Our Place in the Natural World
Burt’s post this morning got me thinking about predators in the natural world and the way we interact with them. In the past few years I have considered myself lucky to see coyotes frequently while in the outdoors. I don’t fear them and I find them to be beautiful and fascinating creatures. Anytime I spot one I consider it a good day.
Many of the hunters I know would encourage me to shoot those coyotes. They will cite the supposed decline of small game populations and threats to livestock. The justifications they give fail to convince me. This leads me to a post from Mindful Carnivore on the subject. There Tovar quotes Aldo Leopold:
Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism.
This strikes me as intrinsically true and certainly worth further consideration. For me, the coyote has always felt like part of my natural world, not an intrusion into it. I admire their beauty, their tenacity and the ability to adapt. I have never thought of them as competition. This is not because I under-value their skills, but because I don’t feel entitled to the game they may take. Tovar discusses the same idea:
When hunters talk about what impact coyotes do or don’t have on white-tailed deer numbers, isn’t the entire discussion built on the very idea of “game”? On the notion that deer—almost like cows and sheep, or Fido and Sylvester—are, at least in part, off-limits to coyotes?
What are the consequences of believing that certain wild animals should be killed and eaten only—or at least mostly—by two-footed predators, not four-footed?
This passage struck me like a thunderbolt. I have been thinking the same thing for quite some time but was unable to articulate it so well. Previously my excuse to landowners for not killing coyotes at their request was that they looked too much like dogs and I couldn’t do it. This is true but I also added that I don’t shoot anything I won’t eat. Both are good reasons but not the moral standing I was looking for.
Lately I have thought a lot about the notion of trespassing or poaching with regards to land and wild game. I recall the stories from medieval England of men being executed for killing the king’s deer. This leads me to present day and the attitude of landowners towards trespassing. There are two kinds of trespass, intentional and unintentional. In the latter case, most of the time if a hunter wanders over a property line by accident land owners will be understanding. I have been guilty of this myself in public land with poorly defined boundaries. When confronted the conversation was uncomfortable but all was forgiven when the landowners heard my honest apology.
What if an animal was killed during the trespass? In this case we use the term poach to describe animals taken without permission or outside of approved seasons. In the case of accidental poaching, the same result would probably come about. The landowner would be unhappy and there might be some harsh words, but most likely all would be forgiven.
Readers no doubt see what I am getting at here. The coyote does not trespass intentionally and it certainly does not poach game intentionally. They no more understand property lines and the concept of ownership than would a small child, yet so many hunters and landowners would pronounce a death sentence for their offense. I cannot even get my head around this. It strikes me as not just unethical but immoral.
Modern hunters often find ourselves justifying our sport. We talk in grandiose terms about the spiritual connection we feel to the natural world. I have certainly spoken often about how a day afield is one of the most intense spiritual experience I have. In using such high language, how can we then justify killing animals that trespass unintentionally and maybe kill prey that we seek ourselves? Are we so egotistical that we now claim dominion not just over domestic game, but wild game as well? I plan to continue letting coyotes pass. If they beat me to a kill, it’s a blessing for them and a reminder that I am not alone in my pursuits.
* This post first appeared at The Big Stick in 2010. I have updated it slightly for today.