The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons

BOOK: The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons
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The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons

My Obsessive Quest to Seek Out Alien Species



To Dr. Lisa Chilton, whom I treasure more than my next breath




1.   The Last Place You’d Look for a Wallaby

Wallabies in Scotland

2.   Universal Oysters

Oysters in the Netherlands

3.   The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons in Ireland

4.   The Last of the Mynas

Mynas in Vancouver

5.   The Curse of the White Guys

Tea in Sri Lanka

6.   Paradise Made to Order

Weeds in Hawaii

7.   If God Were a Frog

Frogs in Uruguay

8.   The Perforation of New Orleans

Termites in New Orleans

9.   Through a Great Undersea Tunnel

Macaques in Gibraltar

10. Duck Hunt at the OK Corral

Ducks in Spain

11. If You Have Snails, Blame the Romans

Snails in Great Britain

12. “How Are You? RAHHUUURGGGH!”

Eucalyptus Trees in Ethiopia

13. Geothermal Heating and Diabolical Clichés

Lupines in Iceland

14. A Leap of Faith

Viruses in Australia



About the Author



About the Publisher


I got a turtle. Imagine my disappointment. Try to imagine the disappointment of millions of children who got turtles instead of dogs. Dogs are really good at returning affection. Turtles are really good at dying, which mine did in fairly short order. I swear that it wasn’t my fault. It was reluctant to eat much of anything, and I tried just about everything. So I got another turtle. It came from Kmart and cost 25 cents, which says something about the value that was put on the lives of animals back then.

In the 1960s, 3 million turtles were imported to Canada from the United States each year. Given that the human population of Canada was less than 18 million at the time, you have to be impressed. Most of those turtles were red-eared sliders, native to the Mississippi Valley of the eastern United States.

Well, that second turtle died too, so I got another. And so it went. Eventually I got a little better at turtle husbandry and my turtle didn’t die. Over the period of a few months it even managed to grow a bit. So imagine my rekindled disappointment when I was told that my turtle was a health threat and had to go. Like millions of other children, I released my turtle from captivity to live a happy life in the wild.

It seems that someone in a position of power had made the link between turtle ownership and diarrhea, cramps, and fever in
children. Salmonella bacteria live in the digestive tract of turtles (and a wide range of other reptiles), and they shed some of these bacteria with every bowel movement. Turtles suffer very little from being infected by salmonella bacteria. The same cannot be said for people, and so a ban on the distribution of turtles was put in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1975. Not all turtles were banned, just those under ten centimetres in length. The FDA figured that young children wouldn’t stuff larger turtles in their mouths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimate that the ban prevents 100,000 cases of salmonella poisoning in children each year.

Imagine the disappointment of the 150 turtle breeders in the United States, who were producing upwards of 13 million pet turtles a year. When the ban came into effect, some of these business people gave up, but the rest saw the obvious solution. If you can’t sell turtles domestically, then ship them to places that haven’t enacted prohibitory legislation. By the mid-1990s, 6 million turtles a year, bred in the United States, were being exported overseas. Parents in the receiving countries eventually got the salmonella message and liberated their children’s turtles into local waterways. Freed from the haphazard care of young children, many of the released turtles prospered. And so, from their humble beginnings along the quiet backwaters of the Mississippi Valley, red-eared sliders came to inhabit the world. Populations are established in Belgium, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Japan, France, Israel, Bermuda, Guyana, and, very likely, wherever you happen to be reading this book. The red-eared slider is considered to be one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world, outcompeting and hybridizing with native turtle species and eating other freshwater fauna.

It seems likely that as long as humans have been humans we have been shuffling the deck, picking up plants and animals from one spot and plonking them down in another. The general consensus among biologists is that, nine times out of ten, the newly introduced creatures will simply die off. Something about the new habitat will fail to meet their needs or will exceed their tolerance,
and the potential invaders will fail to establish a self-sustaining population. Even if the newly arrived creatures beat the odds to survive and flourish, nine times out of ten they will blend into the background without causing any hardship to native fauna or flora or to humans. No muss, no fuss.

However, one time in one hundred, the creature that has been transplanted over some geographical barrier to dispersal proves itself to be very, very unwelcome. The guest is now a pest. What was once exotic is now unwelcome. The introduced species is now an invasive species. And so we find Australia covered with rabbits, the North American Great Lakes filled with zebra mussels, Africa’s Lake Victoria choked with water hyacinth, and pigeons hanging out in every town square in the world. Indeed, the only place in the world without introduced species is Bouvet Island, an incredibly remote and tiny chunk of rock poking out of the South Atlantic. The word “pest” is probably an enormous understatement. Along with habitat destruction and overexploitation, introduced species are considered to be one of the greatest threats to global diversity.

