The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint - Marc Bekoff (2010)
REASON 1. All Animals Share the Earth and We Must Coexist
THE LATE THEOLOGIAN THOMAS BERRY stressed that our relationship with Nature should be one of awe, not one of use. Individuals have inherent or intrinsic value because they exist, and this alone mandates that we coexist with them. All animals, including humans, have a right to lives of dignity and respect, without forced intrusions. We need to accept all beings as and for who they are.
Any manifesto on behalf of animals must begin with this essential proposition, from which everything else flows. All animals, all beings, deserve respectful consideration simply for the fact that they exist. Whether animals think and feel, and what they know, is irrelevant. Reverence and awe for creation should guide human actions, along with a humble acknowledgment that humans have limited knowledge about the mysteries of our own existence. However, that animals do think, feel, and know only makes what humans often do to them worse.
If we humans acted with just this simple idea foremost in mind, our coexistence with animals would look a lot different. I’m constantly pleased to receive emails and the occasional letter from people who just love watching animals with the attitude of awe that Berry recommends. In July 2008, Ted Groszkiewicz of Berkeley, California, shared this story with me about his trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where I studied coyotes in the mid-1970s. Ted wrote:
My wife and I have been coming here every summer for the past twenty years, and we had a singular experience this morning. We were driving to the park, traveling westward along the Big Thompson, when I noticed a line of oncoming traffic traveling very slowly. Odd at this time of the morning, I thought. And then I noticed that there was an animal in front of the lead car; first glance said, fawn. . . . But right away I could see that wasn’t right; this animal was much more graceful. Ah, coyote! I stopped my car to watch the oncoming parade. What a happy beast, prancing in front of all those cars. Head held high this coyote wove back and forth across the lane of traffic at a slow trot. The coyote smiled and looked me straight in the eye as it came level with our car. And, still weaving back and forth across the lane like a highway patrol motorcycle cop running a traffic break, the bouncing tail receded into the east leading a procession of at least ten cars. I would have given a tidy sum to share the mind of that coyote!
Me too! I’ve learned firsthand that the worlds of our fellow animals are laden with magic and wonder. I’ve been extremely fortunate, having had numerous personal experiences around the world with both animals and people working on their behalf. I’ve seen lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas in Kenya, helped to rescue dogs and rehabilitate moon bears in China, observed dolphins off the coast of Adelaide, Australia, been confronted by an angry baboon in the Masai Mara, collected yellow snow in Boulder and elephant poop in Northern Kenya, and been nipped in the butt by a mother coyote who thought I was getting too close to her youngsters. I’ve also studied a wide range of animals over the past forty years, from domestic dogs, coyotes, wolves, and foxes to archer fish who catch prey by spitting water at them; from Adélie penguins living at Cape Crozier near the Ross Ice Shelf to Steller’s jays and western evening grosbeaks living around my home.
The key to all these encounters, as Ted discovered, is slowing down or stopping in order to “share the road.” Coexistence is a two-way street; it requires accommodations by all parties, not all parties but one.
Further, just as we exclaim “Wow” when we marvel over the mysterious lives of animals, I would not be surprised if animals say “Wow” in their own ways as they experience the ups and downs of their daily lives and the grandeur and magic of the environs in which they live. Look at their eyes — gleaming with joy when they are happy. How strange and marvelous must we sometimes appear to them?
The attitude that allows us to mistreat animals and habitually fail to consider their needs is speciesism. Speciesism is also behind our failure to consider ourselves as part of nature, as if humans were somehow separate from nature and exempt from the basic principles by which all species live and die. For example, overpopulation and overconsumption can lead to our own extinction just as they have caused the extinction of many other species that overwhelmed their environment. Our arrogance and denial of who we are — big-brained mammals with enormous potential, and power, to both improve and destroy the world we live in — is self-destructive in the long run. Indeed, we ‘re failing now in so many areas that we should be ashamed of ourselves.
For instance, through a combination of habitat loss, overconsumption, overpopulation, spread of invasive species, and climate change, Earth is in the midst of its sixth great extinction of species. Researchers agree that humans are the major cause of this incredible loss of biodiversity, and they have coined the term “anthropocene” to highlight humanity’s significant anthropogenic impact on Earth’s ecosystems and climate.
Speciesism results in animals being classified hierarchically as “lower” and “higher,” with humans on the top rung of the ladder. This anthropocentric view not only leads humans to ignore the welfare of animals, but it is really bad biology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines speciesism as “discrimination against or exploitation of certain animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind’s superiority.” Terry Tempest Williams, in Finding Beauty in a Broken World, poignantly notes: “To regard any animal as something lesser than we are, not equal to our own vitality and adaptation as a species, is to begin a deadly descent into the dark abyss of arrogance where cruelty is nurtured in the corners of certitude. Daily acts of destruction and brutality are committed because we fail to see the dignity of Other.” Truth be told, the obliteration of animal dignity happens more than daily —every second of every day a mouse or a rat is used in research, and a nonhuman primate is used about every seven and a half minutes.
