Unintended Consequences: The Sinister Side of Species Protection

By Susan Brackney | April 6, 2016 1:49 pm

One of 13 bald eagles found dead on a farm in Maryland. (Credit: Maryland Natural Resources Police)

There’s something dark at work when it comes to certain human-animal interactions.

A recent report from the Ecological Society of America admits that calling attention to plants and animals in need of special protections can actually result in “perverse consequences,” ultimately putting some species in harm’s way—even in the face of stiff penalties.

Killing a bald eagle is a federal offense punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. “A subsequent conviction under the Bald and Golden Eagles Act, raises the maximum penalty up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine,” says Neil Mendelsohn, assistant special agent in charge at the Northeast Regional Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He’s currently investigating the mysterious deaths of 13 bald eagles discovered in Federalsburg, Maryland in late February. The reward for information now stands at $25,000. Necropsies show the birds didn’t die of disease or natural causes, and officials are keeping mum so far—other than to say human intervention is suspected.

Why do some people target and kill protected animals? It’s a question scientists have asked before.

Turtle Targeting

It’s nearly that time of year when myriad turtle varieties—some officially endangered, some threatened, and some perilously close to such future designations—take step after painstaking step to cross busy roads on their way to their preferred nesting and foraging sites. A turtle’s journey across the asphalt is fraught enough on its own, but there is a segment of the human population that makes simple survival even more difficult.

Multiple studies report startlingly high percentages of motorists worldwide who literally drive out of their way to crush animals as they try to cross. For instance, as an undergrad at Clemson University, Nathan Weaver placed a rubber decoy turtle in different spots along a busy roadway and watched the drama unfold from a safe, hidden vantage point.


A snapping turtle inches toward a potentially perilous crossing. (Credit: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock)

“We knew that some people hit [turtles] on purpose, but we were really surprised with how many people did,” says Weaver, now a forester for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. More than 3 percent of vehicles struck the decoy—and, of that segment, 70 percent did so deliberately.

“If they were [within 25 yards of the turtle decoy] and they had to move over to hit it, we called that deliberate,” Weaver explains.

As it turns out, the actions of a few bad apples can make a big dent in turtle populations. More than 60 percent of those road-crossing turtles happen to be female. Taking them out of circulation skews male-to-female population ratios and reduces the numbers of healthy clutches for future generations.

Freedom or Death

Robert Gifford, managing editor of The Journal of Environmental Psychology and a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, attributes some of this bad behavior to the 1960s concept of “reactance.”

“It’s basically the idea that ‘I don’t want regulations to take away my freedom, so I will actually go in the opposite direction to show you—the government or regulator—that I am not happy about you taking away my freedom,’” says Gifford.

He continues, “’You know, you can’t make me accept that this turtle is endangered … I don’t want you to take away my freedom to squash turtles if I want to. So, I’m going to squash two of them just to show you that I don’t want to be controlled.’ That’s called ‘reactance.’”

Although he believes drivers intentionally killing turtles is rare, Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals and a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, suspects, “It’s usually males trying to be macho. It can be part of a culture.”

Appearances Matter

In part, how charismatic a protected animal is may make a difference, too. Snakes—not nearly as cuddly as, say, the northern sea otter—fare even worse than turtles when on the road. In a 2007 study using a decoy snake, decoy turtle, a Styrofoam cup, and a streak of grease, motorists were 2.4 times more likely to hit the snake than the streak of grease and nearly twice as likely to hit the snake than the Styrofoam cup.

As for the decoy turtle? Motorists were 1.7 and 1.4 times more likely to hit the turtle than the streak of grease or the Styrofoam cup, respectively. What’s more, male drivers were 30 times more likely to intentionally strike the decoy snake than female drivers. Researchers also found that men were 10 times more likely to strike the decoy turtle than women.

A water moccasin slithering on a Florida roadway. (Credit: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock)

A water moccasin slithering on a Florida roadway. (Credit: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock)

Herzog is quick to add that intentionally killing threatened, endangered, or protected animals doesn’t always come from a place of malice or machismo: “It is a pretty complicated issue, like most things with animals. There’s not just one reason why people would kill an endangered animal. There’s a slew of reasons.”

Among them? Differences in cultural perceptions and traditions.

“The classic example of that is whales,” says Herzog. “We see whales as these magnificent creatures with large brains that have incredibly complicated communication systems and social lives … But, in Japan, they’re seen as being meat … You see whale meat in the store, right next to pork and beef.”

Because the Christian tradition has long advanced the idea of mankind having “dominion” over the natural world, Gifford notes, this may also influence culture and people’s behavior toward animals—even protected ones. He says, “Unfortunately, in the first chapter of Genesis, is the ‘dominion’ quote. . . it [suggests] we were put here to subdue all other animals on the planet, to have dominion over the birds, the bees, and everything.”

