Tuesday, June 16, 2015

1883. The Exterminator: The Case of the Dutch and the Graylag Geese

By Kamran Nayeri, June 16, 2015
Arie den Hertog rounds up graylag geese for extermination
The gas chamber
Arie den Hertog is an ordinary 40 year old Dutchman.  Until recently, he was just an “exterminator” responding to calls to eradicate foxes, birds, and other “pests” from people’s homes and property.  But lately, Mr. Den Hertog captures and gas graylag geese for a living and has attracted some unwanted public attention.  Andrew Higgs of the New York Times recently observed him doing it: 
“The hiss of gas, released by a red lever turned by Arie den Hertog in the back of his white van, signaled the start of the massacre. The victims, crammed into a sealed, coffin-like wooden case, squawked as they struggled to breathe. Then, after barely two minutes, they fell silent.
“Glancing at the timer on his cellphone, Mr. Den Hertog declared the deed done. ‘Now it is all over,’ he said proudly of his gruesomely efficient handiwork, on a gloriously sunny day beneath a row of poplar trees on the banks of the Lower Rhine.” (Andrew Higgs, The New York Times, June 14, 2015)
Since he first started this new extermination job in 2008, he estimates that he has killed 50,000 to 60,000 graylag geese, 25,000 around Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport alone.  The massacre is done during the geese molting period, a few weeks each year when they shed old feathers on their wings to make way for new ones. Unable to fly, they gather in water for protection from predators.  

“In small boats, Mr. Den Hertog and Mr. Spitzen, the ranger, approached geese relaxing in a canal off the Lower Rhine from opposite sides, a pincer operation intended to drive them toward the river bank, where Mr. Den Hertog, his son and other helpers had set up a kind of chute to funnel the geese to the gas chamber.
“A few, as if sensing doom, appeared to be suddenly gripped by wild panic and somehow found a will to fly, fleeing before it was too late on their sparsely feathered wings.Mr. Den Hertog then round them up into an enclosed location and began his task of preparing them for the gas chamber.” (ibid.) 
The Dutch authorities hired Mr. Den Hertog for exterminating graylag geese because the they eat the grass on pastures meant for cows and may collide into planes taking off from the airport, a major hub in Europe.  

On June 1, Mr. Den Hertog’s work picked up following a decision by the European Chemicals Agency to formally approve the use of carbon dioxide as a biocide, a ruling that lifted a cloud of uncertainty about the legality of Mr. Den Hertog’s approach.  On a recent outing, to Wijik bij Duurstede village in Ultrecht region southwest of Amsterdam, he killed 579 graylag geese in his portable gas chamber, fitted with two big canisters of carbon dioxide. This brought his death toll to more than 7,000 for the week.

About the graylag geese
Graylag geese are fully migratory although some populations in temperate regions are sedentary or locally dispersive. The species breeds from May or April in loose colonies after which flocks gather to undertake molt migrations to favored areas with good feeding opportunities and access to safe roosting sites to undergo a flightless molting period lasting a month. The species is highly gregarious outside of the breeding season with large concentrations forming during the post-breeding molt and before the autumn migration (e.g. flocks of up to 25,000 individuals). The species feeds diurnally, especially during the morning and evening, although non-breeding birds may also feed at night. It roosts at night and during the middle of the day on open water (source: Birdlife).

Graylag geese are threatened by considerable hunting across much of its range and is susceptible to poisoning from lead shot ingestion. The species is also persecuted by farmers as it can cause considerable crop damage. The destruction and degradation of wetland habitats due to drainage, conversion to agriculture, petroleum pollution, peat-extraction, changing wetland management practices (e.g. decreased grazing and mowing in meadows leading to scrub over-growth) and the burning and mowing of reeds is also a threat, especially in breeding areas. The species is susceptible to avian influenza so may be threatened by future outbreaks of the virus. (ibid.)

Geese population in the Netherlands has skyrocketed partly because of a 1999 ban on hunting them and partly because of farmers’ increasing use of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, which geese apparently love and partly because of the expansion of protected nature areas. “That combination, plus an abundance of rivers and canals has made the country a “goose El Dorado.” said Julia Stahl, head of research at Sovon, a group that monitors wild bird populations in the Netherlands.” (Higgs, The New York Times)  As a result, more graylag geese tend to stay in the Netherlands than migrate to the arctic Russia in the summer time.  They account for three quarter of the Dutch geese population of about 800,000.  Netherlands which has 18.8 million people is densely populated with 498 persons per square kilometer in 2013. 

Ethics of extermination
Mr. Den Hertog justify his activity by arguing that geese are not human so gassing them en mass is not an ethical problem. He thinks people who sympathize with the geese are unjustifiably “emotional.” “‘A lot of people are too emotional about animals,’ Mr. Den Hertog said, scoffing at what he dismissed as sentimental attitudes shaped by modern urban living. ‘They give them names and think they are humans. But nature itself is very hard. When a bird gets sick, a fox will see it and kill it immediately. But if humans see it, they want to take it to a hospital.’” (ibid.)  

Mr. Bart Krol who is a vice governor of the Utrecht region responsible for geese extermination policy does not like killing them but he says he is “implementing what our democracy has decided is the policy for dealing with this problem.”

The animal rights movement
From the New York Times report it appears that the main opposition to the campaign to eradicate the graylag geese is from the Animal Liberation Front with its tactics of sending hate mail to Mr. Den Hertog and Mr. Krol and physically disrupt their work.

Culture and nature
Of course, the problem is rooted in the clash of culture and nature.  The Dutch are protecting their way of life—farming and flying in airplane—against the way of life of the graylag geese.  Mr. Den Hertog’s job as an exterminator is a socially accepted norm for the Western industrial societies—even the Animal Liberation Front does not object to ordinary extermination of “pests” who are essentially other species getting into our way of life.  The clash between human culture, in modern times largely the capitalist culture, and nature constantly is resolved with our eradication of wildness as we shape nature to fit our designs whether for profits (like clearing forests for wood or pasture) or simply to satisfy our fancy (as gardeners do when they uproot a landscape to install one more likable). 

This clash of human culture and nature lays at the roots of the planetary crisis we face today.  The capitalist civilization we live in perpetuates this assault on ever large scale and with faster pace destroying natural habitats, ecosystem and untold number of species.  To reduce our field of vision to the gruesome work of Mr. Den Hertog is to lose sight of the magnitude of the problem and proper way to search for a solution to it.  The solution should include overcoming and transcending the anthropocentric capitalist culture by building an ecological socialist society that can live happily in harmony with the rest of nature. 

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