Regardless of the differences among species, how we treat our fellow animals always comes down to individuals. In his book Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, the late philosopher James Rachels presents the important notion of moral individualism, which is based on the following argument: “If A is to be treated differently from B, the justification must be in terms of A’s individual characteristics and B’s individual characteristics. Treating them differently cannot be justified by pointing out that one or the other is a member of some preferred group, not even the ‘group’ of human beings.” According to this view, careful attention must be paid to individual variations in behavior within species. It is individuals who personally feel pain and suffer, not species.
Even further, leaving aside morality and simply peering into the biological mirror, the reflection shows that it’s misleading to separate humans from other animals in an “us” versus “them” framework. Our reactions to animals are often contradictory: we are attracted to them, and wonder if we see thoughtful sentience in their behavior, while at the same time we push them away and emphasize our differences as a way to establish our superiority. When describing a deplorable act, how often have you heard someone say that the person “acted like an animal”? However, variations among species don’t arrange themselves into a neat self-evident hierarchy from dumb to smart, from vicious to kind. Variations among species should be embraced and cherished rather than used to justify human dominance. If we instead focus on the numerous similarities among species, we see clearly that “we” are “them” and “they” are “us” in many ways. The borders are indeed blurred. Tool use, consciousness, rationality, morality, humor, language, culture, and art are shared among animal species to varying degrees and can no longer be used as the defining difference between humans and other animals.
Many of the differences between other animals and humans are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. Charles Darwin stressed this in his theory of natural selection in which he discovered evolutionary continuity in the anatomy, behavior, and mental lives — including thinking, consciousness, and emotions — of a wide variety of animals. Species that at first and superficial glance seem to be radically different from our own are actually not so different after all. This surely isn’t a radical notion — if humans possess some skill or attribute, more than likely, other animals must possess it, too. If not, where did our intelligence, sentience, emotions, and morality come from?
Not only is the notion of a hierarchy of species used to justify our inhumane treatment of other animals, it is practically meaningless when comparing other species. For example, when chimpanzees do something that birds don’t do, such as using joysticks and computers to negotiate mazes, people say, “See, chimpanzees are smarter than birds.” However, when birds make and use more complex tools than chimpanzees, few if any say, “See, birds are smarter than chimpanzees.” We really don’t learn much when we try to establish that one species is smarter than another; instead, members of a given species do what they need to do to survive and to be card-carrying members of their species. Rather than refer to some real, verifiable continuum of intelligence, we tend to simply claim that species that are closer to us in the great chain of being, or species that look more like us, are more intelligent than species that are more distantly related to us or don’t look like us.
Speciesism is lazy thinking. It’s what allows us to abuse and kill animals “in the name of science,” but what this really means is “in the name of humans.” Once we declare we are special and better and more valuable than our animal kin, we close the door on their lives. We shut down our senses and our hearts to their pain, and we refuse to hear their pleas to be respected for who they are and not made into what we want them to be to justify our narrow anthropocentric view of the world. Who, after all, benefits from the invasive research on animals that scientists and others argue is often necessary, even required? Invariably humans. Rarely if ever are there any benefits for the relatives of the animals being used.
What Our Laws Say about Animals
Throughout the world animals have little to no legal standing. They’re merely property or things, like backpacks or bicycles, and humans are their owners. Animals can legally be abused, disenfranchised, moved, bartered, harmed, and killed. Often this happens in the name of education, science, entertainment, decoration, clothing, or food, which amounts to in the name of humans. Yet this legal philosophy betrays our fundamental human understanding of animals. Even young children know that animals aren’t merely property. Noah Williams, a secondgrade activist in Connecticut, wrote, “Animals should not be called things because they are beings, not things. . . . If you loved someone, would you call them a thing?. . . A rug or something is a thing, but not an animal.” Another youngster once asked me, “How can we hug a dog and cook a cow or pig?” Good question. Our relationships with animals are indeed confused.
Our laws betray the contradictions and ambivalence we have regarding animals. In his book Animals and the Moral Community, Bucknell University philosopher Gary Steiner argues that there is strong and enduring historical prejudice and momentum against animals. More people and organizations than ever before are interested in animal well-being, yet there is also more abuse. Our attitudes and practices are full of contradictions and ambivalence. It’s as if we suffer from moral schizophrenia. Animal advocate and lawyer Gary Francione noted in an email to me, “We claim to accept the principle that we should not inflict suffering or death on nonhumans unless it is ‘necessary’ to do so, but we do so in situations in which 99.99999999% of the suffering and death cannot be justified under any plausible notion of coherence.” On the one hand animals are revered, worshipped, and form an indispensable part of the tapestry of our own well-being — they make us whole, they shape us, and they make us feel good. On the other hand animals are used and abused in a morally repugnant array of human-centered activities.
Companions in Our Home
Overall, our relationship with our fellow animals may be complicated, frustrating, ambiguous, and paradoxical, but we typically feel no ambivalence at all when it comes to the domestic animals who share our lives and our homes — that is, our pets. We have come to love our pets so much that Cornell University historian Dominick LaCapra claims this is now the “century of the animal.” Children in the United States are more likely to grow up with a companion animal than with a sibling or both parents. City University of New York psychologist William Crain reports, “Recent research has revealed that animals are so important to young children that they routinely dream about them. In fact, 3 to 5-year-olds dream more frequently about animals than about people or any other topic, and animal dreams continue to be prominent at least until the age of 7 years.”
The only problem, it seems, is that sometimes we are accused of loving our domestic companions too much, such as when people leave tons of money in their will to their dogs. When she died, Leona Helmsley left$12 million in a trust to care for Trouble, her pint-sized Maltese dog, and many people were outraged. Trouble even received death threats. Eventually, as has happened with similar bequests, Ms. Helmsley’s wishes were overturned in February 2009. Would people have been more accepting if Trouble were a racehorse?
Though few people could, or might, leave such a fortune to their companion animal, most pet owners (aka guardians) understand the devotion behind such a gesture. Many people embrace their pets like family, and they spend as freely on the care of their animals as they do on themselves. In the months before my late companion dog Jethro died, I arranged for him to have a massage once a week; I’m sure he loved it and felt loved, and I’m equally sure he would have done the same for me if our situations, and species, were reversed. When domestic animals share our lives, we feel their caring, gratitude, and love for us directly, and it inspires humans to respond in kind. Pet owners across the United States spent$16.1 billion on their dogs’ veterinary bills in 2006, up from the$4.9 billion spent in 1991, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Cat owners spent$7 billion in 2006, up from the$2 billion spent in 1991. While paying for veterinary care is standard and expected, 27 percent of pet owners buy birthday gifts for their dogs, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. In 2004, U.S. pet owners spent$34.4 billion on their pets, making the pet industry larger than the toy industry (with sales of$20 billion).
Companion animals are also growing ever more popular. In 1988, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 56 percent of American households had a pet. By 2006, that figure had climbed to 63 percent, which works out to a national pet census of 88 million cats, 75 million dogs, 16 million birds, 14 million horses, 142 million fish, plus assorted small mammals and the occasional leopard or Madagascan hissing cockroach. And these are just the numbers for America. Taken altogether, this represents an enormous number of humans who have intimate, emotional relationships with animals, and who feel duty bound to care for and love them.
The number of stories that could be told to illustrate this is nearly endless. Take horses, for example. While racehorses often suffer abuse, they can also be extremely well cared for. Consider the extended care that the thoroughbred Barbaro received after shattering a leg in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. There’s also the story of Molly, a gray speckled pony who was abandoned by her owners when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005. After weeks on her own, she was finally rescued and taken to a farm holding abandoned animals. While there, she almost died after being attacked by a pit bull terrier. When her injured right front leg became infected, her vet sought help at Louisiana State University, where surgeon
Rustin Moore agreed that, rather than euthanize her, he would fit her with a prosthesis; Moore removed her leg below the knee and fashioned an artificial limb. Today, Molly can walk and run, but she has a new job — she goes to shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, inspiring people with her perseverance. Wherever Molly goes, she offers hope to people who are struggling.
The question is, if so much human care and feeling can be generated in relation to one horse, why don’t we foster it with all animals?
Living with the Wild
Today, particularly in wealthy countries, “wilderness” is almost by definition every place that is not civilization. For millennia, humans have domesticated nature to build cities and towns, suburbs and farms, and whatever is wild is meant to remain outside, at the border. However, inevitably and without fail, conflicts arise because wild animals are curious, or hungry, and they don’t necessarily recognize the boundaries we put up; once they enter our domestic arena, wild animals are often considered dangerous “problems” or “pests” for whom the only solution is death. Conflicts also arise whenever humans themselves seek to live in or “manage” wilderness, arranging the furniture in what is, in reality, someone else’s home.
In other words, it’s very easy for humans to love domestic animals, who have learned to live and play by human rules, but it’s much harder to coexist with the majority of animal species who don’t. Those of us who live in wealthy countries make up a small fraction of the world’s population, and we are incredibly fortunate to live with an amazing array of animals and plants. We should never take this for granted because it may not always be so. In theory, when humans make conservation and environmental decisions regarding nature, most people agree that animals must be factored in; they are part of the equation. Yet when push comes to shove — when profits are compromised or people’s lives are impacted or threatened — the welfare of our fellow animals seems to count for nothing.
Thus, any manifesto on behalf of animals would demand that animals be granted their own homes and allowed their own ways of life. Animals deserve land free from human interference and intrusion. Coexistence means not only that animals must accommodate human society, which they already do (sometimes to the point of extinction), but that humans must accommodate, and make room for, animal societies. Ironically, often the very characteristics of animals that draw us to them, or to the land where they live, become the source of conflicts and the reasons we decide we don’t like them anymore. Often people like to brag that they live in the woods among wild animals, but they’re only happy as long as the animals behave as humans want them to, not as the beings they are. We misunderstand wild animals, or provoke them unwittingly, then blame and punish them for our own mistakes.
This is seen most dramatically, and usually tragically, whenever wild animals enter our towns. In January 2009 a coyote in a town near Boulder supposedly attacked a woman who had been playing Frisbee with her dog. The question is, did the coyote aggressively “attack” the woman or was the animal just trying to join the game? When I played fetch with my late companion dog Jethro, the local red foxes would on occasion try to play with us; whenever this happened, I stopped the game, because I don’t want foxes to feel that comfortable around us. Wild animals can be unpredictable; we don’t speak their language or understand all their signals. As an expert in animal behavior, I know an animal’s motivation isn’t always obvious or self-evident. People often label an animal as “aggressive” when in fact he or she is merely curious. Nonetheless, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) immediately went out to kill the coyotes who had been “harassing” the woman. A group of us protested this because, first, they couldn’t identify exactly who the coyotes were, and second, it was far from clear that they had been aggressive. As it turned out, CDOW killed a coyote who didn’t nip the woman! Then, a few weeks later, CDOW killed five more coyotes in what they called a precautionary measure. Wildlife officials had no idea if any of the coyotes were involved in the incident, but afterward, simply being a coyote apparently warranted a death sentence.
The Bear Who Came to Dinner
In July 2008 the lives and unnecessary deaths of two black bears entered into the hearts of people around the world. In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, representatives of the Colorado Division of Wildlife killed a mother bear when she supposedly posed a danger to humans in the neighborhood. But did she? It was discovered this female was simply looking for her child, who’d been electrocuted after she touched an electrical wire. It was possible but unknown whether the mother was the same bear who’d been in the neighborhood before because people living there had fed her. So, even at worst, the bear was guilty of looking for her child and accepting an invitation to a meal. What a double-cross. She was killed because Colorado has a “two strikes and you’re dead” policy for wild animals who venture into human environs, but in this case, it was an inhumane “no strike and you’re dead” policy.
Human safety surely is important, but so too is human responsibility. Why aren’t there consequences for the people who invite bears by feeding them? Why couldn’t the bear have been moved to a remote area where she could live out her life away from humans? A representative from the Colorado Division of Wildlife told me, “I absolutely agree that it’s not the bear’s fault.” Nonetheless the bear had to be “tranquilized and put down,” which is simply a euphemism for ruthlessly killing. One of the inmates in the Roots & Shoots course that I teach at the Boulder County Jail wrote, “The mother searching for her dead cub was destroyed for doing the most natural thing in the world.” Others agreed that killing innocent wildlife sets a terrible example for children and others who must learn to coexist with our wild neighbors.
Soon after the Boulder incident, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) killed a male bear who had gotten his entire head stuck in a plastic jar. The poor animal couldn’t eat or drink and had become emaciated and dehydrated. To quote Rob Naplin, a local wildlife supervisor, “When it got into town, our main concern was public safety.” Again, a bear was killed ostensibly to protect humans. People were outraged and wrote to the DNR in Minnesota. Why didn’t they tranquilize the bear, remove the jar, treat him, and relocate him, rather than kill him? What’s especially disturbing was that people were able to get close enough to take pictures of this bear with his head stuck in the jar and that there was time enough to choose how to handle the situation. After I inquired as to why the bear had to be killed, a representative from the Minnesota Division of Natural Resources wrote to me:
“Euthanizing the animal was not the DNR’s first choice. It became the only choice when the bear’s physical condition deteriorated and its presence in Frazee posed a public safety risk.” They also said that a suitable veterinarian couldn’t be found, one who had experience tranquilizing a large mammal. In other words, human trash threatened the bear’s life, and it was too inconvenient for us to do anything other than finish the job. How hard did the DNR consider tranquilizing the animal? After the bear was killed I received an email from a local veterinarian who could have done it.
Of course, wild animals sometimes become truly aggressive and pose mortal danger to humans. In extremely rare cases, killing the animal might be necessary, and if so, it must be done humanely. Yet the default reaction, as these incidents make clear, is that wild animals are always dangerous and the only or preferred option is killing them. This is lazy thinking. Further, humans almost never acknowledge or accept their responsibility for creating these situations, and they sugarcoat their actions in high-sounding language. For instance, euthanasia literally means a “good death” or painless mercy killing. But in these incidents, neither bear had to be killed; mercy required just the opposite. Simply put, the bears were killed because it was the easy thing to do; guns were handy, tranquilizers were not. There was no evidence the bears posed a danger; this was just assumed. What a regrettable model for coexistence.
