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By David Jorgensen, HUPC board member

My parents are still alive. Most of their children live in Utah, but a couple live in blue states. Late in June, the outlanders returned to celebrate thirty years of marriage for three of our parents’ offspring. Between the abundant dinner and the lengthy process of taking grouped pictures, a sister hung a colorful parrot piñata in a tree for the great-grandchildren to whack.

I don’t know how many times I have participated in some way in a piñata event. Nor do I know how many times the container was camouflaged as an animal without arousing second thoughts. But for some reason, my mind ignored the event’s fun intentions and waxed philosophical.

As the parrot was being pummeled, I wondered whether we were teaching the kids in some way that it was okay to exploit animals. Sensing obsessiveness, I said nothing at first. Eventually, my musings burst into speech, and I asked those around me to “Just think, when the young grow up, they can shoot real ones.”

Except for my wife’s half-smile, there was no reaction. And properly so. People like parrots, so they probably aren’t shot at very much. Moreover, an anti-hunting quip, even a lame one, is so yesterday.

The piñata managed to disgorge its contents without too much damage to its basic appearance. With Tootsie Rolls he was too small to eat firmly grasped in one hand, my grandson of fourteen months picked up the still recognizable parrot with the other. He paraded around happily showing it to all who were watching. Hoping to elicit a mimicked response, I yelled out “parrot, parrot.” Everybody grinned. The paper animal really was creating joy.

Then a darker thought hit. “Just think,” I said, “when Jacob grows up, maybe parrots will be extinct.” I knew I was exaggerating. I suspected some parrots would always exist if only because people like them as pets. But there is a basic truth behind the remark, and it makes me sad.

A while ago, I sat in a second grade class while the teacher was asking students questions about a book on silverback gorillas they had just finished reading. Surprisingly, boys who were often quiet when similar questions were asked about readings on other topics were eagerly volunteering correct answers about the big male gorillas. The animal had sparked their interest in a way most other things could not.

I think there is a rule somewhere requiring second-grade stories to end happily. This one did. The story had mentioned that the gorillas’ forest homes were disappearing, but the obligatory ending concluded that they and their homes would be saved with our help.

I knew better. I knew about bush meat. I was aware of one way AIDS may have started. I knew that tropical forests are disappearing. I knew that one in three primates were thought to be in danger of extinction and feel that the situation today is probably worse. I sense that tomorrow’s boys will not get excited reading about silverbacks if they know that we have killed them all.

Decades ago, when I last visited Hogle Zoo, I noticed that the various exhibits had a marking of one color if the species was threatened and a marking of another if it was endangered. I couldn’t believe how many colored markings I saw, and the sadness I felt lingers still. I have no idea how many I would see today if the exhibits were similarly marked now. For a variety of reasons, I don’t want to go back to look.

I know some of the ecological arguments for species preservation. Biodiversity increases the health of a piece of land and improves its chances of surviving drought, fire and other insults. In Yellowstone, the reintroduction of wolves has had a cascade of positive effects including reinvigorated aspen and beaver populations. In our oceans, the killing of sharks has so far led to more mid-level predators, fewer smaller fish, overall lower fish catches, and habitat voids filled with jellyfish. In the Eastern U.S., the outbreak of Lyme disease was aided by decreased animal diversity which increased the concentration of infected animals.

But beyond biodiversity’s practical benefits are its spiritual ones. As the earth becomes more sterile, I feel diminished. For many, nature is not just a provider of means to make a living. It also provides both reasons for living and reasons to live more humbly. And in my soul I cry out against those all-too-prevalent voices who evangelize against the spotted owl and its defenders. And I cry out in anguish against a fearful humanity which is so concerned about its tomorrow that it doesn’t really consider the lilies of the field like it should.

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