Book Review: Reimagining Humanity’s Obligation to Wild Animals

Yves here. We’ve already done in so many species…and all we do is keep encroaching even more on animal habitats.

By Rachel Nuwer. Originally published at Undark

I was once challenged by a friend to explain why it matters if species go extinct. Flustered, I launched into a rambling monologue about the intrinsic value of life and the importance of biodiversity for creating functioning ecosystems that ultimately prop up human economies. I don’t remember what my friend said; he certainly didn’t declare himself a born-again conservationist on the spot. But I do remember feeling frustrated that, in my inability to articulate a specific reason, I had somehow let down not only myself, but the entire planet.

The conversation would have gone very differently had I already read environmental journalist Emma Marris’s “Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World,” a razor-sharp exploration of the worth of wild animals and the species they belong to, and the responsibility we have toward them. “I wanted to know whether the massive human impact on Earth changes our obligation to animals,” Marris writes. “Our emotions about animals have always been strong, but are our intuitions about how — and whether — to interact with them still correct?”

As Marris details throughout the book, while there are good reasons to value animals as individuals, there is in fact no unassailable single reason to protect species. However, that realization does not mean we shouldn’t do so, only that we should go about it in a more thoughtful way, with an eye also toward individuals. Ultimately, Marris argues that it’s time to renegotiate our approach to wild animals 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 their overall species or environment. These things do not always line up, practically or morally. “That tension hinges on trying to compare two very different things,” Marris writes. “In some ways, this is the toughest problem of all.”

Arguing for the worth of individual creatures, Marris points to a mounting body of scientific evidence showing that many nonhuman animals are “smart, emotional, and even kind,” with rich inner lives. These animals are sentient beings, she writes — selves. Given this, ethical arguments can be made for individual animals’ rights to flourish and to live autonomous lives. This applies whether the life is that of a tiger or a mouse. “We are used to common things being cheap and rare things being valuable,” Marris writes. “But selfhood is both common and priceless.”

On the other hand, the same ethical arguments cannot be made for the obligation to ensure species thrive, especially if this comes at a cost to individuals. While “many of us have a deeply felt intuition that causing a species to go extinct is wrong,” Marris writes, “‘species’ is an abstract concept” that simply encompasses a basket of animals that share a certain set of traits at a given time. “The basket itself is not sentient, cannot suffer or feel pleasure, and is not alive,” she writes.

Evolution — the process that wove the species basket — is likewise not inherently “good,” Marris continues, but rather “is just time and sex and death and mutation and chance.” While arguments can be made for why a particular species is important to humans, she concludes, it’s more difficult to find a rational justification for why a species or ecosystem has any intrinsic or objective final value beyond the individual animals it comprises.

Rationality aside, though, Marris, admits that she is deeply drawn to biodiversity — that “there’s something precious in what we call ‘nature,’ in the flow of energy, in the will to survive, in the way a lupine leaf holds a perfect sphere of rain.” She allows that overwhelming, logic-based justifications for protecting species are perhaps not necessary. Human passion alone can be reason enough to value the well-being of a rare species, even if it takes precedence over individual lives of members of that species or others.

On their own, these tensions can sound abstract. Marris gets around this by grounding the reader in real-world case studies on a number of topics, including keeping animals in zoos for educational purposes; supplemental feeding to sustain imperiled wild animals; captive breeding to bolster threatened populations or to secure genetic life rafts; and the practice of hunting as an ecological tool. As Marris explains, “I tried to look at these activities through the eyes of the individual animals as well as the framework of protecting species.”

Captive breeding, for example, usually benefits the species to the detriment of individuals, which must undergo the stress of capture and captivity — and sometimes wind up inadvertently losing their lives along with their freedom. “It’s an exercise in total domination, undertaken as part of a larger cultural project of stopping extinctions, which is arguably an attempt to reverse or reduce human domination over Earth,” Marris writes. While captive breeding does sometimes work, “does saving the kind 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 consisted of just 27 birds at the time. Although they were forced to forfeit their freedom, the birds likely would not have survived in the wild for much longer on their own, given the high mortality rates caused by the prevalence of lead shot in animal carcasses they were feeding on. Additionally, the species, which now numbers more than 300 in the wild, almost definitely would not have survived without intervention. So in this case, the program’s success, paired with the value of condors to humans, does seem to justify “any suffering and loss of autonomy experienced by the captured birds, especially since the levels of suffering seem quite low in this case,” Marris writes.

