Archive for the ‘violence’ Category

One of the few spits of pavement stretched out before my wife and I as we made our way through the swamp. Ever aware of the ground nearby, our footfalls allowed us slow, deliberate progress. Speed is not the name of the game when looking for snakes. The sun was beginning its descent into the early autumn sky and as the temperature dropped, snakes of all species can be found on the warm pavement—the asphalt retains its heat from the day’s sun far longer than the surrounding earth, providing a perfect place for ectothermic creatures like snakes to rest and finish digesting a recent meal or gather the energy required to begin hunting for the night.

It was in this waning daylight that a small, awkward movement caught my eye. About fifty meters ahead, where the grass met the pavement, a small black snake looked to be trying to make its way to the warmth of the asphalt. Thinking it to be a racer or a dark variant of the gray rat snakes commonly seen at this swamp, I broke into a run in hopes of catching the creature before it could get away. As I approached, I realized my sprint was hardly necessary. The snake was moving a lot but making no progress. In fact, it seemed to be writhing in place. I also realized that it was not any species I had seen before at this swamp—it was the common, but almost never seen mud snake.

Mud snakes are gorgeous snakes—they are a glossy black with small red triangles that creep up their sides—and grow to be larger than nearly all other North American snakes. They peruse the mud of swamps across the eastern United States, fattening up on salamanders, frogs, and fish. They very rarely come onto land, preferring to remain in the water and mud all day. At night, mud snakes can very occasionally be found resting on warmer areas of pavement. As soon as I realized that I had found a mud snake, I was elated and immediately bent down to pick it up.

Before I did, however, I noticed its movements were irregular. It was erratically rubbing its head on the ground, the way a snake does before it is about to shed. I carefully picked it up. At once, I knew what was causing this snake to behave this way. Every twentieth scale (or thereabouts) was swollen with puss that was causing the afflicted scales to protrude out in an awkward way. Every few inches of the two-foot snake had dry, brown patches that almost looked like caked mud. After looking closely, it became apparent that the patches were in fact drying, dead skin and scales. Most disturbingly, though, was the snake’s head. Nearly half of the snake’s head, including the upper jaw and an eye, was eaten away by the brown crust. Its mouth was forced agape, unable to close. Its tongue, probably a snake’s most important sensory organ, was unable to retract and just lay limp, hanging out of the mud snake’s mouth. The remaining eye seemed to be leaking the same puss that some of the infected body scales leaked.

What was the cphoto(3)ulprit, the creator of all of this destruction? The aptly, if not creatively named Snake Fungal Disease. The fungus, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola ,has been found to be the perpetrator of a shockingly increasing number of snake deaths across the eastern United States, from as far north as New Hampshire, where it has decreased local populations of timber rattlesnakes by as much as fifty percent, and down into Florida. It seems to primarily affect the faces and heads of a number of snake species and causing the death by eventual starvation or dehydration as it renders the snakes unable to drink or hunt. This fungus appears to be an invasive species, not dissimilar to the fungus behind the white-nose syndrome that is wiping out bats all across the Americas, the nosema fungus that is likely behind bee colony collapses globally, or the fungus that is perpetuating the near-extinction of the Panamanian golden frog.

The story of the Panamanian golden frog is where Elizabeth Kolbert begins her deep analysis of the staggeringly deadly effects of human expansion and industrialization on the rest of the natural world. The book, rightly titled The Sixth Extinction, is a harrowing and often depressing look at the various ways humanity is carrying out a new wave of extinctions, the likes of which have only been seen five other times in the tumultuous history of life on our planet. The most recent extinction event, the Cretacious-Tertiary asteroid impact that eliminated most of the dinosaurs and killed nearly half of all marine animals, occurred 65 million years ago. The causes of the four extinction events before it range from global warming due to volcanic activity and glaciation due to times of intense global cooling. None of the extinction events have been caused by a single species—until now.

Humanity, as Kolbert says in the book, is the most successful invasive species of all. Agriculture, language, and social structure has allowed humanity to “escape evolution,” as Kolbert quotes British paleontologist Michael Benton. The three main reasons seem to be directly intertwined: pollution and emissions, globalization, and habitat destruction. (Kolbert also covers intentional hunting of animals until the species is lost forever, like in the case of the great auk. This seems obvious that this would lead to extinction, so I will not spend any more time analyzing it.)  Each one of these, in its own way, would potentially be enough to bring about a devastating amount of extinction on its own. However, as Kolbert eloquently illustrates, these things all seem to work in conjunction with each other to disrupt virtually every ecosystem on the planet with devastating results.