At the Roundup

Couple that “dominion” position with a perceived conflict of interest, and you’ve got a recipe for killing. Melissa Amarello, director of education for the Advocates for Snake Preservation, points to popular “rattlesnake roundups”—where thousands of snakes are collected in the wild and killed—which routinely take place in the South and southeastern U.S. Event organizers claim the roundups keep snake populations in check, help prevent cattle deaths, keep the public safe, and cut down on the number of rattlesnake-related police calls.

“None of those things are true,”says Amarello.

However, she adds, “At this point, [roundups are] a family event … You can pay extra and skin your own snake after it has been decapitated. That’s something that they encourage kids to do. It’s very much part of their culture, and it has been normalized.”

Although eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are potential candidates for protection, they have yet to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, roundups in Alabama and Georgia specifically target eastern diamondbacks, contributing further to their decline.

No Trespassing

As a property rights issue, some private land owners strike a preemptive blow against endangered species occurring on their property by killing the animals themselves or removing potential habitat—before appropriate regulatory agencies find out about the presence of the endangered animals or their habitat. This phenomenon is known in conservation circles as the “3S’s” or “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

Along these lines, some North Carolina landowners actually destroyed habitat on their properties that might have been attractive to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, so that they would not be financially penalized by restrictions on the use of their property.

Similarly, in 2007, two men from a Massachusetts-based trout hatchery were convicted for illegally killing ospreys, herons and at least one bald eagle. “[Their] motivation stemmed from a desire to protect hatchery fish from being preyed on by native birds. . . . [They] routinely shot birds in the vicinity of the hatchery instead of employing alternative legal methods to exclude the birds from the area,” says Mendelsohn.

Whether it’s psychological, cultural or to avoid regulations, the reasons people kill protected species are vast a varied. But maybe the answer is far more simple: people like it.

At the time of his study in 2012, Clemson told Weaver he was not allowed to contact or confront drivers who intentionally hit the turtle decoy, and he could only speculate on their motivations.

“I would say it’s probably a power thing. Maybe a need to feel bigger than something else. And, as sick as it might sound, I think some people just enjoy it,” he says.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    One need only drive along country roads to witness the in-cold-blood slaughter of fragile and endangered traffic signs, Isolated rural mailboxes can also be drive-by hard hit (literally). In the latter case, concealing a steel I-beam post and a concrete-filled box is restorative.

    A pound of C4 with an impact detonator would kindly and gently protect endangered deserving species as paraquat-laced marijuana killed drug fiends with pulmonary fibrosis. (Some care must be taken to discourage mating attempts – use ugly decoys).

    Bottom line: Open more shooting ranges. ATF is not a government bureau, it is a party.

    • Daniel Karlsson

      Taking of being sinister, those are some extreme measures you are bringing forward. On top of that, comparing people using marijuana to people killing endangered animals and random vandalism is so twisted.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Have you seen the price of “medical:” marijuana? Am I “twisted” deasil or widdershins?

        • Daniel Karlsson

          I would say yes to both questions but it’s not easy to know since you don’t really say what you mean.

          Talking of costs though, prohibition’s not without a price tag either. Just look at what Al Capone did for the situation.

          • OWilson

            Al Capone controlled gambling, liquor, drugs, numbers rackets (lotto), money lending, prostitution, not to mention “health insurance” (once called the protection racket)

            Now it’s all being run by a bigger gang of crooks, your government :)

          • Daniel Karlsson

            All the things mentioned cause more damage under the control of criminal elements than when protected and regulated by a system of justice.

          • OWilson

            Al Capone never from “Dead Broke” to amassing a $2,000,000,000 family slush fund in just a couple years as a “public servant”!

            Do you know who did?


          • Daniel Karlsson

            Did you know justice is impartial?

          • OWilson

            So a massive personal fundraising Secretary of State who uses an unsecure personal bathroom server for the secret business of your national foreign policy affairs,(including matters pertaining to the security of your Ambassadors and staff) and then wipes it, will be going to jail, right?


          • Daniel Karlsson

            You seem to have a very strong case, or just driving a discrediting campaign. You are talking specific actions by a specific person and I am talking about general ideas.

            If you have a clear case showing a public servant weaseling large amounts of money into personal accounts I don’t think you will find many people thinking they shouldn’t be in jail.

            About spreading false rumors though, maybe you should spend half the time of the sentence you want to put on the other one, in jail, if you’re caught lying.

          • OWilson

            What kind of “Impartial Justice” has a President, who appoints the Heads of the investigation agencies, saying, “there’s not a smidgeon of evidence of corruption, at the IRS , even as the Director is Pleading the Fifth ?

            Or saying Hillary’s defiance of her oath at State” “is not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered.”

            All, while numerous investigations are still in progress, in some cases a year before?

