The natural act of killing

It seems a rather obvious statement to make, but it really does need to be made, and explained. There is nothing more natural, more a part of the workings of nature than the act of killing. Animals prey on one another, generally for food, but not only. Larger, smarter, faster, hungrier animals kill other animals for food. And of course, any animal will generally do its utmost not to be killed, and many will die a “natural” death…, except that “natural” can mean being killed by micro-organisms – virus, bacteria, parasites, it can mean dying through environmental affects (hunger, thirst, heat, cold, etc), or even genetic conditions and finally old-age, the ultimate break-down of organs and tissues necessary to live. Every organism that lives, dies.

Our views about nature and of life, are so warped and un-natural; they are fantasies and delusions in large part and have been for millennia. Our pagan gods of fertility, our Christian ethics of the world “given to us”, of its divine creation, and so on and on. We look at the process of life, day to day, and explain it as a “dog eats dog world”, except animals do not generally eat their own kind do they? Indeed what we see most in nature is cooperating packs, groups, herds, forests, woodlands, grasslands, these are the norm. We view survival as a competition; which for herds of grazing animals it sometimes is: the slowest, weakest animals will generally become food for predators. Except that in general those that do survive, survive because they “fit best” within their environment.

As we learn about nature, through studies of genetics, of ecology, we come to an understanding of an incredibly complex web of co-dependency, not only animals to animals but throughout the entire eco-system of our planet. James Lovelock encapsulated this, building on the ideas of Evolutionary Theory, with a concept he called Gaia, suggesting that it is more true to view the world as a complex organism, full of an interplay of life and death, action and response, a vast web of inter- and co-dependency. It is interesting to examine a couple of examples to understand this in some detail.

The Wolves of Yellowstone

Wolves were essentially wiped out in the areas around Yellowstone National Park by 1926. From then, conditions in the park deteriorated dramatically and elk numbers became managed by rangers; trapping, relocating, killing when necessary. Without this management, the elk would have destroyed the park, eating any and everything. While the park did not deteriorate further, it did not improve, its ecology and forests were already deteriorated from their pre-European days. By the 1960’s hunters complained about too few elk and managing elk was discontinued. Their populations began to rise again which again led to a further degradation of the park. Coyote numbers had also increased leading to a dangerous decrease in antelope numbers, various trees species and other animals (beavers for one) also suffered, and these were only those parts of the eco-system we understood at that time.

During these decades predator-prey studies began to highlight the web of dependencies and a growing understanding of these mechanisms led to the reintroduction of wolves to the park in 1995. It was an experiment, nobody really knew what the effect would be with this re-introduction. Since their re-introduction, the ecology of Yellowstone has changed dramatically; not only have elk numbers declined, but their grazing habits have changed, allowing beavers to flourish. Wolves also kill coyote, a behaviour called “intraguild predation”, which not only improved survival of antelopes they also changed the habitats where coyote lived, returning back to their more traditional locations, leaving areas they had moved into with the disappearance of wolves. This change also led to an increasing survival of foxes (wolves do not kill foxes generally, but coyote do), which further led to a greater control of rodents and other animals foxes kill. This led to changes in the survival and health of various plants, and so on, even down to micro-organisms and fungi. Also improved were the numbers and health of bears, of eagles, of scavenging birds, and cougars also returning to their natural habitat. Wikipedia’s article provides a good summary and references for further reading. It was an extraordinary illustration, in a very few years, where the general environment for all animals and plants within Yellowstone have dramatically, and for the better, changed.

Do wolves have meetings to decide upon their behaviour, to understand the consequences of their actions? Do they have environmental impact statements? No, they just kill, not just for food, but to manage their own needs, their competition. This is a story that is being understood more and more deeply across the world, the role of apex predators in their environment, and the way in which those environments become severely damaged with many deleterious changes to a range of organisms when these predators are removed. Not only is killing necessary for food, but the ramifications of not killing lead to more death, and unhealthy, dramatically changed environments. The “natural” world is the way it is because killing is a critical means by which it has come to be that way.

Rabbits in Australia

As the British settled Australia in the 18th century, many brought the accoutrements of their European life with them, including rabbits, a popular animal for hunting in the home countries. In Australia this would prove to be disastrous, rabbits would adapt ferociously to their new environment, decimating all the grasslands in sight, turning sparsely grassed land to dustbowls, as their numbers and territory exploded exponentially. Native trees and shrubs were threatened, some extinguished, smaller rodent animals struggled with these drastic changes in habitat. European settlement in Australia has led to an extinction of native species of catastrophic proportions, in some quarters considered the most catastrophic species extinction over the last few centuries of any region, with the rabbit being one of a significant contributor to species loss and environmental changes.

As early as the late 1880’s, a mere 20 years after the introduction of rabbits for “recreational hunting” purposes in the 1860’s, the government of the day was already calling for actions to control their numbers. The situation worsened, eventually “Rabbit Proof Fences” were built; fences that would traverse vast tracks of land aiming to keep these animals out; these fences were hundreds of kilometres long, and largely unsuccessful. Biological means have since been deployed with a mixture of success. To give some idea of numbers, in 1950 the myxoma virus was released, causing rabbit numbers to drop from an estimated 600 million to 100 million, but numbers have recovered as genetic resistance to the virus becomes endemic. In the 1990’s another virus, the calicivirus, being engineered by the CSIRO to further control this recovering population was released (actually it was stolen and let into the wild by farmers frustrated with the deleterious effects rabbits were having on their crops).

Rabbits in Australia represent a huge problem still, and while the cost to farming, to crops and human livelihood are most often highlighted, it is the effects they have had on the Australia environment, on native animals, grasslands and plants that are the most devastating and still uncounted. Yet, within their “natural” European habitats they perform a function that is necessary for the ongoing survival of those environments, and in some European areas (southern Spain) their numbers are in decline.

It is the “out of balance”, the untrammelled ability to survive in these new environments that is the problem, a problem introduced by human actions. This is a problem we see again and again as humans introduce animals, plants, trees, etc, for various reasons into environments that are unprepared and unable to accomodate their alien presence. The list is long, and the problems unresolved in an expanding complexity of devastating change. Of course, “nature” is not static, constant migrations, introductions of new species is a fact of life, but humanity’s ability to transport organisms, and introduce them in such shocking suddenness is unparalleled.

What is the point of this discussion? The response that is lacking from the local environment is the ability to control the numbers; too many of these organisms live, too many thrive and multiply, irrevocably changing their new locations. The predators, the climactic conditions are conducive to their survival beyond a “normal balance”. The “right to live” has overcome the ability of their environment to control their existence, they cannot be killed, they do not die in sufficient numbers to maintain a “place”, a “balance” within which they live. We talk about these as pests, as alien species, and the only recourse to restoring this balance is for these species to be managed, for more (or all) of their numbers to not breed, to be killed. In their “natural” environments, their numbers are controlled through natural predation, through environmental conditions and so forth, but where natural environments fail to provide those means, humans must do it.

Their existence redefines the environments within which they exist, their existence wipes-out existing environmental norms, establishing new norms based upon their presence. If a “natural control” is not established, eventually environmental destruction results, deserts where once there were fields. But the “pests” survive, and as the deserts may recede from time to time, they will quickly return as numbers of the pests in turn respond. We see this not only with animals, there are many plant species, many marine organisms, that migrate alongside human activity and devastate the areas they colonise.

This is a huge topic, and enters into an area we will spend much time discussing – the emergence of the anthropocene, the way human activity now shapes the world – in due course. Suffice it to say here, that the critical matter is that without a balance of life and death, without a necessity to kill and be killed, nature and the world within which we live is not one of fruitful and diverse environments, but rather becomes one of extremes, dominated by dramatic and uncontrolled swings between such extremes. Killing, the right to die, is a critical factor to ensure the right to live. What is critical to examine, and what is the essentially topic of these writings, are the actions of human beings, the how, the when, the why, the what we do do.

Addendum
Before I leave this subject, I should also discuss one profound difference, and that is the notion of intra-species behaviour. It should be noted that in general animals do not behave towards members of their own species as they do towards others. Cannibalism is not a behaviour generally seen, as neither is the untoward killing of one’s own species. We feel a basic repugnance towards murder, assault, and question the validity of war (even though we might glorify it). We also observe that predators will generally not eat other predators, the reason a wolf kills a coyote is different than the reason a wolf kills elk. We generally do not eat other predators either, even our attitude to dogs and cats are generally different than to cows or sheep, and we generally have a repugnance for the killing of other animals, for example dolphins and whales, that are “high up on the food chain”. So, when we discuss the notion of the natural act of killing we need to understand that these are acts defined by a purpose; nature does not kill arbitrarily or for contingent reasons. This is a matter we will return to in more detail.

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