Report — From the March 2016 issue

The Rogue Agency

A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species

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One morning in the fall of 1980, Rex Shaddox got a call from his supervisor at the Uvalde, Texas, office of Animal Damage Control. Shaddox had worked for Animal Damage Control, which was then a branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for seventeen months. His job was to trap and kill wild carnivores, coyotes in particular, that were said to prey on the flocks of local sheep ranchers.

The supervisor, Charles Brown, told Shaddox to meet with his fellow agents at the city dump outside town. “We’re gonna do some M-44 tests,” Brown said. “With dogs.” The M-44, a spring-loaded device that is planted in the ground and ejects sodium cyanide when set off, was among the weapons used by Animal Damage Control to kill coyotes.

When Shaddox arrived at the dump, he found Brown and several colleagues standing over a pit of stinking garbage. A truck from the Uvalde city pound pulled up. It contained abandoned dogs of various breeds. The pound officer removed a small collie from the truck, and Brown took it by the neck. The animal, docile and quiet, stared at its captors.

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

Brown brandished an M-44 cartridge. He forced the dog’s mouth open and, with his thumb, released the trigger on the device. It sprayed a white dust of cyanide into the collie’s mouth.

The dog howled. It convulsed. It coughed blood. It screamed in pain. The animals in the truck heard its wailing. They beat against their cages and cried out.

“All right,” said Brown to his trappers. “See, this stuff may be out of date, but it still works.” He opened a capsule of amyl nitrite under the collie’s nose. Amyl nitrite is an immediate antidote to cyanide poisoning.

The collie heaved and wheezed. Brown then seized it and unleashed another M-44 dose. The dog screamed again. Shaddox started yelling, telling Brown to stop. Brown kicked the collie into the garbage pit.

“He and the other trappers thought it was funny,” Shaddox told me. “It’s convulsing and dying, and he’s laughing. And this is what he’s teaching his men. That was just a hell of a way to die. No sympathy, no feeling, no nothing. I’m no animal-rights guy. But heartless bastards is all they were. Right there, that’s the culture. And these are federal employees. This is what your government is doing to animals.”

Shaddox quit his job after a series of disputes with Brown over the incident in Uvalde. He went on to a long career in wildlife law enforcement, and spent not a small part of it investigating his former employer.

Over the years, Animal Damage Control has been known by many names. At its founding, in 1885, it was the Branch of Economic Ornithology. It became the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1905, and was known as the Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control in the 1920s. In 1985, the agency became a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in 1997, its name was changed from Animal Damage Control to Wildlife Services. The agency’s purpose, however, has never changed. “The focus of a government trapper is protecting the livestock industry by killing predators,” said Carter Niemeyer, a retired Wildlife Services agent. “Ranchers call us up, and the system kicks in, guns blazing.”

Since 2000, Wildlife Services operatives have killed at least 2 million native mammals and 15 million native birds. Many of these animals are iconic in the American West and beloved by the public. Several are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2014, Wildlife Services killed 322 wolves, 61,702 coyotes, 2,930 foxes, 580 black bears, 796 bobcats, five golden eagles, and three bald eagles. The agency also killed tens of thousands of beavers, squirrels, and prairie dogs. The goal of this slaughter, according to the agency’s literature, is to provide “federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and create a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist peacefully.” The 1931 Animal Damage Control Act, the agency’s enabling legislation, directs it to “conduct campaigns for the destruction or control” of any “animals injurious to agriculture.”

By the time Niemeyer retired, in 2000, after twenty-five years at the agency, he had personally killed hundreds of coyotes and had overseen the deaths of thousands more. On some days, working in Montana, Niemeyer skinned ten coyotes an hour as helicopters hauled the heaped carcasses in from the backcountry. (The government sold the skins for revenue.) Wildlife Services gunned down coyotes from airplanes and helicopters. Its trappers used poison baits, cyanide traps, leghold traps, and neck snares. They hauled coyote pups from dens with lengths of barbed wire, strangled them, or clubbed them. Sometimes they set the animals on fire in the dens, or suffocated them with explosive cartridges of carbon monoxide. “We joked about using napalm,” Niemeyer told me.

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Despite the agency’s efforts to wipe out coyotes, they returned in larger numbers. “During my career, it was decades of the same thing repeated to no effect,” said Niemeyer. “I think the word for this behavior is ‘insanity.’ But Wildlife Services has not changed, because their activities are under the public radar, and no one knows how to reform them. Their program fits the western states’ obsession with killing predators.”

Peter DeFazio, a Democratic congressman from Oregon, has repeatedly called for a congressional investigation of Wildlife Services, describing it as a “rogue agency” that is “secretive” and “unaccountable.” He said that he considers the lethal control program a “wasteful subsidy” and has called the agency’s practices “cruel and inhumane.” DeFazio has proposed legislation to reduce government funding for lethal control, but Congress, under pressure from the livestock industry, rejected these attempts at reform.

“We have seen a host of credible leaked information from credible former employees about the inhumane practices,” DeFazio told me recently. He said he has asked Wildlife Services for “detailed numbers about finances and operations, and they won’t give us this information. I’ve served on the Homeland Security Committee, and Wildlife Services is more difficult to get information from than our intelligence agencies.”

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is a fellow at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Great Republican Land Heist,” appeared in the February 2015 issue.

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