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As a result of the dead owl I recently wrote about I am prompted to follow-up. This is a good thing because sometimes I forget the utility of remembering the basics. Having done decades of archaeology work in Canada and the US I was continually aware of the need to work with and inform the public about what was loosely termed “heritage resources.” From a research or science perspective the state has an interest in any and all artifacts, fossils, etc. coming from public OR private lands. The argument is fairly clear for finds on public land. To discourage amateur pot hunting and excavation (often little more than commercial pillage) the state has a legal claim to anything uncovered. It’s obviously not good for science and understanding when individuals go out, disturb sites, and sell their finds without regard to their overall importance or meaning. Proper scientific excavation reveals much more than simply “stuff” that was in the ground. I’ll not get into that. There isn’t time or space. Most people understand the value and need to restrict excavation and potential exploitation of heritage sites. On the other hand, the image of an archaeologist snatching an arrowhead from the hands of the joyful and proud young girl who found it does not sit well with most people. What percentage of people side with the grasping archaeologist and how many are with the tearful victimized child? (Is the child your mind pictures also of your racial and ethnic type as is true of most of us?)
The dead owl or the found artifact, however, doesn’t care one jot about gender, race, cuteness, or possible “trauma” felt by an innocent child deprived of its lordship. Those who (in most cases for understandably human reasons) side with the child follow a condescending pre-school approach when the important issue is not self-esteem but science. Owl and artifact need a knowledgeable voice to speak on their behalf. The weeping child is not that person. If given its way you and I know to near scientific certainty the child’s passion of today will be replaced by another and another. The owl will be left behind. The artifact will go into a drawer, forgotten, and eventually lost or tossed away. The biologist or archaeologist is the scientist who is the adult in a scene where most of us are unknowing toddlers when it comes to the subject of wildlife mortality or artifact analysis. Why surrender or abandon the adult role and responsibility when doing so has little benefit and represents an actual loss of learning and understanding?
In any case you or I or the child is not equipped to properly handle deceased owls or artifacts. It’s simple as we don’t know what we don’t know. When I brought (carefully, avoiding contact with it) the owl to the DNR I had no idea if the death was normal of the result of a virus killing owls. By doing my part as a citizen turning something that did not belong to me over to the DNR I was allowing them to do their part in discharge of their public trust.
Actually, turning over a dead owl was a no brainer. What would I do with it anyway? It’s surely not something one begins to collect as curiosities to display anywhere but as freezer burned specimens next to the pail of ice cream. The public generally understands that wildlife is state property not belonging to an individual except under certain circumstances usually requiring a permit or license. It was not owl hunting season so therefore.
Back in my guiding decades I often had to explain some of the finer points to guests such as. “If you sit in the canoe reading a book you are not fishing, but if you grab the landing net to help your partner you are participating in the act of fishing and technically need a fishing license to do so. Aren’t technicalities fun? Yet, if not observed such finer points are easily abused and can lead to increased pressure on wildlife by sideways sanction of illegal means. Otherwise people would poach saying “I heard a shot, went to investigate, found a dead deer, cut it up, took it home, and put it in the freezer so it wouldn’t go to waste.” Talk to a Conservation Officer if you want to hear things people concoct. “Are those walleyes? I thought they were perch.” “How did those ducks get in my boat?” Management of wildlife resources is a state responsibility, but it is one in which citizens have a stake and share in the responsibility.
If you’d cooperate about wildlife would it be as easy if the find was a really nifty artifact of the sort we only dream of? The rationalization goes: “It’s only an arrowhead. They must have thousands and thousands. What difference will one more make?” The answer to that is we will not know and never can know if the artifact is not turned in to be properly classified and added to a catalog. The item may be one of many similar and add mostly to our understanding of range and frequency. But it may be in some way quite unusual in style of manufacture or material used. Would you or I know that first glance? You have the answer. And even if the find turned in is the most humdrum of today it could be that further analysis in future tells a different tale. We will never know and science will be that much less fulfilled if items are kept in private hands.
Dead owls and prehistoric or historic finds have things they might tell us, but not if we silence them by not helping them speak or by siding with those who take personal issue where it does not belong. The brokenhearted child will get over their disappointment if they are helped to see a bigger picture. That can be a good thing. The results of responsible action today may not be immediate. The result of being an insipid busybody is immediate. You decide. You always decide.