Project Description

Unlikely Sacrifice

The kitchen window of my childhood home framed a run-down redwood barn. Owls lived in that barn, I was told. They left neat little packages of indigestible fur and bones scattered across the concrete floor. I scavenged these owl pellets for keepsakes: a mouse’s skull, a bird’s beak, tiny vertebrae like butterflies. I sorted my finds into the pockets of a battered egg carton, which I stored on my bedside table next to a jar of snakeskins and beetle wings.

I once found a dead lizard in the barn. I placed it on an exposed beam, where I could crouch and stare at it. Its black, cream, and beige scales formed different patterns depending on how I focused my eyes: sometimes stripes, sometimes diamonds, sometimes zig-zags. I searched for the seam where the tail would detach if the lizard was alive and I tried to catch it.

I checked on the lizard daily. It seemed to be in a slightly different position during each of my visits. Concerned that it might still be alive, I nudged a capful of water to its mouth. It didn’t drink. Instead, its skin began to crawl. And then the lizard began to writhe wildly, as if its whole body was a detached tail. And then maggots burst from its belly.

The maggots poured onto the beam and toppled to the floor like plump white raindrops. They inched away from their deflating home, expanding into a sprawling network of translucent rivulets. I chose a spindly vein to follow, imagining the procession would lead me to another dead thing. But they dribbled into a crack in the concrete.

Twenty years later, flies trail behind the dead calf in my truck bed. It’s January 2016, and the carcass thuds as I careen along a winding dirt road at the crest of the southern Santa Lucia Mountains. I park at the summit of an exposed ridge and gather my telemetry equipment.

The scrubby hillsides drop steeply down to the jagged Big Sur coastline on my left, and undulate eastward to California’s central valley on my right. I squint against the harsh north wind, pressing a crackling telemetry receiver to my ear. The walkie-talkie shaped device scans the frequencies emitted by the wing tags of California condors. When not transmitting a signal, the receiver hums a steady stream of static. If a condor is within range, the static is interrupted by a series of high-pitched, staccato beeps.

A cable attaches the receiver to a multi-pronged antenna that I hold high above my head. I thumb the receiver’s dial, listening first for condor 167, then 168, then 171. Static. I scan through the frequencies of two dozen more condors before a rhythmic ping! slices through the din. Condor 566, a six-year-old male. A few more twists of the dial reveal that his lady friend, 597, is also nearby. These two have been courting for months – they intertwine their naked necks to preen the hard-to-reach feathers on each other’s backs, and 566 stands before his chosen mate with his 9-foot wingspan fully unfurled, head lolling towards his dinosaur feet, shifting his weight from side to side in a lumbering mating display. Hopes are high that the pair will nest in the cliff bands of Rocky Butte, just west of here. If successful, their chick would be one of the first wild-born condors since the 1980s.

I was just a toddler when California condors began repopulating the central coast, but I knew to keep my eyes skyward whenever my parents loaded my brother and me into a jam-packed SUV bound for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. I would recognize a condor when I saw one, they said, by its giant black wings spanning twice my height. Crisp white triangles would curve along the underside of each wing, and long black feathers would splay from the tips like fingers. Its head would be naked and pink, except for a bristly patch of black feathers smeared across its forehead like war paint. Condors are scavengers, they said, which meant they were like me: always scanning the ground for dead things.

One year before joining the condor crew, I sat cross-legged in the snow with a wolf’s head resting on my thigh. I had spent the winter peering through a spotting scope at the Lamar Canyon wolf pack as part of a team studying the impact of wolves on ungulate populations. This yearling male was in a sedated stupor; the successful target of tranquilizer dart fired by a Yellowstone biologist in a helicopter. After measuring his teeth, weighing him, and taking blood and fur samples, the biologist had secured a GPS collar around the wolf’s neck, christening him as 967 to the science world. When the helicopter whirred away, my crewmates and I had plodded towards the torpid creature, acutely aware of the clumsiness of our snowshoes and the fact that 967’s drugs would soon fade, at which point we would begin the long trek back to the road. But we had a few moments to spare until then.

I dug my fingers into the downy warmth beneath 967’s coarse outer coat. The afternoon sun illuminated strands of gold highlighting his black fur. I stared at his pupils, which I’d never been able to see clearly through the spotting scope. His yellow eyes lolled, and when his woozy gaze swam to mine, my sense of empowered awe dissolved into self-disgust. I saw myself lovingly caressing his neck while his paralyzed body shuddered. I saw the emblem of domestication bound in thick leather around his neck. I saw the white plastic box that would transmit his whereabouts to biologists until the wolf or the battery died, whichever came first. I slipped my legs from beneath his body and lowered his limp head onto the snow.