Emissions, specifically of CO2, seem to be the major culprit behind the undeniable change in climate that is happening globally. Global warming is happening at a rate that species cannot out-adapt. One of the scientists that Kolbert discusses in the book created a computer model showing that individual animals would need to move poleward—that is, continuously north or south—at a rate of thirty feet per day in order to outrun the current increase in global temperature. CO2 emissions are currently also being absorbed by our oceans, resulting in a rapidly acidifying marine environment. Most marine species are not adapted for the level of acidity that scientists project our oceans will reach within a century. The devastation will be quick and widespread. Most projections, according to Kolbert, show that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will be entirely bleached—dying—by 2050. We have already witnessed, in our lifetimes, about ten percent of the reef turn white as a result of the lack of the symbiotic algae that the corals rely upon for nutrients. These bleached reefs are veritable ghost towns already, with many parts of the ocean soon to follow. The photosynthesizing algae that provide nutrients to the coral also provide earth’s atmosphere with oxygen—if these algae die off, what will come of the oxygen-breathing land animals, humans included?

Globalization and habitat destruction go hand-in-hand. As humanity grows—quadrupling its population in the last century on its way to seven billion—it spreads. This population boom (though to call it a “boom” is a vast understatement) is due more to the efficiency of agriculture than better medicine, according to environmental journalist Alan Weisman. According to Weisman, forty percent of the land on earth is now devoted to feeding one species—humans. The destruction of habitats and ecosystems is devastating.  Not only does it wipe out entire species, like in the rainforests of South America where highly unique species may exist in a very localized area, it also has the more indirect effect of creating genetic bottlenecks.

In the United States, we have many protected areas of land that cannot be hunted, fished, farmed, or otherwise bothered. Sadly, this only seems to delay the inevitable for certain species—when certain small populations of organisms are protected while the rest are destroyed due to development and farming, it creates a situation where a species has a small amount of surviving members that are not as genetically diverse as the species was before. Thus, when a plague or infection spreads among the few populations left of an animal or plant, the chances of surviving members greatly diminishes. This effect has been blamed for the rash of white-nose syndrome in bats and nosema in global bee colony collapses—lack of genetic diversity among many species led to populations that could not adapt to the spreading fungal infection.

Kolbert’s book begins with the tale of a similar fungal infection in Panamanian golden frogs. The fungus prevented the frogs, who maintain hydration through their skin, to absorb water and killed them off in quick and ferocious fashion due to dehydration. The modus operandi of the fungus was twofold—humans introduced the fungus, unintentionally, as an invasive species. The local deforestation whittled the frogs’ numbers and created a situation wherein the amphibians were less resistant to the fungus.

As I read Kolbert’s account of the Panamanian golden frog, I thought of the mud snake. Humans introduced, unintentionally, a fungus that was particularly adept at harvesting on living snakes into the ecosystem of the southeastern United States. Human-induced climate change allowed this warm-weather fungus to thrive beyond its normal limitations, according to certain theories put forth by some herpetologists. Various local species of snakes, which have been winnowed down to only a few populations in many areas, may not have enough genetic diversity to withstand the spread of the fungus. 

The equation, of course, is this: when even one action would likely be enough to bring about the end of a species, many separate but interrelated actions actually work in conjunction to bring about an even more rapid demise of thousands of species the world over. Humanity, sadly, is an unknowing but efficient killer.

In the case of the mud snake, I set it back down after snapping some quick photos. It was too late to save it—sadly, the snake would likely die within a few days due to dehydration or starvation. About two months after I found that animal, the first reported case of Snake Fungal Disease in the state of South Carolina was announced—a copperhead. Had I reported the mud snake, it would have been the first. Sadly, for many vital parts of our local ecosystems—bats, bees, frogs—it may be too late as well. Humanity may have begun an extinction event that it cannot undo.

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Author’s Note: I wrote this piece originally on July 21st, 2012 in response to the Aurora, Colorado shooting at the screening on The Dark Knight Rises. It has since been updated to reflect the horrific actions in Newtown, Connecticut.

I feel an innate responsibility to comment on the shooting yesterday. Some people are going to say that now is not the time to talk about gun control. But when would be a good time? People are shot and killed every day in this country. To say that “now is not the time” is just as “political” as to begin talking about gun control–only, as Ezra Klein put it in his blog yesterday, it is to argue for the politics of the status quo. So let’s start talking. As this year (2012) comes to a close, it marks the worst year in mass shootings in modern United States history.

There were actually two horrific acts of violence at two different schools on December 14th, 2012. In one, a crazed gunman in Connecticut opened fire at an elementary school, killing twenty children and six adults before turning the weapon on himself. In the other, a man wielding a knife in a school in China stabbed 22 children.

People who defend unfettered gun rights in this country will talk about how violent people will use violence, regardless of the weapon. They will talk of how a man with no access to guns will still find weapons–in the case of the Chinese man, a knife–to commit their sick acts of violence.

To put it bluntly, this is sheer idiocy. The death toll in the Connecticut shooting? Twenty-eight. The death toll in the Chinese knifing? Between zero and three, as reports are conflicting. People who say that guns don’t kill people need to pull their heads out of the sand. People kill people when they use guns. People mostly injure people when they use alternative weapons. There is data to back this up, too: According to a study that was featured in the Journal of the American College of Surgery on “penetrating cardiac injuries,” someone who is shot in the heart has a 16% chance of surviving. If someone is stabbed in the heart, they have a 70% chance of living. If every person who used a gun to kill someone traded their weapon for a knife, the survival rates would quadruple immediately. As a side note: knives, ironically, are regulated. Switchblades remain illegal, while extended clips, armor piercing rounds, and semi-automatic and automatic firearms all remain legal.

