Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wild animal issues

Some programs recently aired about wild animals ... one on 60 Minutes about wild African species being raised for hunting in Texas, one about commercial fishing pressure (I forget the station), and one on NPR about keeping wild animals as pets.  Zoos with captive wild animals have always struck me as rather sad.  The animals seem either despondent or deeply traumatized by their captive condition.  Modern zoos are better at this than they used to be, but wild animals in zoos have been taken from the environments where they belong and put into very different circumstances.  Imagine if we were captured and put on display in some alien zoo!  It's likely inappropriate to project our human feelings on animals, but watching caged animals has a very unpleasant effect on me.

The exotic African species being raised in Texas for the financial gain of the landowners via hunting permits is a troubling clash of ideals.  I'm not a fan of hunting - the idea of killing animals for sport is simply absurd to me - but if it's true that these species are becoming extinct in their native habitats, this sort of "use" may be the only way to keep the species from vanishing entirely.  Of course, the herds in Texas are very limited gene pools and so don't necessarily represent the best chance they would have for survival, which inevitably would be to allow them to roam free in the environment in which they evolved.  What's truly sad isn't the debate about African antelopes in Texas;  it's the process(es) by which these creatures are being swept from their native lands.  Loss of habitat associated with the growth of human populations and their increasing impact on the land, exploitation of the land (including the native wild animals) for human gain, killing of animals for their "medicinal" value (often in folk remedies for impotence) ... all of these are manifestations of the assumption that humans are entitled to do whatever they want to other species.  This is a kind of "species-ism" comparable to other prejudices we humans exhibit.  

Yes, I realize that humans must kill something living in order to eat, even if someone eats no animals at all.  A friend recently shared an image of wild goose carcasses pulled from a dumpster - slaughtered only for their breast meat.  That's not the behavior of someone killing to survive - it's murder for greed.  How many times is this sort of thoughtless act repeated around the world every day?  We have domestic animals we raise for the sole purpose of providing us with meat.  Is it really necessary to kill wild animals?  I know that a few people in the USA have to supplement their diet with wild game, hunted legally during the appropriate season.  I have no real problem with that.  But when our population is allowed to grow (arguably as a result of agriculture, which can have the effect of destroying habitat, as well), and urban sprawl gobbles up more and more land, hunting pressure can become threatening to wild species.  It makes no sense to me to hunt only for sport and not for survival.  If it's a beautiful animal, does it make sense for us to kill it to satisfy primitive urges that have their origins in a time when we were hunter-gatherers?

Hunting has been justified also as a way to keep populations in check.  Nevertheless, I think the animals would be better off if we returned their natural predators to the environment.  We humans kill the trophy animals, not the sick and old and crippled and unfit.  What does that do to the overall health of the prey species?  I would think it provides negative selection pressure on the strongest, healthiest members of the population.  But of course I'm not a wildlife ecologist, so I have to be cautious in any conclusion here.

It now is becoming apparent that commercial fishing is threatening many different wild fish species around the world.  New technologies not only sweep the sea clear of target species but have the side effect of sweeping up and destroying any associated non-targeted species, as well.  The commercial fishing industry seems bound and determined to put itself out of business by killing off their own livelihood in the name of big profits.  I doubt it's sustainable.

Keeping wild animals as pets is generally pretty foolish.  It has several problems:  wild animals may attack humans even if they were hand-raised by humans, wild animals have requirements for their health and well-being that can be difficult and expensive for humans to meet, the pressure to supply pet owners with wild animal captives puts a great deal of stress on native populations, and exotic imported pet species captives can escape (or even be let go!) into the wild, where they can make it hard for the native species to survive because they have no natural predators to keep them under control.  There have been attempts to make keeping wild animals as pets illegal but if there's money to be made catering to those who want to have a wild animal for a pet, the trade will continue even if it's made illegal.

I can't offer much in the way of solutions, but I feel very uncomfortable about how we behave with respect to wild animals.  Wild animals have a role to play in their native ecologies that can create big problems for us when that role is not fulfilled because the animals aren't there.  Like it or not, all species are in this together!

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