by Whit Gibbons

May 4, 2008

Should we capture and eliminate wild animals that harm humans? Should we immediately put to death the individual animal that made the attack? Should we make plans to remove the entire species from the region, or even the planet?

Recent news reports of attacks by a great white shark, an alligator, and a grizzly bear bring such questions to the surface. These are difficult to answer because primitive human emotions are involved. One easy answer on today's talk shows is "No animal is worth a single human life." Such a response is easy, cheap, palatable to many people, and, in my opinion, absurd. We can all think of somebody who would qualify for the "not worth his weight in coon dogs" category. If you can't, you are too charitable toward the other contestants in the human race. Issues that result in a face-off between human lives and animal rights are difficult to address and cannot be resolved merely by reciting facts. Anyone with an apparently simple answer should be viewed with suspicion. Complex questions have complex answers.

In searching for answers, the first consideration actually is simple. None of us should have difficulty expressing sympathy for the family and friends of someone killed by a shark, alligator, or bear. Our compassion and understanding should parallel feelings we would have about someone who dies in a head-on collision, or a hunting or drowning accident.

But then the difficult part begins. Automobiles can kill hundreds of people over a holiday weekend, and no one proposes banning cars. Yet a single human death from an encounter with a shark off the California coast results in instant indictment of the individual animal and the entire species that lives on animals that swim in the sea. This generally leads to a demand for its life and sometimes all its kin. I think this has a biological basis. Outrage toward another animal is a primitive response, albeit a natural one. Earlier humans who were intolerant of dangerous wild animals probably survived better than those who were not. The natural response in a primitive society would be to eliminate or avoid any species that threatened human life. This response is inappropriate, however, in a society that no longer lives under primitive conditions. No animals, except other humans, qualify as major threats to human populations. Although exceptions exist, most attacks by large, wild animals on humans are to people who have put themselves in a precarious situation. They usually do so because of the exhilaration of the adventure.

Sharks, alligators, grizzly bears, and a few other species have all accounted for human deaths. But the number is small compared to deaths from other causes, hundreds of other causes. The number of deaths from wild animals over the last century does not come close to the number of deaths from boat, train, or motorcycle accidents. Again, let me emphasize that I am in no way belittling the injury or death of a person attacked by a wild animal. The tragedy is real, even when the person did something that was not real smart, just as with some car accidents or gunshot fatalities. But when the cause of death is another animal, that species should not become a scapegoat for a primitive tendency toward vindictiveness.

An extension of this vengeful, and I say again, primitive, attitude pervades enactment of protective legislation for some species. As far as I am aware, no state legislature in the South has ever proposed protection for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a magnificent species whose habitat is vanishing. Although these rattlesnakes are clearly disappearing from most of their natural geographic range in the East, no one wants to champion the cause of a snake that can kill a human.

As long as sharks, mountain lions, alligators, bears, and rattlesnakes exist, a few will occasionally engage in unacceptable acts, often in defense of themselves or their young. Although our natural tendency may be toward reprisal, we should remember that the species themselves are part of natural communities and merit our protection. We don't seek vengeance against an automobile that kills or maims. Let's extend the same logic to our native wildlife.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)