Why Utah Loves Seagulls (but not crickets)

iStock / gjohnstonphoto
iStock / gjohnstonphoto

Drivers out West may have experienced the terror of swarming Mormon Crickets, which can overwhelm roads all at once and make streets so slick that drivers lose their grip. The threat of the crickets -- who swarm because their natural cannibalistic tendency creates chaos during mass migrations -- is so great that drivers say they've even seen the roads turn red with blood from the crushed insects.

But those swarming crickets also explain why Utah loves its gulls, and how the Mormon Cricket got its name, despite not even being a cricket.

Mormon settlers in Utah thought they had seen the worst of it in 1848 when a late April frost threatened to wipe out their crops. But, in late May, a swarm of the crickets amassed on the fields, threatening to eat anything in their path. The crickets (which are actually in the katydid family) cannot fly and are known to devour any plants. The settlers were completely overwhelmed, especially because they discovered that crushing the bugs would only attract more. Some of the settlers even began comparing the attack to the biblical plague of the locusts, with journals recalling darkened skies and settlers resorting to eating wolves and other wild animals.

Then, according to the story, thousands of gulls descended on the fields and began eating the crickets. The legend says that the gulls even had to stop to vomit up the crickets before going back for more, eating until they had chased the bugs off. The late arrival of the birds ended up saving the crops and ensuring the settlers survival. The so-called "Miracle of the Gulls" became a legend in Salt Lake City, with the California Gull being named the Utah state bird and a monument to the birds being built outside of Salt Lake Assembly Hall.

However, there is some question as to how accurate the legend of the 1848 Cricket War actually is. In journals from the time, there are actually only scattered mentions of the gull's arrival, which historians say could indicate that those were isolated incidents. In fact, most historians believe that the settlers were much more pro-active and set up reinforcements to ward off the crickets themselves.

Plus, it's not uncommon at all for the gulls to eat the katydids, according to ornithologists. In fact, it's still going on today.

The insects also remain a threat, and not just to drivers. The crickets continue to eat at crops and other plants, even causing more than $25 million in a 2003 infestation. However, farmers have come up with a new method of fighting them off that doesn't involve seagulls. Some have been blasting rock music around their fields, which apparently has kept the crickets at bay.

8 Things to Know About Tiger King, Netflix's Bizarre New True Crime Docuseries

Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Netflix

Last week Netflix quietly premiered Tiger King, a seven-part documentary series that continues the streaming service’s streak of compelling true crime tales. With each increasingly outlandish episode, viewers are submerged in the world of exotic petkeeping and roadside zoos, with Oklahoman polygamist Joe Exotic trading barbs—and eventually threats—with Florida tiger rescuer Carole Baskin. The tale rapidly expands to include a suspected sex cult, alleged mariticide, Exotic’s music career, and a somewhat unreliable hitman.

If you’ve finished the series, take a look at some additional facts surrounding this eclectic cast of characters. Just be aware that many spoilers follow.

1. Carole Baskin says Tiger King misrepresented a certain meat grinder.

When viewers are introduced to big cat breeder and G.W. Zoo operator Joe Exotic in Tiger King, they get an immediate glimpse of his rivalry with big cat advocate Carole Baskin. In addition to threats of bodily harm against Baskin, Exotic goes on to assert that in 1997, Baskin murdered her millionaire husband, Don Lewis, so that she could take over his vast estate and then fed his remains to her rescued tigers. In a blog post, Baskin denied that claim and stated that the meat grinder was a rumor started by the Lewis family. “Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home,” she wrote. “The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.”

2. "Doc" Antle has denied his zoo operates as a kind of sex cult.

Tiger King makes significant overtures that Myrtle Beach Safari zoo operator Mahamayavi Bhagavan "Doc" Antle has used his stature in the world of big cats to recruit young women he subsequently develops personal relationships with. Antle dismissed this characterization to Vanity Fair. “There are a lot of cute girls here, because the conservation movement does draw in cute girls,” he said. “But those cute girls have nothing to do with this old fat guy running the place.” Antle went on to suggest his son was the beneficiary of any romantic entanglements. “He is a living Tarzan. He has women throwing themselves at him.”

3. There’s no federal law against owing big cats.

Central to Tiger King is the controversial premise that there’s no federal law prohibiting private citizens from owning potentially dangerous wildlife like lions or tigers. The Fish and Wildlife Service does require permits to sell endangered species across state lines, but traffickers often avoid this rule by marking transactions as “donations.” At the state level, roughly two-thirds prohibit owning a big cat. Others simply require a license, while a handful of states—including Oklahoma and Nevada, which figure prominently in the series—have no regulations at all.

4. Jeff Lowe was once sued by Prince.

Midway through the series, Joe Exotic appears to find a hope of salvation in the form of Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal enthusiast who agrees to have the G.W. Zoo put in his name to thwart the collection efforts of Carole Baskin, who had successfully sued Exotic for trademark infringement and won a $1 million judgment. (Exotic had used his web presence in an attempt to make people believe Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue was associated with his own efforts to antagonize Baskin and confuse her supporters.) Lowe himself was no stranger to controversy. In 2007, musician Prince sued Lowe because Lowe was allegedly selling unauthorized Prince merchandise. And in 2008, Lowe pled guilty to mail-order fraud charges for posing as an employee of a domestic abuse charity and reselling $1 million in merchandise.

5. Joe Exotic's business partner Rick Kirkham had a nervous breakdown.

Acting as a narrator of sorts, television producer Rick Kirkham appears in Tiger King to relate his experience dealing with Exotic, with whom he had a deal for a reality television series. According to Vanity Fair, Kirkham was initially reluctant to appear in the documentary but relented when the filmmakers agreed to come to Oslo, Norway, where he currently lives and works as a journalist. Kirkham said he had a nervous breakdown after his experience with Exotic, whom he described as “evil” and “like something out of The Omen.”

6. There’s more to the story of Joe Exotic’s (third) husband’s death than the series covered.

There is no shortage of astounding footage in Tiger King, but none provokes more of a shocked reaction among viewers than the moment when Joe Exotic’s third husband, 23-year-old Travis Maldonado, walks into the G.W. Zoo’s office, puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger. (The surveillance camera captures the reaction of an employee, as Maldonado is not within view.) It is unclear whether Maldonado was using the firearm recklessly, as he was known to do, or whether it was suicide. According to a 2017 article in the Oklahoman, Maldonado believed the gun had a bullet in the chamber but that it would not fire without a magazine, which he had ejected. It appears his death, while self-inflicted, was accidental.

7. Joe Exotic’s zoo is still open—but it might not be for much longer.

Following Exotic’s departure from the G.W. Zoo after butting heads with Jeff Lowe, the zoo he founded is still in operation. Lowe initially renamed it the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park before calling it the Oklahoma Zoo, with plans to relocate it to Thackerville, Oklahoma in the summer. It’s currently open for business. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin expressed doubt about the zoo’s future. “All I can tell you is [Lowe] is basically operating on fumes,” Goode said. “No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that’s been going on for a long time. It’s not something that has just happened because of what’s happening in the world today.”

8. Joe Exotic is still posting on Facebook and is asking for a presidential pardon.

In January 2020, Joe Exotic was sentenced to 22 years for two murder-for-hire plots against Carole Baskin as well as 17 wildlife charges. Exotic, who is currently being held in Grady County Jail in Oklahoma, regularly posts updates on Facebook expressing hope that Tiger King will activate supporters and help petition for a presidential pardon. “Thank you to the millions of people around the world who have watched Tiger King and see now the wrong that has been done to me,” he wrote on Monday, March 23. “It is you the people of the world who can change what has been done. Please keep this alive until someone reaches our President for a Pardon because its [sic] the right thing to do.”

Watch Fennec Foxes Exploring an Empty Chattanooga Zoo

wrangel, iStock via Getty Images
wrangel, iStock via Getty Images

Zoo animals around the country are taking advantage of their newly vacant environments. On Monday, March 23, the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee shared a video of its fennec foxes out of their enclosure and wandering halls that would normally be populated by people.

The Chattanooga Zoo closed to the public on Tuesday, March 17, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Zookeepers are still coming into work, so not much has changed for the animal residents—besides the occasional opportunity to explore new parts of their home.

"While the visitors are away, the foxes will play!" the zoo wrote in a Facebook post. "We miss our interpretive centers being full of visitors this time of year, but while they had the chance, our keepers let our foxes explore the visitor viewing area of the Deserts of the World building for some fun environmental enrichment."

The zoo may have been inspired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Last week, the aquarium allowed its rockhopper penguins to take a field trip around the facilities, showing them around the Amazon exhibit and information center. As the video above shows, the fennec foxes were able to take in their new environment much faster on four legs.

In addition to sharing clips on its Facebook page, the Chattanooga Zoo is also sharing live-streams of its animals on its website. Here are even more animal webcams to check out while social distancing.

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