The Price of Love in the Age of Extinction

How grief affects those on the environmental frontlines

Dave Flawse

Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) Mount Washington, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

The sun’s rays glisten off a drinking water reservoir in the hills above Cumberland, British Columbia. With the stroke of a paddle, local biologist Leah Ballin begins a survey via stand-up paddleboard around the reservoir’s shoreline. It’s June, and the shallows should be black with the tadpoles of western toads that metamorphize at this time of year — but there has been no sign of them yet. Ballin has gained permission to come here and find out why.

Soon she spots an American bullfrog. Then another, and another. This is worrying. These large invasive frogs eat the native toads. She finally spies some tadpoles, but there’s something unusual about them. Her heart sinks – these are bullfrog tadpoles. Tears stream from her eyes. She’s alone on the lake.

For those who know flora and fauna as family, extinctions are personal. As with the loss of a loved one, it’s one thing to read about a death, and another to live it as some do – for grief is the price we pay for love.

***

It’s a sunny, snowless October afternoon at the Mount Washington Marmot Recovery Centre, the primary residence of one of Canada’s most endangered species. A few dozen Vancouver Island marmots perch on cinderblocks in their outdoor enclosures.

This time of year, wildlife veterinarian Malcolm McAdie ensures the marmots have privacy and quietude before their silent and foodless seven-month hibernation.

McAdie wears the stoic, focused look of a medical professional. Ask an in-depth question about the marmots or the other wild animals he helps save, though, and his tone shifts; a slight zest grasps his voice as he regales you about all things marmot, the way others might their over-achieving children.

He’s more than the good doctor for Chopper, Diego, Violet, and the other adorably named marmots. He and the team feed them their favourite snacks and scoop the poop from enclosures. “We have such an investment in these animals,” says McAdie, “and we’re so involved in their lives.”

For those who know flora and fauna as family, extinctions are personal.

Most surgeries he performs involve implanting radio transmitters to help the team pinpoint the marmots’ locations in a vast range. This allows the Marmot Recovery Foundation, a conservation program established in the late 1990s, to count and monitor the animals.

For anyone who works with living creatures, there are good times and hard times. Sometimes the transmitters lead them to the bones and fur of a predated marmot, or the routine surgeries don’t go as planned.

When a member of McAdie’s extended, and endangered, rodent family passes, he internalizes the sadness. This isn’t a recommendation, though: for him, dwelling on death is not an option. His mechanism for dealing with grief is simply “not to go too deep down that rabbit hole.” It must not affect his work.

Medical professionals will tell you that ignoring grief only works as a short-term strategy. Grief is a response to loss. It’s an emotional suffering we feel when someone or something we love is taken away. This includes ecological grief. And at some point, it’s important to reconcile it.

McAdie, though, says he’s unsure whether he ever lets himself grieve.

***

Survey complete, Leah Ballin hauls the paddleboard onto shore, not having seen a single toad tadpole. Across BC, western toads face major challenges. Along with the introduction of American bullfrogs, there are myriad human impacts. It’s not difficult to imagine a future loss of these toads.

When the future ahead of us seems under threat, we reconcile the loss of our stable worldview as if the loss has already occurred. This phenomenon of grieving for anticipated loss can be seen with the current climate emergency. We know that increased warming of the planet will bring about negative outcomes, and this makes us sad. To cope, we turn to a variety of strategies.

***

In a salmon troller off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, David Ellis bobbed out in the rollers at a place called Freeman Rock. When the diesel chug of an industrial fishboat fleet caught his attention, he shook his head.

Inspired by Jane Goodall, Ellis had spent twelve years informally studying the behavior of Pacific herring, a main food source of chinook salmon. The fieldwork paid off for him – in the ’80s, he was one of the region’s most successful independent salmon fishers – and gave him a deep respect for the humble herring. The industrial fleet had just stripped the ocean of herring, and he felt the waste and loss as pain in that vague yet exact place we all know: the heart.

This memory is just one of thousands from Ellis’ more than five decades of wildlife activism. He no longer experiences the pain. Over his 73 years, the grief has healed, like a broken bone, to become stronger. Optimism, punctuated by occasional anger and outrage, has, for the most part, taken its place.

Those on the environmental frontlines have a unique insight into the majesty of nature, a respect for its capabilities and its mysteries that intrigue and inspire greater understanding. Ellis will explain this to anyone who cares to listen; his voice carries a no-bullshit tone and a heaping scoopful of confidence: “The ecosystem is very powerful.”

When the future ahead of us seems under threat, we reconcile the loss of our stable worldview as if the loss has already occurred.

Unlike people who can turn off bad news, those on the frontlines have trouble limiting their exposure to distressing experiences. It can be a struggle to balance care for nature with care for self.

Ellis and the others take what hope they can from the small wins. Some of McAdie’s proudest moments are when a marmot raised in captivity goes on to have a litter of pups in the wild. As for Ballin, it’s the knowledge that adult toads will return to breed for at least a few more years, buying time to find a solution. Finding joy in those moments is often the only balance they can achieve.

Though we cannot fully understand their pain, perhaps, we can take this as a lesson in our own struggles with grief, ecological or otherwise.


Dave Flawse tells stories at the intersection of history and science, with inspiration from nature.

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