I’m reading Derrick Jensen’s book, Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, and came across this quote from a Canadian Department of Fisheries guy that I thought was telling of our modern attitude towards animals past and present. He’s commenting on the extinct Great Auk:
“No matter how many there may have been, the Great Auk had to go. They must have consumed thousands of tons of marine life that commercial fish stocks depend on. There wasn’t room for them in any properly managed fishery. Personally, I think we ought to be grateful to the old timers for handling this problem for us.”
The story of this fascinating animal is worth the read. (click the pic above for historical background if you so desire) For time’s sake, I’m skipping ahead to the tragic ending. By 1830, these birds were reduced to one last tiny colony on an isolated volcanic rock off the coast of Iceland. Following an eruption, the island sank forcing the birds to relocate to the nearby island of Eldey which was accessible to their greatest enemy. You guessed it- humans. Greedy museum reps swooped in to grab the last of these soon to be extinct specimens, and the sole surviving breeding pair was strangled to death in 1844. Their egg was carelessly smashed by a collectors boot, which must have been heartbreaking to them because of it’s incredible value on the open market.
This is but one of hundreds- no thousands of similar horrific tales of short sighted arrogance and stupidity that highlights our great awkwardness as a species. We somehow have the unique ability to forget our place and to see so called “lesser” creatures as our property and their value as such is for us alone to determine. If they have the audacity to compete for our resources or territory, we determine that we no longer have the need for them and push them to the brink of extinction. If they have the misfortune of tasting good, then we alter their genetics and reduce them to products to consume on an industrialized scale. If they have the greater misfortune of enjoying our company, we creatively breed them to every bizarre extreme imaginable and show them in disgusting competitions.
I even question our motives in trying to stem the tide of disappearing species. Take the bald eagle for example. We had a few that called our Indiana farm home and they were thrilling to observe soaring through the sky or sitting majestically on a fence post. On a drive up to Seattle a few years back, we had the mystical experience of crossing paths with a massive eagle as we drove onto the Lake Shasta bridge. Of course, I’ve seen all the nature shows and such. My point… is there one… yes, there must be.
My point is that if I’m really honest with myself, I don’t want to see these birds decline to the point of extinction because my world is a better place with them in it. They are in a very real sense my emotional property in that sharing a moment with them in nature makes me feel good in a mystical, spiritual sort of way. Watching them soar, I feel connected and complete. I would miss that if they were gone.
So, am I any better than the Canadian fish guy who thinks it’s a good thing the Great Auk is no longer around competing for his resources. Not so much, I’m afraid. My motives are still as selfish. I love to observe animals in their native environments because it makes me happy. I want to protect them because my life would be less complete without them. Does that make me a bad person or is this just a natural joy inducing primal response that comes from recognizing an interconnectedness that is so lacking in our modern context? In other words do I need to feel bad about this sort of selfishness? Many voices in the animal rights camp tell me I most surely do.
They say I should want to be able to respect and appreciate other animals’ rights as fellow sentient beings sharing the planet with me- creatures who have a right to be that’s completely removed from the human sphere of influence. I should want to rid myself of the need to assign value and rank to these animals, but I’m not sure I have it in me.
When I compare rats to chipmunks, knowing full well they’re both rodents, I instinctually assign more value to the chipmunks because of the cuteness factor. Being cute makes them my property in a sense because I feel the need to elevate them and to protect them from the ugly. Rats on the other hand… we have a few living under our deck in the back yard and it’s everything I can do not to poison them. But not killing them is progress I guess, right?