by Whit Gibbons

November 16, 2014

I recently got around to watching Disney’s rendition of the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp’s bizarre interpretation of what Tonto was like. Not the way I remember either of these iconic fictional heroes from comic books and radio programs from childhood. Nonetheless, in the modern movie the masked hero remains a symbol of justice, fighting with his trusty sidekick for the rights of the downtrodden and vulnerable. The movie reminded me of a column I wrote a few years ago in which I noted that the Lone Ranger’s early environmental attitudes would gain him little hero status today. I also noted that he was not alone in his outlook on ecology.

According to the original stories, the Lone Ranger was no stranger to buffalo killing. In one episode in 1944, the famous radio show featured the masked man in a scene involving the shooting of a dozen buffalo with absolutely no remorse. The Lone Ranger and Tonto stampeded a buffalo herd so that some “Easterners” could see how Buffalo Bill Cody shot them from horseback. Later in the same show, prairie dogs were the victims in a shooting contest. The targets were the little heads that popped up from burrows in a prairie dog town, making the contest a bit more difficult than if they had used tobacco tins or whiskey bottles.

Presumably a majority of people today would view these as senseless acts. But half a century or more ago, environmental attitudes about eliminating wild animals without regard for long-term consequences were different. The idea of potentially eradicating some species seemed to bother few people. And this attitude was not confined to the general public or to the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The scientific community was also a culprit.

As a youngster in the 1950s, I was a member of a field crew from Tulane University that explored southern rivers in search of undescribed turtles. In the scientific literature of the era are studies based on hundreds or thousands of turtles killed and dissected. Why? To determine what they ate. Or how many internal parasites they had. Or how many eggs a female was carrying. Today, some of the species of river turtles we collected from rivers in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana are officially recognized as endangered species. Did we remove too many?

Another example of scientific zeal is the case of the southeastern flatwoods salamanders. I once checked the records of a single university museum that has 207 preserved flatwoods salamanders in its collection. Many were females with eggs that were collected in the 1970s. Conservationists debate about the environmental causes of the disappearance of the rare amphibians, now officially protected under the Endangered Species Act, but removing countless breeding females certainly did not help.

Today these actions sound like environmental desecrations. But a few decades ago they were not viewed as such. People were not meaner back then; they just didn’t know any better. They were not aware that so many of the species everyone took for granted were disappearing. Plenty of river turtles, prairie dogs, and flatwoods salamanders were to be found by anyone who cared to look in the right places. How was anyone to know that one day the very existence of these and many other species would soon be threatened?

We should always be cautions before applying today’s standards to yesterday’s attitudes--environmental or otherwise. And I doubt that many of the turtle dissectors, salamander collectors, 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. Likewise, I imagine if the Lone Ranger and Tonto were riding today, they would still be fighting for justice and the rights of the downtrodden and vulnerable. But their definition of who was included among the “downtrodden and vulnerable,” of who and what needed protecting would almost certainly include natural habitats and the native species that inhabit them. Hi-yo, Silver, away!

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