In the July 10th edition of The Vancouver Courier, a community newspaper, there was a story about a woman whose cat was injured and nearly killed by two coyotes. The woman’s response was to immediately call for a culling of coyotes in the area, in order to make nighttime prowling safer for domesticated animals. “‘I paid four times as much for my house to live in a city,'” the woman complained, “‘because I don’t want to walk around the street with a rifle like a country bumpkin every time I go out for a walk at night to protect myself against wildlife.” It is interesting to note, as the article points out, that the last time a human being was bit by a coyote in this city was in 2001.
One of the defining characteristics of modern human beings is the extent to which we have cut ourselves off from the natural world. We anthropomorphize animals in children’s cartoons and stories. We drive through Yellowstone Park in our air-conditioned SUVs, and insist on feeding the bears in the Rockies. But when our encroachment on nature causes nature in some way to become inconvenient to us, our response is to eradicate the problem. Likewise, we simply cannot turn down the opportunity of exploiting nature to turn a profit.
In his book The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire, celebrated ethnobotanist and author Wade Davis recounts the chilling story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a bird which once “accounted for 40 per cent of the entire bird population of North America.” There is an account from the year 1870, “at a time when their numbers were already greatly diminished,” of approximately two billion passengers passing over Cincinnati, comprising a formation about 1.5 kilometres wide by 500 kilometres long – a miraculous sight that must have been staggering to the imagination. A mere twenty-six years later, though, “fifty years after the first serious impact of man,” the entire population of passenger pigeons had been reduced to approximately 250,000 birds. The reason for this startling depletion? Irresponsible human hunting arising from the fact that during the nineteenth century pigeon meat was a “mainstay of the American diet.” As Davis explains, the term “stool pigeon” derives from the practice of pigeon hunters sewing together a live birds eyelids, attaching it to a pole driven into the ground, and waiting for its cries of anguish to bring other birds to it. Of course, these birds would be easy prey for the waiting hunters, armed with clubs. By 1914, “as the Battle of the Marne consumed the flower of European youth, the world’s last passenger pigeon died in captivity.” In our own day, in the depletion of and extinction of fish stocks and the destruction of countless wild habitats, we see numerous echoes of this atrocious violence and waste.
Obviously, we see ourselves as being something apart from and above the so-called “natural world”. Because we don’t feel any real connection to the universe beyond the self, we feel that we can use and manipulate it any way we like. For all of our consciousness and intelligence, when we pollute a stream or contaminate a gene pool we consistently fail to see that we are hurting, diminishing, and ultimately destroying ourselves.