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I am a politically-progressive, ethically-herbivorous anthropoid pursuing a paleontology education in the Los Angeles Basin. I am largely nocturnal, have rarely been photographed, and cannot thrive in captivity.

10 March 2012

A Wild Life Worth Living

Life as a geology/paleobiology student involves a lot of rugged outdoorsy stuff, like camping and hiking and prospecting, often for long periods away from anything resembling the 21st Century. Sometimes, it's quite risky, or seems that way. You get to see a lot of wild animals in their natural habitats, which can be thrilling and (unnecessarily) frightening for newbies. I'm getting to be something of a veteran at it, so my urbanite pre-conceptions have long since worn off and left me with an ability to appreciate and observe nature as it really is.  But my first trip into the wilderness, many years ago, was actually pretty dreadful in retrospect, because I took too many precautions against negligible threats from wild animals.

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.


  1. So agreed! I love nature and get so much from spending time in the solitude of the forest - not fear and paranoia, but rather joy, excitement and peace.
    My father is a geologist...my mother went with him once to the "bush" and a black bear broke into the kitchen trailer and ate most of their food supplies, but most definitely was not interested in them. The worst of it was they had to fly in more supplies and the cook was lightly chastised for leaving the door unsecured.
    I have also camped in relatively isolated forests (ie. Northern Quebec) where wolves passed our tents in the night. I have to admit I was a bit afraid because I could hear them breathing so loudly, but they were just sniffing around and moved on. We also had a brown bear happen upon our camp when we were out and as soon as he saw us coming, he ran back into the forest.
    On the West Coast of Canada, I have encountered many deer, rabbits and other prey animals - all of which have been going through the motions of their existence with not much care or mind to us humans.

    1. VeganPossum,

      I've had encounters with bears, coyotes, foxes, deer, groundhogs, rabbits, squirrels, kangaroo rats, possums (ha ha!), birds and snakes of all kinds, as well as chuck walla lizards in Death Valley.

      Whenever I stumble upon them, or they upon me, I just sit quietly and observe their behavior. Once they figure out I'm not a threat, they go about something resembling their normal business. The groundhogs I encountered last year went right back to playing with each other, as though I weren't there. I'm fascinated by animal behavior, and often contemplate switching academic careers from paleobiology to ethology. Maybe I'll save that for grad school, though.

  2. Marvellous. I'm going to post this link on a social network site and hope it attracts more readers.

  3. This is a wonderful post. Thank you!

  4. I absolutely LOVED this entry. And I really enjoy your blog. Makes me want to translate it in its entirety just for the sake of Spanish-speaking vegans and nonvegans. Well, I own a blog about veganism too, so maybe I could translate some entries (and give you proper credit, of course) if you ever feel so inclined. If you wouldn't like that, no problem too. It's your property.

    Good day. :)

    1. Go right ahead, Veganomante. Thanks! :)

    2. Thanks.

      By the way, the whole discussion of Nature shows influencing our perception of what really goes on in the natural world reminded me of a little cognitive bias known as availability heuristic --that is, we assess the probability of an event based on the ease or difficulty of recall. Well, I suppose it is a bias so long as it doesn't work most of the time, but it is 'in our minds' because it is worth something, right?


  5. I really liked this one as well. Though I love nature shows!
    Has anyone seen that new movie where Liam Neeson and some others have to survive a vicious local wolf population? What do you think?

    Anyway, I was mainly wondering, what is it that leads you to believe that animals have goals? I know I'm 'anonymous,' but I'm not here to debate, I'm just curious. Thanks

    1. There are tons of rigorous studies piling up in the field of ethology demonstrating that animals display all the characteristics of consciousness as we define it. For instance, roosters practice deception in order to get laid. Roosters have a particular call that signals to a nearby female that he has found her some food. The female comes over and eats the food, and likely mates with the rooster later in the day, or sometimes more than a day later. But on occasion, a rooster lies; the female comes over, but there is no grub or insect awaiting her. Roosters dole out these lies in a careful fashion, because if they lie too often, hens will catch on and stop mating with them. Studies show that most rooster liars only make such false calls when hens are just far enough away that they can't tell whether there's actually food there ahead of time.

      This kind of behavior requires long-term planning and long-term individual recognition, social memory, timing, and Machiavellian intelligence of the sort once ascribed only to humans (or, if we were being generous, to other primates). I'd direct you to the journal Animal Behavior, or to Jonathan Balcombe's two excellent books, Pleasurable Kingdom and Second Nature, which distill a lot of this research into one place for a lay readership.

      There's tons of this stuff out there, to the degree that psychologists, neuroscientists and other cognition researchers are beginning to organize conferences to figure out what it all means. Turns out that everywhere we look, animals of all species are a helluva lot smarter than we ever gave them credit for.

      Anyway, any creature capable of long-term planning and deception has conscious goals, and it's not just my opinion saying so.

  6. I think your entry may have influenced Dan Cudahy's latest, though he forgot to give you credit if it did:


    Recently I've been asking vegans whether they think wild animals should have property/habitat rights, since animals have an interest in having a place to live and procure food, and animal rights are based on respecting animal interests. What do you think about giving wild animals a right to their homes?

    1. It sounds good to me, Rhys. Obviously, I'm no legal scholar and I'm sure it would open up a huge can of worms, but in principle I like it.

