I live in a big city condominium with security guards, where no pets are allowed except for fish or birds. So I’ve settled for keeping two goldfish, both of them named “Freddie.” One of our neighbors lets her parakeets fly around her apartment despite the danger of bird droppings. That pretty well sums up the animal life we tolerate here. Any insects are pest controlled, so the level of sterilization is quite advanced. We’ve come a long way since I was a kid.
In my parents’ Texas suburb, the zoning laws required property owners to clear any native bush and keep proper lawns. Otherwise the tall grass and bush could harbor coyotes and rattlesnakes. Still, the neighborhood clearly retained populations of animals. The songbirds could get gloriously loud at sunrise, even though we boys tended to raid their nests and break the eggs. We also had a lot more toads and frogs back then. They mostly came out at night, and cars would run them over in the road. On hot summer evenings the swarms of moths clouded every street lamp. The ringing drone of insect hordes was so pervasive that it seemed like the sound of darkness. Once in a while, those DDT-spraying trucks came through the streets, belching white fog over the neighborhood.
The cities of our region were mostly named by the various conquerors of Texas. Corpus Christi, Victoria, San Antonio, Austin, or Houston all recalled founding pioneers who fought for lords or empires. A town on the border with Mexico was named Matamoros, which was a Spanish battle cry (“kill the Moors!”) from a previous holy war. Of course by our day all those conquests were finished, and the country was well-settled. The local Karankawa natives and the bears of Oso (or bear) Creek had been successfully eliminated long ago. Still, we retained something of the old frontier mentality. Our games in the streets re-enacted how the West was won, just like on TV. We lived in the cultural afterglow of the Wild West and inherited ancient traditions of general hostility for wild beasts. If we saw a possum or a snake, our first impulse was to jump up and race to kill it. As soon as an animal saw us coming, it fled for its life. Even now a lot of people feel that hostility towards wild animals is “conservative.” During the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election, two Americans died in shark attacks, and political adviser Mark Salter fired off an email: “Jeez, we settled the West about 130 years ago. Every place in America should be purged of vicious predators, what kind of a country are we?” (Eilperin, 2011, 198).
In our local church during the 1960s, a lot of members took a “realist” view of the world. They felt that life is a war, and no amount of sentimental wish-dreaming will ever make it otherwise. We argued over such things, and in that contentious time we increasingly disagreed over which people, nations, or animals were our enemies. Later, I saw the same sorts of disagreements in other countries. While living in India or Kenya, I noticed that the people of each culture liked or hated different sets of animals, be they wild dogs, crows, or water buffaloes. In general, it seemed like every person or beast that I hated was respected or even loved by somebody else.
Of course North American attitudes toward animals have changed a lot over the past half-century. We’ve had lots of movies where animals are the underdog heroes, and we’ve grown more selective in which animals we aim to kill. In the post-Bambi age, rising numbers of North Americans feel it’s heartless to shoot deer, and these beasts have greatly multiplied in our suburbs. Steven Rinella recently argued that culls of urban deer could easily provide “free-range, grass-fed, organic, locally produced, locally harvested, sustainable, native, low-impact, humanely slaughtered meat” (2007, August 14). But probably most modern urbanites feel that this way of getting meat to the table is morally repugnant. Most kids I know these days are simply curious about animals, or actually believe them to be cute and cuddly. They’d be horrified rather than enthusiastic if I clubbed a raccoon to death, even though those things carry all sorts of bad diseases. The raccoons of Toronto can hardly recall the days when their ancestors were shot on sight. They’ve grown so relaxed that they sometimes fall asleep on the sidewalks.
