by Whit Gibbons

August 1, 2010

Finding old treasures is one of the few upsides to cleaning out an attic in the South during the summer. One such treasure was a set of tape recordings of radio programs from more than 60 years ago.

The Lone Ranger was a symbol of justice, fighting with his trusty sidekick for the rights of the downtrodden and vulnerable. But in his role as hero and champion, he was no stranger to buffalo killing, having acquired his horse, Silver, by shooting a giant buffalo that was trying to kill the big white stallion. In 1944 a radio show featuring the masked man involved the killing of a dozen buffalo with absolutely no remorse. Prairie dogs were the targets in a shooting contest.

That particular show in the famous radio series was called "The Lone Ranger Rides with Buffalo Bill." The Lone Ranger and Tonto stampeded a buffalo herd past some "Easterners" who wanted to watch Buffalo Bill Cody do his stuff. When asked how many buffalo he brought down, the legendary buffalo hunter replied, "Just twelve. That's all the ammunition I had. Two six guns."

In the same show, when little Billy Cody was only eleven years old, he won a shooting contest at a prairie dog town on the outskirts of the human town. The men did not really want to let a mere boy in on the contest, but the plot demanded that he be allowed to participate. The targets were the little heads that popped up, making the contest a bit more difficult than if they had used tobacco tins or whiskey bottles.

The winner would be the man who killed the most prairie dogs with three shots. At the risk of spoiling the story I will tell you that when it came time for little Billy to shoot (naturally, he was last), no man had shot more than one of the wily rodents. Using first his rifle and then his pistol (with lightning speed), Billy gunned down two prairie dogs to win the contest.

Half a century ago environmental attitudes were different from today. Even though the buffalo was practically exterminated by that time in the greater part of its former geographic range, the idea of killing the animals seemed to bother no one. And this attitude was not confined to the general public or to buffalos. The scientific community, including some people who are now among the nation's "ecologists," helped deplete various animal populations.

For example, through the 1960s and into the 1970s, turtles were captured and killed for research projects all over America. The scientific literature is full of studies in which hundreds of turtles were collected, preserved and dissected. Why? To determine what they ate. Or how many internal parasites they had. Or how many eggs a female was carrying. Many of the species treated in this manner are now endangered.

Today, these actions sound like environmental desecrations. And indeed, today they would be. But a few decades ago they were not. People were not meaner back then; they just didn't know any better. They were not aware that the species everyone took for granted were disappearing. Plenty of turtles and prairie dogs were to be found by anyone who cared to look in the right places. How was anyone to know that some species would soon be threatened?

We should guard against applying today's standards to yesterday's environmental attitudes. I doubt that many of the turtle dissectors and prairie dog shooters who are still around are doing the same thing today. More likely, they are taking a stand against further depletion of unsustainable natural resources.

If the Lone Ranger and Tonto were riding today, I'm sure they would still be fighting for justice and right. And I think they would have a broader definition of "downtrodden and vulnerable," which would include the natural environment and the species that inhabit it. Fortunately, I was able to reach these conclusions listening to the tapes in the air-conditioned living room and not in the attic.

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