Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why Writing About Exotic Species Got Me Called an Activist Fraud

    A few weeks ago I wrote an article that appeared in Slate Magazine about how biologists try to tell the difference between species that are exotic and those that are invasive, using some of the exotic reptiles that have been found in South Florida as examples. I basically summarized the scientific consensus on exotic reptiles in Florida so that people could have a better understanding of the issue. It was a piece I used to expand on a blog post I wrote detailing problems with an earlier story in Slate suggesting Green Anacondas had invaded Florida. I wrote what I did because I thought the fear-mongering article about Green Anacondas was based on inaccurate and misleading information. A well-informed general public that appreciates wildlife is more likely to be interested in their conservation; it’s why I participate in science outreach and why I created this blog.

    Overall, I've been very pleased with the response to my article and received some great feedback. But, to my surprise, I have also provoked some outrage and personal attacks.

    Some of the exotic species now established in Florida, like Burmese and African Pythons, are probably there because of the pet trade. It is simply the most likely explanation. Any news about these animals having negative effects on native ecosystems reflects poorly on the pet industry. Many people already think that nobody should be allowed to own large and potentially dangerous snakes and negative press just fuels the fire. As a result, some people associated with the industry tend to get touchy when they see something about invasive species in the news. The pet industry should have been thanking me for rebutting the
 viral, sensational story about anacondas in Florida, but because I described some of the reasons biologists are concerned about invasive species, I became a target for the pet industry, instead of a champion. How ironic!

    A particularly egregious example occurred on the Field Herp Forum, where one poster accused me of being an “activist fraud posing as a credible scientist” and provided some unconvincing arguments about why the information in my Slate article was misleading. The evidence for my animal activism was of course very thin. To respond to all of the intended points there is to give them validity, so I won’t, because they’re not. But I encourage you to check these points out to better understand how some people respond to information about invasive species. In any case, I think anyone has to try really hard to get outraged about my evidence-based article.

    There was some concern voiced there, however, that my article was too sensational and hyped up the danger of invasive reptiles. For example, the same individual suggested that I used an absurd analogy when I asked readers to picture a Komodo Dragon 
(Varanus komodoensis) so that they can better imagine a Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus). Presumably I did this because a Komodo Dragon is a large dangerous creature and I wanted everyone to be afraid of Nile Monitors.

    I would venture a guess that just about everybody knows what a Komodo Dragon
is, but does everyone also know what a Nile Monitor looks like? Probably not. However, they are both large monitor lizards in the same genus. Is it really absurd to ask the general public to picture a well-known large lizard to better understand what a different but closely-related large lizard might look like?

    An alternative could have been for me to write, “If you want to know what a Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus) looks like, picture an Ornate Monitor (Varanus ornatus)”. Effective outreach that is not.

    While I was being labeled an “activist fraud” on that forum, another organization took the opportunity to suggest that I wrote my article as part of a scheme to get government grant money for python research.

    The United States Herpetoculturist’s Alliance (USHA), an organization that claims its mission is “conservation and education about the captive breeding of reptiles and amphibians” posted my Slate article on their Facebook page with the following caption:

Meet David Steen, another arm chair python "expert" trying to put his hand in the till for government grant $$.”

    USHA made no effort to address any of the points I made in my article, instead they attempt to discredit me as an individual. Are they really interested in the conservation of animals or are they actually interested in protecting the right of people to own (and breed) them? Seriously, tell me what you think below.

    Do I even need to say that USHA’s claims about me are completely baseless? Based on the comments other people left on their Facebook page, I suppose I do. Here are some highlights:

"Pppfffttt ! …this guy is living proof that it's all about the cash flow !! I guess some people didn't have enough of making fools out of themselves with the big Burmese Python in the Everglades guess some just have to keep swinging hoping to make a strike."

    For the record, I’ve never made a dime related to invasive reptiles and have never written a grant proposal intending to fund any research related to invasive reptiles. So, I’m not sure how that makes me living proof that it’s all about the cash flow.*

"Clearly this guy had an agenda just look at the colorful and negative discriptions [sic] he uses sway the general public that would never be used in scientific papers…" 

    You know where I do use language appropriate for a scientific paper? Scientific papers. Colorful descriptions in an article written for the general public? The horror! What is my alleged agenda, other than science outreach? I am not quite sure.

"..... guarantee most of these so called phd biology people talking how this or that snake or lizard is so bad has never owned or did a study that goes more then a few yrs ...... these snakes and lizards are not the problem the jackasses that want to banned them are .... idc if u got a phd in this or that its all theroy [sic] out of a book and u passed a few test and spent lots of money to have phd behind ur name ..... raise, breed, and house these animals once and u will see that the senators and the unknowing (phd scientists) are the problem ...." 

    I think I’m just going to let this one speak for itself but I will point out that some people are confused about the differences between the study of captive animals versus the study of wildlife populations. There also seems to be some confusion about how one earns a Ph.D.


    One of the amusing things about USHA's post is that they used a picture of Florida Senator Bill Nelson to accompany my Slate article. A few of the commenters there thought it was a picture of me and proceeded to mock "my" appearance. Check it out (it was a posting made on January 7th).

    Obviously it is inconvenient for some people that there are populations of invasive reptiles in Florida and that these populations are influencing the South Florida ecosystem. I suspect their criticisms have very little to do with the content of my article but everything to do with the fact that the pet trade has contributed to the establishment of invasive species. It is easier to label me as an “activist fraud” or suggest I am just trying to get grant money than to address this harsh truth.


    I think this controversy highlights a common misconception. Many people that keep pets are also interested in science and wildlife conservation, but clearly these things do not always go hand in hand.



* I have since received a grant to study invasive tegu lizards.

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