Whoopsie’s Capture & Relocation Provokes a Controversy

A hybrid crane chick known as Whoopsie was captured this week by staff of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and removed from eastern Wisconsin to the Milwaukee County Zoo, where it awaits transfer to its new home at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The chick – officially called a whoophill, is the result of a successful pairing in the wild between a male whooping crane and a female sandhill.

The pair and their chick were first observed at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in late May. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) issued this statement July 22nd: “Leaving the hybrid whoophill on the landscape does nothing to supplement the Eastern Migratory Population or further recovery of the species. . . .” In fact, they say, it just creates more problems for the EMP since it removes a valuable whooping crane from the breeding population. And the chick could – in theory, at least – grow up to mate with a female whooping crane, thereby removing a breeding female from the population.

The dad of Whoopsie proved to be a vigilant father and helpful mate, protecting the chick from predation. WCEP ultimately hopes to separate the pair and re-introduce this successful whooper dad to potential whooper mates.

Many “Facebook Critics” Post Objections

This news has not met with a lot of applause. As soon as it was posted at the Facebook pages of WCEP and some of its partners (Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundations) the negative comments flared up.

From comments at ICF’s Facebook post:

“This is sad, sad news and I am terribly disappointed with ICF. Let nature take its course.”

And “Breaking up a bonded pair is cruel and so is placing that baby into captivity. Disgusted.”

But there are also defenders of the decision:,

“Both birds will re-pair and the whoophill chick will have a good life. I see it as something that must be done – it yields the best outcome for the eastern population.”

Confusion: Who Are the Whooping Crane Partners

What has also emerged in some of the comments was a confusion about who to “blame” for this unpopular decision. Some commenters suggested their support of ICF and OM would not continue. It’s easy to understand the confusion – there are so many partners involved in this extremely complex effort to restore a population of long-gone migrating whooping cranes into the Wisconsin to Florida migration corridor.

An early post here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane – Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes – explains the WCEP partnership, which includes ICF and OM. And some of the commenters themselves took pains to explain that this was a partnership, pointers others in the thread to WCEP’s website so they could learn about all that are involved.

Still More “Facebook Critics”

But the comments at WCEP’s own Facebook page were uniformly critical of the action. Here’s an example:

“This makes me sick. Let nature takes its course. To take the chick away from its parents and then to spilt up the bonded pair after that! Leave them alone.” And, “I disagree with your decision. I support everything you do to protect the flock, but sometimes things should just be left alone.”

There was criticism at Operation Migration’s Facebook page, as well:

“I don’t like this at all.” And, “Let nature take its course. He chose his mate. Let him be.”

And, “But it is another thing to “play God,” deciding to break up what has occurred in nature and incarcerating a living creature when the gain (preventing the possible loss of a breeding bird) is both iff-y and of small consequence in the grand scheme.”

Defenders, Too, of a “Tough and Unpopular Decision”

Some commenters get very long-winded, and are – not surprisingly – very passionate, with what seem to me, to be good reasons to “just let them be wild;” and to use this opportunity to study this pair in the wild.

But at “the end of the day” – which means, in this case, after perhaps too much time spent among the comments – I’m going to let my head overrule my heart and go with this sentiment:

“I understand why, and I agree it needs to be done, but it is still so sad. . . star-crossed pair that they are.” And: “. . . sad, but definitely understandable. Hopefully the plan will work and more whooping cranes will be the result!”

It also helps, I thought, that the defenders of this decision and the professionals who made it also made a case for the fact that Whoopsie will lead a good life at Patuxent. Captivity at a wildlife research center, it was suggested, should not be equated with a caged life in a zoo.

So that’s what I think about this “tough and unpopular” choice. How about you? What do you think?

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6 thoughts on “Whoopsie’s Capture & Relocation Provokes a Controversy

  1. Science and ethics should go hand in hand. People support projects like the reintroduction program because they care about the cranes that are being conserved, not always the science that conserves them. The “WhoopHill” family would have been kept under wraps if it weren’t for people with cameras on social media who enjoy viewing birds in the wild. It isn’t “just” supporters who care about the program to breed whooping cranes; it is also a cross disciplinary group of educated people who also study avian behavior. It is difficult to understand the science behind compelling whooping cranes into behavior patterns, habitats, and breeding while denying that the whoopers will be imprinted in new social/sexual behaviors. The subject is deep, people’s opinions are sometimes scientifically informed, and then sometimes not. But most people can agree that there should be an ethically run science based program, not just a breeding mill for cranes will a very shallow gene pool. Thanks

  2. Thanks, Jody, for adding a lot of good “food for thought” to this discussion. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has had to make some tough decisions over the years. They ARE a partnership of many voices and viewpoints, and at some point the responsibility – and hence the decision – is all theirs. I think you raise many good points, but I would just say that I don’t think WCEP’s program to reintroduce wild whooping cranes can be described as “. . . just a breeding mill . . ” at all. It is true, that the focus of the program is now fixed on the breeding success of the flock, because – I believe – that is currently the single, most important unmet goal.

  3. interesting problem…. we have just seen the beginning of a new breed that for once man kind had no hand in… The beginning of the Evolution of what maybe a ever better bird that one day may have a hand in keeping hope alive for all of us… Then again should we interfere with nature… hard hard hard… I certainly do not have the answers but I hope that if this happen again naturally that the plan will allow more diversity.

  4. Thank you Jolynn – I appreciate your visit! It IS an interesting problem, isn’t it? And no easy answers, but as you say, if it would help in “keeping hope alive for all of us. . .” Lots to think about – thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Whoopers and Sandhills cross breeding isn’t something completely new. If one takes into consideration what goes into a species evolving to survive, it’s all about adaptability. Look at our own evolutionary process to find what path we took to survive. Whoopers are not very well suited to adapt in a world with human beings, since they rely so heavily on specific conditions and habitat, which will likely never be met because of the overwhelming lack of interest humans have in preserving wildlife or their habitat.
    Sandhills have proven to be highly adaptable. I think it wrong on many levels for them to remove Whoopsie from her parents, especially when you factor in the logic, excuses and justifications used in the process by the whooper gods.

    • I do agree with you, PC Clavier – on many levels, as you might say. And yet, I do understand the course of action chosen by WCEP. And while I pretty much agree that humans are often lacking in interest and understanding of wildlife issues, they aren’t completely without some interest. There just might be enough to ensure some future presence of whooping cranes.

      If not, though, Sandhills certainly are highly adaptable! And a joy to be around, I hear.

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