Tigers, Bears and Bush

Recent events bring animals and water to mind in relation to the environment and the way we treat it.

First, there was the mauling of Roy Horn by a tiger during the "Siegfried and Roy" stage show in Las Vegas.

A couple of days later came news that Harlem resident Antoine Yates had been bitten by the more than 400-pound pet tiger he kept in his apartment.

It's a mystery where Mr. Yates obtained the tiger -- which he raised from a cub -- but the bigger mystery to most New Yorkers is how he got an affordable, seven-room apartment in Manhattan.

Then there was last week's tragic killing of nature photographer Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, attacked by a grizzly bear in Alaska's Katmai National Park.

This struck a little close to home. While I was supervising producer of film and television for the National Audubon Society, we made a documentary about Alaskan grizzlies, part of which featured Treadwell and his work.

Bear experts urged us to play down Treadwell's adventures; we did. He behaved carelessly, needlessly putting himself in harm's way, relying on what he believed was his spiritual connection with the animals to keep him safe.

I used to joke that Treadwell was a Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon waiting to go off. It finally did. He and his girlfriend in no way deserved what happened to them, but for one who claimed to honor these creatures, by acting so foolishly Treadwell treated them disrespectfully.

Bears and other impressive animals -- what natural history filmmakers call "charismatic megafauna" -- merit our respect and awe; in the wild, at a safe distance, and as symbols of the extraordinary planet on which we live.

But as if somehow to even the score -- perhaps like that "fearful symmetry" of which William Blake writes in his poem, "Tiger, tiger, burning bright" -- Saturday's Washington Post reports, "The Bush administration is proposing far-reaching changes to conservation policies that would allow hunters, circuses and the pet industry to kill, capture and import animals on the brink of extinction in other countries."

Officials maintain that the profits from allegedly limited hunts will allow impoverished countries to pay for species and habitat protection. Doubtful at best; logic in the manner of the Vietnam era's, "We had to destroy the village to save it."

It's hardly surprising, given this presidency's dismal environmental record. Just this past Friday, the White House reversed a Clinton administration legal opinion and will allow mining companies all the public land deemed necessary to develop claims.

Which brings us to water. Steve D'Esposito of the Mineral Policy Center called the decision an "open invitation to dump massive quantities of toxic mining waste... It puts clean water and community health at increased risk."

Bush also proposes policy changes that will remove twenty percent of the nation's wetlands from the protection of the Clean Water Act.

Last Tuesday, I attended a symposium at which former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke. It was under the auspices of his environmental organization, Green Cross International, and its American affiliate, Global Green USA.

Gorbachev spoke of environmental peril: weapons of mass destruction, global warming, air pollution; but he said the primary problem is clean water. "Two billion people do not have access to clean water," he noted. "Eighty percent of all infectious diseases result from bad water -- 10,000 children die every day... In ten to fifteen years, water could create conflicts in the world far worse than anything we see in the Middle East today."

We recklessly tread upon this planet. As that fine environmentalist William Blake wrote, "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all."

He who will not see is even more disrespectful of Earth than those who would trifle with animals from the wild.

Michael Winship is a former writer for "NOW with Bill Moyers." This column was written for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.


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