by Whit Gibbons

August 26, 2012

Last week I was asked a question I have heard many times: what good is it? The "it" might refer to a diamondback rattlesnake, red-tailed hawk, or great white shark. I have heard the question asked about a big tree, a swamp, and the Mojave Desert. In fact, the "it" might be almost anything, depending on who's asking the question. This time the question was about dangerous reptiles such as alligators, of what real value are they?

My first response to the question above was "to whom is the reptile a danger?" I have dealt with venomous snakes, crocodiles, alligators, and many other such creatures most of my life. Do they meet the dictionary definition of dangerous, that is, "something that may cause harm or loss unless dealt with carefully"? Yes. Are they any more dangerous than lawnmowers or sharp kitchen knives? No. And for most people, who are unlikely to encounter an alligator or other wild animal, they are considerably less dangerous. Compared to hundreds of potential hazards we face in everyday life—from cars to bathtubs, from icy sidewalks to severe sunburn—"nature, red in tooth and claw" poses a minor threat. Few people get hurt by wild animals; even fewer die from encounters with them.

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

I do not believe that any wild animal should be indicted just because we are capable of putting ourselves into a dangerous situation with it, regardless of whether it has any practical value to us. In my dealings with dangerous animals over the years, when I have gotten hurt, it was my fault, not the animal's.

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

Of the various attitudes that people have toward wildlife, one is known as "humanistic." People with this view hold that animals have feelings that are as important as ours and that destroying them or their habitats is never acceptable. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the "utilitarian" viewpoint. To the utilitarian person, an animal or habitat is worthy of being protected only if it is of practical use and is neither a threat to nor in competition with humans. Some people favor ridding the world of any wild animal that could cause us harm. Likewise, they consider that any habitat that stands in the way of development should be eliminated.

Environmental questions involving straightforward facts are relatively easy to answer. Answering questions about the value of particular wildlife or habitats is considerably more difficult. How does one assess the value of a plant, animal, or habitat? What is the answer to the question "what good is it?"

Some of us, possibly a majority, just plain like wild creatures and natural habitats. Ultimately, that may be the best reason we can give for why a species or habitat should be protected. Certainly, the statement cannot be disputed, not even by a utilitarian.

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