Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Florida Bear Slaughter: The High Price of Anthropocentrism

I am sickened as I read the lead story on the front page of Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times. The page is dominated by a photo of a man with a gun in the back of a pickup truck hovering over the lifeless carcasses of two black bears. If there was any mercy in this slaughter, these two bears never knew what hit them. A hunter from the Tampa area said of his trophy, “"One shot and down it went."

Amazing how that works. Unarmed animals incapable of defending themselves simply fall down dead when they encounter another animal trained to shoot the weapon it is carrying. No muss, no fuss.

My great aunt, the outspoken Kansas suffragette, temperance supporter and segregation opponent, was fond of saying, “People call hunting a sport. But there’s nothing sporting about shooting down unarmed animals. Give the deer a gun and teach them how to shoot back. Now, *that* would be a sport.”

By Monday, the official total had risen to 295 including at least two cubs. Some of the bears were lactating mothers which means that the cubs those mothers nursed may likely die as well. The two day bear hunting season will ultimately prove to be a veritable slaughter.

Hunting as a way of life… and death

While I have never been a hunter, I grew up in a place where hunting was the norm. Every young boy was trained to shoot a gun as quick as their daddy had time to take them out to the woods to teach them.

Even so, I knew from the beginning that I would never be a hunter. On my 12th birthday, my Dad gave me the option of him buying me a gun or taking my friends and I to a local swimming pool for my birthday party. I did not hesitate in choosing the pool even as I knew it would break my Dad’s heart that his son would not be a hunter.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t good with a gun. In fact, I was. On one of the two days I ever went to the woods with my dad and brother armed with a shotgun and a pistol, we had grown bored from the lack of animals to shoot and my Dad decided that, given the coming Christmas season, we could shoot down some mistletoe from the top of the tree to take to our Mom. Both my Dad and my brother had shot and missed. I took the pistol, eyed my target, aimed the gun and shot. The mistletoe came plummeting down, first shot.

In all honesty, my deadly accuracy scared me. An aim like that could be easily applied to any other living being. I didn’t want to be an agent of death, regardless of whose, especially when that death was avoidable and unnecessary.

I knew that my aversion to killing was not shared by my classmates who, by the time they reached high school, excitedly anticipated their weekends in the woods spent with lots of guns and gut-rot cheapo beer. Though I never shared that excitement, I came to accept its inevitability as each fall arrived.

But I never lost sight of its deadly potential.

My junior year in high school, a group of my classmates were out for their usual fall ritual bloodletting and beer drinking. During a lull in the action, they had begun to consume the copious quantities of beer they’d brought with them. One of them decided to prop his shotgun up against a fallen tree trunk. The gun began to slip in the wet clay beneath the log and when he grabbed the gun barrel to keep it from falling, it discharged, blowing off the back of my classmate’s head.  

By the time I graduated from high school, I had come to a realization that hunting was a part of rural culture that I would never understand but begrudgingly had come to accept. Bernie Sanders is right on this point about guns: the use of guns in rural areas like his home state of Vermont and the Sumter County of my youth is not the same as the misuse of guns which have inappropriately and increasingly been imposed upon the public square. One size will never fit all when it comes to this question
Deadly Gross Mismanagement

It is less the actual hunting of these bears than the reasons for its authorization that trouble me. The impetus for the slaughter of black bears has come primarily from the increasingly tense interactions between the residents of the exurbs steadily encroaching on the remaining wildlife refuges not yet fallen to the developers’ bulldozers and the wildlife who once lived there. Animals pushed from their native habitat are increasingly prone to return to now “developed” lands with human animal residents to try to find food.

Called “nuisance” animals by their human animal counterparts (one has to wonder what description the wildlife would use to describe the newcomers who forced them from their habitats), that description ironically points to the legal principle of “coming to the nuisance.” That common law doctrine was historically used to estop law suits against existing practices on adjoining properties when people voluntarily came to that location aware of the practices.

When I was in junior high, a family bought the large tract of cow pasture to the south of our place. At the end of the dirt road which separated our properties was the home of another neighbor who had for years raised a handful of pigs on the edge of his property. The new neighbor had built a beautiful home along his property line – right next to the pig pen.
In what my saintly mother, who was decidedly not prone to say ugly things about anyone, called “the absolute height of gall,” the new neighbor came to our existing neighbor and demanded he remove the pig pen. While the new neighbor had no right to make such a demand, the existing neighbor was kind enough to hear him out without erupting in outrage. And within a short time, the pigs went away. Rather than get into a protracted legal battle which he couldn’t afford, our pig farming neighbor simply caved.

At a very basic level, the human animals who have invaded the habitats of existing animals have no moral ground upon which to see those pre-existing animals as nuisances, much less to demand their removal when they return to find food. But this slaughter of wildlife is but one example of a deadly competition for control playing out between a single species of animal which has come to be dominant in the biosphere and all other contenders which now are at the mercy of that self-absorbed species. Perhaps the worst part of this open season on bears is that it simply encourages more of the thoughtless development which gave rise to the problem in the first place.

The programs which authorize hunts such as we are seeing in Florida this weekend are euphemistically called “wildlife management,” a poorly disguised attempt to legitimate what is clearly a wanton slaughter of non-human animals. Yet there is no small amount of irony in the specter of a human animal whose urban sprawl has given rise to this problem in the first place presuming the need to manage the rest of the animal species. Urban sprawl - and the multitude of problems that have stemmed from it - all evidence an inability of the human animal to manage its own species in a healthy manner.

Upon what basis would it presume to manage the others?

 Worshipping the Idol of Anthropocentrism

The ursucide of Florida occurs in a much broader context of interactions between the human animal and the rest of a biosphere that has grown increasingly vulnerable to its assaults. The effects of anthropogenic climate change have already begun to force major numbers of animals from native habitats into more hospitable climate regions if they actually exist.
But the response to climate change is part of a much larger picture in which animal extinctions have far surpassed their natural rates of occurrence. The Center for Biological Diversity reports “Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.”

While such extinctions often occur off the radar of most human animals’ consciousness, far more high profile examples of killing of endangered wildlife has recently filled the news. A Minnesota dentist who illegally shot and killed a magnificent lion drew the fury of horrified readers around the world when it was reported. Last week a Texas hunter killed a black rhinoceros bull in a much more complicated situation (the bull had proven lethally aggressive toward other calves of this critically endangered species and the hunter provided $35,000 for the conservation fund to protect the remaining rhinos) only to encounter an airline who refused transport the head of the dead animal back to Texas.

The Texas hunter has sued Delta Airlines for that refusal charging it with discrimination. The specter of a wealthy oil heir suing an airline which refused to transport the carcass of a critically endangered species around the world is not a terribly surprising example of the entitlement the 1% in America have become accustomed to expecting. But to sue on the same legal basis as the plaintiffs in the Brown v.The Board case prosecuted their action against the Topeka School District is almost too absurd for even this lawyer to imagine.

What is most troubling about these high profile cases of animal slaughter in the context of a rapidly shrinking fauna is what it signals to the rest of the world. The Chinese love affair with an SUV has played a major role in clogging 50 lane Chinese freeways and making the air in much of urban China unbreathable. But it arose in the context of an American culture industry whose images of driving gas guzzling, road hogging, atmosphere clogging vehicles have repeatedly preached to the rest of the world, including the odd combination of free market fundamentalism and authoritarian governance that is today’s China,  that such were the marks of the good life. What chance does the remaining animal population stand against a human population who sees the good life in practices which inexorably cause extinctions?

The assumptions of a human animal species that its desires are the only important considerations in the world regardless of their impact on that world arise from a highly narcissistic ideology called anthropocentrism. But the Hebrew prophets had a much better word for it. They called such behaviors idolatry.

You Can’t Eat Money

The assault on the animal kingdom by its human species is ultimately an exercise in self-destruction. We are part of that kingdom but only part. But if the rest of the kingdom falters and declines, so shall we.

We live in a consumerist culture whose shallow values fuel addictive spirals of ever more consumption, served by an entertainment industry whose products numb our senses and prompt us to seek ever greater thrills. At heart we recognize the shallowness of our lives and seek meaning in any manner we can. But there can never be enough trophy animals on our walls to fill the gaping holes in our very souls.

In a 1972 collection of essays entitled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?”, Canadian filmmaker and First Peoples spokesperson Alanis Obomsawin restated a Cree Indian proverb which well sums up the crisis facing our relationship to the biosphere around the world:

“When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.” 

Our greed threatens to consume not only the other species of the biosphere, it ultimately threatens to consume us.

This is the lesson we must learn in Florida. Urban sprawl is deadly to the very natural world many of us came to Florida to enjoy. Displaced animals are not nuisances, they are simply hungry and homeless. Any nuisance they may pose arises in the context of a myopic approach to development and a callous disregard for the natural realm. These animals deserve our thoughtful consideration, not more of the deadly misuse of our power.
If we human animals feel the need to manage animal species, we need to begin by demonstrating our abilities to manage our own. And we need to do so soon.

Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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