    2. I agree that this opens a can of (now liberated) worms -- and obviously the guy who put the worms in there needs to be punished. Giving animals a right to life and freedom from exploitation is relatively straight-forward in comparison. Habitat rights for animals would be far more disruptive to the human status quo. To me it seems like it would require the end of human civilization, since humans taking over land for agriculture, buildings, roads, products, pollution and so on makes land unfit for most of the wild animals who did or could have lived there. Of course there are animals who can still thrive in human-manipulated surroundings, but overall human civilization is a menace to wild animals.

      I'm still trying to figure out how vegans who don't want to abandon human civilization can get around this problem. Do you think habitat rights for animals means no more human civilization, or would habitat rights be less absolutist than the animal rights to life and non-exploitation?

    3. If we could just set boundaries where they already are, that would be great. But population is growing, and people are becoming wealthier. If we practice permaculture and/or we started building farms up, that can alleviate the problems. But still mining for rare minerals would be a problem. Perhaps one day we will be able to mine from asteroids, the moon, and other planets.

      Right now, I vegan protects more habitat by advocating animal rights- abandoning human civilization would just make things worse. Changing the system from the inside is easier. Also, you can farm some of your food to reduce your impact. Another way to help from the inside is donations to habitat protection (which you can do with click to donates too- http://clicks4charity.webs.com/)

      Thanks paleovegan for the article- I will be sharing it.

    4. Rhys,

      I'm not aware of any party in the real world whose rights are absolute. Competing interests almost always lead to some "acceptable" level of abridgments, and I suspect animal property rights would be no different.

      Also, I don't think animal rights to life are absolute, either, or even framed as such by most activists. Generally, it means the right not to be killed unjustly, the same as it means for humans. The idea that it is never acceptable to kill another animal for any reason ever is not animal rights as I understand it. Self-defense and euthanasia are two acceptable "exceptions" to this right that come readily to mind, for instance.

      The right not to be "exploited" is the same. I agree with most activists that most animal research, circuses and zoos are unjustified abrogations of animal rights; but I part company with many of them on the question of companion animals, provided they are obtained from shelter adoptions, rescue homes, etc., and not from breeders and pet stores.

      In short, the idea that animal rights are or must be absolute, and thus that giving them the force of law means an end to civilization as we know it, is just a wee bit hyperbolic.

    5. When I said "absolute," I meant it in the sense of rights with mitigations, as you described them. I meant that animal rights vegans want animals to have a "right to life" that is similar to the right to life for humans. You're correct, though, that absolute is a misleading way to phrase it, so I take back that phrasing.

      I'm still not clear how giving animals habitat rights could happen without ending human civilization. If the human right to life would transfer over in a similar way to other animals -- "the right not to be killed unjustly" -- then wouldn't human property rights need to transfer over to animals in a similar way? If with humans, the right to property means that people can't simply destroy your home for their own ends (or even come into your home uninvited), wouldn't it have to mean something similar for animals? Perhaps rules against trespassing are only relevant for humans, but animals definitely have an interest in having homes.

      Humans can resolve disputes over contested property through payment. They buy and sell homes, and if someone is kicked out their homes through eminent domain, they are compensated. But it's not possible for us to compensate animals for taking over their homes and building whatever we want on them. If animals have a right not to have their habitat taken unjustly, how can we ever take it? What is a just way for us to take animal homes for ourselves? If we knock down trees to make paper or more space for humans, is this considered taking animals' habitat justly? How so? This would be a rights violation if done to human homes.

      Humans have lived without civilization, so we can't even say that humans must have civilization to survive. And even if we did need civilization to survive, it's not like human property rights has a survival mitigation allowing anyone to take your home if they are going to die of exposure otherwise.

      So if human civilization is so blatantly at odds with animals' habitat rights, what is the justification for taking wild animal homes for ourselves while giving them nothing in return?

  7. Dear Humane Hominid,

    Have you considered trying to get your posts run on large sites like Huffington Post? Your articles, like this one, are so insightful—they deserve a larger audience.

    Best regards,

    Chris Holbein
    Associate Director

  8. Great post! I really enjoyed it:)

  9. I found your blog by way of your comment at the James McWilliams blog. Great and important post.

    It's true that when you immerse yourself in wild spaces, it's nearly impossible to see anything but what you describe here. I'm a wildlife rehabilitator and a photographer, and I can't even count the hours I've spent invited, to to speak, into the realm of animals who accept my presence when they realize I'm not a threat ... a "friendly" as I like to say.

    In my experience, the disruptions are sporadic but also anticipated in the sense that wild animals have a developed and sophisticated observation and communication system that helps offset the stress of predation when it does occur.

    As I mentioned at James's blog, I've had the experience of comparing both human and nonhuman predation, and the distinction is significant in terms of the animals' reactions and the magnitude of the invasion. Animals are quite aware of safe distances and behavioral clues from other predators. Our unpredictability as a species, in my view, causes some of the most stress in the groups of animals I've observed. They are never sure how to react to us, whereas the ecology of their world absent us is quite predictable.

  10. Great article. I've been reading a lot of arguments about wild animal suffering recently, with some extreme articles even suggesting mass extermination of animals to reduce net suffering as some kind of viable and humane option. People take the utilitarian approach to unfortunate extremes sometimes. This article is a wonderful counterpoint to such positions.