Animal rights

No, not the kind you’re thinking.

What I’m talking about is animals’ right to be viewed as animals.

The subject is near & dear to my heart, and it’s on my mind today because it was touched upon in the Weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal.

The article, “Wild Kingdom,” by James Sterba (subscription required), gives an overview of the current state of human-wildlife relations in the Orlando area, but the situation there is hardly atypical. As a culture, we’re hemorrhaging the savvy we once had about wild creatures — and no, being able to recite facts we’ve gleaned from books or documentaries doesn’t count. On the contrary, learning about wildlife from books and documentaries, instead of through first-hand experience, is one of the problems.

We’re Bambi-izing nature. We view animals as little humans and interpret their actions through the lenses of human ethics and personality — which, perversely enough, turns out to be an act of supreme selfishness.

It leads to situations like the one Sterba relates in his article, where people toss bread to non-native Muscovy ducks that have set up camp on Lake Lilly, a suburban park, but “hate” the otters that show up to feed on them.

“We hate the otters,” said a retiree named Florence, who wouldn’t give her last name. She and her husband, Don, walk around the lake for exercise. “We gave names to every duck. Now, half are dead.” Asked if they named the otters, she said, “Yes, but you couldn’t print those names.”

Now the town where the park is located has hired a company to trap and remove the otters.

I’m not against removing, even euthanizing problem wildlife. But what’s happening is that people often create the problem. Another example from the article: people feed Florida Black Bears. This teaches the bears to look for people for hand-outs, so that even if you relocate them, they just come back. And once a bear has been documented as bothering people three times, it’s killed.

Even when animals don’t need to be euthanized, relocating them may be a death sentence anyway. The article quotes from the Florida wildlife commission Web site as follows:

“It’s rare that relocated animals have a good chance of survival, and moving them may even effect the survival of animals in their new ‘home.’ ” Relocated animals are already stressed from their ordeals, often can’t find food and shelter in their new environments, fight with and can spread disease to local critters already there, it says.

So what’s the answer?

Let’s start with what the answer is not — and that’s overreacting to so-called “sprawl.” People blame it for the increased contact between people and wildlife, but it’s only partly the cause–something you’d know if you grew up in the rural Northeast, like I did, where it’s pretty obvious that land once cleared for farming has now regrown as forest.

While sprawl is moving out, the forests in which many species once flourished is moving in, covering over millions of acres of abandoned farmland that once served as a buffer.

When I was a kid, the “woods” behind my parents’ house still showed obvious traces of having been farmland: the tumbled stone walls, the piles of rocks from where someone once cleared the land to plow, the predominance of trees like ash which are characteristic of first-growth forest, and of wild apples, suggesting there’d been an orchard in the vicinity at one time.

Today, it’s almost unrecognizable, thicker, shadier; the apples have pretty much died out, the rock piles are disappearing under accumulating leaf litter. It’s begun to look like a real forest rather than scrubland.

What’s more, we’re also inadvertantly creating habitat with our homes and landscaping:

. . . much modern sprawl is built, unconsciously, to be wildlife-friendly — what wildlife biologists call “enhanced habitat,” with more food, shelter, water, hiding places and protection from predators than exist in the wild . . .

In the wild, home is a hole in a dead tree. In Orlando, the dead tree has been cut into lumber and used to build a house with easy access to the attic — a veritable McMansion for raccoons, squirrels and roof rats. Ubiquitous air-conditioners all have drip pans — a ready source of water. New suburban landscapes tend to have more critter-friendly “edges” — patches of trees, shrubbery, lawns, fences, roadsides — than can be found in many wild settings.

My neighborhood is a perfect example: lots of handy cover for critters to move about, plenty of spots to hide and build dens. Consequently, we have not only birds and squirrels, but also rabbits, skunks, possums, fox, deer, and coyote. It’s practically the identical mix of native North American fauna that the colonists found when they first settled this part of the world — all that’s missing is bear and mountain lions, and they’re closer than most people realize.

So what’s the answer?

I wish I knew. I honestly don’t see how we can make intelligent, well-reasoned decisions about managing our native wildlife when a growing majority of Americans, to paraphrase the article, now treat their pets like children and wild animals like pets.

Animals feel emotions, they are fascinating, they have complex brains, they enrich our experience. But particularly as regards wild animals, they live in a parallel world, not a human one — a parallel world that happens to occupy, more and more, the same physical space as the human one.

We need to learn to share that space in a way that’s fair to the animals.

But most of all, we need to stop projecting our own unmet emotional needs on these creatures. We need to accept that their experience is so fundamentally foreign to ours that, truly, we cannot begin to fathom it. We need to understand that it is precisely this foreignness that makes them so fascinating, and stop trying to turn them into toothless teddy bears, and Tom and Jerry funny-antics-nobody-ever-gets-eaten, and existentially-aware Wilburs, and talking Bambis still missing Mother. That’s not what animals are. It’s just not.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers. Thanks for stopping by, and thank you Prof. Reynolds for the link!