The stories of these unfortunate bears raise numerous issues about the ways in which humans choose to interact with other animals: What are our responsibilities? What value do we place on life? Who do we think animals are? Whose land is it? To what degree should we amend our lives, or change our habits, to make room for other species? Is it okay to trump their interests in living a good life with our interests in living a good life? I say “choose” because we do indeed make choices about how we treat our fellow animals, and we are responsible for the decisions we make.
Taming the Wild: Betraying Travis
“Wild” is itself a loaded term, implying out of control. Yet, animal species are only “wild” in relation to humans. It would be more accurate to say certain species are beyond human control; they have norms of behavior that have nothing to do with us. As close as we might feel to them, as much as we might be able to communicate with and understand them, many species will never be able to be integrated into human society the way domesticated cats, dogs, chickens, and pigs are. A very good example of how difficult our relationships with animals can be centers on the keeping of exotic animals as our household companions or pets. In February 2009 a chimpanzee named Travis, who had lived in a human home for years, attacked and maimed a close friend of his female human companion. As a result, Travis’s longtime friend had to stab him to stop the attack, and ultimately a policeman killed Travis.
Numerous people were saddened by this tragedy and outraged that Travis had been kept as if he were a dog or a cat. This terrible situation could easily have been avoided if Travis had been living at a sanctuary, rather than in a private home being treated as if he were a human. Travis had been allowed to drink wine and brush his teeth with his human companion. Needless to say, chimpanzees don’t typically drink wine or brush their teeth with a Water Pik. In an Associated Press story, Travis was called a “domesticated chimpanzee,” which is a complete misrepresentation of who he was. Domestication is an evolutionary process that results in animals such as our companion dogs and cats undergoing substantial behavioral, anatomical, physiological, and genetic changes. Travis was an imperfectly socialized chimpanzee — an exotic pet —who usually got along with humans, but he was not a domesticated being. He still had his wild genes, just as do wolves, tigers, and bears — all species that sometimes live with humans in situations that can lead to tragedies whenever humans forget these remain wild animals.
Many people were surprised by what seemed to be an unprovoked attack. But to say there was no known provocation for the attack is to ignore the basic fact that Travis was still genetically a wild chimpanzee. Wild animals do not belong in human homes, since what may provoke an attack can be almost impossible for humans to predict — yet if we could ask another chimpanzee, he or she would no doubt tell us easily why Travis did what he did. Just consider the other attacks by famous animals on their longtime handlers, who otherwise knew their companions well. Wild animals should be allowed to live at sanctuaries that are dedicated to respecting their lives while minimizing human contact. I hope that this tragic situation serves to stimulate people to send the wild friends who share their homes to places that are safe for all. In response, an editorial in the local Connecticut paper The Advocate called for a ban on the keeping of wild animals as pets. Then, on February 24, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives moved to ban the transport of monkeys and apes across state lines for the purpose of selling them as pets.
We observe animals, gawk at them in wonder, experiment on them, eat them, wear them, write about them, draw, paint, and photograph them, move them from here to there as we redecorate nature, make decisions for them without their consent, and represent them in many varied ways. Yet we often dispassionately ignore who they are and what they want and need.
Taming the Wild: Managing Nature
It’s almost too obvious to say, but animals do not need our help to live in nature. Whenever humans seek to “manage” nature, creating parks and artificial boundaries, it is always only for the benefit of humans. Perhaps, to the degree to which animals are left alone within these parks, it might be said that animals benefit, that they have been protected from humans. Otherwise, most of what passes for “wildlife management” looks like nothing so much as a direct attack on wildlife itself, bent on destroying homes and killing indiscriminately.
From an animal’s perspective, it’s hard to see how the U.S. government is working with their best interests in mind, nor how the federal Wildlife Services — formerly called Animal Damage Control, ADC — is their friend. Consider their conflict of interest: many divisions of wildlife and state and federal parks support themselves by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Their essential mandate is to preserve animals so that some can be killed. Hunting is promoted as a source of income and as a “culture” to be preserved; to get more kids involved, in June 2009 Wisconsin lawmakers moved to lower the legal hunting age from twelve years of age to ten. State Representative Scott Gunderson noted, “It’s important for us to include young people in the activities that a lot of us hold near and dear. . . . This is about our heritage.” The Colorado Division of Wildlife claims that they keep Colorado wild by managing and protecting all wildlife. Clearly they don’t, for they support the killing of innumerable fish and other sentient beings using methods that cause great pain, suffering, and death. Would humans put up with such a trade-off in their own communities, in which some folks are sacrificed so that others might live?
