Sentient animals: we’re all on the same team, right?

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

Grizzlies and bobcats are more than just native wildlife here in Montana. The University of Montana Grizzly football team (go Griz!) takes on the Montana State University Bobcats (grrrr) in the Brawl of the Wild every year–the state’s biggest, most ferocious rivalry. This past year, when both teams were heading to the FCS quarterfinals, ESPN didn’t offer television coverage and the scat hit the fan.

In less than a week, the outrage spread to 90,000 Facebook users. More than 23,000 signed a petition. ESPN was bombarded with messages. A university system regent sent a plea. One fan contacted a law firm. Montana’s congressional delegation intervened, and finally, a pay-per-view solution materialized. Wrote one protester on his Facebook page: “You just don’t push a Bobcat and a Grizzly into a corner without someone getting hurt…and it ain’t gonna be the wild critters.”

This got me to thinking about the real wild critters–the ones whose admirable qualities we love to appropriate as our own–and how the reverse is true: the wild ones do get hurt when they pursue their interests too close to human concerns, prejudices, and appetites. When they are intentionally killed for their behavior (“euthanized,” we like to call it) or their fur, petitions seldom circulate and viral protests don’t materialize.

Take grizzlies. Despite the rare, fatal mauling, bears are usually on the receiving end in human encounters. In 2010, according to a Missoulian article, “humans killed at least 50 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone Park, mostly by accident or for getting into livestock or other human food sources.” Up in northwest Montana, 28 individual bears were captured 44 different times in 2011; six of those bears were killed.  If they are sows with cubs, the kids are carted off to zoos, their lives as wild bears terminated. Within roughly a week at the end of November, six wild bears were ejected from the game when two moms were executed (let’s call it what it is) and four cubs captured. They had gotten into accessible attractants–chicken coops, animal feed, and pigs.

Let’s review the play: Humans encroach in griz territory; they provide attractants to which bears become habituated; they blame the animals (label them “problem bears”), call a foul and demand a penalty. While it might seem logical and ethical that humans should alter their behavior to accommodate their wild neighbors, MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the state management agency, calls a different play: “As the (Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem) grizzly bear population continues to grow, FWP can be more aggressive with removing those females and males that continue to conflict with humans.” Humans get to punt away their responsibility and accountability AND keep the ball. Go team!

Bobcats? Brought down by baited traps in their own territory. In seven trapping districts across Montana, a total of 1,925 bobcats can be killed (some districts exceed their quota). At $411.84 each (2010-11 prices–this year’s will likely be higher), trappers can walk away with just under $793,000 for someone else’s skin. No wonder Montana is called the Treasure State! But the bobcats themselves pay–in pain, terror, exposure to intense cold and predation, and the final “dispatch”–provided they survive their time pinned in the trap (there’s no required trap check interval in Montana).  Bobcats are also subjected to hunting and chasing with hounds, including a “chase-only” overtime season that extends to mid-April.

It’s a sad world where our mascots garner more passionate support than the real-life counterparts who inspired them. But this is a human conundrum—our fascination with animals, our admiration and proclaimed love for them, coupled with our willingness to exploit them or let them be exploited while we stand by, mute. This is particularly true for animals “grown” to be eaten. Though their wildness was domesticated away thousands of years ago, they still feel pain, know fear, love their babies, and would choose to walk into the sun, if only they could escape the industrial hell into which they’re born, they live, and die. To deny them even this much consideration is to deny 500 years of advancement in ethics and science.

Whether factory farmed or wild, animals are at the mercy of humans, and our species hasn’t been particularly merciful–allowing even our beloved cat and dog companions to be killed by the millions every year. If we prefer to relate to our fellow animals in the abstract–in heart-warming movies, as “ham” instead of pig, or wearing our team’s jersey–we’ve already won.

But if we want more for them–and us–we need to change the rules, if not the game itself. A new year is the perfect time to recruit compassion and fair play to our side because, when the clock runs down to zero, we’re all on the same home team.

A shorter version of this post appeared in the Missoulian on 1/9/12.

6 Responses

  1. This is another of your blogs, Kathleen, where I nod in agreement throughout until the end, when I shake my head in amazement and sigh: “Yup, she’s got it, alright. I couldn’t say it any better.”

    The only point I might add is that, unlike animals bred for our food, those farmed for their fur have NOT been domesticated. Being wild, they go even more mad in their cages than does, say, a poor pig sardined into a crate.

    Someday, those of us on Team Merciful will have enough moral suasion and legal clout to successfully defend the animals in their own territory. We’ll be able to sack the strong-armed QBs of Team Merciless for big losses … prevent their runners and receivers from gaining a single yard … block all their punts and field goals … send them scurrying to the sidelines and even to the locker room (or lock-up?) — and list them in the record books as the biggest losers of all time.

