I’m writing this in rural western New York, where out my workroom window I’ve seen deer, woodchucks, hawks and, once, a weasel. Last week a fox I hadn’t seen before came to check things out. I let these animals alone though I admit to throwing sticks at the woodchucks, who eat my phlox, and I warned my chicken-raising neighbor about the weasel. The plants and animals I look at seem to belong here, but most of them, even the birds at my feeder, have their origins somewhere else. I don’t think of them as invasive, but they are.
I grew up in Hilo, a town on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and I go back there every year, to live for a while in the house I grew up in. In Hilo you can’t help being aware of the tension between invasive and endemic species, and I don’t mean as metaphor for tourists and locals. Ordinary folk talk about it and some of them take action. Most don’t. Some don’t see a problem. Some argue that in Hawai’i everything is invasive, because the islands aren’t very old, and each group of immigrants, starting with the Hawaiians, has brought in plants and animals and turned them loose. In this view you end up trying to decide how long a species has to be resident before it should be let alone, or even protected. And that’s not easy. As you can imagine, the issue carries a giant freighter-load of political-economic-philosophical-religious-scientific baggage, and if you think that I’m going to unpack that mess in my first TNB piece, you’re wrong. I like vexing questions, but there’s a limit.
As a boy, I spent a lot of happy time at the town dump. My mom would drive my gang down there to play, which meant shooting mongoose with .22 rifles, or, in my case, a little single-shot .410 shotgun. Shooting mongoose! WTF? Hang on. You have to understand that mongoose (like deer – same word, singular or plural) are officially vermin in Hawai’i, so snuffing them is encouraged.
Give me a chance here. If you’re remembering how the term vermin was used not long ago in the American West, you’re already pissed. You’re remembering when Western ranchers set out sodium fluoroacetate, also known as 1080, to carpet-bomb endemic predators like coyotes, puma, and wolves. They claimed their livestock (which we’d surely tag with the invasive label if they weren’t domesticated and edible) needed protection from vermin, and so they poisoned, shot, and trapped as they pleased. Shooting wolves from aircraft is bad enough, but the toll from wholesale poisoning in the West was orders of magnitude greater. 1080 doesn’t discriminate, so there was a lot of collateral damage.
Don’t be pissed at me. The Hawai’i mongoose-as-vermin thing is different.
Maybe you’re thinking yeah, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, mongoose hero, saves the white family, all that Kipling crap. But I’m not talking about endemic Indian mongoose. I’m talking about the seventy-two mongoose that idiot fat-cat sugar planters brought to Hawai’i in 1883, from India by way of Jamaica, to get rid of the rats who ate the cane. Fewer rats, higher profits. Simple.
The Jamaican sugar planter morons had had their mongoose for about ten years, but didn’t seem to have noticed anything about their habits, or else the Hawaiian sugar planter idiots didn’t ask. Nobody knew, or nobody revealed, that mongoose are diurnal (active in the daytime, in case you don’t know that term) whereas rats are nocturnal. So they don’t meet up except by accident.
When they do meet up the mongoose does its duty and kills the rat and eats it, but they don’t meet up very often unless both forget and start being crepuscular, having not tracked gathering or diminishing light carefully enough. (Crepuscular describes animals active during low light levels, typically dawn or dusk but also during solar eclipses or heavy ash falls from a volcano or burning sugar cane fields.) So if the mongoose gets up early, and the rat’s been out late partying, it’s bad for the rat but it’s all good for the sugar planters, or at least it would have been had it happened very often. But it didn’t. And now that the sugar industry’s gone it’s not good for anybody except the mongoose.
What the sugar planters unleashed on Hawai’i were dusty-colored short-legged long-tailed bird killing machines. Whatever native species the rats hadn’t taken out (the big bad-ass Norway rats arrived on sailing ships with the Europeans; the Polynesian rat hadn’t been much of a problem) the mongoose set to work finishing off. When it became clear there was no upside to mongoose, they were classified as vermin and kids with guns and traps were encouraged to kill them.
Adults who wanted to help used different methods. When I’m driving on back roads I have to be mindful of who I’ve got in the car with me. I was taught to step on the gas when a mongoose starts across the road, the better to run over it and kill it. But if I have mainland visitors with me, I don’t – at least not until I’ve explained. It doesn’t always work because some of them seem to have had the Kipling Mongoose Myth burned into their brains. That mongoose could save us from Nag and Nagaina, the deadly cobras!
But there are no snakes in Hawai’i, except for the ones that modern-day morons have smuggled in, or careless cargo packers haven’t noticed. Like the Brown Tree Snake, out of Melanesia by way of Guam, where it pretty much finished off all the bird species there. What’s left of the Hawaiian endemic fauna, and there’s not much, is going to be taken out by the Brown Tree Snake, if it ever gets a foothold, speaking metaphorically of course.
So wait! Maybe the mongoose isn’t so bad, and I should let up on the accelerator or even brake for them. Nope. Not gonna do it. The Brown Tree Snake is nocturnal.