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Spring 2002 Edition

Mute Swans Gain Federal Court Protection

by Sue Holloway

In a time when environmentalists are concerned about loss of Congressional protection of formerly protected areas and species, there is a ray of hope.  It comes from a judiciary source, and protects one of our favorite creatures: the mute swan, who is now restored to protected status under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) under a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The unanimous December 28 decision by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals represents a stunning victory on behalf of these birds.  Historically, the MBTA contains regulations involving five nations: the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, and Mexico.

Together, the composite of treaties protects migratory birds.  At the time of the treaties, the flocks were endangered from massive market gunning.

Today, the birds are still in danger, but for different reasons.  They face serious habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as degradation.  And nearly ten percent of the migratory bird population – tens of millions – perish annually, suffering the effects of pollutants, agrochemicals, and pesticides.

The Court decision in favor of Joyce M. Hill vs. Gale A. Norton, Secretary of the Interior, provides relief to the swans, who were illegally being murdered in several states. It prevents local, state, or federal agencies from arbitrarily "addling" or destroying eggs or killing swans to "control" populations without permission from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although mutes are the smallest in number of the three main swan species in the U.S., in recent years, they were targeted for "removal." In Vermont, for example, in the late nineties, all the mute swans in the state were murdered – all seven, that is. With the current court decision, it would be difficult to legitimize such action even with an environmental impact study...

And in Connecticut, too, mute swans have faced violations.  As reported in Yankee (1980) by environmental writer Ted Williams, mute swans were already being clandestinely controlled at that time. In this state, a myriad of swan supporters objected to such controls.

One is Kathryn Burton, President of Save Our Swans USA, who supported this case financially and legally, also providing a wealth of research.  She upholds a long tradition of swan supporters. For example, the New York Times reported the 1990 Old Saybrook hearing on planned swan "controls" as emotion-filled, with several hundred people in attendance.  One person brought in a petition with 996 signatures; and Priscilla Feral, President of Friends of Animals, headquartered in Darien, CT, brought the clout of this national animal rights organization on behalf of the swans.

Another spokesperson is Hope Douglas, Executive Director of Wind Over Wings in Clinton, CT. Douglas, who devoted months to the rehabilitation of a cygnet who needed a bill replacement, now takes this swan on educational programs.  The bird, named Faith by Veterinarian Richard Alter of Guilford, CT, recently visited a school, where 250 children waited in an auditorium.

The swan came out of her carrier, and voluntarily walked up and down between the rows of children.  "She teaches that we don’t have to be afraid," Douglas notes. "When we act out of fear of an animal, then violence often results.  Faith dispels this with her gentleness."

It is the endearing character of the swan that inspires Douglas to protect and honor her.  Regarding the recent court decision, Douglas, who "learn(s) from swans every day," thinks that "they deserve the protection this will offer."

This court decision also encourages reflection on the many levels of human relationship with this creature.  In 1980, a national survey conducted by Yale University’s Stephen Kellert, with the Department of the Interior, found swans tied for third place as Americans’ favorite animals.

Although contemporary media has portrayed mutes as "aristocratic" birds, the swans continue to receive strong public support along the East coast and elsewhere.  Perhaps the psyche itself bears an ancient coding, reinforced by a rich legacy of mythology, art, poetry, and music, which recognizes the depth of human relationship with the beautiful creatures.

Swan Society President Kay Garcia, of Shelton, CT, believes the breathtaking beauty of swans represents "true love."  This is for everyone, she points out. "Swans are and always have been for everyone."  But Garcia, like Douglas and others, also finds love in swans who are not physically perfect; swans with broken wings, dysfunctional eyes, crippled feet, reconstructed bills.

There is a truth in swans’ beauty beyond the superficial which has touched the heart of many, who do not subscribe to fear tactics from wildlife biologists who have warned for decades that mutes may become a problem along the Atlantic shoreboard.  Contesting such a view were such luminaries as well-known ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson and former Smithsonian Secretary A. Dillon Ripley.

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This is an edited version of an article which appeared in The Source 2/7/02.  Reprinted by permission of Shorepublishing, Inc., Madison, CT.

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