Battles over how to save the condor have raised difficult questions of conservation ethics and left scars at many wildlife organizations, including the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth. Historically the principals involved in the controversy have fallen into two camps. The hands-off forces until recently opposed almost all human intervention, besides that of protection of the bird's habitat. Otherwise, argued this group, this solitary scavenger would become domesticated to the point where it would be no more than a "feathered pig."
The hands-on camp maintained that the species would disappear unless it was forced to thrive and that it could not thrive until it was better understood. Although condors are thought to be hardy, their scarcity and solitary life-style have made them a biological mystery. For instance, scientists now realize that the bird lays eggs on the average of only once every two years.
For 50 years these two opposing factions fought tooth and nail at public hearings, in newspapers and in rumor campaigns. In the early '50s the San Diego Zoo secured a captive-breeding permit, only to see it revoked at the insistence of the Audubon Society and local conservationists. Hands-on people believe those permits might have helped immeasurably in the bird's fight for survival by providing a sufficient number of mature birds to prompt captive breeding. The opponents disagreed, noting among other things that there was no recorded instance of the bird breeding successfully in captivity. This circular argument assured that the acrimony would continue until one side caved in completely.
In 1980 the National Audubon Society, which at that point favored a hands-on approach, joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set up the Condor Research Center to coordinate efforts to save the bird. The hands-off forces complained that they had been excluded from this scheme, which included tagging the birds, equipping them with tracking devices and visiting their nests.
The CRC's program also endured more than its share of public-relations fiascos. In 1980 a condor chick died in its nest while being measured, apparently of fright and rough handling. News that some of the human visitors had lacked the required permits to attempt such measurements provoked general outrage and a two-year freeze on any contact with the remaining wild condors. But the CRC eventually won approval to tag more condors in 1982 and the tagged birds soon were described as an invaluable source of breeding and nesting information. For example, scientists learned that condors are apparently capable of "double" and "triple clutchings" to replace eggs that have fallen from or been taken from nests.
Such new information has not eliminated the angst and antagonism. In particular, David Brower, the founder and former chairman of Friends of the Earth, says "the condor was destroyed in order to save it." He has challenged hands-on proposals at almost every turn, accusing the opposition of incompetence and shortsightedness. On occasion he has implied that zoos are interested in capturing condors so that they can eventually put the birds on display. However, no zoo has displayed a condor for at least 20 years, and both the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, the two that are involved in the CRC project, deny such intentions.
What finally ended the argument was the fact that from the fall of 1984 to the end of 1985 one condor died of lead poisoning (after feeding on a buckshot-filled carcass) and five more disappeared from unknown causes. At the end of 1985, with only six birds still thought to exist in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to capture the remaining birds. The Audubon Society sued to prevent the capture effort, effectively halting the work of the CRC, the agency it helped to create.
While the case was in the courts, condor AC-3 was found lying in a field, dying. The bird had been hit by a shotgun blast and was suffering from lead poisoning caused by the pellets. In addition, while feeding on a carcass, the bird had swallowed a bullet, which had paralyzed its digestive tract. The condor died on an operating table at the San Diego Zoo.
Marcia Hobbs, a fund-raiser for the Los Angeles Zoo, was enraged by the bird's death. The lawsuit and subsequent restraining order may have hampered attempts to save AC-3. According to Hobbs, the hands-off forces now had "blood on their hands," even though it wasn't clear that the bird had ever had a chance. The death of AC-3 was particularly chilling because her fertility had long given the bird special status among scientists. She was known to have produced five hatchlings.
The hands-on case has been further strengthened by recent developments that give at least faint hope of successful captive breeding. First, eggs have been taken from nests to zoos and their hatchlings successfully raised with the help of birdlike puppets. Adult condors have been trapped and tagged with electronic beepers to track their range and nesting habits. Advances have been reported in genetic studies and in raising the birds in captivity. Most encouraging is the news that seven Andean condors, the California birds' closest relatives, reared in captivity have been successfully restored to a flock of the birds living in the Peruvian wilds.