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It was just after dawn on a chilly November morning, and the three surveyors were scratching about the barren earth southwest of Fort Stockton, Texas looking for the old cedar stakes that would give them their bearings. The men were members of a seismic team, jolting and bullying the earth out of its geologic secrets on behalf of a major petroleum company. One of them, 49-year-old Raymond Medford, reached down to tug at a gray pipe protruding from the chalky soil; as he did, there was a sharp report and something tore upward into the fleshy part of his hand. "What happened?" one of the other men shouted. Medford, confused and shocked, was running in circles. Then he calmed and said, "That thing went off! It had an explosion, whatever it was." A doctor in Fort Stockton looked at the bloody hand, administered first aid and sent the surveyor off to bed. An hour later Medford was dead.
Investigation showed that the pipe in the earth was a so-called "coyote getter," a deadly device loaded and cocked and set to shoot a cyanide charge into the mouth of any animal that pulled at its aromatic wick. If the local doctor had known that cyanide had penetrated deep into Raymond Medford's hand, he could have saved his patient. But the coyote getter had been unmarked, and the doctor had proceeded without the crucial knowledge that he was dealing with a notorious poison. The local sheriff acknowledged that the device should have been clearly marked but no charges were pressed following the inquest. As one of his deputies observed later, "Who wants to prosecute somebody for killing coyotes?"
A Colorado hunting guide and jack-of-all-trades named Bill Miles discovered several dozen sheep carcasses lying in an open corral east of Craig, Colo. He asked around and found that the sheep had been slaughtered and laced with sodium fluoroacetate, "1080," one of the most subtly dangerous poisons known to man. The carcasses were to be used by Government trappers to kill predators in the surrounding sheep country. Not far from the carnage ran a stream that fed Craig's public reservoir, but Miles was told not to worry; the carcasses would be positioned at strategic locations out on the sheep range long before their toxic contents could leach into the watershed supplying the town of 4,000.
But Bill Miles had had previous experience with the poisoning Establishment around Craig; he was on intimate terms both with the sheepmen of the area and their surrogates, the men of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and he had learned to distrust the one group as much as he distrusted the other. Miles mounted a daily watch on the pile of poisoned meat, and twice within two weeks he saw snow cover the carcasses and then melt into the watershed. He began making a photographic record of what was going on, and local sheepmen began to harass him. Not long afterward, Miles was told to mind his own business or suffer the consequences. When he continued to take daily photographs of the scene, three of his hunting dogs died on his doorstep. In the front yard of his house were tire tracks and leftover evidence of meat poisoned with thallium. Miles kept up his investigations of the poisoning practices and more than once nearly came to blows with fellow townsmen and the federal poisoners. His business fell off, and soon he moved away.
Dinosaur National Monument, straddling the border of Colorado and Utah, is one of the most environmentally sacrosanct portions of the U.S. Like all national parks, it is administered strictly in accordance with nature, and the intentional poisoning of animals within its borders is considered the ultimate offense against park law and order. In the spring of 1970 cowhands who worked for a rancher named Tim Mantle were searching for strays inside the park borders when one of Mantle's valuable Australian sheep dogs suddenly stiffened and died. A few minutes later another dog went into convulsions, and when the shocked cowmen dismounted to see what was wrong they found that the second dog had stopped breathing. By the time their vital organs were transported to a laboratory, diagnosis was difficult, but the best guess was 1080—the favorite chemical of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's death squads.
The incident happened four miles inside the park borders, but Dinosaur officials were not surprised. "I've found any number of live coyote getters inside the park," said one of them, a wildlife ranger, "and we've had plenty of other evidence that the poisoners come right across our borders." Just outside the park on a lonely access road, another park ranger had found the skinned remains of foxes, badgers and coyotes, and when he stopped to investigate a strange-looking pipe jutting from the earth, he set off a coyote getter and barely escaped with his life.
These three incidents, multiplied ad nauseam, characterize the programs of extermination and revenge that are in full swing throughout the Western half of the U.S. The programs already have brought whole species of animals to the edge of extinction and threaten still others. They also threaten Homo sapiens, that poor creature who lately has begun driving six miles out of his way to buy phosphate-free laundry soap, all the while turning his back on poisoning programs that are directly and specifically contaminating millions of acres of his country.
The coyote getters that explode every summer in the hands of unsuspecting people may be the least of the problem. To be sure, the very idea that the ugly devices lie in wait for both coyote and nature lover is annoying. The Denver Post suggested that the deadly gadgets be renamed "little boy getters," but that name would not have been completely descriptive. The cyanide-loaded cartridges are also old man getters, dog getters. Girl Scout getters, cow getters, fox and marten and wolverine and magpie and hawk getters. They are getters, in fact, of anything that has the natural curiosity to reach down and pull lightly on the carrion-scented wick that protrudes above the ground and wafts a smell of decay and musk to the winds.
But coyote getters—fascinatingly newsworthy as they may be—seem to be a negligible hazard, a minor earth pollutant compared to certain other poisons that are saturating the countryside. Dr. Alfred Etter, student of the conservationist Aldo Leopold and himself a former professor of conservation and ecology, told a congressional committee: "The fact is that poisons are being distributed all over the Western states year after year by federal, state, county and private interests, and are often left in the environment to poison any animal that happens to have a taste for meat, tallow, oats, honey or rice, or even a curiosity about foul-smelling attractants."
Etter was not talking about the DDT and parathion and mercury compounds and other pesticides and fungicides and herbicides with which overzealous industrialists and agriculturists and exterminators and ordinary citizens are inadvertently poisoning the earth. He was talking about poisons used specifically and purposely to kill animals. These include the cyanide that is found in coyote getters, the arsenic that is put out in honey buckets, the thallium that is impregnated into bait carcasses, the strychnine that is encased in sugar-pill coatings, and 1080, a pinch of which is toxic enough to send several dozen adult humans into writhing, convulsive death.