America is struggling to hold onto a vestige of its conservation ethos (commentary)
Commentary by Cyril Christo
I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.
We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.
It is no coincidence that a poem called Howl by Allen Ginsberg at the beginning of the environmental movement helped define a generation. Most people today cannot see “ the ancient starry connection to the starry dynamo” let alone commune with the four legged ones of the wilderness. America has flayed so much of what was once the sheer magnificence of its forests and wildlife that it is indeed in danger of becoming the industrial waste land, TS Eliot, the poet foresaw in the 1920’s. Theodore Roosevelt, honored president and icon of American democracy once described the wolf as the “arch type of ravin, the beast of waste and desolation.” Less than a generation after the prairies were laid waste, he went onto Africa to shoot 11 elephants, lions and countless antelopes. A great President indeed! Even the Director of the New York Zoological Park in 1896, William Hornaday exclaimed in the fanatical language typical of his time,” Of all the wild creatures of North America none are more despicable than wolves. There is no depth of meanness, treachery, or cruelty to which they do not cheerfully descend….the most degenerate and unmoral mammal species on earth.” What about man?
Two generations after Howl, America is fighting to hold onto a vestige of its conservation ethos, a country whose National Park system was the envy of the world. In America today, a rabid lupophobia is haunting the backcountry. In May 2011 the Obama administration lifted endangered species protection for the grey wolf in the Great lakes and Northern Rockies. The parochial assassins of the innocent in medieval fashion now hold shooting contests to see how many coyotes or wolves they can bag. What is being imperiled is not just the wilderness, it is the entire moral fabric of a very young country fast losing its environmental compass.
Let us not forget that dogs bred from wolves as far back as 30,000 years ago helped humans hunt and survive the Pleistocene period and even outsmart the Neanderthals. With their ability to communicate and read the sclera, the white portion of the eye, wolves connected with our gaze and helped us coordinate hunts and prey on the larger mega-fauna of the Northern hemisphere such as elk, bison and maybe even mammoths. Without the wolf, humans may not have fared quite as well over the millennia defending themselves against other carnivores such as lions and leopards. We are indebted to them as few other creatures on earth. They truly are and have been our best friends emotionally and evolutionarily for millennia. Our alliance with the canine family enabled us to realize our potential as a world dominating species. In our consistent persecution of these beings in recent European and American history, as with all other predators on earth, we risk becoming the only large carnivore on earth and perhaps ultimately even self -cannibalization.
Loren Eiseley, the remarkable nature writer wrote, “ One does not meet oneself until one has seen one’s reflection in an eye other than human.” With no other being in the American West is this more true than the wolf. And yet across the West the wolf is facing morally bankrupt state bureaucracies like that in Oregon that wants to delist the wolf from the endangered species list. The 100 or so wolves in that state have barely recovered. The wolves in neighboring Idaho having been mercilessly gunned down as if they were the target for a free for all killing frenzy from the OK Corral. In the last few years after Congress stripped Endangered Species protection for the wolf in 2011 about 1600 wolves have been decimated as vermin. The very esteemed state of Idaho even put up $400,000 dollars at one point to kill 500 wolves. The Governor Butch (the butcher) Otter even wanted to be the first to shoot a wolf. What kind of enlightened officials does America elect? It has taken the US 40 years to recover some figment of the wolf population. How will the recently-spotted wolf pack in northern California fare? Wolves have recovered little in the Great lakes area and in the northern Rockies. Congress was under the belief that the states could responsibly manage their population. I once had a conversation with an official in Idaho who told me the species had to be managed. When I asked what exactly what that meant, he promptly shut the phone on me. When I learned that my state, the so called Land Of Enchantment was fast becoming the state of entrapment, willing to raise the quota to kill hundreds of black bears and mountain lions, I knew New Mexico’s soul was in trouble. At a recent meeting with Game and Fish, one woman on the board was “ terrified” at the prospect of more Mexican Grey wolves(the world’s rarest) being released into the Gila. No-one was allowed to speak on behalf of New Mexico’s bear, lion and wolf population. US Fish and Wildlife Service now wants to take away protection for wolves in all the lower 48 states. The persecution of the wolf continues the age old devastation and ruthlessness our species has imposed on the entire outback of the American landscape ever since Lewis and Clarke heard there might still be mammoths roaming out West over 200 years ago.
