Incisive Activism

26 September 2023
By Paul Schmelzer
Antique lithograph print of beavers making dams

As acts of civil disobedience go, Jonah Docter-Loeb’s was tame. But it set off a chain of events that connected him with one of the wilder parts of Carleton’s ecosystem—and, he hopes, helped spark change.

Having learned that Carleton had begun exterminating beavers, Docter-Loeb ’25 shimmied onto the ice of Lyman Lakes one night in February to trip underwater traps: “My mindset in that moment: I know I’ll feel guilty if these creatures I love so much are killed because I didn’t do something.”

Later, he met Northfield trapper Mike Smith and started learning that his cause, while righteous, was awfully complicated. Beavers’ legendary incisors can wreak havoc, downing trees and potentially damaging infrastructure like the Goodhue-Evans bridge. But as state law prohibits the transport of beavers, live trapping isn’t an option.

He also learned that Smith, who traps campus beavers for free, does it as sustainably as he can. He eats the meat himself. And, forgoing poison and bullets, he uses traps, preserving the pelt, which, along with skulls and feet, he sells at a local market.

Still, there had to be a better way. Feeding his growing obsession with genus Castor, Docter-Loeb embarked on an independent study on ethical beaver management. He researched Carleton’s past practices and learned of its more recent efforts during a meeting with grounds manager Jay Stadler and Arb director Nancy Braker ’81, who shared that currently trapping is limited to campus, not the Arb.

Most visibly, he organized Beaverfest. On May 13, 400 people from across Northfield converged on Mai Fête Island for an afternoon of beaver tail donuts,face-painting, and lessons on installing wire tree cages—a measure that can thwart gnawing beavers. Scientist Emily Fairfax ’14 spoke on beavers’ role in addressing climate change, and visitors cast votes in a naming contest for local beavers. The winner: Boofer.

Docter-Loeb is well aware of the absurdity of hosting a rodent-themed festival but feels that “within that absurdity there’s potential to create value for the community. My hope is that in 20 years Carleton doesn’t have a beaver problem.”

Has his activism brought change? Stadler says that while he hasn’t altered his already conservative beaver management practices, he believes that “Jonah and his group will become valuable assets as I work to continue to manage areas beavers choose to inhabit.”

But the change he’s most impressed by is within Docter-Loeb.

“He had strong feelings,” Stadler says. “He did his research, had honest conversations, and truly listened to others’ views. A lot of people when emotionally charged won’t act as maturely as Jonah has, and I respect him very much.”

Posted In

Appears in Issues: