Quackscam and Cockatiels
Libertarians limber up their guns on the Illinois
January 2, 1981
In round figures, the history of the Illinois River valley over Beardstown way is the pillage of that stream's natural resources by heedless humans. 'Tain't funny, but the practice of what in a different context would be called genocide of alien species by the locals has been going on so long that it is sanctioned by tradition.
News of a big-time crackdown on wild game violations led me to contact Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker writer. I thought the story had possibilities for his U.S. Journal series. So did he, and the resulting piece ran in the March 9, 1981, magazine under the title, “Quackscam.”
I summarized the story for my readers at Illinois Times. It would have been pointless and pedantic to remind those readers that state and federal game laws are the only reason there are any shootable animals left along the river, so I didn't. The poachers don't see it that way, certainly. You know—liberty.
It's been a tough year to be an animal in Illinois, beginning with the Chicago Bears and ending with the arrests in early December of more than thirty men on charges of poaching along the Illinois River near Beardstown. The men (the first of the sixty or so expected eventually to be charged) were part of a ring uncovered by state and federal conservation officials which was devoted to the killing and sale, in various forms from steaks to stuffed, of a veritable ark of endangered or otherwise protected fish, game, and fowl.
The affair, wittily dubbed "Quackscam" by the staff of the Virginia Gazette Times, is a sordid tale involving everything from illegal duck-pluckers to stolen boat motors. Game theft has been a problem along the Illinois for decades. Like welfare cheating and income tax evasion, it affords a means by which the occasionally law-abiding may privately enrich themselves at public expense, and like welfare and tax cheating it has become a way of life among certain families.
As that great English countryman, William Cobbett, wrote in 1825, "the great business of life, in the country, appertains, in some way or other, to the game." Cobbett knew that out in the sticks, "all circumstances seem calculated to cause never ceasing concord with its accompanying dullness." It is understandable that a man living in, say, Rushville, and who makes his living stuffing ex-pigs into weiners down at the Oscar Mayer plant might get the urge to shoot something once in a while. His city cousins, in a similar fix, shoot each other; he might, like the Beardstown businessman described in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, sit in his favorite bar until eleven each night, then go out and grease a deer. Same thing.
The Cass County economy has long depended on the organized destruction of creatures careless enough to alight there. Until recently, the trade with vacationers in cabins, guides, boats, and guns was brisk. (Their clientele included Chicago hoods who liked to relax by shooting at something that didn't shoot back.) What was remarkable about the Quackscam revelations was not the fact of the slaughter, then, but the catholicity of the definition of the term "game" 'in those parts. In addition to deer and duck, agents captured a stuffed bald eagle (reportedly worth $2,500), owls, flying squirrels, a sea gull, a marsh hawk, a great blue heron, an American bittern, a cedar waxwing, even a robin. One renegade was caught en flagrante delicto with a freshly killed beaver. Another was charged (according to the Gazette Times) with "one count of having a woodpecker without proper permit."
For years environmentalists have been blaming steady decreases in waterfowl populations along the Illinois on the draining of backwater lakes, sedimentation, and pollution. Not so, apparently. One arrestee reportedly told agents he'd killed 547 wood ducks all by himself last season. (Many such birds apparently were taken out of season from baited ponds.) It seems to me that ducks have quit coming to the lower Illinois for the same reasons that people are moving out of Detroit. They may be dumb but they're not stupid.
There are indications that folks around Beardstown are unrepentant. State Sen. John Knuppel, who reportedly has been retained as counsel for some defendants, has said it would be hard to seat a jury that would convict the Quackscammers because local opinion sanctions the theft of public resources. That's a subject a state legislator ought to know something about, but I suspect that the failure to see such larceny as a crime shows a failure to recognize the notion of public resources in the first place. The Gazette Times, which editorially deplored the poaching, still referred to the arrestees sympathetically as "victims of the [Dept. of Conservation's] action," and hats are being made in Rushville that bear the legend, "I was a victim of Quackscam." I would have thought that it was the rest of us who were the victims of Quackscam, but then things always seem more complicated here in the city.
There are other victims too. While conservation officers were plotting their Quackscam busts, Illinois schoolchildren were casting ballots to elect a state animal. (L. pointed out that the vote really was to choose a state mammal—we have a state bird, and thus already have a state animal—but I reminded her that expecting precision of language from school bureaucrats is being elitist.) The white-tailed deer won, with 694,658 votes. The vote among the Quackscammers was in favor of the white-tail too; one of those charged bragged that he'd killed 500 deer in the last ten years.
The Quackscammers, though deserving of the opprobrium heaped on them, are scarcely alone in their guilt. Some of those deer heads were sold to trophy-less hunters who wanted to take something home to brag about; they thus stood in the same relationship to the poachers as johns who go scot-free while the prostitutes they solicit are busted and fined. Instead of stiffer poaching laws we should trust instead to the free market. How much would the head of some handsome 17-point poacher be worth to a Sierra Clubber? As much as the a bald eagle is worth? Surely less, but enough to make it worth one's while to bag him.
Just two days before the Quackscam story broke, authorities discovered more than 100 animals dead of neglect in a pet shop in Jacksonville. The body count was as follows: four rodents, seventy tropical fish, one bird, thirty-eight reptiles (including iguanas), and an assortment of hermit crabs. Charges were filed against the owners, and we may assume that justice will eventually be done.
In the meantime, however, we may amuse ourselves with speculation about some of the more curious aspects of the case. I was surprised, for example, to learn there is a market in Jacksonville for pet hermit crabs. I was also tantalized by this sentence in the State Journal-Register: "Police also found the [sic] 47 snails in the store, but have been unable to determine if they are dead or alive." The State of Illinois's personnel department has the same problem, of course. My advice would have been for investigators to wait until 4:20; if the snails got up and rushed for the elevators they were alive. If they did not, they were dead—or on civil service.
I was surprised to hear that killing tropical fish falls under the state's animal cruelty statutes. Most of the people I know have kept tropicals at one time or another, including me. There isn't one of us who couldn't curdle the humane society's blood with tales of guramis boiling alive when the tank thermometer ran amok, or accidentally bleaching the buggers by neglecting to neutralize chlorinated water before refilling one's aquarium. Perhaps that's why people were so shocked at the news from Jacksonville: By killing the animals before the customers could get them home where they could do it themselves, the owners had taken all the fun out of pet-owning.
One of the survivors (already hard at work on a book no doubt) was a female cockatiel, a smallish, crested Australian parrot related to the cockatoo. I confess to a lifelong prejudice against keeping exotic animals as pets, perhaps because most such unhappy animals seem to be bought by beauty shop operators. I object to the practice on the same grounds I object to performances by East European family circuses: in each case they represent the systematic exploitation for profit of one species by another, higher species.
What makes an animal exotic, of course, is distance. I wonder whether tourists prowling the back alleys of Lagos or Kuala Lumpur encounter corn root worms imported for sale as terrarium pets. That miserable cockatiel gave me an idea. Instead of resorting to firecrackers and blinking lights to disperse the estimated 30,000 starlings that infest the Statehouse in Springfield, workers might capture them and export them to foreign pet shops. They don't have starlings in South America yet. Maybe we could trade them for soccer players. ●