The author and environmentalist T. C. Boyle published When the Killing’s Done
in 2011. Set in the ecologically diverse Channel Islands just off the coast of Southern California, the novel traces the history of the island’s human and animal inhabitants, and asks morally thorny questions about the ways in which we are meant to steward the environment. After we have shaped and altered habitats, whether unwittingly or purposefully, do we owe it to nature to try to fix our mistakes? If so, how and on what terms is that kind of repair possible? By focusing the novel’s plot on the conflict between a fervent animal rights activist and a devoted biologist working for the National Park Service, Boyle examines the philosophies, passions, and logic that drive our relationship with the land.
On one side of the issue is Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist whose scientific research on the islands has compelled her to save the endangered native species that live there by eliminating more recent invasive animals—rats and feral pigs. Both of these predators were introduced to the environment in the recent past, and as their population has grown unchecked by natural predators, they are threatening the ecosystem’s survival. For Alma, reversing humanity’s effect on nature is a lifelong project. Due to a legal victory, she finally has the means to upend the Channel Islands’ power balance in favor of nature and away from humans.
On the other side of the same issue is Dave LaJoy, a very recent convert to animal rights activism, whose no-zealot-like-a-convert attitude makes him staunchly opposed to killing any animals at all. A wealthy electronics store chain owner, Dave is a white man who sports dreadlocks and immediately labels Alma “Pig Killer” without bothering to listen to her explanations about what the National Park Service is doing. Acting from gut instinct, Dave is willing to do whatever it takes to undermine Alma’s plans, in an ultimate example of the ends-justify-the-means thinking.
Alma’s plan is extremely complex, with many interlocking parts. First, the scientists will poison the rats. Then hunters will exterminate the feral pigs. Next, ornithologists will capture the island’s Golden Eagles and release them somewhere else. The final step is reintroducing two species to the habitat where they once were numerous: Bald Eagles and an endangered species of fox. Alma doesn’t treat any of this lightly, and she wrestles with the ethics of killing one type of animal to protect another. The pragmatic Alma realizes that the islands are home to flora and fauna that don’t exist anywhere else, and there’s simply no other way to save them. But she understands the big picture as well. After all, truly restoring the islands to their original state would require completely removing humans themselves.
But to Dave, there is no moral complexity. As soon as Alma’s plan is enacted, Dave does his best to throw a wrench in the works. He breaks into Alma’s office and spray-paints obscenities on her car. He crashes her speeches to heckle and protest whatever she has to say. He spreads vitamin B-12 pills around the island for the rats to eat and thus prevent the effects of the poison. In a moment of complete insanity, he captures a large number of raccoons and releases them on the island, hoping to create yet another invasive species for Alma to deal with.
To further add nuance to the story, Boyle jumps to two other time frames, tracing the family histories of two characters who have made the islands their home.
Alma’s grandmother Beverly Boyd was the only survivor of a shipwreck in the island channel in 1946, a shipwreck like the one that brought the rat species to the islands. After losing her husband and his brother in the wreck, Beverly makes a home on the islands. Her daughter Katherine marries a man Beverly doesn’t approve of, and who eventually dies an early death. Now Katherine’s daughter Alma confronts a thorny dilemma in her personal life: she and her boyfriend Tim are facing an unplanned pregnancy. Tim wants Alma to have an abortion—after all, aren’t humans the problem with the environment? But Alma wants to have the baby, and no generalized arguments about human populations can overcome her strong emotions.
Dave’s girlfriend and fellow animal rights activist Anise was born to a struggling musician named Rita Reed. To protect herself and Anise from an abusive husband, Rita came to the islands to work as a cook for sheep farmers in the 1970s. Now Anise has taken up with Dave, and it’s through her that he has embraced his quasi-ecoterrorist lifestyle.
Although Boyle takes some effort to humanize Dave, it is clear that his arrogance, resistance to logic, and anti-intellectual hatred of experts make him the novel’s bad guy. Whether or not we agree with Alma’s methods or the idea that the island’s ecology can be restored to some “ideal” past, it is clear that we are not meant to sympathize with Dave’s boorish and bullying ways. Still, in a final moment of partial redemption, when Dave is on a boat trying to arrange yet another obstacle for Alma, he suddenly has an epiphany that reveals to him that he has been a bad actor. But just after that happens, Dave’s boat—shielded from view for nighttime stealth—is rammed by another boat, and Dave is killed.