The goats of Wrightson Island

In the comments, Scu (who runs the blog Critical Animal) points out that the story of the feral pigs of Santa Cruz Island has an even more ludicrous predecessor in Pollan’s work. In a 2002 New York Times Magazine article called “An Animal’s Place,” Michael Pollan recounted a similar story on a small island in the Indian Ocean. Here’s the story of Wrightson Island, as told by Michael Pollan:

In 1611 Juan da Goma (aka Juan the Disoriented) made accidental landfall on Wrightson Island, a six-square-mile rock in the Indian Ocean. The island’s sole distinction is as the only known home of the Arcania tree and the bird that nests in it, the Wrightson giant sea sparrow. Da Goma and his crew stayed a week, much of that time spent in a failed bid to recapture the ship’s escaped goat — who happened to be pregnant. Nearly four centuries later, Wrightson Island is home to 380 goats that have consumed virtually every scrap of vegetation in their reach. The youngest Arcania tree on the island is more than 300 years old, and only 52 sea sparrows remain. In the animal rights view, any one of those goats have at least as much right to life as the last Wrightson sparrow on earth, and the trees, because they are not sentient, warrant no moral consideration whatsoever. (In the mid-80’s a British environmental group set out to shoot the goats, but was forced to cancel the expedition after the Mammal Liberation Front bombed its offices.)

A rather significant correction ran several weeks later:

Correction: December 15, 2002, Sunday An article on Nov. 10 about animal rights referred erroneously to an island in the Indian Ocean and to events there involving goats and endangered giant sea sparrows that could possibly lead to the killing of goats by environmental groups. Wrightson Island does not exist; both the island and the events are hypothetical figments from a book (also mentioned in the article), ”Beginning Again,” by David Ehrenfeld. No giant sea sparrow is known to be endangered by the eating habits of goats.

That correction appears with the original article on the New York Times website. Michael Pollan also republishes the article on his website, but rather than owning up to his mistake, he prefaces the anecdote with the line “Consider this hypothetical scenario:”.

Doesn’t a story lose its force when it’s so completely fictional? We’re dealing with a fictitious entity (the Mammal Liberation Front) bombing an unspecified environmental group to protest the killing of goats on a nonexistent island. Are we really supposed to find this compelling?

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