You may already be a loser

In the wake of last week’s Senate vote to turn the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over to oil companies, a writer dreads her visit to the mailbox

Photo Illustration by Don Button

When the mail comes, the news is almost always bad: African tigers kept as pets and chained in tiny cages, neglected burros starving to death, another chunk of fragile wilderness fallen victim to corporate interests. I barely glance at the “Have you seen me?” fliers of missing children or the latest round of household bills, because there are so many tragic stories about animals and the environment.

Now the news just got worse. Last week, the Senate voted 51-49 to allow drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The battle to keep this last unspoiled wild place free of human encroachment has been hard-fought for the past 10 years, and for good reason. This ecologically fragile area is home to polar bears, Porcupine caribou, musk oxen and millions of migratory birds, and any oil development likely will cause irreversible damage. I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to find in my mailbox in the coming weeks.

I’ve discovered that the downside to supporting nature and wildlife causes is the constant flow of reports and magazines reminding me that no matter how much money I contribute (and my donations are modest, believe me), the shocking tales of abuse will never cease. The publications that arrive from the Nature Conservancy, Audubon and the Defenders of Wildlife are beautiful productions filled with stunning photographs of the natural world, but I know if I read the articles, I’m doomed to suffer yet another bout of grief. I’ll learn how the irresponsible quest for oil by the Bureau of Land Management is endangering the yellow-billed loon, or I’ll find out that a top Environmental Protection Agency wetlands scientist was discharged from his duties when he objected to the Bush administration’s use of a developer-funded study.

And my emotions will definitely take a hit if there’s a story on Gale Norton, the Department of the Interior’s equivalent to Cruella De Vil. Her war on the environment is as devastating as the death toll in Iraq, but the numbers aren’t as evident, because wilderness and species aren’t tallied like human beings. Last year, an article in the Sierra Club’s magazine reported that Norton was trying to reformulate rules for snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park to allow increased exhaust emissions, but a district-court judge stopped her, claiming her motives were “politically driven.” Cruella in cahoots with industry thugs? D’ya think?

The information coming from “Best Friends,” an animal sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, is cleverly sugarcoated with the disclaimer “All the good news about animals, wildlife and the earth,” but I’m not fooled. Sure, the sanctuary is saving countless pets, livestock and wild animals from terrible ordeals, which is why I happily mail off a donation every few months, but the fact sheets on the animals it rescues reveal the horror behind the blissful endings. Misty the horse may be in the care of Best Friends, but the truth is she was rescued from a factory where the urine from pregnant horses is used to produce the hormone-replacement drug Premarin. Horses like Misty are kept pregnant as long as they can reproduce; after that, they’re sent to the slaughterhouse along with all the unwanted foals.

Misty may be awaiting adoption, but Premarin factories are still in business because many women don’t realize a medically sound, synthetic alternative to Premarin is available.

Don’t get me wrong; I realize the only way to facilitate change is to inform the public about the cruelties and injustices perpetrated against animals and the environment. But I have a feeling that people like me, who already care, are the ones receiving the dispiriting information. I wish everyone knew that parrots are social animals that thrive best in flocks, or that doves released at weddings face certain death in the outside world, but the only reason I possess this knowledge is because I support Best Friends and receive its literature. The average shopper who strolls into Petsmart and sees the solitary parrot stuck in a glass enclosure probably has no idea it’s being grossly mistreated any more than the average wedding planner has any idea that setting doves free is an act of cruelty. Every day when I collect my mail I’m shocked by something new and horrifying, and for someone who loves animals so much she gets weepy over roadkill, it’s not easy to find the words “Twenty-Three Dolphins Beach And Die During Navy Sonar Experiments!” scrawled across the envelope from a wildlife organization. It’s hard to go on and have a decent day.

The reason I persevere, despite the bombardment of bad news, is because there’s nothing else I can do. If the Sierra Club provides me with details about how the Bush administration is destroying a century of environmental progress, I owe it to our planet to know how and why it’s going down. The Nature Conservancy buys threatened land to safeguard natural communities and species. If I send them 25 bucks, and several thousand more contributors do the same, maybe a tiny chunk of land will be saved. Maybe one small extinction will be stopped. The editors of Audubon’s magazine promise to keep me informed about wise conservation choices in the products and foods I buy, and they warn me that today more than ever we face serious attacks on our clean water, fresh air and protected places. They don’t mention the Bush administration, but their meaning is obvious. They promise to keep me in the loop, and they implore me for financial help in fighting the good fight.

In the case of the Arctic refuge, the good fight now shifts to the House of Representatives. House GOP leaders plan to add the provision to drill to their budget measure, which will require another round of votes. It’s a do-or-die situation, and environmentalists aren’t optimistic. In 1995, Congress voted to drill in the refuge, but Bill Clinton was president, and he vetoed it.

If I thought it would do any good, I’d start forwarding all my mail to Capitol Hill.