I had just completed an around-the-world expedition to find every stuffed specimen of the extinct Labrador Duck. Sales of the resulting book,
The Curse of the Labrador Duck,
had gone some way to replenishing my savagely depleted bank account. It seemed the perfect time to throw myself back into penury by circling the globe again in search of introduced creatures. I wanted to jump from one continent to another, examining the alien pests that were creating biological Armageddon. If possible, I wanted to speak to someone who had actually made an introduction, and to the folks charged with exterminating the foreigners. Could I distinguish between noxious aliens and innocent victims of our tendency to move plants and animals from here to there? Examining the effects of an exotic disease might be fun. Perhaps I could even find an introduced critter whose presence was having a positive effect on the local landscape. Was it possible to put the whole issue of introduced species on a scale?

It was time for a quest.

The Last Place You’d Look for a Wallaby


of Inverness, the museum and art gallery has an enviable assortment of landscape paintings and artifacts of local human history. It also has a representative sample of stuffed Scottish animals. For school-aged visitors, Felicity is probably the most popular attraction. Felicity was a mountain lion, discovered wandering the highlands in October 1980. Native to the wilds of western North America, Felicity was a fair few kilometres from home. She was trapped and transported to a wildlife park near Kingussie, where a keeper described her as overweight and unnaturally tame. There was little doubt that Felicity had spent her first ten or so years of life in the care of someone who released her after finally realizing that a house in the Scottish glens is not a naturally tenable place for a mountain lion. She lived her last five years in the wildlife park before shuffling off, apparently of old age. Museum taxidermist Philip Howard had given Felicity the look of an overgrown tabby just waiting to be scratched behind the ear before devouring the family poodle.

There is no shortage of tales of large cat sightings in the less
populated portions of Britain, some dating back to the sixteenth century. Further, there is no shortage of other introduced mammals wandering that green and pleasant land, including feral goats introduced some 4,000 years ago, ferrets introduced during Roman times, the so-called yellow rabbit brought from France in the eleventh century, North American grey squirrels introduced in the late-nineteenth century and now not-so-slowly pushing out the native red squirrel, and American mink from the 1950s that are chomping their way through Scotland’s population of water voles.

The tale may be apocryphal, but it seems that a tanker driver had a small role to play in what must surely be one of the strangest introduced species stories in the United Kingdom. According to an article in the
Glasgow Herald
from October 16, 1982, local police were investigating the story of a tanker driver, hauling a load along Highway A82 on the west side of Loch Lomond near the village of Luss, who claimed to have collided with a kangaroo. Normally, this sort of claim calls for a Breathalyzer test. But five years earlier, several kangaroos had escaped from the Loch Lomond Bear Park at Cameron. Could one of them have been hiding out until clobbered by the truck? Alternatively, the creature in question may not have been a kangaroo at all, but rather a red-necked wallaby. A wallaby might have swum across a narrow channel in Loch Lomond from the island of Inchconnachan. How did red-necked wallabies come to be on Inchconnachan? The part of me that loves a good yarn wishes that they had something to do with warfare between the highland clans in the murky past. Luckily, reality is almost as much fun.

The lives of people with titles like “Lord” and “Count” are an open book. We know, for instance, that our protagonist, Fiona, Countess of Arran, formerly Miss Fiona Bryde Colquhoun of Luss, married Sir Arthur Strange Kattendyke David Archibald Gore on June 11, 1937. December 28, 1958, was a pretty good day for Sir Arthur, when he became 8th Viscount Sudley of Castle Gore, County Mayo; 10th Baronet Saunders of Newtown Gore, County Mayo; 8th Baron Saunders of Deeps, County Wexford; 8th Earl of
Arran of Arran Islands, County Galway; and 4th Baron Sudley of Castle Gore, County Mayo. Sir Arthur passed away in 1983, but the family has assured me that the Countess lives on. Fiona has had great adventures in her long life. For instance, in August 1980, she became the first person to surpass 100 miles per hour on water when her powerboat achieved 102 miles per hour on Lake Windermere in England; for this she became only the third woman to be decorated with the Segrave Trophy, awarded to those who demonstrate the great potential of travel by land, sea, or air.

In 1972, the Countess reportedly released a pair of collared peccaries, native to Central and South America, on Inchconnachan. I suppose that she had every right to do so since her family, the Colquhouns of Luss, owned the island. One peccary vanished and the other was removed in 1984. As part of a plan to establish a small wildlife park, the Countess released red-necked wallabies on the same island sometime in the early 1970s, and these have persisted to the present. The current population is thought to number somewhere around forty.

The Countess of Arran probably didn’t have to get her red-necked wallabies shipped from Tasmania by FedEx. As early as 1933, Whipsnade Zoological Park in Bedfordshire had wallabies in its collection, along with gnus, dromedaries, dingoes, hippopotami, and polar bears. Now called the ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, the institution still counts a herd of 599 free-roaming wallabies among its attractions, and it seems that this is where the Countess got her stock for Inchconnachan. Fiona and her husband, “Boofy,” reportedly also kept albino wallabies on the grounds of Pimlico House, their home in Hertfordshire, along with alpacas, foxes, and badgers.

BOOK: The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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