You don’t have to tell a Simpsons fans about the genius of this long-running satirical TV show, but The Simpsons also interweaves ecological lessons about the natural world. Take the “Whacking Day” episode way back in 1993, in which the residents of Springfield chase down snakes and whack them to death.
Sounds like a rather carnivalesque way to kill unwanted animals, doesn’t it? That can’t happen IRL, surely. Except it has. Many times.
For nearly a decade, Chesapeake Bay in Virginia held its own version of whacking day, with thousand-dollar cash rewards for killing the heaviest cownose ray. Bow hunters descended in boats on the flattened winged sharks, shooting arrows into schools of pregnant rays all in the name of conservation.
The reasoning for the hunt was a widely cited, but misunderstood scientific paper about the rays damaging the scallop fishery. It took years for marine biologists to clarify the error and bring a halt to the open season on the harmless, beautiful ray. Similar euthanasia events have gone down in Australia to control cane toads and in Florida, with the Burmese python.
Two years later, the Simpsons travelled to Australia in a 1995 episode where Bart accidentally lets loose his pet frog. The frog promptly invades the island’s delicate ecosystem, popping up again and again throughout the episode in ever increasing numbers.
This actually happened. In 1935, Australia introduced 3,000 cane toads — originally from North, Central and South America — as a way to drive down beetles decimating sugarcane plantations. The approach backfired spectacularly when the toad failed to control the beetles and spread across the country with startling speed. Without any predators, these toxic frogs poisoned pets and reduced fauna and prey for native species.
Today, there are more than 200 million cane toads spread across thousands of kilometres of Australia. As the Simpsons escape the country in a helicopter at the end of the show, they watch as the frogs damage the Australian ecosystem in real time. Insular environments like islands, river basins and lakes, are particularly vulnerable to invasive species. This wonderfully ecological subplot gets the final punchline when Lisa summarizes the importance of controlling invasive species.
The camera pans down to a koala clinging to the helicopter.
Australia will be avenged after all.
In the 1998 episode “Bart the Mother,” yet another invasive species takes a turn in the limelight. Again, Bart plays the agent of chaos, nursing a pair of bird eggs that hatch, unexpectedly, into Bolivian tree lizards.
These fictional reptiles are a composite of real-life animals, including the gliding Draco Lizard that flies using flaps that fold out from its torso. The lizard’s ability to spread by hatching in another bird’s nest is based on reproduction behaviour of the cowbird and cuckoo. Principal Skinner, the head of the Springfield Bird Watching Society, identifies Bart’s beloved new pets as invasive species and tries to kill them.
Just like Whacking Day, this is another not-so-subtle jab at the inhumane killing of unwanted animals. In the end, the lizards turn out to be a godsend by killing off Springfield’s pesky pigeons (AKA the “feathered rat” or “gutter bird” as TV announcer Kent Brockman dubs them.) This twist has roots in real life, too. Not all non-native species are destructive. Some can help the environment in unpredictable ways, like the Asian oyster in the Chesapeake Bay that filters water more efficiently than native species. However, as Lisa points out at the episode’s ending, this method has downsides, too.
Just as Australians found out with the cane toad infestation, introducing one species to control another can create a new problem rather than dispel an existing one. This is a running theme throughout the show; our desire to “fix” nature quickly swerves into unknown territory. Some scientists are also questioning the maxim and the resources dedicated to preserving an original ecosystem.
“It is impractical to try to restore ecosystems to some ‘rightful’ historical state.”
Biologist Mark Davis at Macalester College is something of a bad boy in ecology circles. In the scientific journal Nature, Davis and 18 other ecologists argue that “it is impractical to try to restore ecosystems to some ‘rightful’ historical state.” With global travel, the exotic pet trade and shipping, the world is already a mash-up of native and non-native species. Instead, he argues for concentrating all our efforts on the real, data-driven harm a species is doing to an ecosystem rather than focus on origin. Lisa Simpson would have approved.