[tags] wildlife, sprawl, suburbs, habitat [/tags]

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10 Responses to Animal rights

  1. Julian Morrison says:

    I’d say the experience of animals isn’t so very foreign. I’d guess it’s much the same as that of a wild human, minus the abstract cogitation, projective planning, and ethics. It’s just that the whole “wild human” thing is awfully far from the experience of a modern suburbanite.

  2. Kirsten says:

    Yeah, except that the abstract cogitation etc. is just huge. It makes for a tremendous gulf.

    We can infer a lot about animals by observing them, and goodness knows we can come to love them, but to become one we’d literally have to pare away sections of our human brains. There’s no getting around that.

    I do agree with what you say about the “wild human” experience, but what’s troubling is that we’ve moved away from it while at the same time becoming oddly possessive about nature and wildlife. It’s as if the less we come in contact with nature, the more we value it as an abstraction, but that just doesn’t give us a solid basis for making sound decisions about it.

  3. Mel says:

    You are right on, Kirsten. And we don’t help by leaving out more food than our pets can eat for the bears & coyotes to munch on and then screaming for the wildlife resource officers to do “whatever it takes” to get rid of them.
    I’ve not seen any bears in my own neighborhood, which is practically in the middle of town, but I know that they’ve been sighted in my town this spring which is highly unusual because we just aren’t that far up into their mountain habitat.
    I value nature and take every opportunity to teach my kids to do the same. I won’t even let the boys in my Cub Scout den kill a spider when we’re in the woods. I tell them that we’re the visitors here and owe the natives our respect, no matter how small they are. If you kill the spiders that eat the insects that spread disease to or eat the plants that feed the smaller animals which in turn feed the larger animals (or sometimes the plants feed the larger animals themselves), then you have made it more likely that the larger predators are going to come looking closer to your yard for a meal.
    Visit nature. Enjoy it. But for the love of heaven, learn about it and respect it.

  4. EmilyS says:

    excellent, thoughtful article. We are losing, if we haven’t already lost, the understanding of animals as predators. It’s gotten to the point where dogs are seized and euthanized as “dangerous” if they attack (or even kill) another dog.. or a cat… or even a rabbit. No surprise then that people freak out when otters kill “their” ducks.. probably the same people who thrill at nature programs showing lions taking down a wildebeest…

    I’m sure you know that your aproach is exactly OPPOSITE of some strains of the animal rights movement.. especially the PETA variety. These folks don’t want ANY killing; they expect predators to become vegetarians somehow.

    I think your definition of animal rights is much more realistic.. and actually totally inline with mainstream environmental thinking.

  5. Kirsten says:

    Thank you, Emily. Your points about dogs are right on, also. We do dogs a huge disservice by not recognizing that they are predators, and that although breeding may have softened the edges of their predatory behaviors they are still very much in place. Ray Coppinger’s book “Dogs” is a really good resource on that topic . . .

  6. Jacknut says:

    Can’t we just thank these animals for killing the occasional stupid person and reminding the other stupid people that nature is impersonal and not some divine “Gaia” force that is only good and wholesome?

    Either that or serve them up in a marsala sauce with some broccoli and garlic scapes on the side.

  7. Kirsten says:

    Oh dear, be nice!

  8. An Average American says:

    Great piece! A big question is, what will be the impact on suburbia and exurbia as the “eat-or-be-eaten” forest impinges on mainstream America? The decline of the family farm is certainly a factor in both the increase in wildlife in suburban settings and the perspective of those subject to the wildlife. How many suburban hunters do _you_ know? I work with a group of people who shoot skeet but didn’t know that Cocker Spaniels were bred specifically to hunt Woodcock. I’m not a hunter, ’cause I couldn’t “Hit the broadside of the barn”, but I’m sick of the PETA types making a big deal out of anyone having the temerity to injure, or “gasp”, kill an animal. I reside in a “posh” southern CT town and in the not too distant past deer have crashed through the plate glass windows of some _very_ exclusive women’s clothiers. Oh my! wrestling deer wasn’t in the job description!

  9. Kirsten says:

    I don’t know if this is still true, but at one point Monroe County, where my current residence of Rochester, New York is located, had the highest density of deer of any county in the state. They overbrowse our parks — forget growing anything they’ll eat in your yard — and many end up being mown down by cars, which doesn’t do the deer or the cars any good. Really, I think we should import some mountain lions . . . I hear there’s one in Colorado they’d like to tranquilize and move :-D

  10. Kate says:

    Hi Kirsten,

    Great post.

    Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who has designed cattle chutes etc for slaughterhouse facilities has a great book about how she/autistic people think. She feels it foreign to how normal people think and speculates that it is similar to how animals think. She feels this is why she can so well design systems to keep animals calm. She is a very high functioning autistic. The way she describes how she thinks certainly is foreign to me, and I can well imagine it being some sort of transitional evolutionary stage between human and animal.

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