Florida wildlife should be treasured

Sometime this weekend, I stood in front of an exhibit at Busch Gardens and watched a throng of people point at a number of white birds that sat in the oak trees above. The birds – white ibises, to be precise – were native to Florida and were as much a part of the display as the individuals pointing at them.

The encounter gave me a pang of survivor’s guilt that stayed with me for the rest of the weekend. Floridians – myself included – are quickly destroying the world around them, and most don’t even seem to notice, let alone care.

If those involved had been the stereotypical Orlando-bound tourists that Floridians love to hate, I could have understood the excitement those birds caused. I did, after all, once hear a tourist at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom exclaim in surprise, “Look, a real bird!” His excitement bordered on the astonishment I reserve for the off chance that one day I should encounter life forms from outer space.

The bird, much like the ibises at Busch Gardens, had just happened to wander into the theme park and therefore had no problem with leaving the display, in which it had been pecking away at some left-behind candy. But the astonishment with which the existence of the “real bird” was greeted made it obvious the person in question had not even considered there being birds that would dare to live at Disney World without the proper invitation from the authorities.

Similarly, it appears to be a rule that animals in any zoo can only be described by using character names from Disney movies. Elton John could make a fortune by having a lawyer camp out near the lion display at Busch Gardens to sue those singing “Circle of Life” without rights to the song.

There is not much that surprises me about how uninformed tourists can be about animals they are looking at. It speaks volumes about how little some people know about the wildlife they share a planet with. But when locals are equally ignorant about an animal they should know, that’s when we should be especially worried.

During my first semester at USF in 2000, I often saw flocks of up to a hundred ibises across campus. The birds took little notice of students, who often sat in their midst reading a book or even dashed past them on a skateboard.

The feeling was mutual. It was not unusual to see these birds, even in larger numbers, so students gave them about as much attention as the squirrels: none, unless they tried to bite you.But in recent years, Florida has developed at a frightening pace and the campus is no different.

According to the Census Bureau, Florida’s growth rate of 79.5 percent is nearly three times higher than the rest of the nation, and the state is estimated to overtake New York as the third most populated state by 2011. The lack of ibises on campus likely has something to do with this.Yet developers are allowed to roam more freely than what is left of Florida’s wildlife.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report that stated the Florida panther was facing a grim future and would likely become extinct if nothing was done. “There is insufficient habitat in South Florida to sustain a viable panther population,” the report stated. The only viable option, the report further stated, was to move the panthers into Georgia and Arkansas, where they may find enough space to re-establish viable populations. Of course that would make it a “Florida” panther only in name.

In contrast, Florida’s Legislature is making it easier for owners of large parcels of land to sell these to developers than ever before.

The loser of such lack of concern is not only the panther, or any other species that is wiped out by the avalanche of SUVs and Olive Garden franchises that come along with urban sprawl. We will also lose something at least as precious: the things that make the place we live in unique.

The uncomfortable truth is that our way of life, as it exists today, is not sustainable without inflicting devastating damage to the very space we inhabit. Society needs to re-evaluate the relaxed attitude we take toward unique habitats vanishing just to make the areas in which they used to be found look like any other place. Ironic, considering most of those who move here by choice do so because they are imagining pristine beaches and sub-tropical landscapes.

If this change does not happen, this weekend will not remain the last time Floridians are seen pointing at birds that should be commonplace. And by then I will not be the only one with survivor’s guilt.

Sebastian Meyer is a senior majoring in political geography and a former Oracle opinion editor.