Now on to the Aurora shooting, which had fewer deaths but far more injuries than the Newtown massacre. With over 70 people shot and twelve dead in the community of Aurora, Colorado, it marks one of the more violent attacks by a lone shooter in recent memory. Among the casualties: a pregnant mother and a six-month old child.

The gunman reportedly used extended clips—more bullets, more death, before he had to reload. Among the weapons he used: an assault style rifle with high-capacity magazines.

Imagine being in the theater, wondering when the shooting was going to stop, wondering when he’d run out of ammunition, only to hear him continue to pepper the crowd with death and pain.

The fact that he used the guns is due to some problem within his twisted mind. The fact that he bought the guns legally? Well that’s due to a different problem entirely—one that’s ours—and it’s one that needs to be reexamined before something like this can happen again.

According to a United Nations Report in the early 2000s, gun related deaths are EIGHT times higher in the United States than in countries that are economically and politically similar.

I understand the arguments that are bubbling up within some of you: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s the age-old argument from the NRA and gun-toters everywhere. In some ways, I agree with the argument. There needs to be stricter background checks, monitors, and safeguards to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong person. But in a lot of ways, the argument is a load of crap. Here’s why:

The gunman easily passed any background test to get his weapons. His only run-in with the law was a speeding ticket. He had no criminal history and was a very smart med studenImaget. The gunman in Norway from Norway a while back, who murdered 77 people and injured another 319? He passed every background check and obtained his weapons legally even though he had been planning the attack for nearly a decade. Lesson? Background checks are hardly enough.

The second reason it’s a load of crap: Guns DO kill people. I agree that people kill people. It happens every day in this country. But people with guns kill others way more efficiently than people with other handheld weapons. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that guns can be used from great distances and that no one can stab or otherwise physically harm as quickly as certain legal semi-automatic weapons.

To turn defend semi-automatic weapons, extended clips, and even handguns using the Second Amendment is absurd. It was written by a group of people who used muskets and muzzle-loaders. The same people who wrote that into our constitution had no knowledge of the level of devastation that could be caused in a crowd by a single person and a single weapon. They did, however, create a system by which we could change the Constitution as times changed—they had the foresight to acknowledge that problems would arise that they had no ability to account for—and they saw that the Constitution was not timeless. Nor is it Gospel.

And if this is about “freedom,” please tell me how someone’s freedom to own a weapon is more important than the freedom of a six-month-old to not get shot. Please explain to the loved ones of the dead in this most recent tragedy how their fallen family members’ freedom to live is not worth more than a freedom to purchase a semi-automatic weapon.

Some argue that people who are hell-bent on creating disaster will do so anyway—ban guns and they will still find ways to get them.

But, the UK did just that—as a nation, they have some of the most restrictive gun policies on the planet. They have even banned handguns entirely. In the United States in 2009, the United Nations statistics record 3 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The figure for the United Kingdom was 0.07—about 40 times lower.

I know that there are other factors to gun violence. I understand that murders would still occur, that people would still somehow get their hands on guns, and that people would still die. But it is entirely unacceptable that the United States would have a gun death rate as high as it is. In every major UN study since the 80s, The United States has had the highest amount of gun-related injuries than any industrialized nation. This will never be okay.

David Hemenway is the Health Policy Director at the Harvard School of Public Health and has studied violence prevention for over forty years. He writes that every nation that has stricter gun laws than the United States ultimately has lower homicide rates and lower gun deaths overall. In fact, “as a benchmark, in 2003, the United States homicide rate was seven times higher than that of these countries, largely because our firearm homicide rate was 20 times higher.”

He writes of a beautiful example in Australia: “Following the 1996 Port Arthur, Tasmania, massacre of 35 people, Australia acted quickly to effectively ban assault weapons. A mandatory buyback obtained more than 650,000 of these guns from existing owners. Australia also tightened requirements for licensing, registration, and safe gun storage of firearms. The result? In the 18 years before the intervention, Australia had 13 mass shootings. In the dozen years since, there has not been a single one. The laws also helped reduce firearm suicide and non-mass shooting firearm homicide.” (emphasis mine)

David Hemenway wrote about this in an Op-Ed piece for the Arizona Daily Star in 2011 following the shopping center shooting that killed six people and injured former U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.

And here we are, a year and a half later, with more mass shootings. How many times will we, as a nation, need to learn these lessons?

Enacting stricter laws would undoubtedly lower the death rates dramatically, just as it has in every other country that has stricter gun laws than the US. But even if we lowered the statistics a tiny bit, wouldn’t it be worth it to save a few lives?

Isn’t it worth it to even save one life? If you answer with a “no,” try explaining your reasoning to the crying parents and families of the victims of gun violence.


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