Wolves have been hounded, literally, since the onslaught of the ‘godless’ wilderness early in America’s history. They were considered not just ravenous but ravening suggesting a character that was excessively lustful, dangerous and even wicked. Wolves were perceived to be agents of criminality. Wolves ate livestock as communities were compared to the proverbial sheep in the Bible who had to defend themselves against the rapaciousness and rabidity of the outback as personified by wolves. Wolves were often associated with the Devil, as native Americans were associated as godless heathens and savages. Few bothered to understand the extraordinary wisdom the natives embodied, as the very people who could save the environmentally unconscious pioneers from themselves. When the tens of millions of bisons were destroyed by the late 19th century, in part to destroy the native livelihood, so too were the wolves. The colonists could not stand the idea of rival predators and shot wolves for fur, out of sadism and sheer arrogance worthy of the pioneering spirit.
Today the livestock industry continues the killing mania and ethos of the early Americans. Wolves perceived as agents of wicked intention became a stand in for the pioneers’ own wickedness. And that wickedness, no evil, goes forward undaunted and unabated. Nevermind that the cattle industry the world over is one of the most egregiously polluting and inhumane industries on the planet, on par with the fossil fuel industry. One estimate from the documentary Cowspiracy funded by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way puts the global emissions and fertilizer waste by the cattle industry at half the world’s atmospheric pollutants. A very good reason indeed to stop eating meat. It is costing humanity the lifeline to existence. If humanity should ever lose the wolf, the tiger or the increasingly challenged lion of Africa, it will be humanity that is considered the ultimate “cosmic outlaw” as Henry Beston once exclaimed.
I speak for the wolf and the life force it engenders not as an expert. I have only seen them once in the Lamar valley in Yellowstone when my wife was pregnant with our son Lysander who is now doing a report, of all beings, on wolves. He knows he was being created before great creatures whom we now realize have provided a great service to the larger eco system of Yellowstone since reintroduction in 1995. He is aghast at those ranchers and trophy hunters who recently were poised just outside of the park boundaries ready to shoot wolves to oblivion. He does not understand the adult world that is taking his world away from him. Lysander once said,” We have landed on the moon but we have not landed on earth yet.” His is a very special period in time when the very species he has grown up with, the very animals he reads about in school and which have helped him speak, read and formulate the complexities of human language are being massacred in droves. The fear and greed towering in the persecutors minds will have to answer the children of tomorrow if we should lose what is left of the West in the body of such creatures as the wolf. Mary Midgley, the grand dame of moral philosophy with regards to the animal world wrote that, “ man has always been unwilling to admit his own ferocity, and has tried to deflect attention away from it by making animals out to be more ferocious than they are.”
By comparison to the maddening moloch of destruction that inhabits the hapless murderers of wildlife, the NRA and the safari clubs around the world paying untold tens of thousands to behead a lion, or elephant, wolves are furred angels by comparison. The depravity of the gun-toting ranchers out West have waged a war against the wolf. Recently in an ironic twist of fate, the Federal government decided that New Mexico, in direct contrast to the narrow mindedness of the local Fish and Game department had to release more wolves into the Gila wilderness. Of course they do. The Mexican wolf’s future depends on it. They are on the verge of extinction. The bestial, and brutish qualities local authorities have ascribed to the wolf, will come back to bite them. The devil, often depicted in animal form, resides not in the carnivores we seek to obliterate; it haunts the heartless and mindless ones in charge of the desecration of life. Crusades against the other, wanton trapping and annihilation of those very beings that bring wonder to our children, are the work of those who fear life. It is part and parcel of the work of those who say they may be pro -choice and pro- life and once a baby is born, pull the rug of life from under the very feet of the new born and who cut money for education, health care, planned parenthood and the environment. The hypocrisy takes on Biblical proportions. And of course many who subscribe to medieval concepts of history do not believe in evolution. They are living in the 12th century not the 21st! Why do children play violent video games? Because they are appallingly bored and nature is collapsing all around them. And adults wonder why children play with guns and kill each other at school!
Ours is an adolescent country that destroyed the first peoples of an entire continent. We are incurring monstrous climatic changes in the oceans and land and in the atmosphere. We are fully to blame because we have for 250 years manifested infamy and perfidy over the other beings of the world. What we have done to the land mammals we have also done to the oceans either by overfishing, polluting on a barbaric scale across the seven seas or by blowing out the inner ears of the grandest mammals on earth, the whales. The war on wildlife has to stop. The Manichean divide between those who wish to preserve and those who pay to slay or maim occupies our souls like an enormous lesion in the midst of our brains. We don’t know what we want as a species. Either we love children enough to save what is left of life and therefore the animals on which they depend for wonder and imagination or we eliminate the life force this century. There is no third option.
The howling of coyotes we daily hear outside our beds at night is a last vestige of sanity in a land that Edward Abbey warned could become “ a high tech slum”. The cry of the wolf, unlike the yelping of its smaller cousin, is one of the most haunting, and penetrating sonic landscapes in the world. Many people long for it and seek it out. For, it is the song of the wilderness. Woe betide a country of 500 million Americans with no wolves or grizzlies or cougars. “We must save them, if at all, because without them we are lost”, wrote the human ecologist Paul Shepard. Without the others there will be no point on being on this earth anymore. The paroxysm of evil that is eliminating anything that is not human is metastasizing seemingly beyond repair. In an age of climate disruption beyond anything humanity has ever witnessed, the last thing wildlife of any kind needs is belligerent, fanatical humans as the only predator on earth.
