Friday, July 30, 2010


I was chided last week—quite gently, to be sure—by a kind reader who was uncomfortable with my analogy between wolves and those human “king-killers” I was writing about. It constituted, if I understand her right, a defamation of the character of wolves, who are only following their nature and the survival imperative that motivates their actions. They need to hunt and kill their prey. The human predators of whom I happened to be writing—those who attack their leaders out of greed, envy, or a sense of their own powerlessness—act out of less natural, and therefore perhaps less noble impulses.

Still, without wishing to defame those marvelous creatures in any way, I stand by my analogy. They do, like those humans, hunt in packs. And I believe, though perhaps wrongly, that predatory animals like wolves are known to ferociously challenge leadership when they consider it to be weak or untrustworthy. Even pure malice, surely, exists among animals as it does among human beings, as does altruism. Not everything about the animal world is innocent and noble. (There’s an interesting debate, these days, as to whether animals have a “moral code”: this book review suggests that Wild Justice might be a very interesting read.)

These thoughts, this morning, in reflection on the news that a grizzly bear (“or bears”) attacked a group of campers in Yellowstone Park and succeeded in killing one of them, and mauling others. The rangers are out there now hunting down the bear(s) in question with the intention, presumably, of imposing the death penalty on the offender. The latest, I hear, is that they have trapped a mother and three year-old cubs, against whom the evidence looks damning: a piece of ripped tent in the scat, a broken tooth left at the scene of the crime… The bears are as I write en route to a location where their DNA will be tested against crime scene samples and their guilt or innocence proved. They will not have a jury of their peers to try their case, and are unlikely to be spared the ultimate penalty.

Should we feel greater—or qualitatively different—compassion for our own species than we do for others? Traditional western thought, both secular and religious, have taught us to believe that we are superior to animals, thanks to our great intellect and its ability to reason, and to the moral codes to which we supposedly subscribe. The theory, frankly, is infinitely more noble than the practice. We have little compunction about finding the justification for killing our own, a practice that shows no sign of abating even in this post-Enlightenment period of our history. (It’s revealing to note the different between Eastern and Western uses of that word.) We persist in fouling our own nest in ways that most of our brothers and sisters in the animal world would consider unacceptable; and, incidentally, fouling the nest for them at the same time, since we all share it.

On what grounds, then, do we earn the entitlement to consider ourselves rulers of the universe? By what right do we haughtily judge and sometimes sentence them? Should we assume that this bear’s behavior, for example, is deviant, and deserving of execution? Or is it not possible that she was acting in accordance with her own “moral” code for reasons we could never understand? We humans, after all, are the invaders in that territory. Our presence there has created ecological contingencies she must address, if she is to take care of her cubs and assure their survival.

Am I a “bleeding heart”? Yes. I confess that I’m the one who feels a wee bit awkward telling George to “Sit” or “Stay”? Why should he, just because I tell him to? He looks at me like I’m crazy, asking such things of him. He has his own logic, his own rules. I could argue, of course, that he must learn these rules for his own safety, living in a world of human beings. But the truth is, he must learn them more for my convenience.

From the beginning of human history, I know, we have had to protect ourselves from other species, especially the wild and the strong ones, like bears. We have had to eat them, as they have had to eat those less powerful than themselves. We have been able to domesticate some of them, like George, for our own purposes—work or pleasure, or the provision of sustenance. And it’s good to recall that not all human intervention is destructive: how else would George have regained his eyesight?

I have no question that Buddhism is right in teaching the interdependence of all things and, particularly, of all living beings; and in teaching that compassion applies not only to those we know and love, but also to those by whom we are threatened, those we dislike or distrust, to those we fear. Still, as always, the practice is very much harder than the preaching. There was a time when humankind and animals could inhabit, largely, different domains. These days, our proximity is such that we can’t avoid collisions and confrontations like the one in Yellowstone Park. I feel terrible for the man who lost his life and for those who loved him and will miss him in their lives. I feel terrible for those who suffered wounds in the attack. And I feel terrible for the bear and for her cubs. Living beings all, whose unwanted encounter produced tragedy.


mandt said...

"....who are only following their nature and the survival imperative that motivates their actions. They need to hunt and kill their prey." The same might be said for sociopaths...your analogy stands.

CHI SPHERE said...

Perhaps it is really overpopulation that causes our human plight. I lived in a wild area with my family when my boys were just born and as toddlers they were allowed to play freely in the steel fenced front yard we could easily see from our house at all times.

Bears, mountain lions, elk and eagles were sighted every day. The boys learned very early to run into the front yard if anyone saw the four legged predators.

We often went to gather dead down trees to cut into specific lenghts for quartering into wood stove fuel to heat our well insulated home. We stayed the forest for a week each fall to do this a shot an elk during this harvest to feed us rather than eating the beef from the market.

I kept Ridgebacks outside the perimeter during the day and Siberian Huskies at night. One Husky was shot by a rancher for coming too close to a new born calf. One Ridgeback was killed and eaten by a mountain lion. The boys lamented the loss but knew that this was the price for living in the wild.

It was a human predator that drove us from the valley. A sociopath that leveraged his violent ways
that compromised our balanced lives by intimidating my family while I was away working in China. He is now in prison with other like him.

Have we made progress or are we simply repeating
history? The BP Gulf greed and our related fossil fuel addiction sure does raise this question.

Although I bought a Leaf to drive I remain very concerned that the carbon footprint the rechargeable batteries will leave is little better than the pollution my old Honda produced. The electricity that charges my new vehicle is produced at a power plant that uses fossil fuel.
working now to make my last home in a walking and biking community soon in rural Brazil.

Here's hoping for a wiser and more compassionate world.