"Are there supposed to be pink flamingos in Utah?" I asked my biologist wife while looking through a pair of binoculars.
"It's plastic," she said, handing the binoculars back to me.
"No, I don't think so," I said, watching the thing move. Eventually, she conceded that it was a real, live flamingo, even though every molecule of her education told her it shouldn't be. Secretly, I hoped we'd stumbled across some sort of rare sighting. I wondered if we should alert the Audubon Society.
The real story of Pink Floyd, as the bird is nicknamed, is not nearly so exciting. He is a Chilean flamingo that flew the coop from an aviary in Salt Lake City in the late 1980s, and he's made the Great Salt Lake his winter home ever since. In the process, he has become a Utah celebrity.
But for the last year he's been a hot topic of controversy and a perfect example of our inability as humans to leave well enough alone. A small group calling itself Friends for Floyd wants to bring more Chilean flamingos to Great Salt Lake.
The group has petitioned the governor, taken out newspaper ads in Utah's two largest daily newspapers, written op-ed pieces and even offered to pony up the thousands of dollars needed to get Pink Floyd a few friends from South America, and, perhaps even more importantly, a hot date. After nearly two decades alone and on the lam, there's no doubt the poor guy probably needs one.
The leader of the campaign, Salt Lake City businessman Jim Platt, argues that flamingos are genetically tough birds adapted to living in high elevations, cold winters, hot summers and saline lakes. And because flamingo fossils have been found in North America, he argues it is probable that they once lived on the inland sea of which Great Salt Lake is a remnant.
"In essence, we are advocating the reintroduction of flamingos," he wrote in an April 2003 editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune. At the time, Friends of Floyd was advocating asking every state to contribute one flamingo to get the flamingo sanctuary off the ground. The idea was met with a giant shrug from just about everybody and quietly, and thankfully, went nowhere.
Unfortunately, the idea didn't die. This March, Friends for Floyd offered to pay nearly $50,000 to bring 25 flamingos from South America, and called on Utah's governor for support. "Some people believe we are doing this for Floyd," Platt told the Salt Lake Tribune, "but we are doing it for the human beings."
Great Salt Lake is a weird and hauntingly beautiful place. Millions of migratory birds rely on the lake as a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet for their biannual hemisphere-long flights. But there are a multitude of threats facing the lake. A railroad causeway slices it nearly in half and throws off the lake's delicate salt levels. Brine shrimp are the only living creatures in the lake and a major source of food for migratory birds, but they can only survive in a narrow saline range. Millions of pounds of treated sewage effluent and toxic chemicals pour into the lake every year from the Wasatch Front's burgeoning cities. The demand for water, especially in the sixth year of a drought, means less water reaches the lake every year.
The second time around state officials, citing concerns about the possible effects of introducing non-native species to the lake's fragile ecosystem, came out more forcibly against Friends of Floyd.
The head of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said he saw no value in bringing flamingos. Nonetheless, Platt and his group say they will continue to promote the idea. In April, the group planted 10 life-sized flamingo replicas along the lake's shore in an effort to rev up support.
History provides an embarrassingly long list of examples where humans tried to somehow improve a place by introducing an exotic species. In North America alone we can thank some perhaps well-intentioned but naïve folks for bringing us pigeons, sparrows and starlings. Apparently, we still don't get it.
Great Salt Lake is worthy of respect and protection. It's simply not worth endangering one of the West's splendors by intentionally introducing exotic species. Until we learn to accept and love places like Great Salt Lake on their own terms, we are going to keep creating more problems for ourselves and future generations.