Earlier this month Fox 13 News in Tampa Bay posted an article about two photographers who overstepped the line of ethical wildlife observation by handling a two week-old Sandhill crane chick. They were captured on film and now wildlife officials say they could face charges if they can be found.

People do a lot worse to animals than handling their offspring, and although it is not condoned, that’s not the interesting part of this story. What is more telling is the mixed reactions posted in the comments section. Some people feel the perpetrators should be shot for their transgressions while others think they had every right to play with a baby bird.

The most common reaction is that maybe they didn’t know they were not allowed to handle wildlife. That excuse was also suggested when Whooping cranes were shot by kids showing off to their girlfriends. Many people commented that if the shooters had known what they were, or if more education was available, those birds wouldn’t have been shot — with a high powered rifle — on private property — at night. If that was a valid defence you could simply say, “Sorry I burned your house down. I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to”. Ignorance of the law is not a defence, it is simply ignorance – not only of the rules but also of our responsibility to nature.

The fact that we even need laws at all is evidence of how we view our relationship with the environment. If we truly appreciated the connection between nature and ourselves, rules to protect it would be as unnecessary as a law against destroying our own wealth.

The planet, in all its complexity is the producer of everything we have, the materials we use to build our society, the water we drink, even the air we breathe. There is no other source for those essentials yet we use them as if they were inexhaustible. We are the prodigal heirs of a rich family. We did nothing to create the prosperity and we lack the ability, or the motivation, to maintain our inheritance, yet we spend the wealth with no concern for the future. But the environment was not inherited from our grandparents, More accurately it is borrowed from our grandchildren.

So what does it matter that a photographer in Florida handled a Sandhill chick to get a better picture when cranes are hunted in some states? It matters because it demonstrates how little we care about the creatures around us. Through his willingness to ignore the rules, he chose his own gratification over the welfare of the chick. Whether it was a desire for a better photograph or simple curiosity, he threatened the life of that bird for his own benefit. His ignorance of the consequences is as inexcusable as his ignorance of the law.

For those who think no harm was done, you don’t understand the stress load on the parent. A crane may abandon their chicks if the threat is too great. Instinct tells them it is better to escape and reproduce again next season than to be injured defending a chick that will perish as a result. If the chick is lost, the adult will survive, but if the adult is injured, they will both die.

As for the chick, they are vulnerable at that age. They hatch neither tame nor wild but have a natural fear of the unfamiliar. Most of their wildness is learned from the parent. An adult bird will remain wary despite several encounters with people, but a chick can become complacent after only one. Despite our good intentions, tame birds have a far shorter life span that their wild counterparts.

The point is, that all creatures are part of the ecosystems that make the world work. Damaging them even slightly, can have long term consequences that at some point will affect our lives. If we want to protect our future, we must learn to respect nature, even the baby Sandhills.

Bob Hunter, one of the founders of Green Peace, once said, “Conservationists are a pain in the ass, but they make great ancestors.”

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  1. deegs March 27, 2013 7:29 pm

    In any culture, at any time I remember, we always were told not to handle baby animals, to respect their fragile nature, to protect their bond with their parents. Thus, there is no excuse for what they did, grown men did not suddenly fall off the back of a truck with no understanding or appreciation for nature. After all, it was they who pursued the birds, not the other way around.

  2. M L Walsh aka maxgreenwing March 27, 2013 5:26 pm

    p.s. Of course, I would never do that now.

  3. Wanda March 27, 2013 5:13 pm

    Thank you Joe for writing so beautifully what so many of believe!

  4. Diane March 27, 2013 4:14 pm

    Excellent article very well written! As a rehabber of wildlife, I cannot stress enough how much I wish everyone would pass this along to friends, family, and co-workers. The more that humans know, the better we will do. I don’t think most people even think about the potential harm that can come from handling something and imprinting on it. They just see a cute, fuzzy baby that they want to interact with and their own personal selfishness takes over. I commend you for being such a powerful voice to all of those fighting to save the wildlife! Thank you!

