Monday, October 26, 2009

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

My veterinarian-friend and I used to chat about the implications of treating animals ethically and the criminal penalties for their mistreatment, and she made a point one rarely hears. What if a hit and run involving a squirrel (a common victim, it seems) carried the same liability as a similar case involving a human? Or what if animal cruelty was regarded as equivalent to child or spousal abuse? The impact on the criminal justice system alone would be overwhelming.

Not that she is opposed to strict enforcement of existing laws and she volunteers (where she gets the time, I'll never know) as a medical expert in animal rescue efforts. But she doesn't allow her passionate love for animals to cloud her professional judgment about the ethical complications inherent in sharing the earth with members of other Kingdoms, Phyla, Classes, Orders, Families, Genus, and Species.

And I think that's the conception that lies at the core of the discussion, namely, that we are truly late-comers on the biological scene -- other creatures were here first. Now, that argument in and of itself has never been a persuasive one. Consider the
westward expansion of our own country. The fact that Native Americans were "there" first, didn't prohibit the settling of the West. Nevertheless, my point is we aren't alone on this planet, and the presence of other creatures necessitates adaptation if we're going to think and behave ethically.

But adapting to changing conditions is difficult at best and we're not always very good at it. At various times there are those among us who've not only been resistant, but downright oppositional to the idea of full social equality for non-Caucasian races, women, and Gay persons. It's not just Spotted Owls, old-growth forests, or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- some of us have a real problem treating other h

Mountain lion.

umans fairly.

The mindset that regarded Manifest Destiny as a sufficient reason for imposing our will on the environment is long past its prime. We never really had the luxury of pretending our actions had no lasting consequences. They did and they still do. The community of creatures living in adjacent spaces requires me to use good judgment in my relations with them simply because I can. It's not reasonable to expect mountain lions and bears to read a no-trespassing sign and if I'm going to live in close proximity to their habitats, I've got to be prepared to take some risks: they shouldn't have to pay the price for my pleasure. Living ethically sometimes involves as much common sense as it does philosophy.


(Public domain image of a mountain lion via Wikipedia)
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