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Know the West

Humanity is a liability the natural world can no longer afford

What a lifetime of observing nature has taught me.


Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I accompanied my father as he headed out on work projects. One day, around the time I was 6, he and his business partner received a contract to put in a water line connecting a new reservoir to the city, crossing a vibrant marsh that was home to many species. This required dynamiting and draining the marsh. Why not move the line away from the marsh rather than through it? I asked. No clear answer. The dynamite was set, tamped and detonated. In one second, the marsh went from being alive to dead — gone forever.

Back in 1948, the English astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle allegedly remarked, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” Hoyle wasn’t specific about what this “powerful” idea might be, but I suddenly understood it when, on Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders — entered lunar orbit and took a picture of the Earth from 240,000 miles away. Seeing the beauty of what we now call “Earthrise” became a turning point in my life: It made humanity’s 4.5 billion years of evolution, together with all the wars we have fought or ever will fight, including Vietnam — seem utterly absurd.

I was 26 years old then, and in veterinary school. At the end of the program, I applied for an internship at the San Diego Zoo and ended up working with one of the world’s most knowledgeable individuals in the field of veterinary reproduction: Harold J. Hill. Our practice was in Imperial Beach, the most southwesterly community in the United States, just north of Tijuana, Mexico. To the south, the city is bordered by the Tijuana Estuary, the largest estuarine system in Southern California. For too many people, though, the Tijuana Estuary was merely a dumping ground. At the time, the community supported a plan to dredge it and put in a marina.

Tijuana Estuary was declared a National Wildlife Refuge in 1980, protecting its many inhabitants from future development.

One day, I went to an open meeting to discuss the plan. When it was my turn, I spoke out and said: There is never going to be a marina! The room grew hostile, but I stood my ground. The hostility continued for 10 more years. Meanwhile, we built a grassroots support group and worked with anyone who would listen. At last, in November 1980, our efforts were rewarded: My wife, Patricia, and I met with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the estuary. The land had been purchased, and now, as a national wildlife refuge, it was safe from development.

Yet the question that perplexed me then continues to puzzle me now, especially when I think about my very personal experience protecting the estuary. Why, I wonder, would any intelligent creature want to threaten the life support system that protects it?

I don’t believe I know the answer. But over the past few decades, I have seen a change in public perception, attitude and awareness toward the environment, and I believe the Tijuana Estuary is emblematic of this change. These changes have led to the incorporation of mindfulness into our daily dialogue, while environmental education has inspired new laws. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the California Coastal Act have stopped the desecration of many natural areas, including the Tijuana Estuary. And as someone who laid the groundwork to protect the estuary, I feel privileged to have been involved — to have lived at the right place and time to help change the perception of my local community toward this extraordinary place.

Today, I am 77 years old. And as I look back on these events, I see clearly how they cemented my view of humanity as a liability rather than an asset to the natural world. It seems to me that humans have evolved as an aberrant intelligence that undermines the planet and all other species. We consider ourselves the most important creatures that ever walked the Earth. Yet when I think about how we treat the planet, I feel like asking: Why don’t you care about your mother and father? Our parents support us when we are young, but nature supports us from conception to death.

Many of those who challenged me decades ago over the Tijuana Estuary seem to have had a change of heart since then. I know this because I've met them on the trails in the refuge. They talk about the loss of land and species, and how it is hard to find a place that offers peace and serenity. The beauty of nature is shrinking, they say. So I tell them it is up to all of us to restore, expand and protect nature against the onslaught of bad judgment and development.

And sometimes, we simply look over the estuary and out to the ocean. It is serene, peaceful and beautiful.

Michael McCoy lives in Imperial Beach, California, and has been a veterinarian for wildlife and domestic animals since 1971. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor