Our ability to reorder the planet’s life means the deer, moose, and other herbivores have fewer natural predators, so we ourselves, with our guns and traps, presume to fill the predator role. The animals we target undergo a rapid form of selective breeding. Bighorn sheep in Alberta, Canada have lost those big horns after many years of being killed for them. Atlantic cod off eastern Canada now breed at five years of age instead of six when they’re more vulnerable to human capture. Since nets began capturing fish of a minimum size in the 1980s, body sizes in numerous communities of fish have shrunk. Don Melnick, a biologist, notes that artificially selecting animals in habitat is tantamount to breeding them.
Still another way to control free-living communities is to prevent them from bearing young.
In the 1970s, reproductive control of free-living animals entered the animal-protection dialogue. The philosopher Peter Singer, in the much-lauded Animal Liberation, would write:
If it is true that in special circumstances their population grows to such an extent that they damage their own environment and the prospects of their own survival, or that of other animals who share their habitat, then it may be right for humans to take some supervisory action; but obviously if we consider the interests of the animals, this action will not be to let hunters go in, killing and wounding the animals, but rather to reduce the fertility of the animals. If we made an effort to develop more humane methods of population control for wild animals in reserves, it would not be difficult to come up with something better than what is done now. The trouble is that the authorities responsible for wildlife have a “harvest” mentality, and are not interested in finding techniques of population control which would reduce the number of animals to be “harvested” by hunters.
By the mid-1990s, in a legal action on behalf of two individual plaintiffs and the advocacy non-profit Pity Not Cruelty, Inc., birth control was included in a set of possible alternatives to shooting deer in Lower Merion County, Pennsylvania through a legal action handled by the Animal Rights Clinic at Rutgers University.
Thus, ostensibly benign control leads to a strange thing: the notion that stopping untamed animals from carrying on their own reproductive lives is a form of advocacy.
A liberatory theory ought to call for the neutering of cats or to prevent dogs from mating, given that we’ve already manipulated the reproductive processes of these animals by selective breeding, so they lack the ability to reproduce and raise their young on their terms. Phasing out of the breeding of animals as pets would, essentially, put wildcats and wolves off-limits to selective breeding to suit our whims. But contraception for free-living animals is animal control—nothing more, nothing less.
Some will argue that our animal-control habit is the inescapable reality of human society; some will suggest, as Peter Singer did, that it is our ethical duty to police nature. But we can take a hands-off approach, and apply this ethic to stop the expansion of agribusiness—and insist on having the deer and elk and free-roaming horses keep the habitat. When, otherwise, do we tell the authorities “no”? When do we begin questioning the road widening, the development? Press for contraception as the residents and businesses press for roads and malls and soon deer will be gone from the spaces that once belonged to them. Contraception will clear them off invisibly—as we humans take their land out from under them.
And while no one can suffer who is prevented from ever being born, contraception and neutering in nature is a treacherous bargain, for it puts coyotes and bobcats out of their natural evolutionary work. Do we really want a patented, FDA-approved pharmaceutical plan to control the destinies of untamed animals? So that we achieve an officially prescribed “density” of the animals in question for any given style of space? Are bio-communities to be all refashioned into some macabre theme park?
We have a chance of saving much if we change—radically—now. By feeding ourselves protein straight from plants, rather than animals raised on monoculture crops or pastures, we’d have fewer reasons to push aside coyotes, foxes, and wolves. Maybe it will help us to understand that their presence protects Earth’s great biosphere, which is our home too. Predator activity ensures carbon emissions are absorbed by plants. (Where we suppress predators, herbivores don’t need to move much, so they put pressure on plants, which, under stress, tend to breathe carbon out into the atmosphere rather than store it.)
If we do acknowledge and encourage the predator-prey relationship as a sound process, what does that mean for ourselves—the human primates? How far should we suffer the large predators to roam? How much risk can we accept? We’ll take these hard questions as they arise. The first step is to acknowledge risk as part of a healthful life experience.
We have forged an elaborate and very often beautiful human history. If we hope to safeguard our future, we’ll need to let go of our identity as masters, and regain that surge of emotion—of awe. If we foul the oceans, melt the glaciers and degrade the atmosphere irredeemably, if the web of life unravels because of our assumption of dominion, we have destroyed all we knew. …