Postcards From the Margins: What Would Caribou Do?

 Kobuk Valley National Park. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)  herd on  tundra in summer.
Kobuk Valley National Park. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) herd on tundra in summer.

Lucky for you, I’m doing research on caribou for a new short story I’m writing.  Research which, I think you will agree, sheds surprising light on some disturbing headlines this past week.

Relatively minor-ly disturbing:  the first paragraph of an article by John Branch in The New York Times, “Petra Kvitova Routs Eugenie Bouchard for Wimbledon Title

“Eugenie Bouchard arrived at Centre Court with cool confidence and a ruthless tennis game to match. Bouchard, a 20-year-old Canadian, had captured the affection of her country and of the British tabloids, her looks, play and marketability drawing gawking comparisons to Maria Sharapova.”

I am not fond of ANY remarks about a female athlete’s “looks”. And I’m guessing the “gawking comparisons” don’t have much to do with killer forehands.

My question is, WWCD?  (What would caribou do?)

Caribou (at least those on yearly migration between the Brooks Mountain Range and the Arctic Ocean in Alaska) have a remarkably short mating period–about 2 weeks in October.  Males tend to pick females based on a survey of the antler size of males competing for said female.  Fewer large-antlered male rivals = more attractive female.

But caribou are the only members of the deer family where females also have antlers.

So:  WWCD regarding appreciation of a female’s appearance vs., e.g., the strength of her head butt?  Steer clear, I think, of comments about doe-y eyes, for example, or lustrous coat. Concentrate on the antlers, and what she can do with them.

On to the major-ly disturbing news item:  Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court.  In summary,  Hobby Lobby is allowed to refuse to offer, in its medical insurance plans for women employees, birth control options it (Hobby Lobby, just so we’re clear) finds morally unacceptable. And rulings probably won’t stop there.  In “Supreme Court Broadens Hobby Lobby Ruling to All Forms of Birth Control”, Patrick Caldwell writes, “On Tuesday, the Supremes ordered lower courts to rehear any cases where companies had sought to deny coverage for any type of contraception, not just the specific types Hobby Lobby was opposed to.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s take:  “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

Also, please note:  All three female justices opposed the decision.  They seemed to see this as a battle for something more than religious freedom–like as a battle for reproductive rights.  Funny how that divided along gender lines, isn’t it?  (To be fair, Justice Stephen Breyer voted against Hobby Lobby, too. The vote was 5-4.)

Well, do we dare ask WWCD?

Every spring, it’s the female caribou who lead the herd’s migration from its winter breeding grounds in the south to more open, grass-abundant spring calving areas in the north.  Caribou live, on average, ten years.  Well-fed females may breed at as early as two to three years old. They breed later if conditions have been poor.  Not all females breed every year.

But females lead the migration.  Lead the yearlings, the female breeders, the female non-breeders. They stick together, taking on the difficult task of finding the best route (often through deep snow and cold) to the calving area.  Upon arrival, because of that narrow breeding window described above, just about any female who’s going to calve does so in a very short period–within two weeks of each other.  When the females travel and calve together, the instantaneous abundance of calves overwhelms predators (predators couldn’t possibly eat them all, as opposed to a single calf being born once every few days over a period of months, which hungry predators could more easily pick off).

This communal travel and calving, not to mention that certain predators have more difficulty hiding/denning in open tundra than in the hills, is the females’ best protection.  In other words, their best protection is NOT their male counterparts who–oh, yeah, they’re still at home. For a few more weeks. Probably enjoying religious freedom.  Or more likely, religiously enjoying their freedom.

So:  female caribou stick together for the benefit of ALL females and ALL young.  That’s what female caribou do, and our female Supreme Court justices, too.

The male caribou?  This appears to be their fall-to-winter-to-spring schedule:
1.  rut rut rut rut rut rut…
2.  rest
3.  follow the ladies (once they’ve worked all the kinks out, of course) on the road trip to greener pastures.

You can draw your own conclusions about the male Supreme Court justices.

One more fact, because I love it so much:  In the fall, after mating, males lose their antlers while females do not.  Females keep their antlers clear through until they birth their calves.  So, in a winter where water or food is scarce, for example, who do you suppose is most effectively pushing to the head of the line?  Ya think it might be the ones with the antlers?

Here’s my advice, based on WCWD:  Ladies, we need to stick together. Write the articles about each other’s sports accomplishments, articles devoid of sexist comments about appearances. Defend the reproductive rights of all women. Get more of our gender in all of the courts, including the highest in the land.

And I think it couldn’t hurt to grow some antlers.






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