In just one example of this problem, local homeowners, worried about the lizard as well as scrub oak trees, sued in early 1992 to stop a controlled burn above Malibu. Later, the city of Calabasas demanded a full environmental impact report.
Finally, fire officials settled out of court and canceled the burn.
Near Old Topanga Road last Nov. 2, in an act of pure evil, an arsonist with even less concern for human life or property set Malibu aflame. With most of the brush spared from supervised burns, these hillsides instead blazed out of control for two days.
One of America's most scenic communities now is largely a singed moonscape: amid the charred palm trees and blackened boulders, a few gaunt chimneys are all that remain of many of the nearly 400 homes that were consumed.
Three people were killed and 111 were injured. Thousands of lives have been up-ended. Eighteen thousand acres of nature look as if swabbed with tar. Surveying these great smoky mountains, it's hard to imagine that any coastal- horned lizards survived this inferno.
Those who put lizards first are not alone. While most environmentalists advance the laudable goals of fighting pollution and preserving unique natural habitats, some ecofreaks and animal-rights advocates jeopardize human health and safety to ensure the comfort and well-being of inferior species of flora and fauna.
Some on the far fringes of environmentalism see humans as a planetary carcinogen. Once homo sapiens are extinct, they reason, Earth will return to its proper equillibrium. As David Foreman, founder of Earth First!, declared: ''I see no solution to our ruination of Earth except for a drastic reduction of the human population."
Such thinking has put humans in harm's way to "save" nature. One group of eco-terrorists nailed metal spikes into timber in the Pacific northwest to discourage logging. So what if a lumberjack strikes a spike and his chain saw explodes?
In August 1992, the Fund for Animals and other animal groups sued the U.S. government to halt the shooting of large flocks of gulls at New York's JFK Airport. Guns were trained on the birds as a last resort when loud noises and other tactics failed to scare them off.
The problem? Aircraft engines inhale gulls with frightening results: between 1979 and 1991, 44 take-offs were aborted and 40 jet engines were damaged or destroyed. Last Feb. 25, an Avianca jet made an emergency landing after a laughing gull disabled one of its two engines.
Still, the fund and its allies set aside the safety of thousands of air passengers and sued on the birds' behalf. After many legal hassles, the Federal Aviation Administration was granted a waiver last May to resume the gull-thinning operation.
Some zealots also are opposed to using animals in scientific studies to save or improve human lives. "Even painless research is fascism," says Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Even if animal research resulted in a cure for AIDS, we'd be against it," she adds. Newkirk seems driven less by a love of animals than by a deeper conviction that humans are no better than other creatures. As she once put it: ''A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."
To doctors, though, this quote is not as outrageous as it sounds: A pig's liver, in some cases, is a boy's liver. Miraculously, America's "unreformed" medical system now transplants animal organs, or parts of organs, into humans. But even this is unbearable to some livestock lovers. "I'm appalled at the audacity of humans believing that we have the right to manipulate other living creatures to fit our needs," animal-rights advocate Christy Waehner recently lamented in Newsweek. People "forget that even a pig is a sentient being."
With basic ethics on the run, nihilism on the rise and some 23,000 increasingly random and senseless murders haunting America each year, it comes as little surprise that so many find human life so trivial. Sadly, the celebration of the lizards and disdain for humans recently on display most likely neither burned out nor faded away in the scorched mountains of Malibu.