    Yes, someday, there will be no more game(s) for the heartless hit squad. They’ll be history.

  2. Someday the killing of animals will be seen as the murder of men is seen now, Leonardo DaVinci (paraphrased). We are nowhere close to that and I doubt that it will ever happen because we humans want more of what is bad for nonhuman animals.

  3. Great article. With increased education hopefully more people will understand and appreciate the importance of animals. It is only a matter of time before this happens and animals no longer have to needlessly suffer.
    -Igor Purlantov

  4. All that you’ve written is certainly true regarding mascots and sports… We can even look to the naming of autos to see our dissonance: The Mustang, The Cougar, The Stingray and on and on.

    It’s like we’re still trapped in the caves thinking if we consume or use some entity of a nonhuman that we’ll be charged with those mythical powers. We’ve such a long way to go…

  5. Kathleen, again, another post I wish I’d written. Add to the mix the ridiculous disneyfication of animals (every time I turn around there’s another rubbery-faced talking animal singing at me from a new movie), and it’s no wonder children growing up urban and suburban these days are clueless about real nonhumans.

    If I had my wish, I’d have children, urban and non, grow up learning wildlife rehab at a tender age (instead of disney on the one hand or hunting/rodeo on the other). That way they’d at least have a clue, and the deck wouldn’t be stacked so deep against nonhumans.

  6. The oft-repeated argument that people are “encroaching” upon grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming might get it backward.

    Yes, grizzlies were initially pushed out of their habitat as the area was being settled in centuries and decades long past.

    However, it’s not 1880 any more, and we can’t pretend that it is.

    I will note, to briefly digress, when it comes to wolves, griz and other predators in in GYE, the extreme views on both ends – “kill them all,” or “don’t kill any” – both seem to want to pretend it is 1880. The one side wanting to act as if human settlement never happened, and the other side wanting to act as if the approach to wildlife prominent in those days should be implemented today.

    Be all that as it may, the current grizzly population in the GYC isn’t “native” in the strictest sense of the term. Rather, it would be better described as a recovered or reintroduced population.

    It was decided some 30 years or so ago to place the then-struggling griz population under federal protection and allow the great bear some leeway in bouncing back. Mind you, that was already after the area was considerably settled and the GYC had become — as it remains — essentially a ecological “island” in a sea of urban, suburban and pastoral territory.

    Therefore, predictably, as the grizzly population has grown, bears have continued to push out from the wild heart of the GYC, and into the aforementioned more settled areas. So, one could just as logically argue, the grizzlies are the ones doing the encroaching.

    There is currently some concern over the effects of the decline of white bark pine, because the grizzlies in some sectors of the GYC rely upon the pine nuts for a food source.

    However, some reputable bear researchers have noted the fat reserves and overall robust health of bears in the areas of white bark pine and other zones deep in the wild interior as a good or better than ever.

    That speaks to a couple of things. First, it confirms what many bear experts say — that grizzlies are highly opportunistic and adaptable, and when one food source diminishes, they are quite adept at finding others.

    Secondly, it weakens the argument that grizzlies are being driven out of the wild areas, and into zones of more potential conflict with humans, out of sheer hunger. At the same time it strengthens the argument that some bear experts have made — essentially, that the wild interior of the GYC has become saturated with grizzly bears, so the population is pushing outward.

    Whatever the outcome of those arguments, there is wide agreement that the GYC’s grizzly population has more than exceeded its recovery goals.

    The success of any program involving large predators hinges heavily on public tolerance. Thus far, many residents have been more than patient. Even now, the great bears are admired and respected by locals — who support the general concept of them being here.

    However, that has its limits, and the increasing conflicts with bears — up to and including fatal maulings — is sorely testing that.

    Grizzlies (and wolves for that matter) are essentially wilderness animals. The potential for conflict in settled, rural or pastoral areas is just to great with those particular species. Every living thing stakes out a territory and defends its boundaries, humans should be no exception.

    The GYC contains enough vast tracts of truly wild country to support a robust population of grizzlies. But there is also nothing wrong with taking whatever measures are necessary to protect human interest and safety.

    My views are my own, but they are also gleaned from considerable time spent in the company of bear biologists, land managers, farmers, ranchers, rural residents and backcountry experts. In other words, people for whom living with and understanding grizzlies is a concrete fact of life — not an arbitrary concept about which to make sweeping statements.

    (I’ll also note, biologists I’ve spoken with have indicated Bobcat populations are doing well across a wide range.)

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