“We’re animals. We’re born like every other mammal and we live our whole lives around disguised animal thoughts.” – Barbara Kingsolver
By Oliver Kammeyer
Human society developed an idea over time that it is separate from nature, that we exist apart from it, or in spite of it. Perhaps it was different when our species was young. The hardship of primitive survival bound us to nature, and some of our cultures still honor the natural world for its power to give and to take. But for the gift of our opposable thumbs and our uncanny intelligence we are just another animal on this Earth. If it ever was, though, that has not remained the dominant mindset of our human societies.
In more recent history, nature has been understood as something to overcome, to conquer, something whose resources were ours by right. Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas and saw the land, the air, the seas, and the creatures that inhabited them as free resources to do with as we needed or we saw fit. The earth’s creatures and materials enabled our progress, and that idea — of endless wealth to be extracted, manipulated, conquered — has persisted until today, seeing nature separate from us, whose value is only on something to use.
We no longer have the option to think of nature as the Other. At no other time in modern history has humanity had to consider its place in the natural world as it does now. The changing climate unites and imperils us and the creatures we share this planet with.
Just as we have never faced challenges like this before, though, never before have we been better suited to handle them.
Our species’ sophistication, our success, our awareness of ourselves and the world we inhabit has finally developed to consider what is the moral behavior in our existence. And, finally, we have the option to behave morally.
Stop and think about what a luxury that is: being able to live morally. We have advanced so far, to such a place of individual and societal security, that we can decide to do the right thing. Not because it is in our interest, which it is, but simply because it is the right thing.
While we were once compelled to hunt nonhuman animals for our survival, we have the agricultural prosperity to feed humanity with vegetables. We now have the power and the wisdom to care for the animals on earth, realize another creature’s precarious place in the world and do what we can to keep them alive.
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” – Mark Twain
Conservation organizations the world over are working tirelessly to safeguard our animal neighbors, and we are seeing the benefits of these efforts. Species we thought we might lose are bouncing back.
In Rwanda, scientists have rediscovered a bat that was thought to be extinct for 40 years. The Hill’s horseshoe bat was found in a cave in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest by the Rwanda Development Board, Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, and Bat Conservation International, who work to conserve bats around the world. Bats might strike us as creepy and crawly nightflyers, but they pollinate, disperse, and protect valuable cash crops, including bananas, guava, durians, cashews, dates, figs, cacao, sugar, corn, cotton, and agave. And fruit-eating bats are essential for dispersing seeds necessary for regrowing tropical rainforests. Seeing the return of the Hill’s horseshoe bat, named for the curved shape of its nose, is encouraging for the environment.
Down under, Australian humpback whales have been removed from the list of endangered species. Whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries brought these gentle giants’ numbers to as low as 700 individuals in the North Atlantic. Widespread whaling bans starting in the 1980s have allowed them to come back in a big way. Just next door in New Zealand the north island brown kiwi has also made a comeback. This type of the country’s small and unique national bird has been removed from the “at-risk” list as its population climbed to over 20,000 thanks to vigorous conservation efforts at protecting its nests.
We will only hold onto these animals and be able win back more with robust conservation efforts and legislation. Last month, protections were reinstated across much of the US for gray wolves. These iconic predators are in fact a keystone species, helping to control deer and elk as well as create food for scavenger species from their prey. The US Congress also approved $350 million for the construction of wildlife crossings over roads across the country to prevent animals like deer and mountain lions from getting hit. This helps animals whose habitats are bisected by motorways, but also helps motorists who might get in dangerous wildlife collisions.
Scientific approaches to conservation have gotten more creative recently. A century ago, African elephant populations were 10 times as large as what they are now. Poaching is largely to blame for this, and while governmental protection agencies have an effect, the killing of these large, intelligent and compassionate mammals for their ivory persists. Scientists started using elephant DNA from confiscated ivory with existing forensic evidence to track down those in the illegal ivory trade and then work with authorities to dismantle transnational criminal organizations. This way they remove the apparatus which supports the killing of these precious pachyderms.
Conservation also turned to the bounty of social media to track endangered species. The artificial intelligence system Wildbook uses photos taken by researchers and also vacation photos shared publicly on social media to expand the database. While tags and collars work well to track endangered species, social media tags and the countless photos posted provide a lot more data to better check in. In particular, this method has helped to monitor the populations of dolphins and killer whales which boating vacationers can’t help snapping a pic of. (Instagram for good!)
Conservation practices are evolving, and societal practices need to evolve with them. Biologists have put forward a bold philosophy that acknowledges animal agency for humanity to adjust for a more animal-friendly world. Animal agency is essentially the recognition of certain animal rights, acknowledging their complexity, individuality, and behaviors which we need to consider.
“Instead of treating wildlife as objects to be managed, we can look to animals’ behaviors, letting their actions, personalities, group decisions, and relations to humans illuminate better ways to help preserve their populations. In this way, animals can be seen as partners in their own conservation,” Emilie Edelblutte wrote in Boston University’s The Brink on her recent study published in Conservation Biology.
This means considering nonhuman animals’ role within our lives and cities and embracing their coexistence. We could design houses to also offer shelter to birds, like the seagulls that nest in Amsterdam’s buildings, or build cat homes and litter boxes for strays like in Istanbul. We could even benefit from cohabitating with certain animals, such as beavers who restore wetlands and recharge ground water with their dams, in addition to occasionally biting internet lines.
“I believe there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” – Henry David Thoreau
While we should be thinking morally to care for animals, we should also be thinking logically. What bounties do we still have to gain from a thriving and diverse natural world? Have we really learned all we can from nonhuman animals and our environmental neighbors? And can they teach something else?
In the past few weeks, The Optimist Daily has written about a number of scientific innovations and discoveries made by closely watching animals in our midst. Researchers recently discovered that yellow-bellied marmots actually stop aging in hibernation, and authors believe the biodata they’ve collected could inform human hibernation in future space travel.
Who knows what else we have yet to discover and how that might benefit us. We learned that female elephant seals have an internal GPS telling them exactly how far they are from their breeding grounds. We learned to understand pigs with software that registers the emotions of their grunts.
French scientists just completed a proof-of-concept study showing that the ant species formica fusca can detect cancer cells in a human body with an innate ability to sniff out volatile organic compounds. Imagine how much money hospitals would save if instead of expensive biopsies they had a small family of ants crawl around the right part of a patient’s body. A new theory on how spiders can apparently fly by adding an electrical charge to their webs in a process called “ballooning.” This theory of flight already has scientists pondering the possibility of spider-inspired flight apparatus.
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin
The human mind is a brilliant oddity in the course of evolution. It has been able to invent, infer, and perceive itself and its place in a vast universe. It cannot, however, glean the whole picture of the surrounding universe. It can’t even glean everything it lives next to on the planet. We’re still discovering the myriad multitudes of adaptations and survival techniques life has developed only through varied and countless interactions with nature. We’ve traveled to space, built megacities, and written operas using our wits and creativity, but we’re still discovering even more elegant solutions to our problems by paying close attention to spiders and ants. As clever as we are, can we really afford to barrel forward through time without the wisdom of vibrant and diverse ecosystems? Isn’t nature something we can, and should, preserve, even if just to learn about?
Who knows? There could be secrets that desert dwelling lizards have to share in adapting to drought or marine life that pulls carbon from the atmosphere. In a changing climate, we should look at the adaptations of our non-human cousins for our own best chance at surviving this world we’ve helped to shape.
About the Author
Oliver Kammeyer joined the team at The Optimist Daily in February, 2022. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts from Emerson College. He loves the arts and normally writes fiction, but he now prefers to write about our environment and sustainable global development. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.