If you ask Jon Fischer, he'll tell you point-blank that nature isn't always pretty, and that people's efforts to save California's cute, cuddly animals don't always have the heart-warming endings of Disney movies.
In fact, the best of intentions often go sadly awry, and the fox, goat or deer the public is trying to save ends up in a zoo, or even dies. Or an adorable creature is saved, but smaller animals that it preys upon hover dangerously closer to extinction.
So Fischer, a wildlife biologist in one of the most populous regions in the nation, is disheartened by the recent Bambi-esque tale of the red foxes "rescued" from their den hours before cars started whizzing by on a new stretch of the Costa Mesa Freeway.
He and many of his colleagues at the state Department of Fish and Game say the episode is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in California, where emotion often overrules science when it comes to management of wild animals.
"We don't have the resources as society to take care of every animal that is born. That's not the way nature works anyway," said Fischer, who works in the department's Southern California office. "People can go around rallying to save one or two little animals and feel good about themselves and say their job is done, but what we are really doing is winning one battle, while we are losing the entire war."
The real wildlife crisis, they say, is the sweeping losses of California's endangered species and habitat to development and urban pressures. And they believe that the intense efforts to remove the Costa Mesa foxes--33 officials working an equivalent of 145 work days at a cost of $25,000--would have been more wisely spent fighting that difficult battle.
"That fox species needs our help like a fish needs a bicycle. They are the most adaptive four-legged carnivore in the world," Fischer said. "But there are animals that need our help or we are going to lose them, and they are virtually ignored."
More and more, wildlife management in Southern California, where man and nature frequently collide, is a strange mix of public pressure, politics and science. The result can be unpredictable and disappointing to all parties involved.
Take Coconino the bear.
Last year, a veterinarian in Big Bear tried to keep an orphaned bear cub that he said hikers had dropped off at his office.
Fish and Game officials wanted to return the bear to the wild. But the cub captured the hearts of Big Bear residents, and about 5,000 people signed a petition and lobbied their legislators to make Coconino the town mascot. Eventually, the case went to court, and both sides lost when the cub was sent to a wildlife theme park in South Dakota.
Or consider the deer on Angel Island State Park in the San Francisco Bay.
In the mid-1980s, Angel Island was so overcrowded with deer that Fish and Game planned to kill about 300 of them. When an animal-rights group sued, the agency decided instead to move all 300 deer to Mendocino County.
Within a year, 80% of the deer had died because they couldn't cope with the predators, diseases and other pressures of their new home. Within three years, they were all dead.
On San Clemente Island off San Diego, the public has repeatedly rushed to the rescue of thousands of goats whenever the Navy and wildlife officials thin the herds to restore the ecological balance. The goats devour many of the plants that the island's rare lizards and birds need to survive. Animal lovers have managed to capture and relocate some of them out of the line of shotgun fire.
When it comes to animals that capture the public's heart, the state's policies are often so easily upended that Fish and Game biologists now wonder: "What is good wildlife management anyway?"
Is it protecting the cutest, cuddliest animal at the expense of one that may be scaly and ugly but much more in need of help? Is it what benefits an ecosystem as a whole, or whatever saves the life of a creature that has won the affection of the public?
"It seems every time we (biologists) want to do something to protect some endangered species, we run into problems like this," said Michael Soule, chairman of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz and an evolutionary biologist who has studied Southern California ecosystems. "Taxpayers end up spending thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars on really silly projects."
With so many people and so many animals sharing limited space in Southern California and development moving into the backcountry, the conflicts are increasing, from mountain lions wandering into Irvine back yards to bears ambling into parks in Antelope Valley. Resolving those conflicts and creating a harmonious blend between people and wildlife raises some tricky questions for Fish and Game about what humane treatment of animals really is.