On every camping trip since, there have invariably been a handful of rookie urbanites who are, like I used to be, paranoid of nature, constantly on guard over the prospect of being attacked by a wild animal. Responses and strategies range from perpetual vigilance, sleeplessness, jumpiness, pairing up for safety and sometimes outright paranoia. And it's all because they've absorbed the same nature programming I have, all our lives.
You probably know the drill, seeing as how it's sold to you incessantly by Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and most wildlife documentaries: nature is red in tooth and claw, with prey species eternally either fleeing predators or spending every spare moment on the lookout for them. It's as though the wild world is one big Camp Crystal Lake and all the animals teens on the run from Jason Vorhees.
Well, it's time to call bullshit on this worn-out Hobbesian view of nature.
For one thing, predators are actually quite rare relative to their prey. The second law of thermodynamics constrains the "upward" flow of energy between trophic levels, so big fierce meat-eating animals are greatly outnumbered by the animals on whom they feed. Generally speaking, predators have low success rates, too, (averaging less than 10%), and so must develop behavioral and physical adaptations to get around the inherent inefficiency of their lifestyle: witness pack hunting (behavioral) and simplified digestive systems that maximize nutrient extraction (physical).
This ought to tell you that the average "prey" animal goes her whole life without getting attacked by a predator; it's likely, in fact, that she'll never even directly encounter one. But that sure isn't the impression you get from all those "nature" shows, is it?
And what's more, said animal is no automaton, stumbling through life on instinct alone. Most neurological and biochemical pathways for emotion and physical sensation are homologous in vertebrates. In layman's terms, that means other animals experience not only pain and suffering somewhat as we do, but also joy, awe, love, and pleasure. Their favorite foods taste good to them, they play (and not just as kids), they enjoy sex and grooming and socializing, just like we do.
Every animal is an individual, with his or her own personality and mood. Most of them live lives free from predation and disease, in the company of their family and friends, or their quiet, private pleasures. And they act purposefully to enrich and protect their lives.
In short, most wild animals lead a good life. Sure, there are risks -- there always are, even with us humans -- but the existence of risk and danger does not mean that danger is always in mind. Think about the last time you did something both enjoyable and risky. Bungee jumping, maybe, or rock climbing; cycling along a busy street with the wind in your face; riding a rollercoaster. All of these things are dangerous, but we enjoy them. Most of us don't think about the dangers while enjoying them, either. We focus on the fun.
There's no good reason to think other conscious beings are any different. Prey animals act prudently when predators turn up. When predators are absent, prey enjoy their daily lives, just as we do. They do not exist in a state of constant anxiety.
We "civilized" humans have been taught not simply to ignore this daily reality of animal life, but that it actually doesn't exist. Nearly all of our literature about nature is informed by the Hobbesian view; this unspoken assumption colors everything we think or say about wild animal life. Nature documentaries and reality shows are among the worst offenders, driven not only by inherent speciesism, but the notorious "if it bleeds, it leads" ratings mantra of journalism.
It even colors the way experts on evolution -- who really ought to know better -- present the natural world to their audience. Take Richard Dawkins' famous quote from River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View Of Life:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying from starvation, thirst and disease.
Now, Dawkins is not wrong here. Every word of that quote is true. It's just as true for humans as it is for animals.
But here's the catch: just as there are billions of humans alive right now to whom that quote doesn't apply, there are billions of animals for whom it's equally untrue. Had Dawkins chosen to focus on the reproductive side of nature, he might have written this:
The total amount of pleasure per year in the natural world is beyond all polite mention. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, millions of animals are having sex; others are savoring their preferred foods, sighing with satisfaction; others are grooming and being groomed by their companions; thousands of all kinds are playing with their children, basking in the sun, and sleeping deeply.
Both paragraphs are 100 percent true, but we focus on the grimmer side of nature because it salves our conscience. At some level, we all know that what is done to animals in our name is truly awful. We tell ourselves this is excusable, though, because the poor things would suffer and die in nature anyway. At least this way, their lives have some purpose.
But it's bullshit. Animals' lives matter to them, because those lives are for the most part enjoyable to them (provided, of course, they're not crammed into a crate all day, or tortured for product research, or hunted for sport, or...). It's easy to forget that animals are not simply members of a species, but distinct individuals with unique likes and dislikes, emotional states, desires, goals, and favorite forms of play. Just like us.
Human lives are full of risk, but we don't notice because we're focusing on the things that make our lives pleasurable, that make them worth living. This mental attitude, like so many others in the natural world, is probably homologous, too. It has real adaptive value.
This, fundamentally, is why so much of what we do to other animals is wrong. Not because they suffer -- although they do -- but because they love, and play, and dream. Just like us.