Billings scientist created worldwide wildlife legacy

Billings scientist created worldwide wildlife legacy February 12, 2016 Montana, 

Billings scientist Jay Kirkpatrick pioneered humane fertility control in wild horses and other wildlife.

Montanans and those who support logical, humane treatment of wildlife lost a pioneering scientist and friend late last year.

Jay F. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., who died Dec. 16 in Billings, was the founder of the nonprofit Science and Conservation Center at ZooMontana and a pioneer in using the fertility control vaccine PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida) as a safe and humane way to manage animals such as wild horses, urban deer, elephants and bison.

Because of his work, killing animals as a way to control their numbers can no longer be accepted as an inevitability. PZP, which is administered by dart, doesn’t harm animals and doesn’t pass into the surrounding environment.

As Jay himself told the story, it was in 1971 that he was visited by two “cowboys” from the Bureau of Land Management who asked him if he could prevent horses from reproducing. This was a strange question because reproductive scientists are not often, if ever, asked to reduce reproduction, but to increase it. Jay was keen enough to realize then that his two visitors foresaw the future accurately: with the passage of the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, the time would soon come when the public’s adoption of horses could not keep pace with the natural increase in the horse population and that the U.S. government would be forced to deal with wild horses at a tremendous cost to taxpayers. That visit changed his life.

Today, PZP is used in more than 30 wild horse management areas, including the Pryor Range, and has helped reduce the need for inhumane and costly roundups and warehousing of horses. It’s also used on 17 African elephant reserves and on the bison of Catalina Island. In four states, it’s been used to manage urban deer.

I met Jay in 1987 when he gave a paper at the first conference on wildlife contraception in Philadelphia. As a wildlife advocate seeking humane solutions to address urban deer in my community, I saw fertility control as a panacea, a scientific gift, a wonderful method that would please everyone, from those who did not want to see deer in their suburban yards eating their hostas to those who wanted to reduce the so-called “burgeoning herds” and could see no other means to do so except by shooting them. Was I ever naïve!

Despite my being adamantly opposed to hunting and Jay admitting to me that he, himself, was a hunter, we cooperated on an effort to study the use of PZP in deer.

As Jay and I came to learn, not everyone is supportive of fertility control. Some object on cultural and political grounds, others out of self interest. Jay wasn’t naive, but he was continually frustrated that those opposed often relied on misinformation to make their cases.

As a scientist, he believed in evidence, data and reasoned argument. Writing in response to one attack he said: “I am not dismayed by the passion that accompanies this subject. … What does upset me is knowingly manipulating information, hyperbole, attempts to frighten people with skewed information and an anti-intellectual approach to debates that excludes facts and data and substitutes opinion.”

Jay faced such opposition with logic and a sometimes sorely tested sense of humor. Yet he knew, I think, that he was, as they say “on the side of the angels.” His work has helped reduce suffering that too often goes unrecognized.

Jay’s life was not only a gift to animals, but also to the many people who believe that justice does not involve the killing of animals for human convenience. If anyone deserves to rest in peace, it is certainly Jay F. Kirkpatrick.

Priscilla N. Cohn, Ph.D., is the associate director of the Ferrater Mora Centre for Animal Ethics at Oxford University. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including a piece on wildlife fertility control co-authored with Jay Kirkpatrick. She lives in Villanova, Penn.

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