If the life of natural things, millions of years old, does not seem sacred to us, then what can be sacred? Human vanity alone? Contempt for the natural world implies contempt for life. The domination of nature leads to the domination of human nature. Anything becomes permissible.
— Edward Abbey, in Beyond the Wall: Essays From the Outside
On the first day of February, we welcome the Year of the Tiger. Could there be any better time to talk about the human primates’ self-styled dominion over other living beings?
I include here the “benign” and “merciful” forms of dominion that lend their energy to the whole of it. Consider the campaign messages that laud our keeping of animals, as long as we treat them all as pets. “Why love the dog but eat the pig?” “Friends, not food!”
Or consider the notion that anti-cruelty laws are somehow connected with rights. As though the breeding of other Earth dwellers to suit a human purpose could somehow be uncruel.
By covering so much of the Earth with our entourage of domesticated animals, and taking up further space to grow the feed and bury the waste, we have crowded out the independent ones. In our relatively brief time on the planet, Homo sapiens has wiped out 83% of the communities of untamed mammals. Our collective weight is many times the weight of all of the free-living mammals combined. Sixty percent of all mammals on the planet today are purpose-bred for our grocery lists.
Robbed of Their Evolution
The free ancestors of today’s purpose-bred cows were the much bigger aurochs. In groups, they could trample us. But we, ever the clever apes, came up with a way to selectively breed them as smaller, more docile animals. Then, instead of preparing hunting cohorts to stalk them, we could make them accessible and push them around (and, when we’re in the mood, torment them in bullfights and bullruns).
We stalked and bred the aurochs out of existence. Cattle have been robbed of their ancestral stature, relationships, and liberty forever. In light of that loss, the call for selectively bred farm animals to be regarded as “friends, not food” is a rather degrading statement. Once we stop to notice the massive effect our habit of purpose-breeding others has had on the course of evolution, how could images of animals in controlled circumstances be considered ideal and adorable? These images must, instead, fill us with remorse.
Imagine the history the aurochs could have created for themselves on their planet, had we only let them be. And as for the animals we call friends, their birthright was to continue their evolution as wolves and wildcats.
A Fork in the Road
Lately, I find myself wondering what we gave up when we domesticated ourselves—when we set out to conquer our biological communities. It’s quite possible that no living community can domesticate others without doing the same to itself in the process.
The assumption is that technology—weaponry, engines, medicines, and animal husbandry—always signals progress. But once upon a time, we must have come to a fork in the road. We might have decided to make respect our guiding star. What if we had? We’d have averted the Anthropocene.
Jeffrey Masson has written:
I believe the single most dangerous idea of the human community is pseudospeciation—the belief that we are superior. This leads to depersonalization of “other” cultural groups within humanity, as it mimics our notion of dominion over all nonhuman life on the planet. If sustained any longer, it will surely undo us and much of the living world. How long can we cling to our illusory feeling of control that has already fashioned hominids into the most destructive presence the Earth has known? Yet there is hope; we do have the mental power to decide on the side of respect rather than exploitation. The point is to strive.
What would we be if we relinquished our supremacy? Before we assumed it, our ancestors had co-evolved with the trees, the flowering herbs, the big cats. Like the deer, early humans looked for pathways between the fertile edges of the woods and taught each other how to move along those paths for many generations. We may have forgotten our origins, but they are forever etched into our DNA. And every moment we meander peaceably through the woods, or watch the sky as the bats begin to dance, has its own purpose. Our presence in these moments is a connection to the memory of who we are. A connection to our identity as part of animal life in the intricate web of energy and elements that gave rise to our kind. Homo sapiens. The cleverest, most successful, and ultimately most rapacious mammals to arise from what we know of the planet’s history.
We’re well known for killing deer and other large herbivores. Through this activity we substitute ourselves for the indigenous carnivores and omnivores (whom we also kill). Despite the diminished state of these animals, the mere mention of them, more often than not, is met with suspicion or revulsion. Heaven help the coyote who looks askance at somebody’s corgi or tabby. We are experts at erasing nature so we can take our domesticated animals out to cavort on the lawns and the public parklands, and then call each other heartily: Come enjoy the great outdoors!
Looking Through the Fissures
Fifty leading scientists have announced that expanding government parklands can help slow the loss of biodiversity, but that far more—transformative change, they say—is needed to stop it.
Not that these parks are places of protection. Speaking on climate action, the Department of the Interior joins the USDA, the Department of Commerce, and the Council on Environmental Quality to state: “Conserving fish and wildlife habitat and improving access for hunting and fishing spurs the sale of gear, boats, travel, and outfitting.”
In my nearby national park at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, white-tailed deer have been baited and shot for many winters. A decent policy would call us to respect both the deer and the area’s free-living predators. They are the Eastern coyotes—animals trying to fill the vacuum we created by extirpating the wolves—and the bobcats. Long ago, bigger cats roamed this same land.
Beneath Valley Forge National Historical Park, in an ancient fissure, is a trove of fossils. In Pleistocene times, the land was home to Miracinonyx inexpectatus, or American cheetahs, and Smilodon gracilis—sometimes called sabre-toothed tigers.
These cats died out in a major extinction event some 12,000 years ago. The event is sometimes attributed to climatic change and the cats’ narrow range of prey. But some researchers believe the die-off resulted from the pressure of Homo sapiens, who arrived on the continent around then, and likely dreaded the trouble and risk of competing with these apex carnivores. We are not at the top of the food chain, except through artifice, deliberate cruelty, and sprawl.
Unlike the sabre-toothed cats, the tigers of the world are still with us. Barely. Just a few thousand free-living tigers inhabit bits of their ancient lands. They’re doing their best to hold on, but are constantly targeted by humans with guns and snares, and squeezed out by our farms, roads, and cities.
So, as we approach the lunar year of the tiger, I have a request of the metaverse. This one isn’t for Activision Blizzard or Microsoft. It’s for whoever’s in there looking through the cracks in the pavement, the fissures underground. Can you take us back that fork in the road? Can you show us where that other path leads? The one that runs along the fertile edges of the woods, under the sky as the bats begin to dance. The one that connects us to our original universe, to the memory of who we are.
Thanks to Bill Drelles, Heather Steel, Patricia Fairey, and Chris Kelly for helpful notes and conversations during the writing of this piece.