by Whit Gibbons

December 14, 2003

A difficult question for an ecologist or anybody else to answer is, what good is a particular species? Someone recently told me that he was fed up with environmental groups who wanted to preserve such dangerous creatures as panthers and grizzly bears. He asked, "What specific and documented reasons can be given for protecting such animals? Of what real value are they?"

The answers to this question are incredibly complex, will be received with varying levels of acceptance by different audiences, and involve facets of sociology, psychology, and economics as well as ecology. Some people will never accept that any reason is justification for preserving animals such as rattlesnakes, tigers, and sharks that could kill us; other people will always side with the animals. Some supporters will indeed be viewed as strict environmentalists. Others, including those with certain religious beliefs, will be those who believe in our stewardship role.

Of the recognized attitudes that people have toward wildlife, one fits into the utilitarian category. An environmental utilitarian believes that to have any practical value, an animal must be able to be used in some pragmatic way. It must also not be a competitor of or threat to humans. Someone holding a different view about wildlife is unlikely to change a person's utilitarian viewpoint, precisely because any different view is not founded on utilitarian principles.

One question to ask is what criteria someone uses to define an animal as dangerous. I know many ecologists who have dealt with venomous snakes, sharks, alligators, and many other biting creatures in their careers. I would not define these animals as any more dangerous than lawnmowers or electrical outlets. We all know people who have been killed or injured by cars and have read about thousands more. Are cars dangerous? Should we get rid of them? Of course not.

Compared to hundreds of other potential hazards we face in everyday life, the "dangerous animals" of the world pose a minor threat. Wild animals injure very few people each year compared to the number of people burned, shocked, cut, and bruised by common household appliances. Although a particular incident may be tragic for a family, and is not to be minimized in terms of personal grief, the number of deaths each year from wild animals is trivial compared to deaths from everyday items found in our homes.

Alligators and bears kill fewer humans in a decade than cars kill in a day. And let us consider why those few humans are harmed. Most injuries caused by alligators as well as those caused by bears and other wild animals in North America occur when a human has fed the wild animal, invaded its territory (even moving into it permanently), or threatened the animal or its young. When a wild animal is in a wild place, surely it should be the human's responsibility to know where not to tread.

In essence, I do not believe that any wild animal should be indicted just because someone can find no "practical value." Nor is its "being dangerous" justifiable cause for elimination. In my own dealings with dangerous animals, I know that when I have gotten hurt, it was my fault, not that of the animal. Their value to me has been the excitement of knowing they exist.

Another reason for protecting all wildlife species is that once we declare that a particular species is not worth saving because some people find no value in that species, another animal will be next on the list. Do we get rid of whichever species seems to be the biggest nuisance, or the most dangerous, or the least useful at any given moment? Should we get rid of blue jays because they are raucous or channel catfish because they have lateral and dorsal spines that can injure us or squirrels because they raid our bird feeders? And who will decide which species should be the next to go?

Finally, some of us, possibly the majority of North Americans, just plain like wild creatures. That may be the best reason of all not to eliminate them.

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