I refer not to the marshmallow confections so ubiquitous this time of year, but to a pet. We had returned to the Philippines for my father-in-law's funeral, and my son had more questions than I could answer. The open casket in the living room, the constant stream of visitors during the week-long wake and the oppressive tropical heat left me drained. What better way to occupy a young boy than to give him that everlasting symbol of life, a newly hatched chick? Seeing him smile with a yellow ball of fluff on his shoulder and bird droppings running down his back was the highlight of what was to be a long and somber visit.
So imagine my delight when news of Peep arrived from the Philippines. It was a letter from an aunt, thanking my son. Peep, she wrote, had fed many neighbors and the consensus was that he was exceptionally delicious. Enclosed was a photo of a fat happy chicken, minutes before his neck was wrung.
"What's that, Mommy, is it Peep?"
"Yes it is, and look how he's grown!"
Thus began a series of small lies, The Legend of Peep, if you will. Fifteen years later, he still doesn't know the truth. Was I squeamish discussing death with him? No. I was simply at a loss for words having to explain why anyone on a U.S. pension in the Philippines would need to eat a pet, especially one associated with a dead grandfather.
Which brings us to the Worcester's buttonquail, an elusive, flightless bird found only in the Philippines. Last seen 100 years ago, the spotted quail has never before been photographed, and was thought to be extinct. Its appearance in a bird trapping documentary astonished Desmond Allen, the World Bird Club member who identified it, and soon the world of ornithology was abuzz.
The problem? The only Worcester's buttonquail ever caught on film was sold for 10 pence, simmered in a delicate broth of vinegar, and eaten as quail adobo. I have no evidence for the exact preparation, but adobo is as good a guess as any.
The name of the documentary? Bye-Bye Birdie.
But it doesn't end there.
According to the AFP (Ultra-Rare Shark Caught and Eaten, April 7, 2009), "A megamouth shark, one of the world's most elusive species, was caught, carved up and eaten by fishermen from a town in the Philippines, the environmental conservation group WWF said Tuesday."
Discovered in 1976 off the shores of Hawaii, only 41 specimens of this ancient shark have ever been found. And this time I do have a recipe. Take 500 kilos of megamouth, stew in coconut milk, and you have enough kinuout to feed a village!
As humans encroach on natural habitat, more such encounters shall occur. However, it would be naive to expect that education and strict poaching regulations will solve the problem. Fueled by civil unrest, dwindling resources and deforestation, the bushmeat trade has become a wildfire:"Because there is nowhere else for people to turn for protein, and because of poor enforcement, bushmeat hunting has continued in many parts of the world, despite regulations that make most of the hunting illegal. (Discovery News, Bushmeat Ban Not the Answer)"
A fire that not only endangers biodiversity, it endangers us.
There have been 14 ebola epidemics in Africa since 1976, in which 80% of the victims hemorrhaged to death within a few days, and which have been traced to bushmeat. Outbreaks coincide with the dry season and the birthing cycles of the virus's reservoir, fruit bats. Because primates often inhabit the same trees, they are exposed to blood and placental fluid released during bat birthing. Villagers contract ebola through contact and consumption of primates and fruit bats:
"Consequently, public awareness programmes and an input of food supplies essential for the needs of remote villages during the dry season should help avoid Ebola virus transmission from the bats to humans." (News Medical: Fruit bats a reservoir for Ebola virus, Jan 2006)
Ah, but that's in Africa, you say. So was HIV. Evolved from SIV, the simian or primate variant, HIV has jumped from primates to humans at least seven times.
"That suggests that new strains of an HIV-like virus are circulating in wild animals and infecting people who eat them, sparking fears that such strains could fuel an already disastrous global HIV pandemic." (New Scientist: Bush-meat trade breeds new HIV, Aug 2004)
And in December 2008, Ebola-Reston was confirmed in four pig farms in the Philippines, raising fears that the disease may someday be transmitted from pigs to humans.
So stick to the marshmallow Peeps, peeps. Once we, and biodiversity, are gone, I doubt we'll be resurrected.
©2009 Tammy Yee