A man emerges onto his deck in a rural Colorado neighborhood. He whistles and calls, “Who’s hungry? Come on, who’s hungry? Single file!” Like a pack of trained dogs–Pavlov comes to mind–some 20 deer come running for the chow about to be dispensed. Watch it for yourself on Wimp.com (“Meet Mr. Snow White“).
I discovered this video on The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Facebook page (scroll down to one of the January 7, 2014 entries), and while, as a vegan, I largely subscribe to the abolitionist approach, I seem to inhabit a different universe where spectacles like the deer-feeding follies are concerned. I was dismayed.
Before long, I found myself wondering which was more distressing: the misguided feeding of wild animals, or the 125-plus comments from followers of the page–vegans, in other words. It took 34 comments–including hearts, smiley faces, and expressions of awww followed by abundant exclamation points–before someone asked, “How does accustoming deer to men who resemble deer hunters help the deer?” A few others eventually touched on this idea. Down around the 50th comment, someone revealed (having explored a Facebook connection) that the deer-feeder was also a hunter.
Now comments like “love the dude!” “what a kind man,” and “heart of gold” gave way to growing ire and a sense of betrayal. Some were outraged–how can he feed animals on one hand and kill them on the other? Some tried (erroneously, I believe) to make the claim that hunters are somehow “worse” than mere non-vegans, while others maintained that there’s no moral distinction between the two: kill an animal yourself or have a slaughterhouse kill one for you by proxy, the end result is the same. The comments kept coming, and it felt like sinking in the muck of a moral morass.
Because, to my mind, the overarching point was entirely missed: Animals deserve our respect. And respecting wild animals means respecting their wild nature, not bending it to our will–whether for ego (“we’re gonna see how quick the deer run–to get to me” says the video poster) or charitable impulse. If this means admiring them from a distance without inviting interaction, then that’s the “sacrifice” we owe them. Whether or not the deer feeder is vegan, non-vegan, or a hunter is not the point. People who feed wildlife and habituate them to commercial (or, worse yet, human) food and human contact are acting against the animals’ best interests. Yes, their intent is often altruistic, but it’s harmful nonetheless, and we should banish this ignorance.
“A true animal lover would leave food out for them at a distance from humans and let them eat and stay wild and sharp against human predators,” asserted one commenter. But even this is misguided. One who truly respects wild animals also understands that they are fully equipped to make their own way as best they can, and finding their own food is exactly how they “stay wild.” Coming to rely on a handout is how they become domesticated and dependent. Concentrating animals at feeding stations–even one “at a distance from humans”–is fraught with risk. Because it’s so problematic, feeding deer (and other wildlife) is illegal in many states, Colorado included.
An example from my rural, semi-wild neighborhood: People who put salt blocks on their property to attract deer often draw them in unnatural concentrations. This, in turn, draws predators. I once got a call from a neighbor (a note of hysteria in her voice; her children were smaller then) that a mountain lion had been spotted, attracted to the deer gathered at their salt block. Knowing that I often run that direction–sometimes at dusk–she kindly called to let me know.
But plenty of folks–including some in my neighborhood–view any predator’s “intrusion” as a threat and are only too happy to blow the animal away. Artificially attracting wild animals has a ripple effect: it places prey animals at increased risk of predation; it places predators at risk from humans; and it can place companion or other domestic animals–and possibly humans–at risk, which subsequently adds fuel to the fire of predator hatred already burning brightly here in the West.
Perhaps people who live in wilder places are more likely to understand the consequences of unnecessary human intervention. The commenters at The Abolitionist Approach Facebook page are good, compassionate people–they’re vegans who understand that sentient animals–all of us–want basically the same thing: to live our lives freely, pursuing the interests important to us. This is a revolutionary position in a world built on exploitation.
But what seems largely missing is an understanding that “loving” animals and “respecting” them for who they are aren’t necessarily the same thing. The former is a sentimental expression that, if we’re really honest, is more about human desires to insert ourselves in their lives. The latter is where true altruism lies–in giving animals room to express their own wild natures.
I frequently see a bumper sticker that reads, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” But predators and large ungulates aren’t the only ones who suffer negative consequences from artificial feeding–some communities have outlawed feeding Canada geese and seagulls because of the fallout (ha ha!) from large concentrations of birds. And none of this addresses the nutritional consequences of feeding wildlife unnatural foods. It took me a long time to convince an elderly relative that peanut butter (sugar! additives!) on white bread wasn’t really good for squirrels, though she dearly loved seeing them at her door.
The deer-feeding Facebook post was “liked” by over 1100 and shared by 400. That’s a lot of people getting the wrong message about animal autonomy. The wild ones survived for millennia without our influence and became the marvelous and varied creatures they are today, shaped by the pressures of the natural world: abundance and want (and yes, starvation); climate and fire; predation and disease. Humans didn’t orchestrate or “manage” that evolution, and we’d be wise now to heed the words of naturalist Henry Beston in his call for “another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals”:
Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. (1928)
While I’m not suggesting that this issue is black or white–California condors are fed by the biologists returning the big birds to the sky–I am suggesting that we need greater depth in our understanding of the wild lives around us. If we ignore Beston’s assessment–that animals are other, separate nations incomparable to us in many ways–we might one day discover that we’ve created a petting zoo of formerly-wild dependents who come running at our beck and call. That would, indeed, be a tragic fate for them…and for us.
*Learn more: PAWS Wildlife Center: The effects of feeding wildlife
*What about birds? Here, here, and here.
*UPDATE, 10/1/15: Here in elderly Montana woman who had been feeding black bears was attacked inside her home; she died from her injuries. Several habituated black bears were subsequently trapped and executed. Story is here.
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