What is the obligation of mankind to wild animals?

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Photo: Annie Spratt / Unsplash


  • Should there be limits to how far we go to protect biodiversity, especially when we place so much importance on “naturalness” that we become willing to harm animals to protect it?
  • Over time, invasive species adapt to their environment and even evolve into new species, defining a new definition of naturalness. Where to draw the line?
  • Perhaps the best way to save polar bears from the deleterious effects of climate change is to let them hybridize with grizzly bears that have been forced to migrate to the poles.

A friend once challenged me to explain why it is important for the species to go extinct. Pissed off, I embarked on a rambling monologue about the intrinsic value of life and the importance of biodiversity in creating functioning ecosystems that ultimately support human economies. I don’t remember what my friend said; he certainly did not immediately declare himself a born again environmentalist. But I remember being frustrated that, in my inability to articulate a specific reason, I had sort of let down not only myself, but the entire planet.

The conversation would have turned out very differently if I had already read the article by environmental journalist Emma Marris Wild Souls: freedom and fulfillment in the non-human world, an in-depth exploration of the value of wild animals and the species to which they belong, and of the responsibility we have towards them. “I wanted to know if the massive human impact on Earth changes our obligation to animals,” writes Marris. “Our emotions about animals have always been strong, but are our intuitions about how and when to interact with them still correct? “

As Marris goes into detail throughout the book, while there are good reasons to value animals as individuals, there is actually no unassailable reason to protect species. However, this awareness does not mean that we should not do it, but only that we should do it in a more thoughtful way, with an eye towards individuals as well. Ultimately, Marris argues it’s time to renegotiate our approach to wildlife and conservation to better match the realities of our human-dominated world.

At the heart of Wild souls is the tension that often exists between acting in the best interest of an individual wild animal and acting in the best interest of its species or environment as a whole. These things don’t always line up, practically or morally. “This tension is based on trying to compare two very different things,” writes Marris. “In some ways, this is the most difficult problem of all. “

Arguing the value of individual creatures, Marris points to a growing body of scientific evidence showing that many non-human animals are “intelligent, emotional, and even kind,” with rich inner lives. These animals are sentient beings, she writes – themselves. In view of this, ethical arguments can be made for the right of individual animals to flourish and lead independent lives. This applies whether life is that of a tiger or a mouse. “We are used to everyday things being cheap and rare things of value,” writes Marris. “But selfhood is both common and invaluable.”

On the other hand, the same ethical arguments cannot be advanced for the obligation to ensure the prosperity of species, especially if it comes at a cost to individuals. While “many of us have a deep intuition that causing the extinction of a species is a mistake,” writes Marris, “the species is an abstract concept” which simply encompasses a basket of animals that share a certain set of traits at a given time. time. “The basket itself is not sensitive, cannot suffer or feel pleasure, and is not alive,” she writes.

Evolution – the process that has woven the species basket – is also not inherently “good”, Marris continues, but “is just time and sex and death and mutation and chance.” While arguments can be made as to why a particular species is important to humans, she concludes, it is more difficult to find a rational justification for why a species or ecosystem has intrinsic or objective final value beyond individual animals that he understands.

Rationality aside, however, Marris admits that she is deeply drawn to biodiversity – that “there is something precious about what we call ‘nature’, in the flow of energy, in the will. to survive, in the way a lupine leaf holds a sphere of rain. She admits that overwhelming and logical justifications for protecting species may not be necessary. Human passion alone may be reason enough to value the welfare of a rare species, even if it takes precedence over the individual lives of members of that species or others.

On their own, these tensions can seem abstract. Marris sidesteps this problem by anchoring the reader in real-world case studies on a number of topics, including keeping animals in zoos for educational purposes; supplemental feed to support endangered wildlife; captive breeding to support threatened populations or to secure genetic life rafts; and the practice of hunting as an ecological tool. As Marris explains, “I have tried to look at these activities through the eyes of individual animals as well as the protection of species. “

Captive breeding, for example, typically benefits the species at the expense of individuals, who must endure the stress of capture and captivity – and sometimes inadvertently end up losing their lives along with their freedom. “This is an exercise in total domination, undertaken as part of a larger cultural project to stop extinctions, which is arguably an attempt to reverse or reduce human domination on Earth,” writes Marris. If captive breeding sometimes works, “does saving the species justify restricting the autonomy of the individual? she asks.

In the case of the California condor, the answer seems to be yes. In 1987, scientists captured the last of the world’s remaining wild condors for a captive breeding program that included only 27 birds at the time. Although they were forced to give up their freedom, the birds probably would not have survived much longer in the wild, given the high death rates caused by the prevalence of lead shot in animal carcasses. they fed on. Additionally, the species, which now numbers over 300 people in the wild, would almost certainly not have survived without intervention. Thus in this case, the success of the program, coupled with the value of the condors for humans, seems to justify “any suffering and loss of autonomy experienced by the captured birds, especially since the levels of suffering seem quite low in the area. this case, ”Marris writes.

Marris suggests, however, that there should be limits to how far we go to protect biodiversity. This becomes especially true, she writes, in cases where “we place such a high value on ‘the natural’ that we become willing to hurt and kill animals to protect it.” Humans kill hundreds of thousands of invasive species each year, Marris believes, and the ethics of lethal control can be assessed in several ways. In some cases, this method may be justified: for example, to protect an endangered species that humans are passionate about and that lives (or grows) on an island small enough for the eradication of invasive species to be humane. In other cases, however, killing invasive species purely on the basis of being invasive means depriving rats, feral cats, rabbits, possums, pythons, and other creatures – none of which have mischievously chosen. to be born in a place where they have not evolved to occupy – years of life, without obvious justification.

Eradicating invasive species also raises the question of where to draw the line on how we define natural. Over time, invasive species adapt to their environment and even evolve into new species, defining a new definition of naturalness. Climate change is also shifting many species to the poles, causing “the idea that everything ‘should’ stay in its original range” to “become more and more untenable,” writes Marris. As grizzly bears move north, for example, they begin to hybridize with polar bears, challenging “our cultural notions of discrete species and stable ecosystems.” Should hybrid bears be slaughtered, asks Marris, or “left alone to mate as they please, to respect their sovereignty?”

Perhaps the best way to save the polar bear from the deleterious effects of climate change, she adds, is simply to “let it access the gene pool of its more flexible Earth cousin.”

Marris readily admits that she doesn’t have all the answers, and in many cases, an answer that will simultaneously serve individual animals as well as species and ecosystems is unlikely to exist. What it does provide, however, is a useful set of guidelines that readers and society at large can adopt to more rigorously assess our attitudes towards wildlife, species, and the natural world.

As Marris argued in his 2013 book, Exuberant garden, and continues to rely on Wild souls, outdated notions of naturalness, savagery, purity, and ecological and genetic integrity – as often defined by a lack of anthropogenic influence linked to a pre-colonial and frozen period – are not valuable or useful lenses for examining environmental issues and decision-making. A more useful and realistic set of considerations, she writes, would include the flourishing of sentient creatures, human compassion and humility, the flow of matter and energy between living things and biological diversity.

“Overall, I think these values ​​suggest that in a humanized world we owe respect and compassion to non-human animals, lots of space, a climate that doesn’t change too quickly, and in some cases intervention for help them face environmental challenges. caused by mankind, ”writes Marris. And although our “reverence for the web and the flow of life” can sometimes lead us to injure or kill animals to protect a species or ecosystem, “we must not take life lightly.”

This article was first published by Darkness and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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