Mary Sonis of Chapel Hill, North Carolina lives amidst a wetland created by beavers. It’s home to wood ducks, herons, woodpeckers, spotted salamanders and fish. Responding to an article in The New York Times this year that called beavers both master engineers and a nuisance, Sonis wrote, “ North America was a beautiful wilderness when beavers ruled the waterways more than 200 years ago. They are superb managers, and we should allow them to repair what the human population has destroyed.”
There were tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of beavers in North America before the Europeans arrived. The animals were then killed off by the millions because of their remarkably dense and waterproof coats. The craze for beaver hats is often cited as motivating much of the exploration of the continent. By 1900 the beaver population had been reduced to about 100,000 -- almost all living in Canada.
Bobcats, coyotes, and sometimes even otters and mink may prey on beavers, but to this day human predation outpaces them all. Yet Castor Canadensis have had a particularly strong comeback in areas such as Massachusetts, where some farmlands have returned to woods. Now, some ten to fifteen million beavers populate North America, compared to around 500 million humans.
U.S. auctions are not handling high volumes of inexpensive trapped muskrat or nutria pelts, but trapping remains the major source of coyote, raccoon and beaver skins.
For the trappers, this is no longer a lucrative undertaking. In Henderson, Texas, a trapper was called to kill beavers when dams caused flooding on a farm. The trapper-for-hire told a reporter for Reuters last December that $50 was the going rate for a beaver skin 30 years back, but by 2007, prices had fallen to $12.
“This recession is going to devastate trapping for awhile,” the trapper predicted.
In a weakened economy, U.S. fur sales (wild animal furs account for about 15 percent of the total) fell 18 percent from 2007 to 2008 to $1.43 billion. The U.S. agriculture department stopped tracking chinchilla and fox fur farming decades ago as business lagged; a 2007 count of 283 mink farms went down to 274 in 2008.
But fashion cycles and economies can rebound, and the global fur industry is still a $15 billion market, so this is no time for complacency. This is, instead, a very good time to do public relations work for free-living animals -- to head off another famous “comeback” for fur.
Pure vegetarians, beavers need not hunt cooperatively as wolves do; but they do work together when building their remarkable dams and lodges. Beavers almost never use their powerful, chisel-like teeth as weapons, according to Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson: “They live in harmony with one another and with muskrats, whom they appear to welcome into their homes, much as badgers have been known to receive, and make friends with, coyotes and foxes.”
Beavers mate for life, and the fathers are intensely involved with child-rearing, writes Masson; and according to some scientists, when caught in a trap, beavers cry real tears. “Hunters say that while awaiting the blow of the club about to be lowered on their skulls, beavers cover their heads with their forepaws.”
In order to obtain a permanent injunction to prevent attacks on beavers and violations of laws and regulations that protect wetlands, Friends of Animals this year joined our member Marilyn Tyler in a legal action under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act against the town of Enfield, whose employees killed beavers and destroyed a dam on the farmland Tyler inherited.
If people only knew what they have ruined when they destroy the beavers’ art. The animals’ ability to adapt their works to various environmental conditions results from observation, experience and learning from the customs of the group. European beavers do not engage in dam-building, living instead in burrows dug into river banks. But North American beavers have pioneered an ambitious form of architecture, resulting in artificial ponds, the levels of which the animals maintain by regulating the flow of water through the dams. This allows beavers to avoid landbound predators by moving into underwater entrances of their lodges.
The typical lodge has a second entrance, a loading portal for wood. The beavers create small streams, over which they float wood from higher ground down to their lodges, where they eat the bark. In the late autumn, beavers will plaster the sides of the lodge with mud. Jeffrey Masson notes that their dams can be 100 feet long and ten feet high, and the lodges not only resist the strongest of storms; they can be built in only two nights.
The beavers’ dams, lodges, canals and slides comprise an impressive reshaping of their territories. Whereas we need tools and study to create our edifices, beavers do not; so, as one writer put it, “Architects have long suffered from animal envy.”
Stop calling them a nuisance, writes Masson: “Any damage done to golf courses or campgrounds is because we have encroached on their habitat -- not the other way around. They were here long before us, and as far as destroying habitat, they are busy doing quite the contrary.”
Other animals’ land, water and bodies belong to them and there’s no need to take their lives for either. Likewise for ducks and geese. Their air is theirs; they were here before we and our huge aircraft were. Their soft, fluffy feathers are parts of their bodies, not filling for our parkas.
We can inspire people to stop thinking about other animals as pests or resources and start thinking about them with appreciation and respect, through innovative advertisements like the one inside the magazine you now hold. (See next page.) Regardless of the economic situation, regardless of fashion trends, animal-rights education is always relevant. A personal thank-you for your continued investments in Friends of Animals’ work as we raise consciousness of communities, throughout North America and beyond.