April 2004: The Circle of Life

Let’s stop exterminating the creatures we share the planet with
April 1, 2004

One day a long time ago, when I was still in my teens, I came home from school sporting a big purple bruise on my forehead.

When my parents asked about it, I told them I had walked into a light pole. “Weren’t you watching where you were going?” my mother asked.

“No, I had to keep my head down,” I explained, “so I wouldn’t step on any of the ants.”

My parents readily accepted this explanation. Mom simply advised me to look up occasionally to see if anything was in my path. My father said nothing, just rolled his eyes. He had given up trying to change my sensitivity to other creatures after taking me trout-fishing with him a few years earlier. Not only had I refused to do anything to harm a fish, but I had even balked at first impaling a helpless worm on the hook. That was my first and last fishing trip with Dad.

Growing up in Newfoundland, where people tend to look at other animals strictly as prey and dinner fare, I was considered rather weird by my family and friends. Whereas any of my siblings would immediately swat or step on a spider in the house, I would entice it onto a scrap of paper and take it out and release it in the yard. (It might then be more exposed to birds, bad weather, or other dangers, but my compassion was sincere.)

The extent of my eccentricity came to light when one of my high-school teachers, Fred Scott, asked the class for an essay on the relative prevalence of “kindness and unkindness in our society.” As research for this assignment, I sat down on a bench across from a street whose sidewalk was traversed by numerous ants on their way to or from their anthills.

In my notebook, I divided the pedestrians I watched for about two hours into three groups: 1) those who tried to avoid stepping on the ants; 2) those who deliberately stepped on as many ants as they could; and 3) those who were completely indifferent to the ants and didn’t know or care how many they stepped on.

Each of the first two groups--the solicitous and the sadistic--comprised about 5% of the passers-by. The other 90% were the indifferent, and in my essay I rebuked them more than I did the callous ant-killers. Why? Because I felt they still had the potential to be kind to other living things, but failed to see them as co-inhabitants of the planet with an equal right to life. (Mr. Scott showed kindness by giving my essay a B+.)

I don’t mean to portray myself as a latter-day Saint Francis of Assisi in my relation to other species. I don’t fish or hunt, but I do eat fish, or even meat occasionally when it’s put on my plate. I’m still as considerate as ever with ants and spiders, and feed about 200 birds and 40 squirrels in my back-yard every morning, but my non-aggression pact with mosquitoes lasts only till I catch one of them on my arm.

The point of my little story about the ants is that today the insensitivity of most people to the creatures with whom they share the planet is threatening the survival of the human species itself.

We’re a strange lot, we humans. Most of us seem to care about other creatures only when we anthropomorphize them. We make heroes of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little, then put out mouse traps to kill their real-life relatives. We shed a tear when Bambi’s mother is shot, then approve or tolerate deer-hunting. We applaud the hens who escaped in Chicken Run, but go to Colonel Sanders for the juicy legs and breasts of the ones that didn’t get away.

This kind of schizophrenia can perhaps be excused in a species that is, after all, omnivorous. My father kept a henhouse in our back-yard that provided us with eggs for breakfast, but at Christmas, when the plumpest hen was sacrificed for the Yuletide dinner, I didn’t have any qualms about asking for a second helping.

The problem is with the ruthless and reckless extirpation of other species, not with a controlled and “humane” culling of them for food. The dodo bird and the golden toad and hundreds of other creatures have been driven to extinction, and many thousands more, including cod and other large ocean fish, are on the endangered list.

The forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate, and with them their myriad mammalian and insect denizens. Many people are sorry to see so many creatures being annihilated, but they should be feeling equally sorry for themselves and their children and grandchildren, who will also be the victims of our race’s disregard for the planet’s biodiversity. All of Earth’s life-forms, whether we realize it or not, live in an interdependent ecosphere in which the elimination of any species detracts in some way and to some degree from the quality of life of the survivors.

This is a lesson that the ecologists, biologists, and other life-scientists have desperately been trying to drum into our heads for decades. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and other dedicated groups are doing all they can to educate us and stop the ecological carnage.

As individuals, we could make a modest start this spring by trying to avoid stepping on the ants when they emerge from their underground homes. This would not contribute much in itself to the environmentalists’ cause--the ants are numerous and hardy enough to outlast us, no matter how many we step on--but it could begin the process of sensitizing us to the lives and needs (and rights) of other species. It could even make us aware of the intricate web of interdependence that Nature has woven among all the planet’s inhabitants. More of us might then come to realize that we put our own lives (or at least our quality of life) at risk when, through greed, brutality, or sheer indifference, we deprive other creatures of theirs.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected])