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Posts Tagged ‘predators’

019

Somewhere along the way, Western man lost his way. He became so alienated from the world around him, and the forces of progress– the Enlightenment, reason, and the democratic tradition– became lost in a sea of irrelevant causes.

The modern animal rights movement is the epitome of this great floundering. I would argue that its rise in recent years has more to do with the impotence of the forces of the left. Very few tenured academics stand with unions or racial justice groups, lest they be called “political” or “Marxist.” However, an academic who attacks those who hunt deer or eat pork-chops isn’t really attacking anyone in power, so it’s tolerated.

I am someone who loves animals very much. I am deeply fascinated with them, and I have been ever since I could walk. My grandmother, an avid amateur photographer, took many photos of me at a young age, and one of my favorites that she took of me is the one where I am observing a young chipping sparrow that fell out of its nest. I’m crouched down behind it, utterly transfixed.

I am appalled by the notion of gratuitous animal suffering.

However, I also am of the mind that it must be shown to me that the suffering is both unnecessary and gratuitous. Sometimes, animals suffer, but the alternative is even worse. For example, in long-tailed wool breeds of sheep, it is customary to have the tails docked to prevent maggot infections in the wool around the tail. These maggot infections are far more painful than the sheep would experience if it experienced a simple docking procedure when it was a young lamb.

Likewise, people can go on and on about how cruel foxhunting is, but they don’t seem to realize that when red foxes become overpopulated, mange starts spreading through the populations very rapidly. If the foxes were thinned out, either by the gun or with the use of hounds, then there wouldn’t be so many of them dying of mange, which is a far more horrific death than one would experience with a well-placed shot or being rapidly ripped apart by hounds.

Sheep don’t have long-tails or constantly growing wool as wild animals. The need for docking is entirely the result of artificial selection. The red fox never would exist at such high numbers, either, had we not artificially cleared the continents of North America and Europe of wolves. which readily kill foxes in exactly the same manner that foxhounds do.

Much has been made about the killing of Cecil the lion in recent weeks. Much of this outrage is pretty much what we call a “First World Problem.”  Most North Americans and Europeans live in cities and don’t have to deal with large mammalian predators on a regular basis. Their ideas of nature and the truth natural world come from television, movies, and saccharine books. More outrage has been dispensed at the death of a lion than at the refugee crisis that stems from the Syrian Civil War.

I don’t think more condemns the status of Western civilization this scandal, which seems to convulse in moral indignation at the death of a lion while so many Western nations have turned a blind eye to the suffering of humanity all around us.

But now the tumor of animal rights at all costs has started to metastasize.

Not all animal rights activists are outraged at the death of Cecil or of any lion, and good example of this lunacy can be found in this piece by Amanda and William MacAskill on Quartz’s website. In it, the author’s contend that to end animal suffering, we should kill all predatory animals and leave the world to vegetarian animals.

Both authors are vegetarians, and if we create a world in which there are only “vegan” animals, then we will do a lot to end animal suffering.

The authors write:

As long-term vegetarians who abstain from meat for ethical reasons, we are both supporters of animal activists who seek to improve the lives of animals. So you might expect us to agree with activists like Ingrid Newkirk that the killing of Cecil is a terrible thing. But we don’t. In fact, we think it may be the case that animal rights activists should support the killing of predatory animals like Cecil.

Animal activists have different opinions about how we ought to respond to animal suffering. For example, some activists believe that we should aim to increase the welfare of animals within the meat and dairy industries by improving the conditions in which they live and eventually die (welfarism), while others believe that we should aim to abolish these industries altogether (abolitionism). But most animal activists agree that we should try to protect animals from unnecessary suffering and death, and that it is wrong for humans to cause such unnecessary suffering.

The animal welfare conversation has generally centered on human-caused animal suffering and human-caused animal deaths. But we’re not the only ones who hunt and kill. It is true (and terrible) that an estimated 20 billion chickens were born into captivity in 2013 alone, many of whom live in terrible conditions in factory farms. But there are estimated 60 billion land birds and over 100 billion land mammals living in the wild. Who is working to alleviate their suffering? As the philosopher Jeff McMahan writes: “Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous.”

If we believe that we should protect animals from unnecessary suffering and death than it seems that we should be focusing much more on reducing the non-human causes of animal suffering and death that occur almost continuously in the wild. Which brings us back to Cecil. Just as we may be able to alleviate the suffering caused to wild animals by disease or natural disasters, we might also be able to do something about predation and the often-brutal competition that permeates the natural food chain.

The authors act as if we’ve not tried this in some form, but we certainly have.

Where I live, there are very few predators of deer, and their numbers can only be checked through human hunting. Because I live where the deer are somewhat smaller than in the neighboring states, there are relatively few hunters who actually do take them. And that means that there are massive starvation die-offs in the deer population that occurs every couple of years.

White-tailed deer evolved with predators. Predators made the white-tailed deer what it is today. Its fleeting bounds and long, sinewy legs were crafted through relentless pressure that came from predators like dire wolves, American lions, cougars, modern wolves, and even bobcats.

What makes a white-tailed deer a deer is that which it has inherited through the millions of years it has experienced predation. Their noses have been developed to scent out stalking cougars. Their ears have been adapted to hear the odd snap of a twig that gives them notice of the cougar’s approach.

A big part of evolution is driven by predators vs. prey. It’s often compared to an arms race. A predator gets faster, and the prey evolves an zigzag escape pattern.

Prey animals also evolve rapid reproductive strategies to replace numbers that die as result of predation, and this is something our idealistic authors haven’t considered.

If animals like deer are left unchecked, they will expand and expand in number until they eat all their food sources.

And then they starve to death.

This was actually what happened at a Dutch nature preserve called the Oostvaardersplassen in Flevoland. Here, red deer, Heck cattle, and konik horses were turned out into a reserve that included some woodland, grassland, and open marshes.

And there was to be no hunting on the land.  Heck cattle and konik horses represent the primitive wild aurochs and the tarpan that used to roam the Northern Europe, and the red deer were also widespread in the forests.

This preserve was meant to be restoration of wild Europe before the dawn of agriculture.

Of course, there were no predators on the preserve, and there was no hunting.

So the ungulate population greatly increased, and soon, it hit what is known as carrying capacity. Very simply, the ecosystem couldn’t produce enough food to maintain that many animals, and during one really bad winter, the deer starved to death.

It is all documented in this Dutch television story (with English subtitles):

Source.

If the MacAskills’ plans were ever implemented on a large scale, we would see this happen over and over. We would see deer and other vegetarian animals starve to death in vast numbers. Death by a predator or a human hunter is far humane than a long, drawn-out starvation.

The MacAskills also don’t seem to understand another aspect of herbivores: Herbivores are predators.

To a white pine sapling, there is not a single more terrifying predator than a hungry white-tail in January.  So much do deer browse that they are known as the “architects” of the Eastern forest.

Plants evolve defenses against predators. Black locusts have thorns to guard their leaves against the deer’s lips, and black birches produce wintergreen oil in their bark, which deer find unpalatable.  Other plants produce toxins to keep the herbivores at bay, and with so much predation from herbivores, we could be setting plants into overdrive, with stronger selection pressures for toxins and thorns. This could make plants much harder for herbivores to consume, and it could hasten more suffering from starvation.

The MacAskills have dreamed up a wonderful paradigm that makes sense in the urban pseudo-intellectual world, but if it were to be implemented in a real world ecology, it would be a major disaster for animals.

When a predator kills an animal, it is not pretty. There is usually a lot of blood. Many predators start eating before the prey is even dead.

But this suffering is only a tiny part of the prey animal’s life. It involves so much less suffering than the animal might have experienced had it lived long enough to catch an easily communicable disease as the result of overpopulation or from starving once carrying capacity has been exceeded.

Why it is okay for people to philosophize in ignorance of basic biology is beyond me, but this is a case of anti-science from the left that is on almost certain parity with creationism.

Life did not develop to be sweet and beautiful. Life is the pulsating horde that seeks only to spread its genes, and the niceties that we know as social animals are but one manifestation of that quest to spread genetic material.

That we in our arrogance would seek to take out of evolution one of its most important selection forces is a sign that we have lost it.

And Aldo Leopold is spinning in his grave.

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In winter of 1450, Paris was invaded.

Not by an invading army.

But by a pack of man-eating wolves.

Intense feudal agriculture and poor game management practices in the forests had created an ecological catastrophe. Fewer deer and wild boar were around to feed the rapacious appetites of France’s wolves.

To make matters worse, France had suffered over a century of brutal warfare over ownership of the French crown. (This was the so-called Hundred Years’  War that was really series of wars over a 116-year period).

As a result of all of that warfare, the French people were under an extreme burden to survive. The farms and forests were pushed to their limits to feed the population.

And that meant an increased burden upon the wolves.

For some reason, the government in Paris has refused to repair its walls, which had been erected several centuries before. It would have made sense that they would have constantly kept them up, considering how long armies had been fighting over the control of the French crown.

The walls also kept the fell beasts of the forest out of town, but now, a pack wolves had slipped into the city.

Wolves that had been starving in the forests often turned to raiding livestock for survival, but in France– as in most of Europe at this time– most of the peasants were unarmed. It didn’t take some wolves long before they learned that humans were a perfectly acceptable prey species. Women and children were prime targets because they were smaller and less likely to injure the wolves when they attacked.

And that is why this wolf pack entered Paris in the winter of 1450.

Before their reign of terror was over, about 40 Parisians would fall to the wolf pack.

And in a major urban center, such events would cause mass hysteria.

Plenty of stories about the wolves spread throughout the city.

The leader of the pack supposedly was a reddish animal with a bobbed tail. He was nicknamed “Courtaud”– “Bobtail.”

Lots of things can be said about Courtaud. Perhaps he was a wolf hybrid. Some French dogs do have naturally short-tails, which has survived most strongly in the Brittany and the Braque du Bourbonnais.  The red color could also point to a dog ancestry.

However, it is more likely that Courtaud  was an Iberian wolf, which are often quite red in color. We all know that wolves disperse over great distances when they leave their natal packs.  Wolves in North America occasionally travel over 500 miles from their parents’ territory to find suitable territory. An Iberian wolf born in the Pyrenees could have easily made it to Paris in search of a new territory.

In a time when wolves were widely hunted with dogs and all sorts of traps were set for them, it could be very easy for a wolf to lose its tail.  Cortaud also could have lost his appendage in fights with other wolves, which are known to occasionally grab the tails of their opponents as they try to flee.

With around forty people dead, the government had to act.

A group of the boldest Parisians got together and went on an urban wolf drive.

They pushed the wolves into the Île de la Cité.

And then  drove them into the front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

In front of the citizenry, the wolves were speared and stoned to death.

And the wolves’ bloody reign of terror ended.

***

Discussing the existence of wolf attacks is very hard to do rationally.

In North America, the vast majority of the public views the wolf in a very positive light. It is almost a totemic animal that has come to represent the wildness that is our continent as well as our enlightened efforts in conserving our natural heritage.

This view is direct contrast to what the wolf once symbolized in every Western country– and virtually all of those in Central and Eastern Asia. (Mongolia being an exception, of course). To Europeans, the wolf represented the most dangerous of animals. The animal that could easily kill all the sheep in a flock then rip out the shepherd’s flock.

Within the popular culture, there were many stories of wolves attacking people.

There are documented accounts in the Old World. Some of them are outright fictitious or extreme exaggerations.

One should not forget that propaganda about wolf attacks would have been very useful in maintaining the feudal system. Serfs were not property and did possess within them a certain amount of free agency within feudal law.

At some point, they could decide to go off as free yeoman in the forest, even if they were still legally bound to the manor.

The possibility of being attacked by wolves is a very powerful weapon to use to keep people from wandering off the manor. In the early days of feudalism, it could be used to encourage peasants to accept the “protection” of a lord.

And some of these attacks are very clearly the case of rabid wolves. Rabid wolves would be those that attack whole droves of people, doing nothing more than biting them. In a time without rabies vaccines or any way of preventing the disease, the mere sight of a wolf had to have been a terrifying experience.

But these Parisian killer wolves were hardly rabid.

They were engaging in pack hunting behavior.

Just this time, they were hunting people, not their normal prey of boar and deer.

Wolves in North America rarely hunt people, and when I say rarely, I mean almost never. They are much more a threat to domestic dogs than they are to people. Dogs are viewed as trespassers, and wolves regularly kill interlopers. And often eat them.

But North America has much better managed ecosystems than Europe does, and this was certainly the case in the Medieval Period.

And France in the  mid-1400’s was a very bad place to be.

The vast majority of the population lived just a step above starvation, and poaching in the forest was commonplace, even during a time of peace.

During a time of war, things were that much worse.

Courtaud and his band of man-eaters were living in a forest that was in ecological catastrophe.

An ecological catastrophe in the midst of a human world that is full of social and economic catastrophes.

Those who were most vulnerable in that society were those most likely to fall prey to the wolves.

With no weapons to defend themselves, it really isn’t much of secret why wolves would hunt people.

People would be easier to kill than any livestock. We don’t have horns or sharp tusks, and we can’t even run all that well.

How common these attacks were in the history of Europe is still questionable.

However it is through that lens that the first settlers to North America viewed the wolf. And it is through that lens that virtually all people living in Eurasia viewed them.

It is only when these countries became relatively affluent and political freedoms were extended to the vast majority of the populace that the wolf’s position in society changed.

It became that totemic symbol of conservation.

Its totemic status is so strong now that to even mention the possibility of wolf attacks will result in severe pillorying.

It is almost heresy to mention that such a thing could happen.

But they have happened and do happen.

That does not mean that we should allow those attacks to allow another wave of wolf persecution to happen.

Instead, we have to be honest with people

We have to say that wolf attacks can happen. They aren’t very common.

In North America, they are far, far less common than bear or shark attacks. And certainly less common than domestic dog attacks.

But to deny the possibility is just intellectually dishonest.

To make such bold statements such as the oft-repeated “Wolves have never attack people” is really risky business.

Wolves are complex animals that learn much of their behavior. To make broad statements about an animal like a wolf is really not wise.

That bromide can be repeated until it becomes a meme.

But what happens when a wolf or a pack of wolves kills someone? (As happened in Alaska last winter).

Where is your credibility?

It is simply better to say that wolves rarely attack people.

And of all the things one should worry about, being attacked by a pack of wolves isn’t really a major priority.

And because North America has lots of things that prevent wolf attacks from happening– we have lots of prey species and our people are generally well-armed– we shouldn’t really worry too much about wolves.

However, wolves in other parts of the world might be more willing to consider people prey, and we have to recognize that reality.

Economic, political, and ecological factors can push wolves into hunting people, and it is best to understand how those exist within that dynamic, rather than denying the existence of wolf attacks.

***

The best book I have read that discusses this dynamic is David Quammen’s  Monster of God. It discusses all of many different political, economic, and ecological factors that lead to potential conflicts between people and predators.

Wolves are not an example in the book, but the section that most resembles the story of the wolves of Paris is the case of the Maldhari people and the lions of the Gir Forest in India. The Maldhari people are very poor herdsmen, and those herdsmen who are the most impoverished are those who are most likely to experience losses from lions. They are the most likely to be forced to graze their stock in lion country, because those who are more established can graze in lion free areas.

Like the peasants of Medieval France, these people are the edges of society.

They are the ones who are most likely to suffer from nature in the raw.

To solve these problems, we must fine away of changing the status of these people and providing them some security within the system.

It is only then that people will be able to live with the large predators, regardless of what they are.

 

 

 

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