By Maria Gigliello
Editor’s note: Maria Gigliello is the communications coordinator for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
“They [Vermont Fish and Wildlife] need to be dispatched (tortured, beaten) the same way [as a trapped animal].”
“You’re no better than the Ku Klux Klan.”
“Bunch of in-breds out there just shooting animals for fun. Great job Vermont Fish & Wildlife!!!”
“Why any girl finds this fun [hunting] is beyond me…she must not have maternal instincts.”
These are just some of the social media comments that the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Information team sees on a regular basis. As the department’s social media leads, Joshua Morse and I get a front row seat to the good, the bad and the ugly emotions that the department’s work brings to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I write this piece as a reminder that despite the public’s varying feelings on the work we do at Vermont Fish and Wildlife, there is always a place for kindness.
Probably due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a shift in the long-term trends of our social media audiences. More people are at home and online, therefore making them more observant and engaged with wildlife management decisions in the state. People are also interacting more with each other online and that separation from person to person by a screen has increased boldness in people—boldness in their comments to us and each other.
When people who feel strongly about wildlife conservation hit “send” on a comment that calls department staff or other commenters rude names, threatens us, undermines our work, personally attacks us, etc., there are always actual people on the other end of that comment reading it.
These hateful comments are very concerning and do not accomplish anything positive.
One of the department’s outreach goals is to use our social media platforms as educational tools. Teachers, students and other educational groups use our social media channels to learn about Vermont’s wildlife. We see the value in making the natural world accessible to all. However, we often receive comments that are wildly inappropriate for young eyes. Comments such as, “Hey look the hunting idiot is back to showcase he provides nothing to Vermont wildlife but the brute force rifle he packs next to his tiny pecker.” We work hard to make our social media channels welcoming to all and we want to keep our channels welcoming to all.
Apart from the mental and emotional distress that daily hostile comments bring to department staff, this behavior raises concerns regarding our physical safety as these comments can translate to the real world. In July, Oregon Public Broadcasting published an article on how Oregon’s natural resource staff face violent threats, including attack dogs and gunfire, in the field. In 2019, violent threats caused Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to cancel informational wolf management meetings. And in 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that public land employees were faced with threats that ranged from phone harassment to attempted murder. This is a reality that many Vermont Fish and Wildlife Dept. biologists are aware of and fear. While luckily no physical harm has occurred, the anxiety lingers in the back of our minds, especially when we consistently experience aggressive and sinister language directed against the department on social media. We need to be able to do our jobs without fearing for our safety.
If you want to help make our social media a more welcoming place for everyone and push back against the disturbing behavior that has become more common on these platforms, this fall is a good time to think about how to be a better member of Vermont’s online conservation community. As our commissioner has stated in the past, conserving wildlife requires respecting each other’s different values and opinions.
We have noticed an increase in online hostility when hunting and trapping seasons start. It is that time of year again and we ask you to approach each other with tolerance despite their varying viewpoints. Whether you are with an advocacy group, a hunter, a trapper, an angler or just an admirer of wildlife we all want to see the ecological systems of our state thrive. I am certain that we will not achieve this common goal by being cruel to one another.