Up here in northern Wisconsin, we talk a lot about bears. Everyone has seen a bear or bears wandering through the woods. The black bears here are not dangerous to humans, although incidents are reported every year of accidental but tragic human-bear interactions in someone’s backyard.
The bears aren’t hunting us. What if they did?
Humans have generally been murderous foes of animal life. We have hunted bears, and other impressive animals, for thousands of years all over the globe. The development and spread of guns changed the natural world in the 19th century. The enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, which once took hours to pass overhead, were killed off by 1900. Bison herds which covered the plains were wiped out as the frontier was pushed westward. Animal life was subordinated to political concerns: the government promoted the slaughter of bison by the Army to make room for cattle and to weaken Native American tribes by eliminating a major food source.
Every culture treats some animals with great respect, sometimes bordering on reverence. Pets have special status, because they are considered so useful. But the idea of maintaining the permanent existence of certain wild animals by creating legal protections is a very recent idea. The shock to the popular imagination of the extinction of passenger pigeons and the near elimination of bison and whooping cranes turned the tide of public opinion in the early 20th century. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929, a 1937 treaty restricting the hunting of whales, and the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 created legal protections for a few species. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 went much further – President Richard Nixon declared existing laws inadequate because they ignored the destruction of habitats. We extended protection to animals we barely knew, to animals we feared, to animals to be named in the future.
Today our society harbors deeply conflicting viewpoints about the treatment of animals. At one extreme is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an organization which argues that animals also have the right to life. PETA focuses on situations where animal life is routinely abused for human convenience, such as on factory farms and in laboratories. But PETA also makes the radical claim that we should extend our concern for human life “to other living, feeling beings, regardless of what species they may be.”
At the other end are people like Walter Palmer, who illegally killed a lion in Zimbabwe. His desire to kill animals has frequently violated the law. The international attention being given to his obsession with killing wild animals might cause further shifts in public opinion about animal life.
Daily life is more complex than the simplistic arguments of media and politics. What animals should I kill today? I set traps for the mice which live in our cabin. Should I feel bad about swatting the mosquitos buzzing around my head? Can I save the daddy longlegs in my bed? We all express our hopes that the loon family, which never comes very close but whom we hear across the lake, will have babies that survive.
I found a garden snake the other morning and called out my family to see it. Pretty and fast, small and helpless against any human desire to kill it. I would have felt different about a rattlesnake sharing my yard with children and dogs.
Beauty helps. Who would crush a butterfly? They don’t do us much good. Displays of dead butterflies have fascinated millions of museum visitors. But killing a butterfly appears to most people, I think, as undisciplined brutality.
It seems remarkable to me that only humans hunt for the pleasure of killing. Animals might attack us individually when they feel threatened. As of now, we have nothing to worry about from all the species which we routinely kill, which we hunt, which we render homeless, sick or dead by our profligate use of the earth and waters. We are much more likely to be confronted with nightmares about a revolt of machines, from “I, Robot” to the “Terminator” and “Matrix” series, than we are to think about a revolt of the animals. The scary fantasy in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” depends on a change in the chimpanzees’ nature through human-developed drugs. Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is a rare film about aggressive animals hunting us.
What if any of those physically powerful or very numerous, and potentially deadly species we go around killing decides they’ve had enough? That seems crazy. But thinking about it is useful. Do whales have a right to attack our boats?
I’m not against hunting. I like hamburgers made with domesticated, slaughtered beef and with wild hunted deer. I’m not against hunters, although I believe some hunters are thrilled by a murderous blood-lust that I find abhorrent. I’m not a vegetarian.
But I think the lives of animals have an inherent value. I don’t like killing for the sake of killing. I try to avoid killing animals just because they are tiny or annoying. I believe the right to life should not just be about humans.
The bears out here in the woods are a long way from planning resistance. Lucky for us.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 11, 2015