Inevitably in late summer, we hear all kinds of stories about encounters with wildlife, either in parks or backyards, or from people’s camping or hiking travels. Mystical, harrowing, cute, or just inconvenient, human-wildlife encounters are one of the most ordinary facets of existence, regardless of how urban you are. Our experiences with wildlife have actually increased enormously in the past few decades, thanks to nature’s ability to rebound after the centuries-long murderous spree we all went on trying to urbanize whole continents at once.
Writer Jim Sterba explains that wildlife of all kinds are experiencing a “resurgence” that is “the result of things we did to get them, nurture them and keep them” through conservation efforts. Our successes on the conservation front, he argues, has actually “turned a wildlife comeback miracle into a mess” through overpopulation and a lack of effective management.
Conservation efforts, he argues, often go into the protection of a single species, usually a cute one, at the expense of balance in nature. Even when animal populations get too numerous for local habitats to support, people are (justifiably) loath to kill off large numbers of them. This is precisely the same approach to nature that led us to devastate it in the first place.
As a species, we like to engineer the environments we live in. Currently, we’ve engineered most of our environments such that we’re largely separated from nature. When the natural world demonstrates other plans, we identify with some animals and work for them to thrive, but often forget that the hyper-success of a single species isn’t the way ecosystems work. We also forget that the identifications we make are also always about us. They serve us. We feel assuaged when we “save” something, especially and only if we don’t have to make any real changes to accommodate it.
Our relationship with resurgent animals becomes conflict-ridden and fraught for both sides because rarely are cities and towns willing to give up the space or resources animals might need. Coyotes eating beloved pets and deer trampling beloved landscaping are common examples of how sharing space with other species can lead to sites of contention. People and animals have differing agendas, and those differences have led to countless discussions of “problem” wildlife, which is itself a bit of a problem.
Nature is not a problem. When we talk about it as a problem, a nuisance, or a danger, we frame the discussion in ways that take our right to exist in a particular space for granted and assume that the (coyote, insulation-eating mouse, killer bee, whatever) does not share a similar right.
Fortunately, recent trends in city planning and environmental management have been to accept the resurgence of wildlife in areas populated by people as a fact that requires people, as well as animals, to adapt. Many initiatives have been taken to help people to understand the benefits of a diverse local environment and even to better accommodate wildlife in urban areas (like McGill University’s Urban Nature Information Service).
Benevolent ecological attitudes seem to go out the window, however, when the animal is a predator and appears to pose a threat to human life. Most North American government and humane society publications dealing with wildlife issues advise people to prevent wildlife encounters and respect the animal’s right to exist in a particular area, unless the animal becomes aggressive towards humans. It’s important to note, however, that even this is a culturally determined attitude.
Nitin Sekar writes about the differences in attitudes towards predatory animals in America and India. Americans, he says, have a tendency to support conservation when it coincides with a “perception of physical separation from the wilderness,” but to panic about predators when they violate that separation and to then revert to a default position of just wanting to shoot them. Underpinning this panic is a cultural belief that human life is the top priority and must be saved at all costs.
In India, by contrast, Sekar notes that locals who live in close proximity to predatory or destructive animals “often sense that animals are entitled to do what they need to survive,” even when those needs come at the expense of human life or property. He quotes Netra Sharma, a farmer living in Buxa Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, as saying “[e]lephants only kill one or two people every year or two, and they still leave us some rice to eat. That itself is quite generous, since we are inhabiting their land.”
Sekar suggests that attitudes like this change as people become further and further removed from the possibility of being eaten. Humans in North American culture by and large don’t seem to want to be eaten, even if that would benefit the ecosystem. I’m not suggesting we all let the grizzlies drag us off by the arm, but I’m betting that Sharma’s words sound like patent nonsense to lots of people, and if they sound like nonsense that tells us that putting ourselves into the ecosystem—letting ecosystems function like they’re supposed to function—is too radical an idea to be seriously debated in our culture. Really giving up resources and making way for nature is likewise not on the table.
Living in an ecologically responsible way is becoming more mainstream and more important all the time. As we become more invested in learning how to share space with nature, it’s useful to stay aware of how much our approaches to conservation look like the very thing that serves our purposes, and how much our approaches might actually benefit something outside of ourselves.
Read another perspective on our connection to nature in THE NATURE DEFICIT: Setting free the wild animal within to reconnect to our true nature>>