Marris suggests, though, that there should be limits to how far we go to protect biodiversity. This becomes particularly true, she writes, in instances when “we value ‘naturalness’ so highly that we become willing to hurt and kill animals to protect it.” Humans kill hundreds of thousands of invasive species each year, Marris estimates, and the ethics of lethal control can be weighed in a number of ways. In some cases, this method can be warranted: for example, in protecting an endangered species that humans are passionate about and that lives (or grows) on an island that is small enough for eradication of the invasive species to be done humanely. In other cases, though, killing invasive species solely on the basis of being invasive means depriving rats, feral cats, rabbits, possums, pythons, and other creatures — none of which maliciously chose to be born in a spot they did not evolve to occupy — years of life, without obvious justification.

Invasive species eradication also raises questions 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, setting a new definition of natural. Climate change is also shifting many species poleward, causing “the idea that everything ‘should’ stay in its native range” to become “increasingly untenable,” Marris writes. As grizzly bears move north, for example, they are beginning to hybridize with polar bears, challenging “our cultural notions of discrete species and stable ecosystems.” Should the hybrid bears be shot, Marris asks, or “left alone to mate how they please, to respect their sovereignty?”

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  1. Ping

    As a wildlife advocate also living in proximity to Safari Club International headquarters in Tucson, I have closely observed their deceptive public image to mask stealth operation to basically eliminate any species without sufficient monetization or those that compete with monetized species and occasionally contributed to journalist’s research.

    They funnel money from extraction industries to privatize public lands and removing species protections is key with their in-house attys that specialize in eliminating or weakening all species and environmental protections. The scope is truly breathtaking and has infiltrated all levels of government. Their competitive trophy hunting involving over 320 species including endangered for top honors is grotesque and while only the tip of the iceberg, aggressively promotes a sociopathic culture at gaudy annual Las Vegas Conventions etc attracting the wealthy and powerful and is symbolic of the degradation of humanity.

    PDF adjacent link also for full report, dated but outlines the scope

    SCI had a field day in Trumpland and these groups are operate in stealth and are a force in coming elections. Ariz Representative Gosar has called public lands “socialism” and was named legislator of the year by SCI and Gosar was also instrumental in the Jan 6th capitol assault.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    Informative review of a book I’ll be looking for. Marris seems to not only be addressing some hard questions, most of which have arisen because of our own profligacy, but she’s also looking forward to new questions we will because of what we’ve already set in motion. Important stuff, it seems to me, and a good example of the kind of thinking we should be doing.

    Marris also seems to be in accord with Thomas Berry:

    The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.

    “Species” is indeed a human category, and as Grace Slick observed 50 years ago:

    The human name doesn’t mean shit to a tree.

    Eskimo Blue Day”

  3. CanCyn

    Hmmm. I understand the point of this but having just spent some time today looking for gypsy moth egg sacs on our trees I am conflicted about the idea of not trying to manage invasive species. The gypsy moth is a European insect and has no known natural predators in North America. They have been at peak here in Ontario for a couple of years now. The caterpillars destroy trees. Yes, many of the deciduous trees whose leaves they eat will recover (watching the local, practically de-nuded maples recover and have a second spring in July seemed like a miracle) but infestations over years can kill them. The trees have to work pretty hard to grow a second set of leaves.The caterpillars do kill coniferous trees in one season. There are two, once beautiful, very large and now dead spruce trees across the road from us. They are a sad sight.
    We need our trees, many other species need the trees. The planet needs the trees, now more than ever. How can we just let the moths destroy them? Do the moths have a cycle? Will they fade away over time? Yes, but they destroy much in the meantime. There is a movement away from spraying the trees in the spring and this I understand. It kills other beneficial insects. But I will be out there with my bucket of soapy water and plastic scraper, removing as many eggs sacs from the trees as I can find before the snow flies.
    As for honouring animals as individuals, I think I understand this notion too. But, just as we must balance individual rights with the rights of many, I think the same would be true for other animals. The planet is such a mess, we may well be past the live and live approach. Complicated subject. Thanks for this. I will suggest the book to our local library, it sounds worth reading.

    1. JohnnyGL

      Well, the most modest argument i can think of for what you’re doing is buying time for the trees and other aspects of the environment to adapt to be able to manage the gypsy moth.

      We’ve got them, too, here in Massachusetts. Had a nasty spring/summer with them a few years back, but since then, i’ve seen only mild outbreaks. I think more humid conditions promote the growth of a kind of fungus that kills them.

  4. fried calamaty

    In a nutshell, biodiversity matters because of Black Swan extinction events. The richer the variation between species, the greater the odds are for some creatures to make it through the next big asteroid or whatever catastrophe develops from flooding the biosphere with GHGs or a nuclear holocaust, etc etc

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