by Whit Gibbons

May 5, 2003

I once wrote a column based on a discussion with a friend, Yale Leiden, about different attitudes toward wildlife. Environmental responses can be sorted into nine categories. Knowing that people's basic views can differ dramatically from each other is instructive in understanding why some environmental issues are so difficult to resolve. My example was based on a stranded whale.

Imagine walking out to get your newspaper one morning and finding a live whale stranded in shallow water near the porch. For this to happen, you would of course have to live on the coast, with water close by your front door. Assuming those things to be true, how would you feel about the stranded whale?

The first natural response would be surprise. (If not, then you have led a different life from the rest of us and should turn to another section of the newspaper.) But after the surprise, how would you feel? Divergent views about wildlife lead to many environmental conflicts because no single sentiment is necessarily right to the exclusion of the others. A further complication is that most people's response is usually a combination of two or more attitudes. In addition, the same individual might respond differently at different times. Following are the nine wildlife attitudes:

1. Humanistic--a nurturing response is common especially toward large charismatic wildlife like whales. The humanist would seek help to move the beast back into the ocean and save its life. This attitude conflicts with some of the others.

2. Scientific--this characterizes someone who wants to study the creature, to find out things about it. The true scientist is objective and impartial. Why is the whale stranded? Does it have an inner ear parasite that caused disorientation? Perhaps we should dissect it.

3. Environmental or ecological--the animal is viewed as having its place in nature as a species but the individual whale is of less significance. Some ecologists might even think if this whale was dumb enough to beach itself, it will be better for the species if its genes are not passed on. Concern would focus on whether something is causing a die-off of whales in general.

4. Aesthetic or artistic--having such a magnificent animal in your front yard could be a pleasurable experience. A few photographs or an oil painting would be appropriate. When it died, a poem might be in order.

5. Utilitarian--what good is it to me and how can I take advantage of this newfound commodity? Perhaps charge the scientists to study it and the artists to photograph it. On a broader scale, could a whale's body harbor a cure for cancer?

6. Hunting--wildlife is to be pursued for sport and sustenance, to practice ancient skills in the struggle of man against beast. The hunting instinct might come into play if the whale began
escaping into deeper waters. The true hunter might want to herd it back, capture it, and then maybe let it go.

7. Annoyance--a common emotion for almost everyone is that in some situations wildlife can be a nuisance. Who enjoys providing blood for mosquitoes and ticks, or wants raccoons in their garbage? But for some people, almost all wildlife is annoying, and such could be the reaction upon finding a 50-ton whale in the front yard. They would call the wildlife department to remove it, not for humanitarian reasons, but because it was a nuisance.

8. Management--some people want to manipulate, control, and manage all aspects of their environment. The consummate manager would probably want to take measures to ensure that whales could no longer do this stranding thing to themselves, because no one is in charge and it annoys coastal residents.

9. Indifference--this attitude toward wildlife and environmental issues is common although it would seem an unlikely response to finding a stranded whale in one's front yard.

A stranded whale isn't an everyday occurrence, even if you live near the ocean. But the example serves to highlight the complexity of environmental attitudes. One charitable line of thought is that we should accept the views of others, even when we disagree with them. This is not always easy when someone's views are directly opposed to ours--but it's something to strive for.

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