Earlier this month, the National Museum of Australia featured a guest post on their blog, which advocated better management of brumby numbers in the high country. The response to this post has been phenomenal, with many commentators defending what they see as the right of brumbies to occupy this region, primarily for historical reasons.
Accusations include that the science has been ‘tainted by a cultural vendetta against any non native species’, and that ‘Greenies will bend the science to stop riders in the park’. Others believe that it is not horses causing damage, but wild pigs and deer. Many felt that, as horses had been found to be beneficial to landscapes internationally*, the same must be the case in Australia. This viewpoint overlooks the particular sensitivity of the Australian Alpine environment, which has had a much shorter history of high-impact human intervention.
In fact, a couple of comments made the argument that human beings have done a lot more damage to the environment, a point with which I have to agree in the overall sense, albeit somewhat tangential to the current issue – except for the fact that, as several people pointed out, humans introduced the horses in the first instance. The issue of human intervention, and whether or not we are worse environmental vandals than horses, brings to the fore the very anthropocentric standpoint from which we, as humans, generally function, and through which we frame our understandings of the world.
Of most concern was the notion that somehow brumbies and the land had adapted, and that symbiotic relationships had formed. ‘[the brumby] has become adapted to its environment–it is a part of that environment, unlike pigs, foxes, cats, rabbits’. Of course, the brumby may have adapted to its environment, but the real issue is that the environment has not had the chance to adapt to it! While some people felt that 180 years was enough time for the slow-growing Alpine areas to evolve symbiotically alongside the horse, the truth of the matter is that it takes many thousands of years for such relationships to evolve, not mere decades.
Of course there was also a great deal of nationalistic sentiment surrounding the issue as well, with various iterations of the opinion that ‘These are OUR Australian horses, not feral pests.’ This was countered by at least one person, who asked ‘Do those who see feral horses as an Australian icon that has been here for 180 years, also see rabbits, foxes, pigs, cats, deer etc as Australian icons?’ The question was answered by ‘Donna Bruce’: ‘I emphatically insist there can be no comparison; none of the animals mentioned can share in the feats or accomplishments credited to the horse, none has contributed as equally to our development as a nation.’ So once again we are faced with the horse’s historical significance, invoked here to justify the idea that the horse is different to other introduced species.
The whole debate beautifully illustrates the point made in last week’s post, that in Australia brumbies function as an avatar, through which we, as non-Aboriginals, mediate our anxieties of belonging. It is clearly a very emotional topic for many people. For me, it also highlights the broader issue of how we perceive non-human animals, and the complex ontology (some might say hypocrisy) through which we regard some animals as worthy of protection, and others as nothing more than a commodity. Contrast the outcry over the proposed aerial shooting of a few hundred brumbies with the hundreds of thousands of cattle, sheep, pigs subjected to live export each year, and the millions that are slaughtered every day across the world for human consumption.
But, back to the issue at hand. At this point in time, the final comment has been made by ‘Liz McPhee’, who is very much the voice of reason. She calls for the unique and fragile ecosystems of the high country to be prioritised, but acknowledges that if, for reasons of sentiment, horses are retained in the region, then their numbers must be sustainably managed. As she concludes,
The fact is that if we do not start to control the numbers of these wild horses in the Australian Alps we are going to lose (and I would argue we already have) ecosystems that cannot be restored to their diverse and wild beauty. Ecosystems that are in national parks and that were gazetted to be protected. They were not created to protect wild horses.
* I cannot argue either for or against the scientific veracity of this claim, I am merely repeating what was cited in the comments