Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Snowball in Hell

Infinite wisdom is not something I’m inclined to accuse governments, government agencies, or government agents of having, even in best-case scenarios. In worst-case scenarios, the best I can say about them is that they’re afflicted with gross incompetence and terminal stupidity, two character traits that always seem to tag along hand-in-hand with government, going wherever it is governments go and doing whatever it is governments do. You don’t want to know what the worst thing I can say about them is. Trust me.

To make my point, let me cite a case that graced The Oregonian’s front page on several occasions over the last few weeks: Jim Filipetti vs. the State of Oregon, in the matter of “Snowball,” the deer.

A few years back, Jim found a fawn in dire need of a champion lying near the road. The fawn’s hind legs were deformed in a way that prevented it from walking. Without Jim’s intervention, the fawn surely would have died in a matter of hours, meeting its end as coyote chow (or whatever fate befalls defenseless critters that lack a means of self-preservation). Being a compassionate person, Jim did what any rational, compassionate person would do; he took the hapless animal home with him and began a long process of nurturing and rehabilitation. Eventually, Snowball became the family pet and everyone lived happily ever after—at least until the State of Oregon, in a desperate bid to retain its stranglehold on power over all creatures great and small, thrust itself into the mix.

Someone—probably a disgruntled relative—ratted Jim out to the authorities (it’s against Oregon law for private citizens to capture wild animals and hold them in captivity), and the bullshit commenced. To make a fairly long story fairly short, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife confiscated Snowball and her two-year old offspring, Bucky, although neither was a fish nor wild.

Before the situation ever progressed to this point, wildlife officials should have asked these essential questions: Were the animals well cared for? Were their needs being met? Were they healthy? In each case the answer was a resounding yes, and authorities didn’t need to take the animals into custody to make these determinations. This is precisely the time when Fish & Wildlife authorities should have exercised a little restraint and lots of fiscal responsibility and simply butted out. Instead, they persisted in their efforts to maintain total control, regardless of the cost to Oregon taxpayers.

Some of the options under discussion by the State regarding disposition of Snowball and Bucky included putting the animals down, returning them to the wild (although neither animal was experienced at being wild), releasing them to the custody of a licensed wildlife caretaker, and returning them to Filipetti.

For a time, putting down the deer seemed to be the State-preferred option, but cooler (and presumably smarter) heads prevailed. Unfortunately, all the heads put together weren’t smart enough to do the right thing.

After much wrangling in the courts, Bucky was subsequently relieved of his antlers, given a vasectomy, and released into the wild, just in time for rutting season. It remains to be seen whether this act served the animal’s best interests, or whether it only served to demonstrate the State’s power of authority and to puff up the egos of a few bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, amid an outpouring of public sentiment, Snowball took up residence in a licensed elk preserve as Filepetti continued his fight to get her back. Finally, a judge ruled that Snowball should be returned to the Filipetti family; Fish & Wildlife immediately appealed the decision, retaining custody of the once-again hapless deer until the matter is settled in the courts.

To date, the matter is unresolved. To date, Oregon has spent more than $38,000 of the taxpayers’ money to exercise control over an animal that’s ultimately worth less than $1,000 cut and wrapped. Of course, Filipetti has invested far more than a thousand dollars in caring for Snowball and Bucky. Snowball’s vet bills alone must be astronomical, and then there are Jim’s out-of-pocket expenses for feed, and the cost of building a safe enclosure—a respectable amount of money, I’m sure, when all the sums are lumped together.

Bucky is pretty much history, but Snowball is still a ward of the State. If, as State officials claim, all Oregon wildlife belongs to the citizens of Oregon, then—barring Snowball’s return to Filipetti and family—the State should reimburse Jim Filipetti for providing, out of his own pocket, for the animals’ welfare on behalf of the people.

And in the future, Fish & Wildlife officials would do well to consider worms worthy of State protection, too—before they open another can of them.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

False Assumptions

In the wake of several fatal or serious injury bicycle accidents in the Portland area during the past few weeks, bicycle safety has been a hot topic in the local media. Jonathan Maus’ BikePortland blog, in particular, not only features numerous articles regarding these unfortunate incidents, but regular readers of the blog continue to carry on lively debates about rights-of-way, who is at fault, better (and safer) bicycle infrastructure, and bicycle safety in general.

Following the two fatalities involving right-turning trucks, a preponderance of readers leaped aboard the law-is-always-right-so-let’s-blame-the-truck-driver bandwagon without giving the matter much critical thought. The notion that laws can protect us gives us warm, fuzzy feelings of safety and security, but in reality laws do nothing of the kind. It’s a dangerous mindset, and to embrace it is to guarantee future fatalities.

To demonstrate how seriously flawed this “law as protector” mindset is, let me point out that laws do nothing to prevent murderers, rapists, and armed robbers from perpetrating crimes against law-abiding citizens. Nor do they prevent motorists from making grievous errors of judgment. At best, laws provide added incentive for people who are not inclined to break the law to not break the law. They also provide employment opportunities for cops, lawyers, judges, and others who work within the legal system. In practice, laws are more effective at punishing offenders after the fact of the offense than they are in preventing the offense in the first place.

Conventional wisdom says that because bicyclists always have the right-of-way when riding in a designated bike lane, the law should be enough to protect them. Yeah, right! We’ve all seen how well that works. Conventional wisdom is seldom wise and, too often, it’s flat-out wrong. Just because the law says that motorists must yield to bikes when making a right turn across a bike lane doesn’t mean that cyclists should automatically assume that that’s going to happen all of the time—or even most of the time—particularly when trucks are involved.

Yeah, I know it’s fashionable for cyclists to condemn any truck driver involved in a collision with a bicycle, especially when said collision results from a right hook. Unfortunately, reality looks different from a truck driver’s perspective than it does from a cyclist’s perspective (neither of which squares with the law’s perspective). At best, the law offers a “one size fits all” solution that serves no one (except lawyers) particularly well.

This short rant is not intended to advocate for doing away with laws, or even doing away with lawyers, for that matter (although the latter wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing). Rather, it’s meant to advocate for improved bicycle safety, which begins—but in no way ends—with cyclists.

Cyclists who believe otherwise are living on borrowed time.