Earlier this month, officials in Australia announced plans to shoot and kill thousands of camels. What did the camels do to deserve this punishment? They were looking for water to drink, and this search brought them into human communities.
Last year, U.S. federal and state governments spent tens of millions of dollars on plans to “eradicate” bands of feral pigs. What did the pigs do to deserve this punishment? They were looking for food to eat, and this search, once again, brought them into human communities.
This year, Denver is poised to kill more of its Canada goose population, after slaughtering 1,600 geese last year. What are the geese doing to deserve this punishment? They are merely trying to live—Colorado is part of their historic range—and are seen as a nuisance.
These stories are the tip of the iceberg. While the details vary, the general theme is always the same. When human and nonhuman interests appear to conflict, we use violence, often in the form of organized extermination campaigns, to resolve these apparent conflicts in our favor.
In many cases, we use militaristic, catastrophizing language to justify this violence against other animals. Instead of portraying nonhumans as fellow creatures who are simply trying to exist, we portray them as enemy invaders who are coming to destroy our communities. For example, as The New York Times wrote last month regarding feral pigs: “Ranchers and government officials here are keeping watch on an enemy army gathering to the north, along the border with Canada.”
The idea of invasive species is political as much as scientific. The U.S. federal government, for instance, defines invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” By this definition, the mere potential to harm economic interests is enough to qualify a non-native species as invasive. Prominent ecologists like Marc Bekoff note that beliefs about the impacts of “invasive species” are value-laden too–especially when these beliefs inform decisions about whether animals live or die.
When we use invasive species rhetoric, we might not intend for our language to contribute to violence against other animals, but it does. This rhetoric creates distance with other animals, erasing them as individuals who matter morally and erasing the reality that humans attack and kill nonhumans much more than the reverse. This rhetoric makes it easier to rationalize killing other animals rather than searching for ways to peacefully co-exist with them.
Invasive species rhetoric is, of course, not the only way that humans create distance from other animals. We also create distance by calling individual animals “it” and by calling violence against certain animals a “cull.” This language is both a product of, and a contributor to, a deeper ideology that prioritizes human interests above all else, an ideology that supports a policy of dispatching with perceived threats to human interests by any means necessary.
According to this human-centric ideology, humans (or, at least some humans) have the right to self-determination. Every other animal is assigned a role based on their value to our species. At one end of the spectrum, domesticated animals are meant to live in captivity and provide humans with benefits ranging from love to food. At the other end, wild animals are meant to live in nature and provide humans with benefits ranging from beauty to ecosystem services. If wild animals play their role, we might let them be. But if they deviate from their human-prescribed role, we respond swiftly and brutally.
Human activity is increasingly leaving other animals without a place to live. Our species is taking over more of the planet, and is also, through human-caused climate change, making more of the planet uninhabitable. It is no coincidence that pigs, camels, geese, and other “invasive” species are desperately searching for food, water, and shelter. While resource scarcity has always been a threat for nonhumans, humans are making these threats worse and creating new ones. We then punish animals for trying to cope with the problems that we create.
What if, instead of assuming that nonhumans are here for us, we accept that they deserve to live their own lives? We can learn to feel inspired rather than threatened by the surprising, creative ways that other animals adapt. Pigs, for example, only exist in the Americas because humans brought them here for food, yet they have proven remarkably resilient. They can survive in many climates, and are adapting to cold weather in Canada and the northern U.S. by learning to burrow into the snow, creating so-called “pigloos.”
Similarly, what if, instead of scapegoating nonhumans for resource scarcity, we accept that humans are primarily responsible? Our focus should be on the human behaviors that are creating these scarcity problems. Camels, for example, only exist in Australia because colonists brought them there to explore the outback. Camels now live in autonomous communities, and humans are blaming—and executing—them for water scarcity. Yet Australian animal agriculture is much more responsible for this problem, along with other environmental problems.
We also need to be thoughtful when assigning responsibility for violence against nonhumans. Our focus should be on the societal structures that create human-nonhuman conflicts and the people in power who work to uphold these structures. In Australia, for instance, the people most responsible for the deaths of the camels are not the Aboriginal communities who approved the “cull”; instead, the people most responsible are the climate change-denying political leaders (and their supporters) who created this predicament.
Many conflicts with other animals can disappear over time if we restructure society to be more inclusive of other species. The more territory and resources that we protect for other animals (for example, by creating parks and reserves), the less that these animals will need to enter “our” communities looking for food, water, or homes. And, the more accommodations that we create for other animals in “our” communities (for instance, by making buildings and roads more animal-friendly), the less conflict there will be among humans and nonhumans co-existing in these spaces.
As we work to build a more just society for humans and nonhumans alike, what should we do about thirsty camels, hungry pigs, and other such animals? We might not, in this deeply imperfect world, be able to treat everyone in the manner they deserve. But we can—and must—envision better ways of living with other animals now. If we can at least discuss perceived conflicts without describing animals as pests and invaders or treating violence as the default solution, then we might be surprised by how humane we can be.
Marina Bolotnikova is a journalist in Boston interested in ideas, culture, and animals.
Jeff is Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. He is co-author of Chimpanzee Rights and Food, Animals, and the Environment.