Friday, 27 June 2014

The life and death of animals

There's a great piece in the New York Times about how live cameras of wild animals change public interactions with wildlife You can read it here. In a nutshell, people began watching and discussing a live stream of a bald eagle nest. It became apparent one of the three chicks was in distress. The government agency in charge of the live stream had explicitly stated that they would not interfere with nature in such situations. Yet they find themselves in the midst of a social media firestorm over their policy, which is sensible from a natural history and conservation perspective. Ultimately, the issue becomes political and they are compelled to act, which results in the chick being euthanised as a consequence of serious injuries. The original article tells it better than I do, so go read that.
In the discussion that has followed, the viewers who pushed so hard for something to be done are often chastised as stupid, uninformed, emotional. Armchair activists anthropomorphizing nature, and interfering with good conservation work. There's much to unpack here, but the issue strikes home for me because of something that happened just this week while I've been on holiday by the lakes of Ontario.
While canoeing on the lake, my brother and his wife came across a fawn in the water. It was far from shore, exhausted, lost, and very young. Now, here's the thing. My brother hunts and fishes. Most of the people we were with do too. I'm a pretty well trained zoologist. None of us are sentimental about animals. This was a young fawn, in the middle of a large body of water. We didn't know where its mother was. We didn't know if it was weaned. We were all leaving soon. Everyone knew how this would pan out, and everyone knew that this probably happened quite often. The mortality rate for fawns is high.
And yet my boyfriend went out in a canoe to find the fawn. We watched from the dock. We saw him reach the fawn and try and guide it to shore. We saw the fawn disappear beneath the water. He canoed back, alone. He saw the fawn go under. He heard the water enter its lungs.
Like I said, we all knew what would happen. We all knew the fawn wasn't going to make it even if it got out of the lake. There was a moment when I wished for a rifle, so that it would end. So that no one would have to watch, helpless, as the fawn drowned. But we did something, though it achieved nothing.
I suspect that more people then we realise knew how the bald chick situation was going to go down. But they were watching. They were witnessing the suffering of another living thing and they wanted to do something to end it. Is that really an impulse we should be criticizing? How much do we want people to be able to view suffering dispassionately? We all have to learn, sometimes in the hardest possible way, that we are often helpless in the face of suffering inflicted by an uncaring universe. It does not follow that we should teach people not to be compassionate.
I work with animals now. I'm an experimental biologist now. We all know what that means. Yet we care about our animals. We care about their suffering, even as we inflict it. And we try to relieve it as best we can.
The chick died; the fawn died. We watched; we felt; we cared; we tried; we achieved nothing. That does not mean we should care less.

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