The pigs of Santa Cruz Island

Attempting to paint the animal rights view as out of touch with commmon-sense environmentalism, Michael Pollan shares the ongoing story of an ecosystem restoration project that requires the killing of feral pigs, formerly domesticated animals that have made themselves at home in the wild.

Pollan explains,

As I write, a team of sharpshooters in the employ of the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy is at work killing thousands of feral pigs on Santa Cruz Island, eighteen miles off the coast of Southern California. The slaughter is part of an ambitious plan to restore the island’s habitat and save the island fox, an endangered species found on a handful of Southern California islands and nowhere else. To save the fox the Park Service and Nature Conservancy must first undo a complicated chain of ecological changes wrought by humans beginning more than a century ago. (324)

The pigs, he tells us, have attracted golden eagles to the island, and these eagles also prey on the island fox. The only problem with the plan is opposition from animal welfare and rights groups. Pollan tells us,

A spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States claimed in an op-ed article that “wounded pigs and orphaned piglets will be chased with dogs and finished off with knives and bludgeons.” Note the rhetorical shift in focus from the [species] Pig, which is how the Park Service ecologists would have us see the matter, to images of individual pigs, wounded and orphaned, being hunted down by dogs and men wielding bludgeons. (325)

If you actually take the trouble to read the op-ed in question, you might find a more complicated story. Pollan doesn’t tell us, for example, that the piece gives us reason to doubt the motives of the project:

But the park’s former superintendent, Tim Setnicka, who once advocated for the pig eradication program, now says it’s based on propaganda and junk science. Setnicka wrote:

“To help sell the fox restoration program, for which we had no money, we came up with the media spin that one of the main reasons golden eagles reside on park islands was because of pigs. This would help vilify the pigs and help support the pig removal project. We didn’t really remind folks that by 1991, we had shot all the pigs on Santa Rosa Island, so there were no pigs for eagles to eat. Of course, the golden eagles eat pigs, but they eat many more foxes, which are easier for them to catch.”

Nor does Pollan mention that the Humane Society proposed an alternative to the project. The op-ed explains,

Even if we accept the premise that the Santa Cruz Island pig population really does need to be controlled or reduced, there are more humane and less draconian approaches. The Humane Society of the United States offered to help with a contraception program for pigs, using a vaccine developed by the Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center and approved for experimental use by the Food and Drug Administration. But the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy simply said no.

While it’s true that the bit that Pollan quotes focuses on the individual pigs, Pollan would like us to believe that the individual pigs are the sole concern of the Humane Society, but that seems doubtful if the Humane Society offered to help with a contraception plan. If the animal protectionists were concerned with the individual suffering, perhaps it was because they believed that the project’s ecological goals could be accomplished with less suffering.

Now, it should also be pointed out that proponents of the pig hunt argued that the pig contraception program would not have worked. I can’t claim to know either way. Nor, for that matter, was I able to verify the claim that Tim Setnicka said the project was based on “junk science.” Nonetheless, it’s striking that Pollan chooses to ignore these questions rather than address them, taking a few words out of context to support the point he wants to make.

By basing his argument on the words of an advocacy organization, Pollan also shifts the debate from the intellectual works of the animal rights philosophers to a more politicized setting, where both sides are trying to spin the issue to win over a less informed populace. To use this political debate as an argument against the liberal individualist view is akin to trying to discredit conservative political philosophy by quoting Glenn Beck.

Instead of focusing on advocacy organizations, Pollan might have addressed the arguments in a fascinating piece by Jo-Ann Shelton, a professor in the Environmental Studies program at University of California, Santa Barbara. Shelton argues, based on the earlier eradication of feral sheep on Santa Cruz Island, that “proponents of the eradication of feral species continue to adhere to an age-old paradigm that assigns value to animals in accordance with human interests.”

Shelton questions whether an ecosystem can be effectively restored and provides evidence that the project is motivated not by ecological considerations but by human interests:

To save the few remaining foxes, bald eagles are being brought in to drive out the golden eagles (Polakovic 1999; Todd 2004). These experiments in restoration reveal the problems inherent in suddenly removing elements from a biotic community on a species by species basis. They should instruct us of the complex interactions of the various elements of the present day Island ecology and the need to take into account the contributions of the introduced animals. They should certainly lead us to question whether restoration, as distinct from conservation, is a feasible goal, and, if not, why animals are being shot in pursuit of it.

Like the Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service wishes to recreate a pre-Columbian scene. However its mandate, as stated in the General Management Plan, is not simply to restore wilderness, but to open it for the pleasure of human visitors (National Park Service 1985, pp. 81 and 82). This mandate is flawed by an internal contradiction, because humans of European descent are, of course, as much an anachronism as sheep and pigs in a pre-Columbian landscape. Nonetheless, the Park Service, in accordance with its charge, has constructed camp grounds and hiking trails and encourages people to enjoy the experience of placing themselves in a scene which approximates the pristine wilderness of an earlier period. Ironically it has also left standing structures built by the ranchers, in order to retain the “historic scene” of the ranching era, but without the ranch animals (National Park Service 1985, pp. 36, 37, 41, 44 and 45). The projected increase in annual human visitors to the Island will contribute to the degradation of the land and adjacent ocean water. The Park Service has no tolerance, however, for other non-native species, and had planned to shoot the feral sheep, pigs and horses once it took possession of the east end.

