The first time I stood on the shores of Great Salt Lake, I spotted something pink in the midst of what seemed like a bazillion different species of bobbing waterfowl.
"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
"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
"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
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