In some ways we’ve grown closer to our animal neighbors. But closer relations aren’t necessarily an improvement. As our settlements take over the landscape, the foxes, bears and big cats get pushed closer to their human neighbors. We’re taking ever more birds, fish, reptiles, and monkeys as pets, and often treating them almost like family. But these animals are mostly stolen from the wild or bred in pet factories. Our domestication of food animals has helped the populations of cows, pigs, and chickens to vastly increase, but the quality of their lives may be getting dangerously unhealthy. In general, our animal relations are changing fast. We’re increasingly concerned to preserve biodiversity, but we want cheap food and a pest-free environment. To meet our rising consumer demands, we’ve deployed a growing arsenal of chemical weapons. Joanne Lauck estimates that Western culture has classified around 10,000 species of animals as pests to be annihilated from the planet. Sometimes our campaigns of selective genocide come within a hair of success, as happened with North American wolves, buffaloes, eagles, or condors. Or else our wars on rodents, fire ants, and potato beetles involve massive collateral damage to the bats, bees, peregrine falcons, and monarch butterflies. In general, when we blow holes in our food chain, the environmental blowback tends to get serious.
Our wars with the beasts go way back, and they’ve usually seemed inescapably necessary. Beyond our prehistoric campfires, the eyes glowing in the night appeared to be agents of a greater enemy. As we cultivated a few favored plants and animals, we generally regarded other creatures as threats to our chosen few. In traditional religion, we commonly divided the world into two realms—one of the beings we value, and the other of useless pests or enemies of God. As in the logic of war, we sought to maximize the growth of certain creatures, and maximize the destruction of others. In the past, that war effort was our great crusade for civilization as we knew it. The war had a frontier, a front line, and an ongoing battle on the home front. Expanding outward from cradles of civilization in the Middle East, we progressively “tamed” the forests and grasslands, converting them to monocrop plantations or pastures. Then we had to defend our monocrops from encroaching weeds or other animals. Of course much of the problem was simply non-sustainable over-use of prized resources. But the terms “weed” and “pest” indicate a certain cultural bias. Over the course of history, we’ve fought a lot of wars to eliminate animals we hate or just can’t respect. Sometimes, unfortunately, we won. Francis Galton, the Victorian-age founding father of eugenics put it this way: “As civilization extends, they [the world’s non-domesticated animals] are doomed to be gradually destroyed off the face of the earth as useless consumers of cultivated produce” (Greenberg, 2010, 12).
Of course it doesn’t necessarily take literal war on animals to exterminate them. Simple overhunting may do. But overhunting can also be a bit like war. Hunting commonly involves advances in the techniques of killing, which arise in the drive for military advantage. As Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek explained, “from the Stone Age on, the weapons of war and the chase have been interchangeable, and one activity has been a preparation and training for the other. In modern war we learn to kill each other at great distances and on a scale which actually threatens the life of our own species. In intervals of peace we proceed to turn the technology so developed … against the lower animalsˮ (1994, 155). So when the World War II technology of sonar was turned on the ocean’s fish, it empowered an approximately 98% depletion of cod, bluefin tuna, and sharks in the North Atlantic.
In my upcoming book Animal Wars, I want to look at the range of ways we’ve related to animals. I’ll be asking how we choose whether buddyhood, fearful respect, businesslike predation, or genocidal war is the most appropriate response to each species we meet. I’ll be watching how our treatment of “inferior beings” has affected our treatment of “inferior people.” I’ll be telling stories of our various animal wars, and tracing the chain reactions we unleash when we try to weed out species we don’t like. Without much hope of making animals fit my personal preferences, I’ll be wondering how good our relations can get.
Bedichek, Roy (1994, c. 1947) Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, 5th printing, U. of Texas Press, Austin, p. 155.
Eilperin, Juliet (2011) Demon Fish: Travels through the Hidden World of Sharks. Pantheon Books, New York, p. 198.
Greenberg, Paul (2010) Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. The Penguin Press, New York, p. 12.
Lauck, Joanne Elizabeth (2002) The Voice of the Infinite in the Small. Shambhala, Boston.
Rinella, Steven (2007) “Locavore, Get Your Gun.” New York Times, August 14.
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto, and publishes with the Exterminating Angel Press.