  5. Diane March 27, 2013 4:10 pm

    Congrats on a point made well! As a rehabber of wildlife, I would say that everyone should read this. A lot of people just don’t realize what the potential harm is. I would like to believe that we, as humans, mean no ill will intentionally. However, the word needs to keep traveling on this subject. There has to be a respect for our wildlife!!! Thank you for a great article!

  6. John Outland March 27, 2013 3:17 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with Joe.

  7. M L Walsh aka maxgreenwing March 27, 2013 2:37 pm

    Sorry to say I would probably have done the same as these photographers. What?! No, I would have done worse. Probably would have caught it and taken it home!! Out of love , of course. Thank you Joe, and all, for educating me. Before I became interested in Operation Migration and the Whooping Crane projects I didn’t know enough about the importance of leaving nature alone. Am so looking forward to this years ultra chicks. Whoop Whoop. Keep up the GREAT works . God gave us a wonderful world to enjoy.

  8. Sue Merchant March 27, 2013 2:20 pm

    Thank you very much, Joe. Yes, everyone should read this.

  9. Holly Gay Swehla March 27, 2013 11:39 am

    AAARRRGGGHHH> If ONLY the idiots knew the time and effort that has been put into saving our cranes. If they are intelligent enough to “work” a camera …. toy wouls THINK they wouls understand their “subject”. I think there should be a heavy fine. Perhaps sponsoring a few, no make that MANY miles of the flights. And your silly outfits !! If only they knew the great lengths you all go through to avoid imprinting ….. AAAARRRRGGGHHHHH.

  10. Rich Smith March 27, 2013 11:03 am

    “But the environment was not inherited from our grandparents, More accurately it is borrowed from our grandchildren.” says it all! Thanks again Joe! Keep up the wonderful work you and all at OM do.

  11. James Lindway March 27, 2013 10:22 am

    Joe, when is your next book coming out? Your command of putting thoughts into words is admirable. Our society is dominated by the lack of respect, not only for each other, but for the innocent in the natural world as well. Look forward to meeting you some day.


  12. Chris Sloan March 27, 2013 10:19 am

    Well said, Joe; profound in fact. This note will help me explain to ignorant, uneducated others I know, just what the implications are of interfering with nature. Thanks.

  13. Patricia Marshall March 27, 2013 9:17 am

    Excellent Joe! Thank you for putting into words what needed to be said.

  14. Cherie March 27, 2013 8:59 am

    Yay Joe!!!!

  15. Jo Davey March 27, 2013 8:55 am

    How I wish I could hit a share button. Here in FL if you are caught feeding an alligator, you are fined and the alligator is killed as even just once the alligator has a learned behavior and is considered dangerous.

  16. David March 27, 2013 8:02 am

    Well said, Joe!!!

  17. Ruth Mitchell (Redlegsix) March 27, 2013 7:56 am

    As usual, very, very well said Joe!! I was so appalled to see those probably well meaning photographers handling that Sandhill Chick!! I can’t imagine, in todays’ world of instant communication and so much information that is available to us on the internet that those two men did NOT know that imprinting can be such a powerful thing. Thank you Joe for saying it all so much more eloquently than I ever could…and thank you for caring so deeply.

  18. Mark Kolinski March 27, 2013 7:53 am

    Thanks, Joe. Well put, as always. Any effort put into hunting those two men down and punishing them would be better applied toward educating an ignorant and selfish public. Humans have a hard time taking the long view of anything, since our life span is so relatively short. The ability to grasp the complexity and scope of natural systems seems to be beyond so many. The knowledge is out there and more available than ever, but we’re running 21st century software on hardware that hasn’t upgraded in 50 thousand years. Keep up the good work. A lot of us support you.

  19. Vicki March 27, 2013 7:15 am

    Everyone should read this.

  20. Lori (loriearn) March 27, 2013 6:11 am

    I hope many people read this and take a moment to think about what it means. Its sad but true, ignorance is bliss. Even more important for all craniacs to help spread the word about Cranes. Especially our beloved White Birds.