Avatar, avarice, and animals: Other species depend on our goodwill and we must treat them better or leave them alone
Animals depend on our goodwill and we must do better
Posted Mar 09, 2010
The highly successful movie Avatar (see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_(2009_film) points out just how invasive and inconsiderate we can be with little concern for others who suffer as we incessantly redecorate nature, be they nonhuman animals, less fortunate humans, or humans we assume to be lesser than us.
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. They have no less right than we do to live their lives without our intrusions, they deserve dignity and respect, and we need to accept them for who they are. Yet through a combination of habitat loss and climate change, we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction of species. Researchers agree that we are the major cause of this incredible loss of biodiversity and have coined the term "anthropocene" to highlight human's significant impact on the Earths's ecosystems and climate.
Consider what we do to elephants. 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 allomothers 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.”
Simply put, there are far too many of us -- marauding human animals -- dominant human beings who over consume and think we can do anything we want because we’re superior. Many people don’t like to talk about our own tendency to over-produce but at the core that’s the major problem. Among my worst fears is that I’ll wake up one day and wonder where have all the animals gone. Even if we do make immediate changes numerous animals will perish, but we can make a positive difference right now with little effort.
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 Estes Park, Colorado, where I studied coyotes in the mid-1970s. Ted wrote, “My wife and I have been coming here every summer for the past 20 years, and we had a singular experience this morning. I had just finished reading your book last night, and I thought you might enjoy this brief observation. We were driving from Moraine Park up to the park and ride lot 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 first-hand that the worlds of other animals are laden with magic and wonder. I’ve been extremely fortunate having had numerous personal experiences around the world both with animals and with people working on their behalf. I’ve seen lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas in Kenya, helped to rescue dogs and rehabilitate moon bears who were tortured for their bile in China, observed dolphins off the coast of Adelaide, Australia, been confronted by an angry baboon in the Masai Mara, collected yellow (urine-soaked) snow in Boulder, Colorado 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 different animals over the past 40 years ranging from domestic dogs, coyotes, wolves, and foxes, to archer fish who catch prey by spitting water at them to various birds including Adélie penguins living near the Ross Ice Shelf and Steller’s jays and western evening grosbeaks living around my home.
Just as we exclaim “Wow” when we marvel over the mysterious lives of other animals, I would not be surprised if they 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 and dead and dull when they are abused and treated with indignity.
Many people in wealthy countries, a small fraction of the world's population, 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. When we make conservation and environmental decisions and redecorate nature the lives of individual animals must be factored in. While most people agree that animals must be part of the equation for coexistence, when push comes to shove and profits are compromised or people's lives are threatened by animals, the seem to drop out of the equation.
Often the very characteristics of animals that draw us to them or to the land where they live are the reasons we decide we don’t like them anymore once they’ve become pests or dangerous. Often people like to brag that they live in the woods among wild animals but they’re only happy as long as they animals behave as they want them to, not as the beings they are. Coexistence has to be the name of the game.
Unfortunately, most of the time we make crucial mistakes when trying to control wild animals we deem as problematic. In January 2009 an aggressive coyote in a town near Boulder supposedly attacked a woman. She’d been playing Frisbee with her dog and from what I can glean the coyote was just as likely trying to join the game. When I played fetch with my late companion dog Jethro, on occasion the local red foxes would try to play with us and I stopped because I didn’t want them to feel that comfortable around us. I too don’t want aggressive animals around my house, but as an expert in animal behavior, I know that finding the culprits is never as simple as it seems. 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 and a group of us protested because first, they didn’t know exactly who the coyotes were and second, it was far from clear that they had been aggressive. As it turns out they killed a coyote who didn’t nip the woman! A few weeks later the CDOW went out and killed five more coyotes, none of whom had done anything to warrant this death sentence. Because the coyote involved in the incident couldn’t be identified, all were killed as a precautionary measure, wildlife officials said.
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 because she supposedly posed a danger to humans in the neighborhood. Yet, there had been no encounters between humans and this female who was simply coming back to look for her child who’d been electrocuted after she touched an electrical write. And, to add insult to injury, indeed death, it wasn’t known whether the mother was the same bear who’d been there before and she was in the neighborhood because people living there he had fed her. So, what really happened was that she was invited to a party and then killed for accepting the invitation. What a double-cross. And she was killed because Colorado has a “two strikes and your dead” policy for wild animals who venture into human environs. While this policy surely is questionable, a “no strike and you’re dead” policy is utterly inhumane and regrettable. But, what would you expect from an organization that makes a good deal of its money from selling hunting and fishing licenses? Human safety surely is important but so too is human responsibility. Why not punish the people who invited the bear in by feeding her? Why couldn’t she be 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” but nonetheless she had to be “tranquilized and put down.” “Tranquilized and put down” is used to sugarcoat what actually happened — the bear was ruthlessly killed for being a bear. 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 incident in Boulder, in Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) killed a male bear who had gotten his entire head stuck in a plastic jar because he was considered to be a danger to people. I’m not kidding. Yet, this poor male couldn’t eat or drink and was also emaciated and dehydrated. To quote Rob Naplin, a local wildlife supervisor, “When it got into town, our main concern was public safety.” So he was killed. People were outraged and wrote to the killers in Minnesota. How could you do this? Why not tranquilize the bear, remove the jar, treat him, and relocate him? What’s especially disturbing about this case is that people were able to get close enough to take pictures of this bear with his head stuck in the jar and that those who killed him were able to kill him but not to take the time to tranquilize him, treat him, and relocate him. 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.” Hmm. They also said that a suitable veterinarian couldn’t be found, one who had experience tranquilizing a large mammal. Another hmm. After the bear was killed I received an email from a local veterinarian who could have done the job.
There are a number of common factors here. First, the bears were killed because they were supposed to be dangerous but neither had done anything to warrant this claim/lie. Both agencies in Colorado and Minnesota also said that the bears were euthanized but this really isn’t so, for euthanasia literally means a “good death” or painless mercy killing. Neither bear had to be killed and trying to sugarcoat the language really doesn’t make it any more palatable. Simply put, the bears were killed because it was the easy thing to do. With no evidence at all that they were a danger they were killed.
These unnecessary killings set bad examples for all people including children and students of wildlife biology and what a regrettable model for coexistence. After all, we moved into their habitat and we decided that we had the right to kill them because they’d become a nuisance. Let’s remember that this land is their land too. Each of us is free to move if we find the presence of animals to be disconcerting or we can simply make changes in our own habits so we can all live together.
The stories of these unfortunate bears raise numerous issues about the ways in which humans choose to interact with other animals: Who do we think we are, who do we think they are, and is it okay to trump their interests in living a good life with our interests in a living a good life? I say choose because we do indeed make choices about how we treat other animals and we are responsible for the decisions we make. We need to control our greed and be more accepting of other beings with whom we share our one and only planet. We need to walk our talk. Thus, I was thrilled to see that the winners of an Oscar for The Cove took action against a restaurant that was violating federal laws against selling marine mammals.
I hope that Avatar gets people not only to think about who we are and what we do but also to do something about our invasive ways before it's too late. We need to rewiild our hearts and build corridors of compassion that include all beings. We need to treat animals better or leave them alone.