Sport hunting and fishing are only one aspect of “management,” however. Typically, Wildlife Services has spent about$100 million a year to actively kill more than one million animals, of which about 120,000 are carnivores, but these numbers have spiked recently. Of course, though they maintain official counts, they can’t keep track of all the individuals they kill. Wildlife Services shoots, traps, and snares animals, and uses a panoply of dangerous toxicants that harm a wide variety of species, not only the target species, for the benefit of the agricultural industry. Between 2004 and 2007, by their own records, Wildlife Services killed 8,378,412 animals. The numbers of mammals killed overall has increased recently. In 2004, for example, the agency killed 179,251 mammals compared with 207,341 in 2006. Wildlife Services has increased the number of endangered species it has killed as well, for a total of almost 2,500 individuals, primarily gray wolves, since 1996. The average number of endangered species killed annually between 1996 and 2004 was 177.5, while the average between 2005 and 2007 was 294.3. This represents a 66 percent increase in the numbers of endangered species killed in the past three years (2005–2007) as compared to the previous nine (1996–2004). As one employee of Wildlife Services was quoted as saying, “No one wants you to see this shit. . . . It’s a killing floor.”
The numbers are staggering, sickening, and increasing. In the fiscal year 2007, people working for Wildlife Services killed 2.4 million animals representing 319 species and spent$117 million doing so. This included a total of 196,369 mammals, of which 340 were gray wolves, 90,326 coyotes, and 19,584 feral hogs. Along with the larger trend, the number of carnivores killed has been steadily rising, and these numbers do not include youngsters who die after their mothers or other caregiving adults are killed. In 2008, Wildlife Services killed nearly five million wild animals and pets, a record number and a 125 percent increase from the number killed in 2007.
Invariably, the “wildest” places need the most “management,” resulting in more killing. In Wyoming alone during the fiscal year 2007, Wildlife Services gunned down, snared, trapped, and poisoned 10,914 coyotes, 2,054 more than were killed the previous fiscal year. During the summer of 2008, the Alaska Board of Game approved the killing of all wolves in an area near Cold Bay, and state officials illegally killed fourteen wolf pups after gunning down their mothers — yet another grisly chapter in Alaska’s out-of-control wolf slaughter.
Nontarget species are also killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. During the fiscal year 2006, at least 400 river otters were killed by accident, as were about 700 turtles. Not even humans are safe. Airplanes are used to track and kill animals as part of their aerial slaughter program, and Wildlife Services had twenty-four accidents with seven fatalities between 1989 and 2006.
Wildlife Services was established for “creating a balance that allows people and wildlife to exist peacefully.” Not even the most strident utilitarian could come up with a cost/benefit analysis that would make any sense of this slaughter. Where is the balance and peace in a situation that requires so much death to maintain? For many decades this has been humanity’s answer to the “problem” of wild animals intruding on our farms, ranches, and communities — or of predators who “compete” with hunters for elk and deer — and by the simple standard of effectiveness, it should be clear by now that killing does not work. We must figure out new ways of coexisting with our fellow animals. Indeed, the data show that in fact poor husbandry and disease have a larger impact on food animals than predation by wild animals.
Killing wildlife in the name of peaceful coexistence is not restricted to America; it occurs worldwide. There has been ongoing debate about whether or not elephants in certain areas of Africa have to be culled, or killed, to solve problems that occur when they intrude into human habitat. Not everyone agrees that killing elephants is the best answer. For example, John Skinner, the former head of the Mammal Research Institute at Pretoria University, said there was not a shred of evidence that the elephants in Kruger National Park or elsewhere adversely affected ecosystems. Other researchers, including Ian Raper, president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, also are opposed to culling. Raper notes, “Based on studies from across Africa we conclude that science does not provide satisfactory evidence that elephants have a lasting negative effect on either animals or plants. It’s not true that culling reduces numbers. So what purpose does it serve?”
Meanwhile, elephants are already struggling to survive without being directly targeted by humans. Psychologist Gay Bradshaw notes in an essay in my Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare:
The threat of elephant extinction is very real in terms of pure numbers and in consideration of the degree to which land and animals are pressed to change. And there is something more dire. In Kenya, heart of elephant lands, the human population has jumped from 8.6 million in 1962 to over 30 million in 2004, and between 1973 and 1989 elephant numbers plummeted from 167,000 to 16,000. As a result, there are no places in Africa or Asia that can claim elephant herds even remotely resembling those of two centuries ago. . . . Infants are largely reared by inexperienced, highly stressed, single mothers without the detailed knowledge of local plant ecology, leadership, and support that a matriarch and all mothers provide. Disoriented teenage mothers raise families on their own without the backbone of elephant society to guide them. . . . Parks. . . offer no sanctuary from marauding soldiers and villagers hungry for ivory and machine gun sport. Like the majority of remaining elephant habitat in Africa, in all of Asia, the total population is estimated as low as 35,000 and dwindling fast.
Without deliberately meaning to, humans have unbalanced nature, and then take it as their right to preserve and enforce this imbalance through “wildlife management.”
How We Unbalance Nature
The fact is, we influence the lives of animals in myriad ways, most often without any knowledge that we’re doing so. Our impact on animals and the unbalancing of nature has often occurred very subtly, over the long term, and in unexpected and surprising ways. For example, birds in different locations are known to mimic ambulance sirens, car alarms, and cell phone rings, and they show changes in behavior due to the inundation of these unnatural sounds. Researchers from England’s University of Sheffield have reported that robins in urban areas are singing at night because it is too noisy during the day — not necessarily because streetlights trick the birds into thinking it’s daytime. But light pollution affects wildlife in other ways. Strong polarized light from glass buildings and roads can confuse animals and change their feeding and breeding habits because the intense visual cues attract them to areas where they won’t find the food or habitat they are looking for. In another example, baby sea turtles rely on the direction of starlight and moonlight reflected off the water’s surface to help them find the ocean when they emerge from their nests, but in urbanized areas, they may move toward bright buildings and street lamps instead and never find the sea.
Human-created noise in the ocean disrupts communication among whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals, and high-energy sonar causes mass strandings and deaths of various whale species. Sonar might also disrupt diving so that cetaceans suffer the equivalent of the “bends” that humans get when they surface too rapidly. Despite this, in November 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court deferred to military pressure and lifted the restrictions on the use of sonar off the coast of California. As noted in the New York Times, “Most disturbing was the majority’s strong statements of deference to the professional judgments of military officers. A district court and appeals court in California had shown much more willingness to probe behind the military’s claims. They concluded that the navy could effectively train its strike groups even under the two restrictions it most vigorously opposed: that sonar be shut down if marine mammals were spotted within 2,200 yards and powered down during certain rare sea conditions.”
Of course, humans impact fish and sea creatures more directly, through both recreational and commercial fishing. Here, too, unintended negative consequences and imbalance are the rule, not the exception. Simply put, we’re overfishing. In February 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations noted that their “most recent global assessment of wild fish stocks found that out of the almost 600 major commercial species groups monitored by the Organization, 52 percent are fully exploited while 25 percent are either overexploited (17%), depleted (7%) or recovering from depletion (1%). Twenty percent are moderately exploited, with just three percent ranked as underexploited.” Meanwhile, nontarget species are getting literally caught in the net. For example, in 1990, about 42 million marine mammals and sea birds were caught in drift nets as squid and tuna were being harvested. About 129,000 Olive Ridley turtles have died over the past thirteen years because they suffocate in the nets of fishing boats not using mandatory turtle-excluder devices. Experts know the movement of giant ships and artificial illumination will put the turtles in even deeper trouble in the years ahead. Whales are also nontarget victims of fishing nets. In 2003 the World Wildlife Fund reported that nearly a thousand whales, dolphins, and porpoises drowned daily after becoming entangled in fishing nets and other equipment. Annually, more than 300,000 of these animals may perish because of fishing activities.
Finally, there is human-induced climate change. With this, all of nature is unbalanced, and it’s important to remember, when studying animal behavior, that its effects might be influencing our fellow creatures in unanticipated ways. For example, it’s been shown that local changes in climate are responsible for an increase in tiger attacks in India’s Sundarban Islands; the tigers have lost 28 percent of their habitat in the last forty years and dwindling prey causes tigers to enter villages looking for food. The migration patterns of Pacific brants, a sea goose, are changing, with warmer Alaskan winters leading an increasing number not to migrate south at all (a potential disaster for them if a harsh winter hits). Also, recent studies have found that polar bears are getting smaller, most likely as a result of pollution and a reduction in sea ice (which means bears must work harder to catch food). While polar bears have become the iconic species for the threat posed by global climate change, biologist William Laurance argues that other less charismatic species, such as lemoroid possums and animals living in the tropics, may actually be more vulnerable.
The Difficult Dance of Coexistence
“When human beings lose their connection to Nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world — which is saying the same thing. Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time they destroy one another. From that perspective, healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal elemental connection with the phenomenal world.”
— Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
On February 1, 2007, a cold, snowy day in Boulder, I went out to my car to scrape the windshield. As I focused on the frozen car, I felt what Rupert Sheldrake calls “the sense of being stared at.” I turned around to see three large mule deer staring at me from about three feet away. The fog of their breath in the cold almost touched me, and I really might have been able to reach out and touch them physically. They didn’t move for about three minutes, as I stood there telling them how beautiful they were and how lucky I felt to be able to share their land and their presence. Eventually, I turned around to continue scraping, and they remained where they were. I got goose bumps being so close to them. They knew they were safe. After I walked down to my house, I looked back at them and thanked these trusting and generous deer.