This kind of discussion of the motives and efficacy of the proposed pig eradication plan is entirely absent from Pollan’s exposition in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Nor does Pollan address criticisms of the logic underlying ecosystem restoration plans. Shelton writes,

Species introductions and environmental change take place without anthropogenic influences. Had Santa Cruz Island remained until this day entirely free of any European human invasion, it would still not be the same as it was in 1400 AD. And even if we were able now to restore its 1400 AD scene, its proximity to the mainland will produce repeated introductions of “exotic” plants and animals through the actions of winds, currents, and human visitors. Therefore restoration will be an on-going process, managed by humans, and requiring constant intervention. The result — the conservation of native species — is arguably desirable, but the process of achieving and maintaining a pre-European scene will be only as “natural” an activity as is landscape architecture.

Shelton also raises a point that seems particularly relevant to the killing of the feral pigs. Referring to the removal of feral sheep from the island in the 1980s, she writes,

Another unanticipated result of the shooting of the sheep has been an increase in the population of feral pigs, which has grown from several hundred to several thousand (Pearl, Patton and Lohr 1994). In addition, golden eagles that have been attracted to the Island by the abundant supply of piglets are hunting to extinction the indigenous Santa Cruz Island fox (Van De Kamp 2000; Davison 2003; Schoch 2003).

In other words, the island fox’s woes trace back to the earlier effort to eradicate the island’s sheep population. One can only wonder what kind of unintended consequences the killing of the pigs might cause.

As Pollan tells it, the killing of the feral pigs was an ecological necessity, and the animal protectionists show themselves to be at odds with nature, focusing exclusively on the individuals and neglecting the species in their opposition. A closer look would have told a different story, one in which the “animal people” were less single-minded and the ecological science was clouded by political calculation and human interest. Only by giving us a very superficial look at the story is Pollan able to use it to support his point.



  1. Scu said

    What is also interesting is Pollan’s investment in this myth. The part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma that you are reading originally appeared, for the most part, in a NY Times Magazine article, “An Animal’s Place”. See
    In that article Pollan tells an almost identical story involving sea sparrows on Wrighton Island who have become endangered by goats. However, a correction had to be ran because no such island exists, no sea sparrows are being endangered by goats, no animal groups are standing in the way. It is interesting the investment that Pollan brings to this myth.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Wow, thanks for sharing that!

      I knew of (but had not read) “An Animal’s Place,” but since the Santa Cruz Island story took place after that was written, I was mildly curious to know whether there was a similar story in that piece. The answer is so ridiculous that I couldn’t have made it up.

      His source was apparently a book called Beginning Again, which includes the story of Wrightson Island without any mention of it being fictitious, but there should have been more of an effort to check facts there.

  2. […] Dilemma ·Tagged An Animal's Place, animal rights, Michael Pollan, vegetarianism In the comments, Scu (who runs the blog Critical Animal) points out that the story of the feral pigs of Santa Cruz […]

  3. […] my hope, that at the very least, my lengthy post about the pigs of Santa Cruz Island will convince you that Pollan hasn’t adequately demonstrated […]

  4. […] of building that argument, Pollan relays a story intended to show that animal activists are out of touch with nature. As Pollan tells it, The Nature […]

  5. Zed said

    Have no idea who Pollan is… have happened on this blog while looking into Santa Cruz.
    As an ecologist I do know that research has been published that explores the change in community composition and dynamics as a result of the increased prevalence of the golden eagle.
    1. There is evidence to suggest that the fox population are adapting behaviourally to the problem of the golden eagle and switching to nocturnal hunting patterns.
    Swarts, H. et al., 2009. Possible contemporary evolution in an endangered species, the Santa Cruz Island fox. ANIMAL CONSERVATION, 12(2), pp.120-127.
    2. As a result of the hyperpredation on foxes, the islands endemic skunk population has increased due to reduced competition.
    Jones, K., Van Vuren, D. & Crooks, K., 2008. Sudden increase in a rare endemic carnivore: Ecology of the island spotted skunk. JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY, 89(1), pp.75-86.
    Roemer, G., Donlan, C. & Courchamp, F., 2002. NF 0005 Golden eagles, feral pigs, and insular carnivores: How exotic species turn native predators into prey. PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF, 99(2), pp.791-796.

    There are winners and there are losers.
    But basically, we humans like to be the winners.

  6. […] to be piscine predators. (Critical discussion of the wisdom of that eradication program is at What will the unintended consequences be in the Cleveland National Forest? Conclusions This […]

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