I sort of hate it when the University of Nebraska football team scores its first touchdown in a game because it means that thousands of red balloons will be released into the atmosphere and eventually land where the balloons may be encountered by hungry wildlife. Some of that wildlife will be strangled to death; entangled in the balloons and not be able to get to real food sources; or possibly have the balloon just eaten block their intestines or bind to their beaks leading to a slow, tortuous death. None of those sound like a good way to go.
Imagine you’re a beaver or a sea turtle or even a skunk. (C’mon, skunks have feelings too!) You’re hungry and haven’t eaten in days when along comes this bright, floating object and it plops down right in front of you. It’s basically the animal version of Jimmy John’s. It landed beside you so of course you’re going to eat it, right?
The animals mistake this harmful, deadly object for food, much like fans who consume a Memorial Stadium hot dog.
To a sea turtle a deflated balloon looks just like a jellyfish. The Sea Turtle Foundation estimates that 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds die annually after becoming entangled in marine debris.
The Husker balloon release began in the 1940s or the 1960s. Back then people also thought that cigarettes were a good idea. Flight attendants had to retire on their 32nd birthday. Hitting your kid was OK. Football players who got a concussion sat out a play or two.
At that time Nebraska wasn’t alone in its balloon release. It seemed like a novel, attention-grabbing thing to do and helped get butts in the seats.
Over the years the other schools with organized balloon releases have all come to their senses. Clemson was the last remaining fellow holdout and in July the school announced it was forgoing its release.
Think about that for a second. Even Clemson, a school that has a pregame ritual consisting of touching a rock realizes that releasing helium-filled balloons is dumb. (Postgame locker room scene I’d love to see after a narrow Clemson defeat: “I’m not sure why we lost - wait a second. Gilroy! Did you forget to touch the rock!?”)
In 2016 the University of Nebraska was sued by Omahan Randall Krause who claimed the balloons could be a threat to animals and children. Krause was on to something. See, it turns out we don’t know where these things are gonna land and when they do come down it’s usually near a body of water. You know what else is drawn to water? Hungry wildlife. (And, in Omaha, old cars, discarded mattresses and the occasional prosthetic limb in the Missouri River.)
A 2014 petition to end the balloon release filed by another Nebraskan garnered only 587 signatures so I realize I may be swimming against the tide here. Unlike the fish that can’t swim at all because they died after consuming a balloon.
Some of you are undoubtedly thinking I’m full of hot air because the university switched to biodegradable balloons made of latex several years ago which essentially means that fans are releasing thousands of floating condoms after the first TD. However, experts say that biodegradable balloons are equally as dangerous as ones made of plastic and they too kill animals. In fact, the strings aren’t biodegradable at all. When the university made the switch it either didn’t do its homework or was trying to pull a fast one on the public since according to the non-profit group Environmental Nature Center latex can take between six months and four whole years to decompose.
Who claims that biodegradable balloons are significantly safer? The decidedly for-profit balloon industry with its suspect, commissioned studies and, University of Nebraska officials. That’s about it. It’s like when a lawyer for Philip Morris argues that tobacco is OK.
Biodegradable balloons are supposed to explode into thousands of tiny pieces, similar to Husker football seasons when Mike Riley was coach. But evidence suggests that much of the time they fail to explode and when they do they create litter which is also easily ingested by animals and has the same result as plastic balloons, meaning it damages their innards in a bad way. Tortoises, whales and birds are among the most common victims.
Biodegradable balloons are in fact not natural at all and are treated with harmful chemicals including plasticizers and artificial dyes.
Balloons released into the atmosphere can travel up to 10,000 miles, depending on wind speed and temperature. As I type this pieces of a balloon released by a fan after the Huskers first score vs. Minnesota could be blocking the colon of a lizard in Costa Rica. Wait, lizards aren’t that likable. Let me rephrase. It could be blocking the colon of a baby bunny rabbit. Or, killing a dolphin that mistook its bright color for food.
In case you didn’t know - dolphins are more intelligent than most TV sports analysts and consistently score higher on standardized tests than American middle school students. Dolphins also show more emotion than Bill Belichick or Shawn Eichorst. (For the record so do most ATMs.)
It isn’t just PETA members calling for an end to the practice. A veritable army of reasoned, measured scientific types are too, and, no less an authority than the U.S. Dept. of Fish & Wildlife has asked that people not release balloons, biodegradable or not. https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2015/8/5/Balloons-and-Wildlife-Please-Dont-Release-Your-Balloons It’s this department’s job to determine what wild animals and the environment can tolerate. You’re going to trust the word of some self-serving University of Nebraska egghead/administrator/regent or balloon company P.R. flack over the fish and wildlife folks? That’s just silly.
In disregarding the science Nebraska officials are essentially the OJ Simpson jury of universities.
Aside from the switch to biodegradable materials university officials have shown zero interest in doing away with the tradition or being open to compromise.
Even just eliminating the balloon strings would likely save wildlife.
Balloons are so dangerous for animals that mass releases are even illegal in five states. The town of New Shoreham, R.I. went so far as to outlaw all balloons period because of the danger to wildlife.
For some time environmental groups have pushed to prohibit balloon releases. Now it’s me, a guy who frequently doesn’t even recycle, saying that releasing thousands of balloons is not a good thing to do.
While it’s impossible to say how many mammals die due to balloons numerous post-mortem exams have discovered latex balloons lodged inside an animal. The evidence points to the animal starving to death due to the balloon blocking its digestive tract.
Balloons are so harmful there’s even a push to ban them from weddings and children’s birthday parties. A kid’s birthday party obviously pales dramatically in size compared to the 5,000 to 20,000 balloons released after the Huskers' first score.
I have hardcore proof that stopping the balloon release - or even scaling it back - would not adversely impact the team’s performance. Due to a global helium shortage in 2012 the university briefly halted the release. The Huskers finished that season 10-4 and won the Big Ten Legends Division.
I even have a suggestion for the leftover helium after UNL stops releasing balloons: have monotoned Chancellor Ronnie Green ingest it before his next state of the university speech. Or give it to the ESPN cornhole analyst.
The Huskers need to find a new way of celebrating a first touchdown that would appeal to Nebraskans. A couple suggestions: sacrifice a virgin to the Great Runza God or fire a canon toward Iowa City - a live canon.
It’s time to forsake this 50-year plus tradition of killing wildlife. Instead of faraway places imagine the balloons landed at Omaha’s world famous Henry Doorly Zoo causing an elephant and a couple chimps to succumb to slow, painful deaths. The balloon release would be halted immediately. Just because we don’t have to watch the animals die doesn’t make it acceptable.
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Brad Dickson is a former writer for "The Tonight Show," a humor columnist for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, a best-selling author of two books and a professional speaker. You can find Brad on Twitter at @brad_dickson.
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