An Animal’s Place In Our World
In the summer of 2004, several students from one of my wolf research classes discovered the decomposed body of a coyote, about 100 yards from our base camp. Although most of the flesh was gone, the skeleton was halfway intact. Even the foot pads, which were mummified, were easily distinguishable. The skull, however, had three small holes indicating that this animal had been shot three times in the head.
In the state of Montana, it is legal to kill coyotes whenever you wish so the students' discovery was not an uncommon one. But I was struck by the fact that three bullets to the head seemed excessive in killing a medium sized animal. In fact why kill it at all? We had been no where near a ranch, town, or private residence of any kind. Perhaps it was already injured and a local Samaritan had done the coyote a favor - but I doubt it. It has been my experience that not many people consider coyotes their "favorite" animal. They are shot for fun, protection of livestock, or just "because."
I am not complaining about Montanians' right to kill what can be legally killed. Instead, I am questioning why exercise that right even if you have it, although subsistence hunting makes practical sense. As my Montana friends put it, "It is just part of the food chain." But to remove an animal from existence just because you have the legal or self-perceived God-given right to do so seems more like a human power trip than anything logical. I have another friend who sits outside in a chair or on a stump with his rifle waiting for coyotes to come by so he can shoot them. I suppose it is relaxing and allows one to commune with nature.
Our culture has a long tradition of treating nonhuman animals – and even humans - as objects. Our reference point has not been necessarily how these organisms fit into the natural world, but rather how we as humans think they should fit into our world. Like everything, this perception has changed over time. Look at how long it took to recognize the rights of various human groups and pass legislation to support these rights (see picture). Regardless, we still seem to struggle with these concepts, and we’ve only just begun to turn our moral attention toward the natural world. It seems ridiculous now to look back and think minorities and women had less natural rights than the rest of us. Their rights were always inherent. It just wasn’t recognized. It’s the animals’ turn now.
People who are in intimate contact with animals on a regular basis, such as pet owners or trainers, know that at least some animals are sentient beings. In other words, they feel pain, pleasure, recall the past, anticipate future events, and problem solve – like us. The newspaper article of a recent study stated, “Dogs Found To Have Abstract Thinking!” Duh. Most responsible pet owners already know that, although science does need to validate such observations. The premise of Timber – A Perfect Life, the book I recently published about my unique dog, was based on living and interacting with such a creature for sixteen years. Her extensive ability to problem solve and express herself made it seem as if I had lived with a little hairy person rather than a “dog.” I don’t mean this in an anthropomorphic way, but rather all of us mammals think in a similar manner, human or not.
Most people would probably agree that elephants are sentient beings, something science has proven to be true. Yet another recent headline read, “Elephant Shot Dead After Crashing Party.” During a New Year’s party in the wilds of Zimbabwe, witnesses reported that drunken party goers taunted the elephant by throwing bottles, lighting fireworks, flashing car lights, hooting, and even plucking hairs from the animal's tail and slapping its rump. This 50 year old pachyderm, who was known for his calm and curious demeanor which had made him a favorite among eco-tourists, subsequently felt compelled to trash several nearby cars. Tusker, as he was called, was executed a week later by rangers and park officials.
Remember the previous article on Umwelts? (All Critter Corner articles have been archived on my web site at www.wolfandwildlifestudies.com) World views are a matter of perception, yet truths of the world still exist. Women, for example, could always think as well as men, despite what many males thought, and still do. Blacks were never a different species of humans, although it was a prevalent thought in the 1800s. Wolves won’t kill your children either, by the way. It sometimes takes time for humanity to “come around.” In the meantime, I suspect many people have been horrified at what happened to the elephant Tusker. Nevertheless, it was the minority of wing nuts that got him killed. Although the majority of people seem to inherently know right from wrong, Einstein put it this way, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”