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Outside the Yuppie Zoo

Recently, after a hiatus of more than seventy years, the Makah Indians were authorized by the International Whaling Commission to hunt the gray whales with a maximum limit of five whales of a total estimated population of some 22,000 gray whales in the oceans. Refrigeration limits them to one whale. No sooner had the tribe announced its intention to proceed with the hunt than a bevy of animal rights activists and environmentalists declared that they would do everything they could to prevent this activity. Whaling had been the traditional practice of the Makahs and they have an elaborate ceremonial procedure to qualify people to go on these hunts. So the tribe began training people to handle the old canoes, familiarize themselves with the old harpoons, and learn the songs that had to be used to honor the whale during this ritual. A confrontation is expected at any time between the small tribe of Indians and the animal rights activists.

Several years ago the Inter-tribal Bison Cooperative, a coalition of some thirty-nine tribes, appalled at the needless slaughter of buffalo who had wandered outside the confines of their pasture at Yellowstone National Park, sought permission to take the surplus buffalo and move them to the various reservation buffalo pastures. This offer provoked cries of outrage by animal rights people who complained that the Indians would eventually shoot and eat these creatures and the adoption plan fell through. It seems as though each time the Indians try to regain the intimate relationship they once had with tribal animals, political correctness in some bizarre form comes charging into the situation. Yet it is also politically correct to envy the Indian relationship with nature and to dress up in Indian-style clothing and wander into the wilderness. What's wrong here?

About six years ago we had a rash of tourists in Rapid City, South Dakota being bitten by rattlesnakes at state campgrounds. It seems that they did not regard the snake as dangerous. Each year we have several incidents in western parks involving visitors frolicking or picnicking with local bears much to their discomfort when they discover that the bears are in fact hungry and aggressive. Rangers in Wind Cave National Monument have to be especially alert to prevent tourists from wandering into the buffalo herd to take pictures. People seem to be of the opinion that the animals that are humanized on television should immediately strike up a personal relationship with them when encountered in the wild. Thus, the belief that Yellowstone bears are a western version of Gentle Ben is creating a hazardous situation for wildlife because they are the ones killed when a tourist is injured or frightened.

Modern people do not know what wilderness is, they are pretty oblivious to the fact that wild animals are still around and trying to survive in increasingly reduced habitats, and they appear to see the world as a special zoo created for their entertainment. Some kind of reality therapy is in order. While we treat the natural world as our plaything, it really does have an existence and values in and of itself. The natural world is not a yuppie zoo obedient to our wishes and fantasies. We have to give this world and its natural inhabitants some respect.

The Indians long ago devised ceremonies and rituals through which they ensured an intimate relationship with animals. Using songs, sacrifices, and religious practices, they became close to these creatures and learned the proper ways to deal with them. We learned from these animals, we did not expect them to act like us. Almost every piece of clothing or design featured these animals and special dances were done for them. We praised and sang to these animal peoples and they allowed us to hunt them for food.

Today there is widespread slaughter of many kinds of animals without ceremony, without honor, just simply a harvest. The number of whales, bears, and buffalo taken by Indians these days is minuscule compared to the commercial take. Yet animal rights activists, and white hunters and fishers, without any songs or honors, spend their time harassing Indians about various species, raising hardly a murmur against the real killers of these creatures. Enough is enough. Somebody needs to get a sense of proportion here. On reservations where tribes are raising these wild animals, their numbers are increasing—and they are living better lives and enjoying the attention lavished on them. They teach us many things that animal rights activists do not know. For their sake and our sake, we need to be able to continue the relationship. Enough is enough.