Archive for Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Another black eye

October 7, 2009

In August of 1896 William Allen White was fit to be tied. Accosted by an angry populist mob on the streets of Emporia, he stormed into his office at the Emporia Gazette and wrote an editorial that he headed, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

The Sage of Emporia lamented how the “men who hate prosperity,” in his words, had taken over state politics and made Kansas the laughingstock of the nation.

“Take it by any standard you please,” White wrote, “Kansas is not in it.” The state had lost population and money, he wrote.

“What’s the matter with Kansas?

“We all know; yet here we are at it again. We have an old mossback Jacksonian who snorts and howls because there is a bathtub in the state house; we are running that old jay for Governor ... We have raked the old ash heap of failure in the state and found an old human hoop-skirt who has failed as a businessman, who has failed as an editor, who has failed as a preacher, and we are going to run him for Congressman-at-Large. He will help the looks of the Kansas delegation at Washington … Then, for fear some hint that the state had become respectable might percolate through the civilized portions of the nation, we have decided to send three or four harpies out lecturing, telling the people that Kansas is raising hell and letting the corn go to weeds.”

Though the editorial, reprinted widely throughout the nation, gave White national stature, it won him few friends among the populists in Emporia. White was later to regret having expressed himself so vociferously, but the point could have been made at quite a few times in our state’s history. We in Kansas do have a tendency to go off the deep end, rhetorically and philosophically, from time to time.

We seem to have a knack for shooting ourselves in the foot. Why, just a few years ago the State Board of Education all but outlawed the teaching of evolution in Kansas schools. That got us some rave notices, to be sure.

And now the controversy over managing the herd of deer in Shawnee Mission Park has every possibility of giving us another black eye. On the one hand you have the grim prospect of cold-bloodedly shooting the deer in what has been offered as a humane method of reducing the numbers to a point the park ecosystem can support. On the other, you have screaming protesters at park board meetings, strident billboards and severed deer heads left on the steps of the park office.

If the deer in the park are starving, then I guess putting food out to lure three-fourths of them onto a killing field and then slaughtering them with high-powered rifles might be considered more humane than letting them continue to waste away. Not a pretty sight, certainly, but probably better to quickly dispatch some of them rather than leave the entire herd prey to hunger and disease.

That’s what I more or less intended to write for this column. I’d been thinking it over and even had thought of a few clever phrases – like, there’s nothing wrong with the deer herd at Shawnee Mission Park that a pack of wolves or a few mountain lions wouldn’t cure.

But, rather than just write without doing any research, I drove out to the park as the day waned Saturday to see for myself, half expecting to find rangy, emaciated deer that had been reduced to eating the bark off of trees. That’s not what I found. In a couple of circuits around the park roads in the gathering dusk I saw 30 to 40 deer. I’m no expert, but they didn’t look all that sickly to me. I don’t know that I’d describe them as fat and sleek, but they were fleshy enough that I couldn’t see any ribs showing through. If those deer were in distress it wasn’t obvious to me.

I try not to be too sentimental about the ways of nature. I can watch a lioness take down an antelope on television without turning away or flinching, and I have nothing against hunting for sport. But we’re not talking about nature or sport here. There’s nothing even remotely sporting about luring animals in with food and then shooting them. And we’re not talking about just a few deer, either. The park board’s goal is to reduce the size of the deer herd from its current 200 per square mile to 50 per square mile. In other words, based on their own estimates, to reduce the deer herd from 400 animals to 100. If that’s not wholesale slaughter it’s pretty close to it.And the opponents’ suggestion to pen up the excess deer in a 40-acre enclosure doesn’t seem to me to be the answer, either. It’s illegal, for one thing, and hardly seems much more humane either, when you think about it, even if it’s not so instantly violent or grotesque.

Park officials have known of this problem for years. Their inaction has led us to this point where we now must choose between being seen as savages or fools. There must be a better way. Having put this problem off for five years or more, surely we could take a little more time to come up with a truly humane way to solve it.


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