What North Dakota deer and cocaine hippos have in common

Animals are not as important as humans, though some may beg to differ, whether it relates to deer in North Dakota or hippos in Colombia.

Hungry deer are eating from this haystack during this stormy winter in North Dakota's Nelson County.
Hungry deer are eating from this haystack during this stormy winter in North Dakota's Nelson County.
Contributed / Elizabeth Kroke
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An Agweek reader from North Dakota's Nelson County recently emailed me a photo of a small group of deer standing on and around a multi-level stack of snow-covered, wild-hay big bales. One of the deer stands alone near the top of the stack, the obvious "king of the hill."

The deer are clearly stressed by the region's cold, snowy winter: The big bales become increasingly important to them after the 2021 drought ravaged their food supply. Drought also reduced the hay harvest, making the bales more important to ranchers and livestock, too. The deer will eat some of the hay and foul even more, leaving far less for cattle that need it.

Most people, I think, will draw one or more of these three conclusions after seeing the photo:

A. Look at the cute king of the hill
B. It's really a tough winter for deer.
C. Those deer are ruining a lot of good hay.

My reaction, as a North Dakota farm kid and former cattle owner myself, is roughly 1% A, 19% B, and 80% C. I suspect most Agweek readers' reaction will be similar. Our life experiences tell us that deer are animals and less important than people. We like animals and detest any cruelty toward them, but we believe their needs fall short of human needs.


A growing number of Americans appear to believe otherwise, however. Their life experiences — often influenced by beloved household pets — tell them that though animals may not be quite as important as humans, the difference is minimal. In no way do I question the intelligence or motives of these Americans and strongly discourage other agriculturalists from doing so. But like most Agweek readers, I disagree with that belief.

Cocaine hippos

That brings us to the so-called "cocaine hippos" of Colombia. The late, unlamented Pablo Escobar — the highly successful drug lord and thoroughly despicable human being — imported them from their native Africa to his South American ranch. But many of the hippos later escaped into the wild, where they multiplied to the point that they began permanently damaging the entire ecosystem. (Periodic drought in Africa held down their numbers there, a natural control that doesn't exist in Columbia.) Quite sensibly, Colombian officials announced plans to sterilize or kill many of these destructive, dangerous hippos.

But animal rights activists in the United States found a federal judge here who declared the hippos to be "displaced persons," or a "person forced to leave their home country because of war, persecution, or natural disaster; a refugee." The Columbian officials are free to disregard the ruling, and nothing may come of it. Still, the ruling is a sign that public sentiment on animal rights is changing.

There are differences between the North Dakota deer and the cocaine hippos, of course. The deer are indigenous, the hippos are not. The deer have natural population controls, the hippos do not. But the deer and hippos have this in common: They're animals and, though deserving of proper treatment, are simply less important than human beings.

The challenge, it seems to me, is changing the thinking of the many Americans who believe otherwise. I'm just a humble columnist, though, and not nearly smart enough to figure out how to do that. Please drop me a line if you have a constructive solution.

Jonathan Knutson is a retired Agweek reporter. He writes a monthly column from Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Opinion by Jonathan Knutson
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