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Sanibel’s elephant in the room

By Staff | Feb 18, 2020

Most people are familiar with the story of the “elephant in the room.” Let’s assume that there is a group of intelligent people gathered in a meeting. They include scientists, politicians and ordinary citizens. An enormous elephant is also sitting in the room, but no one is willing to stand up and say, “Look, there is an elephant sitting in room!” No one will mention its presence because it would invite ridicule from the politicians and scorn from some of the scientists, who prefer to ignore the situation. The elephant is a controversial presence. It should not be at the meeting to begin with, and to acknowledge that reality would present an issue that is taboo, emotionally charged, and at best avoided altogether.

The “elephant” has been in the back of the room at Sanibel City Council meetings since Dec. 3. The elephant has a name: “Ethics.” Citizens and scientists have already been warned in an email from a councilman that he will not tolerate discussion about the “circle of life,” which is really a euphemism for the ethical treatment of animals. In this case, coyotes on Sanibel have come under scrutiny for a number of reasons. However, no one in power has offered a vigorous public argument on behalf of the coyotes, which are living in our island sanctuary.

Coyotes are sentient beings and are just trying to exist. They share the bounty and balance of nature with humans and deserve compassion and empathy.

“The Sanibel community must be vigilant in the protection and enhancement of its sanctuary characteristics,” cautions the Sanibel City Charter, Section 3.18.

Let’s try to look at the ethical responsibility inherent in this statement. It is a call to action and a reminder that passive acceptance of attempts to control normal animal behavior for our own comfort is morally wrong. Looking beyond the shores of our sanctuary, it is fact that wild animals on every continent are being killed so that human communities can expand.

Burdened with the definition of “nuisance” animal here in Florida, the coyote is walking a tightrope. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission speaks with two voices and has termed the coyote a resident “non-invasive” species, as well as a nuisance. Yet, on the fact page, the FWC states, “While an individual animal exhibiting behavior that conflicts with human expectations may be labeled as ‘nuisance’ wildlife, we must be careful not to apply this term to an entire species.”

An ethical analysis might suggest that what is a nuisance to some might not be a nuisance to all. Who then decides which animal has the right to live, while the other of the same species is killed in an act of convenience?

Rigid adherence to definitions eliminates the responsibility of ethical thinking, and the FWC offers a codified definition of “nuisance wildlife.” (Administrative Code (F.A.C.) 68A-9.010) “An animal exhibiting behavior that causes (or is about to cause) property damage, presents a threat to public safety, or causes annoyance within, under or upon a building.”

Has any coyote on Sanibel exhibited “nuisance” behavior as defined in the statute? This question deserves vigorous discussion.

A recent story out of Miami has enraged citizens and demonstrates clearly that public officials cannot be entrusted with making ethical decisions. In this tragic and unnecessary narrative the FWC killed a young coyote, which was rescued by Port of Miami firefighters, after it was observed trapped in the water between a buoy and a wall. Compassionate and empathetic action led to unethical responses by wildlife officials.

After photos of the exhausted but healthy coyote surfaced in South Florida media, along with photos of similarly exhausted firefighters caring for the coyote, the elephant in the room trumpeted loudly that the FWC had violated public trust and ignored its own statutes. A petition garnered almost 7,000 signatures at this writing and can be viewed at change.org. Gov. Ron DeSantis is the designated recipient. There is a second, worldwide petition that has 25,000 signatures as of this writing.

The FWC defended its actions by saying the coyote was a non-native (invasive) species and a nuisance. Both are untrue. Read the nuisance statute again, and then note that Zoo Miami wildlife expert Ron Magill was quoted in the media correcting the FWC’s statement that coyotes are invasive. They are listed as a non-invasive, resident species on the FWC Website.

This coyote was not a nuisance. It was a terrified animal. Just try to imagine what this coyote, a member of the kingdom Animalia and genus Canis, suffered. Like dogs, coyotes are intelligent, complex and sentient beings. They experience fear and pain. To acknowledge this is to recognize the elephant in the room and assert Sanibel’s duty to remain committed to its charter.

Initially, the plan was to deliver the coyote to Wildlife Rescue of Dade County for rehabilitation. The FWC requested a crate to transport the traumatized coyote. A phone call to Lloyd Brown, of Wildlife Rescue, confirmed media reports that the FWC retrieved the transport crate, but never returned with the animal. Brown was preparing the facility for the coyote when he received notice that the FWC had killed the coyote. The FWC did not inform him. He learned about this from the media.

All Sanibel residents should understand that if they elect to hire a trapper for a “nuisance” coyote, the FWC will kill the coyote.

What image will it take to move the hard of heart to embrace an ethical argument on behalf of an animal that shares a home in Sanibel’s designated wildlife sanctuary? If the photos of exhausted firefighters caring for a half-drowned coyote do not move you, perhaps we need another image.

Georgianne Nienaber