In the hustle-bustle of our days, it’s so easy to dismiss this sort of encounter. It’s easy to forget that, globally speaking, we ‘ve intruded into the homes and lives of our fellow animals and that this incessant and unrelenting trespassing will only continue as humans grow in numbers and available habitat dwindles. Getting out into nature reminds us how lucky we are to see and feel the presence of animals, and it can remind us that this land is their land, too. So is the air they breathe and on which they soar and the water in which they feed and frolic. We need to make room for other animals. I like what author Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Finding Beauty in a Broken World as she reflected on watching black-tailed prairie dogs: “They are teaching me what it means to live in community.”
We know we need to coexist. But coexistence involves many intricate, difficult ethical choices. We can’t even agree among ourselves if there are right or wrong answers to certain questions, such as: Should we kill nonnative red foxes to save endangered native birds? Should we shoot feral goats whose grazing threatens certain plants with extinction? To what degree should we make environmental changes that benefit us but are a detriment to individuals, or to a particular species? To what degree should we limit human society so that animals or a species can thrive? How do we value animals and nature?
Expanding our compassion footprint means thinking of animal welfare in our smallest routine decisions. John Hadidian, author of Wild Neighbors: The Humane Approach to Living with Wildlife and the director of urban wildlife programs for the U.S. Humane Society, believes we can always do more to form a community and coexist with our wild neighbors. Many of the things we can do are really simple. For example, raccoons tend to go for corn when it ripens. Rather than trap or kill the raccoon, Hadidian suggests leaving a radio “tuned to an all-night talk show” out in the garden on the nights just before harvest. He reminds gardeners that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects most species of birds; killing birds to protect a garden may be breaking the law even as it fails to solve the problem. Woodchucks are a classic case; if you don’t alter the burrow system or protect against reinvasion, others will come back.
We must all accept that our living space encroaches on that of other animals; we should expect to see animals, and learn to recognize and address potential conflicts with them before they happen. Where I live encroaches on the terrain of mountain lions and many other carnivores, including coyotes, red foxes, and black bears. The likelihood of my meeting one of these beasts is fairly high, but in my many years living in the foothills above Boulder, none of these wild, and potentially dangerous, animals has ever caused me harm. The animals allow me to come and go as I please. Indeed, recent studies of mountain lions living around Thousand Oaks, California, show that “lions, which feed primarily on mule deer, are posing no threat to people or to their pets and show no desire to be ‘urbanized.’ . . . They are doing the best they can to stay out of the way. . . . Mountain lions see people more than people see them.”
Much happens in the complex lives of our animal kin to which we’re not privy, but when we’re fortunate to see animals at work, how splendid it is. Red foxes entertain me regularly by playing outside of my office or on my deck. When it’s hot and dry, they queue up on my deck to drink any water that has collected in indentations after a storm. One morning when I was riding my bicycle up Flagstaff Mountain near my house, a young fox ran alongside me and playfully nipped at my heels. Foxes and other animals seem extremely comfortable sharing my home range with me, having habituated to my presence over the years. And really I was the one who moved into their home. Somebody had redecorated and disrupted their habitat by building my house in the middle of their living and dining rooms.
I’ve also been lucky. Nature doesn’t hold court at our convenience, and I’ve survived a series of unplanned encounters with various animals. I once had a young male black bear casually stroll onto my deck and try to swat open the screen door that leads to my dining room, where I happened to be eating dinner at the time. He stepped back when he couldn’t get the door to open, looked at me, and just hung out until I went to the door and asked him what he thought he was doing. He continued to look at me, shrugged as if he couldn’t care less about my being there, and wandered down the hill to rest under my neighbor’s hammock.
On July 1, 2008, as I was preparing for a long trip to Budapest, Hungary, I opened my front door and heard some loud footsteps on my deck. I knew that it wasn’t the usual entourage of foxes who show up around five o’clock to take a drink out of the water bucket and then look for an inattentive mouse who might be caught unawares. I was right. I confronted a large black bear. Perhaps he’d come to say good morning and now was hanging out, waiting for what I’m not sure. He just sat and looked as happy as could be. I know better than to toss food over my porch or to leave garbage outside. To get to my car, I have to walk about a hundred feet up a hill, but I really couldn’t with the bear right there, so I waited until he meandered off to see what treats my neighbor might have. Ten days later, when I returned home from my trip around midnight, I stepped in a pile of fresh bear poop left right at my front door. Welcome home!
Mountain lions have also visited my home with little or no hesitation. Or, more accurately, after someone built a house in the middle of where they live, they have become extremely comfortable sharing their home range with me. Lions and I truly are close neighbors, so it’s not surprising that I’ve had some very close encounters with them. Once, in fact, I almost fell over a huge male as I walked backward to warn some of my neighbors of his presence.
Sometimes we don’t know just how lucky we are that other animals have allowed us to live in their homes and allowed us to coexist with them. We ought to pay them the same favor and make room for them in our own lives. This land is their land, too.