Shallow Thinking

by Nathaniel Paull | 10/22/03 5:00am

I question both the veracity of the motives and the intelligence of any group that purports to campaign for the wellbeing of non-human animals while actively discouraging its members from supporting the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the World Wildlife Fund. All of these groups variously raise funds to purchase habitat and educate the public about wildlife issues, engage corporations and the government inside the courtroom to protect endangered species and resources, or work to prevent human encroachment on wild places. In 2002, the World Wildlife Fund alone spent $99 million dollars "to protect wildlife and wild places, and to combat the global threats of uncontrolled deforestation, overfishing, toxins and climate change."

But the misguided group "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals," or PETA, would urge any who would listen to oppose the efforts of these dedicated organizations. Why? PETA apparently doesn't believe habitat loss is a significant issue in the lives of species and individuals, or at least that this ongoing and continuing threat deserves their attention. PETA implores society to refuse contribution to these organizations because they acknowledge that hunting and fishing are not only ethical uses of wildlife resources, but essential to conservation efforts (revenues from license fees go chiefly to support habitat conservation and to state's wildlife departments and, as a group, hunters and fisherman consistently donate funds and campaign to preserve wild places).

Anyone who truly believes that the managed harvesting of species like deer or ducks is a greater threat to the overall wellbeing of these species than the global expansion of our cities into their habitat is deluded beyond redemption.

PETA's asininity runs deeper. In another section of their website they urge members not to purchase "exotic" pets (including reptiles and amphibians, birds, etc.) and to campaign to end the trade in these animals. They make no distinction between those who abuse these animals and those whose efforts are ultimately laudable. Their call is unilateral.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists on its Appendices organisms which are endangered and pending extinction. In order to possess or "trade" in these organisms, permits are required. Habitat loss has placed hundreds of species of reptiles and amphibians on this list (but PETA would have you believe this is a minor point). Many indeed appear doomed to extinction in the wild. However, efforts by captive breeders, a vast majority of them amateur, have all but assured the continued presence of animals such as Dendrobates spp. (poison-dart frogs), Phelsuma spp. (day geckos) and the giant tortoises, (among them the Galpagos and radiated tortoises), as well as literally dozens of other critically endangered reptiles and amphibians. By generating economic demand for these animals, the probability of their continued species survival increases almost daily and, as more captive-bred individuals become available, demand for wild specimens further decreases, even as their total numbers go up. PETA foments lies about the pet trade and ignores any evidence contrary to their claims.

I applaud efforts to end prolonged cruelty and abuse to domestic animals, to improve conditions of those animals raised for human consumption and to alleviate the suffering of laboratory test animals (particularly primates). But a fundamental anthropocentrism and lack of understanding underlie many of the more extreme positions in this emotionally-charged arena. For example: on what basis do we define the suffering of an organism? This seems intuitively obvious, and for many of the "higher" mammals it may in fact be, but how about starfish? When their activities are filmed and viewed at high speeds, their motions and responses to stimuli are remarkably mammalian -- a "pack" of starfish can be observed in hunting behavior that is astonishingly similar to lions on the Serengeti. But starfish lack brains, and if a brainless organism can respond (albeit on a slower time scale) to external stimuli, can we use this as a criterion to define cruelty? Even plants will respond in obvious and predictable ways to habitual physiological stresses, such as pruning or lack of water. Can we truly say that they are incapable of feeling?

I would never be so callous to say that humans are the only living beings capable of suffering, but I do think it is nave of us to limit our perception and compassion to responses that are immediately human, to organisms that are endearing or to reactions that occur only on human time scales. Rather, I think it is essential to recognize that sustained life requires continuous death, and where we draw the line on what we will accept is a truly arbitrary decision. Lack of respect for this unavoidable truth limits the vision of groups like PETA and biases their agendas. In the long run, I believe PETA's goals improve the chances of species extinction. And as I see it, that is the true tragedy. Death is one thing. An end to birth is quite another.