I valued the collars, because their purpose was to protect wolves. It is only through telemetry that wolves can be reliably observed, and through observation we gain insight into how they live their lives. Critics accuse wildlife researchers of delving unnecessarily deep into the daily workings of their subjects. Why do you need to know how many hours a day wolves sleep? they ask. I point to the danger of parsing and choosing information that may or may not be valuable to ensuring the continued survival of a species, especially one that is both an apex predator and the centerpiece of heated social and political controversy. Information provides a platform from which we, as researchers, can advocate for our study subjects. We’ll take all the data we can get.

In the moment that I met 967’s eyes, however, I was haunted by our impulse to control that which we pretend to set free. Placing a high-tech stamp of civilization on such a wild thing seemed like just another way we corral nature into an arena of our own making. I thought of bison, who are hazed back into Yellowstone by wranglers and helicopters when they attempt to follow their instinctual migration routes off the freezing plateau. I thought of alpine lakes purposely doused with poison to kill off invasive fish – and the native species along with them – that humans once stocked there for recreating anglers. And if I’d known the condors then, I would have thought of them, too.

Condors once glided above western North America by the thousands. They nested in redwood cavities in coastal California, ripped apart beached whales in the Pacific Northwest, and skirted cliff edges in northern Mexico. But in the mid-1900s, populations plummeted. Shards of lead ammunition littering the bodies of ground squirrels, coyotes, and gut piles fatally poisoned the condors that fed on them. Additionally, the agricultural pesticide DDT thinned condors’ eggshells and caused nesting pairs to crush the single egg they laid every two years. If young successfully hatched, coastal chicks were prone to being fed diets rich in trash, clogging their gizzards with plastic. This trio of poisons – lead, pesticide, and plastic – slashed the global population of California condors to just twenty-two individuals in the early 1980s.

In 1987, all surviving condors were captured and placed in zoo-based breeding programs. Too entangled in the lives of humans to be deemed wild, the first zoo-bred, “free-flying” condors were released into California skies in 1992, each bearing two bright wing tags and a telemetry antenna.

Today, about 250 condors soar free. A true conservation victory, to be sure. However, all three fatal poisons persist. Lead-laden carcasses continue to kill condors every year. Coastal microtrash is ubiquitous. And DDT still lingers in the food chain, despite being banned in 1972. The pesticide bioaccumulates in the bodies of sea lions that breed near a southern California Superfund Site, where thousands of tons of DDT were once discharged into the Pacific. In death, the sea lions become toxic waste, poisoning the environments in which they decompose and the creatures that scavenge on them.

To compensate for the lack of safe food available to the free-flying condor flock, biologists partnered with ranches and zoos to provide a consistent supply of poison-free carcasses; mostly calves, sheep, and rabbits. The offerings are placed at designated feeding sites under the cover of night, thereby averting habituation issues that may arise if condors learn to associate humans with food. By day, the condors are closely monitored for signs of lethargy and aggression – early symptoms of lead poisoning. Contaminated birds are lured into traps and rushed to zoos for treatment. Mated pairs also draw close observation. If a nest is found, biologists scale cliff faces to swap the pair’s egg with a zoo egg; one that is guaranteed to be fertile and sufficiently thick-shelled. Wild-laid eggs, if viable, are hatched in zoos. After two years in captivity, the juveniles are released to join the free-flying flock.

I back the truck up to the electric fence and turn off the ignition. The night is quiet aside from the pulsing song of crickets. I release the tailgate and vault into the truck bed. No matter how forcefully I reassure myself that I am fine, there is something about hauling a dead cow, at night, into bear and mountain lion country that prompts me to hum half-forgotten Disney songs. The calf’s partially frozen body is curled in a circle, pink nose tucked beneath her hind hooves as if napping. I stoop to grasp her hocks and arduously swing her body like an unwieldy pendulum. At the arc’s highest point, I give her a hearty fling over the fence and wince with the bone-cracking thud.

I pass through the gate and crouch by the calf’s face. Her eyes are gently closed and her nose bears the soft fuzz of spring leaves. I grasp her ear and puncture it with my knife, confiscating her yellow ear tag from tomorrow’s prying condor beaks. Condors are drawn to bright things and would swallow the plastic tag like an hors d’oeuvre. Pocketing the tag, I pause: this calf and I, we are strange saviors. Defense of her kind is a common excuse to shoot coyotes, bobcats, cougars, wolves. The bullets that protect her nearly wiped out condors, and kill predators still. And my kind, we are the instigators of it all, wielding her body as a tool for destruction and restoration, playing the role of savior and perpetrator.

I lasso a rope around the calf’s leg, tighten it just above her hock, and drag her body up the barren slope. Gravel cascades downhill in her wake. From the darkness of the oaks beyond the fence, I hear a quick ruffling of feathers, a padded shuffling of dinosaur feet.

Moonlight saturates the crest of the exposed knoll, illuminating a heavy chain tethered to the ground by a stake. On the loose end of the chain is a carabiner, clipped to the brittle sinews of last week’s offering. Fragments of hide and bone litter the hillside. I untether the skeleton and sidestep the maggots that tumble from its joints. Their bodies are bright against the dark earth, unapologetically writhing and alive. Gripping the bend of the fresh calf’s hind leg, I slice the taut skin between tendon and bone, and clip her to the chain.

On my way back to the truck, I pause by a game camera bound to an oak. The chain tethering the calf to the ground ensures that her body remains centered in the camera’s field of view throughout the feeding frenzy that will begin at dawn. I slide in a new memory card and peer through the camera’s viewfinder. Bathed in moonlight on the barren ground, the black-and-white calf is an unlikely sacrifice. Her small body bears the burden of so much devastation and so much hope. I wonder how we’ll feed the cows once we’ve depleted the soil’s capacity to grow grain. When the land is too inhospitable for them to graze, when the summers are too dry for them to drink. What will we sacrifice then?

Three months after sitting with 967 in the snow, I assisted in performing a necropsy on his father, the alpha male of the Lamar Canyon Pack. His stiff body lay in the shade of a sagebush near Slough Creek, his bloodstained coat and punctured skull testimony to a violent territorial battle with rival wolves. As I sealed a tuft of his ash-colored fur into a ziploc bag, the breeze carried harmonies of distant howling.

The Lamar Canyon Pack’s rivals soon infiltrated the valley, keen on courting the newly single alpha female. Intimidated by the intruders, 967 and his three brothers fled their natal territory. At just over one year old, the brothers were inexperienced hunters. Rather than strategically attack elk and deer, the estranged young pack subsisted upon the festering carcasses of starved animals who succumbed to the final weeks of winter. An aging bison. An elk calf born too late. The brothers joined the ravens, coyotes, and eagles scavenging upon emaciated bodies as the ground began to thaw.

The four wolves soon strayed into the public lands bordering Yellowstone, where cattle ranching reigns, and where government protection of wolves ignites animosity. Anti-wolf propaganda plastered throughout southern Montana encourages ranchers to “Smoke a Pack a Day,” and declares “SOS: Shoot on Sight.” In the spring, near ranchland outside Cooke City, a poacher did just that. The prize was one of the brothers, amber-eyed with a circular blaze on his chest.

Wolves form packs because they depend on each other to survive. The echo of that poacher’s shot ricocheted off each of the brothers. One by one, they disappeared. As a young pack of just three, then two, then one, they were unable to hunt or scout sufficient carrion. Whether shot or starved, we can only be certain of what happened to one. The signal emanating from 967’s collar led park biologists to his sickly body, being churned into the earth by living things.

Like a calf chained beneath the stars, 967 would also nourished winged scavengers. But his death, rather than a domestic offering to the wild, was embedded in a legacy of wild things eradicated so the domestic may live.

The freezer of my childhood home was perpetually stocked with dead creatures in shoeboxes. A king snake with decomposed eyes and glossy scales. A sparrow. A skink. A ray I found washed up on the beach and took to my third-grade class for Show & Tell. In death, I could touch, hold, examine, and understand animals in ways that they wouldn’t allow me to in their skittish, elusive aliveness. I cherished them, and apologized for the car or the window or the cat that had killed them. When I finally felt content with goodbye, I buried them beneath the persimmon tree just beyond my bedroom window.

In my tiny hilltop cabin, I click through photos from the game camera. Seven recently released condors ripped through the calf’s hide at dawn, while ravens, Steller’s jays, and turkey vultures opportunistically dove in for scraps. The courting condor pair arrived later, gulping scattered entrails as the shadows grew long.

Watching the calf’s body become smaller with every click, I wonder if a day will arrive when poison-free food sources won’t need to be chained to hillsides. When wing tags, transmitters, tranquilizers, and GPS collars will no longer be necessary tools to compensate for our presumed domination over living things.

The nighttime photos reveal eyes glowing star-like as foxes dig beneath the fence to gnaw gristle and hide. In the morning, a juvenile condor perched atop the calf’s hipbone, wings outspread towards the sun. And in the heat of the blue-sky day, maggots will begin to work.

Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire grew up on the central coast of California. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz, she monitored seabirds on a tiny mid-Pacific island, radio-tracked wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, cared for a flock of California condors on the Big Sur coast, and conducted songbird surveys in the Sierra Nevada. She currently studies writing in the Environmental Studies graduate program at the University of Montana.