But before we begin, I'd like to bring you up to date on the duck. Remember? Two and a half years ago, my daughter talked me into allowing a wild baby duck (or "duckling," to a professional duckologist) to come home with us and stay at our house until it learned to fly away and join all the other wild ducks in that great pilgrimage to wherever ducks go when they aren't here. I didn't want to bring it home, not really. I've been around the stray animal block enough times to know that more often than not, whatever you hope will happen when you bring home a stray isn't what usually happens. But before I could come up with an excuse for not bringing the adorable, cuddly, itsy-bitsy duckling home, my daughter was already in love. And you know what it's like trying control what (or whom) your teenage daughter falls in love with, eh?
When the duck grew up, my daughter didn't love it so much. She learned what Juliet might have learned about Romeo, had those two lived long enough for Romeo to turn into a pest that poops all over the place. She still likes the duck enough, but that adorable new duckling smell has long since worn off. You see, the duck never did join the other wild ducks. In fact, our "Bucky" has never even learned to fly. She flaps her wings now and then as though she knows they're not there just for decoration, but she has never left the ground. Don't ask me why. I'm no duckologist. At this very moment, Bucky is sleeping on a rag in the garage next to our dog (she follows the dog everywhere; they are best of friends, though I'm not sure the dog knows it), and she poops more (on a per-pound basis) than any creature I have ever been associated with. If duck poop were traded on the commodities market, I could quit working and buy a villa overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Every weekend when weather permits, I hose out the garage with a high pressure nozzle and imagine all the savory options I could make of Bucky: roasted duck, baked duck, barbecued duck, duck pie, duck soup. My neighbors wonder why I put up with it. I don't know what to tell them, except that Bucky became my responsibility when I agreed to bring her home. And it is not in my understanding of responsibility to turn every little inconvenience into a meal.
So what does our Bucky have to do with those three starving and abandoned cougar cubs? Only this: Bucky—even considering the inconvenience she has turned out to be—is still around, pooping up a storm. The cougar cubs are dead, killed by the very agency we trust to make certain there are cougars in Idaho. And that betrays what is, on my list of values, the most important thing, the most vital thing, about wildlife: that as much of it as possible, for as long as possible, remain alive.
At one time, wildlife could be relied on to keep itself alive, or at least a healthy representation of each of its plethora of species. Those times are over. To everything from the dew-eyed ungulate to the snarling carnivore, death now comes in an array of relatively recent developments. Beyond the immediate danger from hunters and each other, they have to compete with ranch cows for food, subdivisions for habitat, and lumber companies for cover. They don't know it, but they have no choice anymore but to rely to some degree on human intervention for their lives. And the more of us humans there are, the more we will have to intervene on their behalf.
To animal lovers, that means intervening on behalf of the snarling carnivore as much as the dew-eyed ungulate. Yet, from all appearances, it seems the Department of Fish and Game—our designated agency for wildlife intervention—may be overly weighted to protect the huntable herds at the expense of predators. Would they have ordered the euthanasia of three hungry fawns or elk calves? Would they have killed pheasant chicks or mallard babies because of the inconvenience of keeping them alive?
I realize there's a world of difference between what it takes to raise a duckling and what it takes to raise a puma, but don't tell me it can't be done. A state-funded carnivore rehabilitation center would be a good start, dedicated to the concept that animals are more than trackable populations—that each individual creature has a uniquely intrinsic value.
Along the way to creating such a facility, I suspect a couple of other changes will be required. 1) The Department of Fish and Game must be funded to a healthy extent from the state's general fund. Currently, 50 percent of its budget comes from licensing fees on hunters and fishermen. (The rest, mostly from federal grants.) We must all become part of the revenue stream. Animal lovers will have to pay to keep animals alive—just as hunters pay to kill them—or Fish and Game will never pay attention to us.
2) Change the agency's name (and focus) to the "Department of Wildlife" and abandon once and forever the perception that Idaho's wild things are either fish or game, kept around solely for whatever pleasure can be had by killing them. I mean it: If state officials want preservation groups to ever stop holding up the delisting process on wolves, they are going to have to demonstrate a solid commitment to all God's creatures, not just the ones that go good with a baked potato and a salad on the side.