            I’m afraid you have been short changed by your liberal education :)

            Unless…..wait…., is that YOU, Lanny? :)

          • Daniel Karlsson

            You totally don’t get what I’m saying, it seems your hot head is getting in the way. There’s a problem everywhere except at your end, right?

            Don’t let your misconceptions of my education prevent you from providing a better example of how to do things.

            Seeking scapegoats is a rather low level of thinking. For some it appears to be the only way they can be better than others, by talking down on someone else. Lacking self reflection though, in a serious way. Stop passing blame and give some constructive reasoning how to do things better.

          • OWilson

            We were talking about our relative concepts of “Impartial Justice”, as I recall :)

            You’re done here!

          • Daniel Karlsson

            Speak for yourself.

          • OWilson

            Then feel free to carry on without me :)

          • Daniel Karlsson

            Yea, well, I still care about endangered animals and am concerned about those that don’t care about anything except themselves and their own.

            I wonder if there is anything that can teach respect for life and compassion, this is the direction I’m going.

            See you down the road.

          • OWilson

            Not if I see you first :)

          • Daniel Karlsson

            It isn’t a competition.

          • OWilson

            Believe in Darwinism ? :)

          • Daniel Karlsson

            Not as an excuse not to care about others.

  • OWilson

    There are even folks that, gasp!, go out of their way to blow up school buses filled with children, or down passenger jets.

    Tough times!

  • Matthew Vaughn

    We need more ptz cameras setup at some of these places, can’t hide from a camera. I can setup a camera sytem for less than $500 and you can access the camera from any computer or smart phone. You can also setup camera system in the most remote areas. Do the research its not that hard. Time to get some of these idiots. Its becoming more popular everywhere.

  • G031

    “What’s more, male drivers were 30 times more likely to intentionally
    strike the decoy snake than female drivers. Researchers also found that
    men were 10 times more likely to strike the decoy than women.”

    —Who knew ‘women’ and ‘females’ occupied different spots on the “likely to run things over” spectrum?

    “organizers claim the roundups keep snake populations in check, help
    prevent cattle deaths, keep the public safe, and cut down on the number
    of rattlesnake-related police calls”

    “None of those things are true,”says Amarello.

    “Meanwhile, roundups in Alabama and Georgia specifically target
    eastern diamondbacks, contributing further to their decline.”

    —Odd that roundups don’t have an effect on snake populations or human-snake interactions, but they do have an effect on snake populations and therefore probably human-snake interactions…

    • Only Some Stardust

      You need to learn to read.

      ‘More likely to intentionally strike’ and ‘more likely to strike’ are two different statements.

      Further, causing a population to /decline/ isn’t the same as keeping it in check/balanced. As for the safety aspect… Intentionally going and finding snakes with your kids is probably way more likely to get your kids bitten than if you had them stay at home. Idiots who wrangle snakes with no idea of what they’re doing, like those who believe god grants them protection against snake bites (I’m not making that up, some people really believe that) are the most likely to get bit.

      • G031

        You need to learn to go f__k yourself.

        How do you not correlate the two? ESL, that’s how.

        You can keep reaching in an attempt to make your position seem reasonable,
        but you’re still reaching. The statement is what it is, not what you’ve tried to change it into.

    • Matthew Slyfield

      “Who knew ‘women’ and ‘females’ occupied different spots on the “likely to run things over” spectrum?”

      They don’t, and you have misquoted the article. Here is a correct quote with emphasis to highlight your error.

      “What’s more, male drivers were 30 times more likely to intentionally strike the decoy snake than female drivers. Researchers also found that men were 10 times more likely to strike the decoy turtle than women.”

      Female and women are in reference to different decoys not different likely hoods of hitting the same decoy

      Male/female > snake decoy
      Man/woman > turtle decoy.

      • G031

        I did the ol’ cut and paste, so if it says “decoy turtle” now, then it was updated. My work here is done

      • kurtdriver


        “Male Drivers”
        “female drivers”
        “men …. to strike”
        “women … to strike”
        Seems to be about the humans.

        • Matthew Slyfield

          Yes, it’s about the humans, but it’s just different wording in regards to different elements of the study.

  • Hannes Grobler

    Oh again the Christian tradition is the cause. Too bad you do not know the protection caused by the Christian tradition.

  • Mike Richardson

    You’ll always find some idiots that just love killing things just for the hell of it, and seem to get an even bigger kick if the animals mean something to other people. But enough about Ted Nugent.

  • AFulgens

    “The greatest harm can result from the best intentions.” – Wizard’s Second Rule

  • Mosey Burns

    These kind of people need to be castrated.

  • JAFischer

    I know people who will deliberately run over snakes because of the freaking Garden of Eden story. Snakes are the Devil.


    Pretty sure the Prince of Lies, King of Hell, whatever, has better things to do than slither around on roads.

  • JAFischer

    I’m pretty sure that some in the rural South deliberately run over snakes because they believe the Devil has nothing better to do than slither around eating rodents.


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