JANE: For the last couple of weeks, Alan and I have been talking about invasive species. Last time, Alan, you mentioned the kunekune pig, which seems to have naturalized to New Zealand and is now a treasured breed. Are there any other introduced animals that are loved rather than loathed?
ALAN: Yes, indeed. Deer were introduced for sport in the nineteenth century. They do have a rather devastating effect on the forests because, as browsers, they feed on forest plants, trees, and seedlings. They are found throughout the country and, like pigs, are enthusiastically hunted. Deer cullers are employed by DOC and there’s a brilliant autobiographical novel called A Good Keen Man by the late Barry Crump which gives a very vivid picture of the life of a deer culler. In the more remote regions of the country, the deer are culled by shooting them from helicopters.
Deer are also farmed commercially and venison is a meat that can easily be found shrink-wrapped on supermarket shelves. I eat a lot of it.
JANE: I wish something like systematic culling with the end result being eaten could be designed to deal with deer in the U.S. There are several native breeds of deer that, especially since their natural predators are gone, have become anything from a nuisance to flat out dangerous. When a deer and an automobile meet, this is not a happy ending for either party.
However, although there are many Americans who do hunt, the majority of the population is unwilling eat venison, because it’s Bambi. Admittedly, deer – especially because of their big eyes and ears – are adorable, but an uncontrolled population is not good for the deer. They need predation – and if it has to happen, I’d rather have the end result be eaten.
ALAN: Me too, though sometimes it can have unfortunate consequences. Once, on the brink of an important seduction, I cooked a rabbit pie for a new girlfriend. She ate it all with every evidence of enjoyment.
“What was it?” she asked.
I made the mistake of saying, “Bunny Pie.”
Visions of cute, fluffy rabbits were obviously passing through her mind. “Urrgghh!” she said.
Needless to say, I spent the night alone. But to this day, I fail to understand why. Personally I’ll eat anything and I’m not at all put off by the cuteness (or otherwise) of the thing on my plate.
JANE: What defines my parameters as to what I will and will not eat is fairly complex. As a favorite character in my current roleplaying game says, “Friends don’t eat friends.”
That said, except for a few favorite dishes, if I lived alone I’d probably be a vegetarian. I even like tofu, and not even silky tofu is cute – and certainly not cuddly.
ALAN: No, it’s not. I love the way tofu absorbs the flavours of whatever it’s surrounded by and cooked with…
But, back to invasive species! Moose were introduced into New Zealand in the early twentieth century, again as an animal to be hunted for sport. They did not thrive because they were competing for food with the much more prolific red deer. The last confirmed sighting of a moose was in 1952 and it is generally assumed that the species has died out. However, rumours persist that moose continue to thrive deep in the very remote forests of the far south. In 1972, a moose antler was found, and in 2000 DNA analysis of a clump of hair definitely identified it as coming from a moose. But no other trace of living (or dead) animals has been found and the question remains open.
Being a romantic, I like to think that the mythical moose does still stalk the land. But realistically I have to admit that the odds are against it.
JANE: Moose are actually very stealthy creatures. They often live in damp areas of the sort that humans don’t really care to frequent. It’s possible that your mythical moose are not so mythical. However, moose are a lot more dangerous than deer. With rare exceptions, deer will flee a threat. Moose will attack and, being about the size of a bus, are very hard to stop when they do.
ALAN: Ah! Animals the size of a bus. Australia has one of those. Robin and I once travelled by train across the Nullarbor desert and we saw a herd of feral camels that regarded our train with deep suspicion. Robin tells me that the camels were imported from the Middle East in the nineteenth century as pack animals (used particularly to help with building road and rail links in the arid desert regions). They were largely replaced by trucks as the internal combustion engine was developed. Many escaped and ran wild. Obviously they found the deserts congenial, and now there are vast herds of feral camels in the outback. Ironically, these days Australia exports camels to (mainly) Saudi Arabia…
JANE: Oh… That’s lovely! A new version of coals to Newcastle… Camels to Saudi Arabia.
Interestingly, there was an attempt to introduce camels to New Mexico in the late 1800’s. It was not successful, which is a pity. We have lots of thorny native plants that have proliferated due to over-grazing. The cattle won’t eat them, but I bet camels would.
Here in New Mexico, we also have a wild population of an animal introduced for hunting – but it’s a lot more exotic than a deer. Want to guess?
ALAN: I’ve no idea – given the huge range of fauna that we’ve covered in this Tangent, it could be absolutely anything at all. So surprise me.
JANE: (drum roll) It was – and is – the African Oryx, also known as a gemsbok or gemsbuck. A native of the Kalahari desert, the oryx was brought here at the instigation of anthropologist Frank F. Hibbin, who was a big game hunter and was, for a time, Game Commissioner.
The original imported population could not be introduced into the wild, because of Federal regulations, so they lived out their lives in the Albuquerque Zoo. Their offspring was let loose in the Chihuahan deserts, in the south central part of the state. With the comparative abundance of food and lack of their natural predators, they flourished. Annual hunts were established in 1974 to help stabilize the population.
ALAN: Goodness me! And I thought that we had a monopoly on exotic game animals. But I’ll see your gemsbok, and raise you a tahr.
JANE: Tahr? You’ve got me there…
ALAN: Tahr and chamois are large goat-like animals, which come from the Himalayas. The alpine ranges in the South Island are very similar to the Himalayan mountains (Sir Edmund Hilary practised for his ascent of Mount Everest in the southern alps) and populations of tahr and chamois were released there in the early twentieth century. Not surprisingly, they have flourished. They have similar browsing habits to deer and, like deer, they are regarded as a threat to native plants. Deer cullers in the area also cull the tahr.
I’ve only once seen tahr on a menu so naturally I had to eat it. As I recall it was very yummy, rather reminiscent of venison.
JANE: Odd. I would have thought it would be more like mutton or lamb.
What other exotic creatures have vanished down your gullet?
ALAN: In Australia, I’ve eaten emu, kangaroo and wallaby and crocodile. In China, I ate a pickled jellyfish. And at home in Yorkshire I’ve eaten tripe and pig’s trotters. I don’t like tripe and pig’s trotters…
JANE: I’ve had tripe. Did not thrill me. Haven’t had pig’s trotters.
ALAN: Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.
JANE: Does squid qualify as exotic? I like squid. A lot. David Weber finds this very peculiar. One time, many years ago, he took me to dinner. Squid was on the menu and I was contemplating it, wondering if I would gross out my dinner companions if I ordered it.
Weber seemed to read my mind. Sighing, he said, “Oh, go ahead and get it!”
ALAN: Squid is certainly not regarded as exotic here. It is very commonly found on restaurant menus as either whole baby squid or as slices of the more mature animal. Sometimes it is braised in its own ink, and sometimes it is lightly fried. Naturally, I love it.
JANE: Just about the only way squid is served here – other than in “ethnic” restaurants – is fried with enough batter that it comes to resemble rubbery onion rings. No wonder people don’t think they like it.
We certainly haven’t exhausted this topic – for example, the American Everglades have a serious problem with gigantic snakes, because of people turning their pets loose when they get too big to keep – but I’ve no personal experience with this. Maybe one of our readers could fill you in.
ALAN: It occurs to me that we’ve said a lot about the species that are threatening the native wild life in the places where we both live, but we’ve said little or nothing about the native wild life itself. Shall we look at that next time?