2015 is a cardinal year for the climate of the planet. The XL pipeline that would have been the nail in the coffin in America’s deranged climate policy has finally been cancelled, let us hope permanently. But the crusaders of a lesser conscience, the trophy hunters from Texas, the climate change deniers are still out in droves feeding on fear and denial. In Africa, of all places, true men, Maasai warriors who used to pit their bravery spear in hand against a 500 pound predator with claws were real men. Many of them have now become lion guardians. Because they know that the lions will bring the tourists and the tourists will bring much needed revenue to the local communities. The lion, if it survives in Africa, will be saved by those who want to witness some semblance of the supernal landscape that is the cradle of humanity, our place or origin. The opposite of origin, is oblivion. If we lose the lion, as LionAid based in London has indicated, it will be partly thanks to the destroyers of the innocent, trophy hunters, moral cowards who keep fast to their pay to slay behavior and which is imperiling the genetic base of the lynch pin in the entire fabric of the second biggest continent on earth.
Will the wolf survive the rabid impulse of murder the cattle industry fosters in America? Wolves are making a come back in Europe where they are protected the Norway, France, Germany and elsewhere. So what is America’s excuse? In Europe farmers have to tolerate wolves. What on earth are we doing here? If we frack in national parks and kill off the wildlife, it will be no wonder children will have only one thing left, to indulge in gun toting, free for all, nature deficit disordering violent video manic nightmare behavior well into the century. Indeed children will ask, where has all the wildlife gone? And children, what vestige is left of childhood, will be led by the hand of all their well meaning soccer moms and dads who will say to their kids, look honey, this is where the wild things were! The children of 2050 will ask, with tears in their eyes, is this is your legacy to us? The adventures of Snoopy in Peanuts and Disney movies will hardly fill the gap for a wilderness starved youth!
After the Paris climate summit there can be no turning back. The annihilators of life, the poachers, the trophy hunters of the world are a species of arrogance and treachery the world cannot afford any longer. Maybe one day trophy hunting will be considered a crime, on par with murder. Will we still have children in 2050? Or half sensate simulations of children, remote controlled half humans who only half recognize an image of a wolf and call it a lion or a photo of elephant and call it a hippo! No art, symphonies or man made artifice will be able to console us. It is the grand lesson of this time. Go and listen to the wolves and remember why you were put on this earth. Fight for the others of this planet lest one day the ghost of those beings who once were, stalk us inconsolably to the other side of the bearable, to a fathomless horizon where nothing moves but the shallow corridors of our immensely lonely breath immobilized under the starry nights, all alone under a heaven and a hell of our own making. An elder Samburu, that remarkable tribe in northern Kenya, who honor the elephant, said it best,” If were to lose the elephant, and the other animals of this world we will lose our minds. The only thing left will be to kill ourselves.” Ditto for that innocent longtime survivor of the canid world, the wolf, who has had to bear so much bloodlust, and genocide from a ruthless out of balance, neophyte species called man.
For most of human so called civilized history mankind has had slaves, often in the form of women, its better half. Wolves have been demonized like few animals in history. Even incidents of viciousness in wolves are too few and rare to mention. Yes, one lone jogger was killed in 2010 in Alaska. Between 1915 and 2001, 39 instances of aggressive behavior were recorded and twelve from rabid wolves. And who can say what provoked the wolves? Yearly, more bees and dogs kill people than wolves and sharks combined by a long shot. In the next few years of this decade, much of the fate of the world lies in the balance. And much of humanity’s destiny lies in the hands of those beings that are still free, its wildlife, those who have paws and fins and claws and wings. It is time humanity saw the forest for the trees lest we fall off the cliff of time as a ground breaking, soulless creature with an overbearing intellect and diabolical ego who pulverized everything in its way. We are pining for the stars but it is here on earth that life beckons from every corner. In the words of Martin Luther King who understood man’s inhumanity to man and animals better than most ,” One day the absurdity of the almost universal human belief in the slavery of other animals will be palpable. We shall have discovered our souls and become worthy of sharing this planet with them.”
Cyril Christo is a photographer and film-maker. He has been interviewed previously on Mongabay, including Butchering nature’s titans: without the elephant ‘we lose an essential pillar in the ability to wonder’, Ten years after Lost Africa: a retrospective on indigenous issues, and Predator appreciation: how saving lions, tigers, and polar bears could rescue ourselves.