to limit killing and waste. But I do not accept the claim of a cultural/traditional "right" to harpoon whales or to round up and kill dolphins. In the same light, we need to examine our own proclaimed rights and traditions when it comes to killing wildlife for sport and food when we also consume farmed animals -- the combined impact of which contributes to the climate and extinction crises we all face today.
I am reminded of the late activist and author Cleveland Amory, who famously claimed to support “the right to arm bears.” Your son and family may enjoy reading my book "Animals and Nature First," which should generate some lively discussion!
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)