Not every good person makes good choices. I spent my childhood obsessively learning about animals, my family can attest to that. When I borrowed books from the library, the overwhelming odds guaranteed that it was animal related. I knew more about different animal species than anything else. Books, television shows, documentary films, I was enthralled by the animal kingdom. Utterly captivated by all the various forms of life, and it’s why I spent so much of my time in the woods when I was a kid, observing, interacting, and experimenting.
When I learned as a child that there were animals that no longer existed, having gone extinct in the last few centuries, I was devastated. In just the past one-hundred years we have lost many different animals including the Tasmanian Wolf, the Caspian Tiger, the Formosan Clouded Leopard, the Caribbean Monk Seal, the West African Black Rhinoceros, the Hawaiian Crow, the Yangtze River Dolphin, and the Pinta Tortoise, just to name a few. There are so many animals that have gone extinct, vanished off the Earth who’s only records of existence are now bones and if we’re lucky old photos or hand-made drawings.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has compiled a “red list” of plants and animals that ranks them by one of nine labels, from those that are of “least concern” to those that are “extinct”. As of 2016 they have collected data on 849 species of plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, cephalopods, mollusca, and insects that have all gone extinct.
Today, there are only three known living Northern White Rhinos on this planet, and they live in a protected conservation area in Kenya with armed guards on watch 24 hours a day to keep poachers away. Think about that. Just three. Imagine if there were only three humans left on this planet. Let that sink in. Humans are animals too. Our existence is no more a guarantee than any other given mammal, or reptile, bird, etc.
Some species went extinct because they were specialized (evolved to fit into a specific niche) and when their environment changed naturally or by human involvement they could not adapt. Others are less specialized in given habitats and can fill gaps in various ecosystems, such as the coyote. Some animals are hunted illegally (poached) for their body parts such as the African Elephant for their ivory tusks which has caused them to be listed as vulnerable to becoming endangered, and the Java Rhino for their ivory horns, sadly now a critically endangered species with fewer than one-hundred in the wild.
Conservation matters. Some animals, such as invasive species of wild pigs in the United States and many other countries around the world, need to be controlled because their populations can boom and damage the local ecosystem. In some areas they have no natural predators to control their population density. The native species are not able to compete with these invaders and are chased out of the ecosystem or face starvation due to their food source being overtaken by the wild pigs. Some species of deer also lack or have limited natural predators who would otherwise control their populations and without control, diseases spread which can affect other animals, including humans. Increased populations of either of these species also means that contact between them and people increases, resulting in property damage, crop destruction, and motor vehicle accidents.
In the United States, The North American Bison were hunted excessively and their numbers became critically low, almost to the point people feared they would go extinct. Today they are listed by the IUCN as “near threatened” thanks to conservation efforts. Gray Wolves, sometimes known as Timber Wolves, were also so heavily hunted that they nearly got wiped out. Their lack of presence caused deer populations to surge. To this day, wolf populations are still limited to certain areas after having been reintroduced. This vacancy elsewhere has been filled by coyotes (some of which are now a hybrid species) and pumas (also known as cougars or mountain lions) migrating from the southern United States. The IUCN lists Gray Wolves as of “least concern” because of conservation efforts and their reintroduction in North America, however, in much of Western Europe the Gray Wolf is extinct.
A part of conservation is protecting animals who’s numbers are becoming too low and are at risk of being listed as a threatened or endangered species. At these phases, we need to look at what’s happening and figure out what to do to stop it from progressing. Many private and federal organizations exist to stem the tide of dwindling animal populations, to protect and preserve them for future generations, who undoubtedly will hold us responsible for the state of the natural world they will one day inherit from us. I don’t want future generations to have to learn about extinct species from bones and photographs, animals that I was able to see alive during my lifetime, but whom our generation failed to save.
A large problem when it comes to protecting animals is that some people just don’t care. Sometimes they argue about “the food chain,” some quote the Bible where it effectively states man’s dominion over animals as a justification for treating them however they want. Sometimes the issue is that profit is more enticing and is more important to some people than preservation. Sometimes they talk about Darwin’s theory of evolution and how only strong or adaptive species survive, and sometimes it’s just pure human arrogance and a lack of concern for other life forms.
The reality is that humans are animals. We consume nutrients and defecate, we socialize, we communicate, breed and reproduce, raise young and die. We are no different in those aspects than many other animals. We may be different in our mental faculties compared to other animals, but there are also a wide variety of awesome abilities in the animal kingdom that we humans do not have.
There’s also a wide variety of abilities in the plant kingdom. For instance, did you know the Sacred Lotus is one of only three plants that can control its internal temperature? Something we often only associate with warm-blooded animals.
According to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory – European Bioinformat ICS Institute, and the Tech Museum of Innovation in association with the Department of Genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine, human beings share some of their genetic material with other living things. From plants to fungi, mammals to birds and reptiles, all living things on this planet share the same origins. Over millennia of evolution, all living things have branched out many times and gone in many different evolutionary directions, but some of the same basic genetic material has been kept within us all.
Human beings and chimpanzees share 98.8% of the same DNA, but how similar is our DNA to other living things? We share about 88% with the common house mouse, about 85% with domestic cattle, 75% – 85% with zebra fish, 69% with the marsupial the Platypus, 65% with chickens, 37% – 47% with the fruit fly, 44% with honey bees, 21% – 38% with round worms, 24% with wine grapes, 18% with baking yeast, 15% with mustard grass, and 7% with various types of bacteria. It definitely brings things into perspective when you look at how similar all living things are on a genetic level.
Disrespecting animals is the same as disrespecting humans, most dog lovers can tell you this without knowing that human beings share 84% of their DNA with dogs. We are all equal in terms of the value of and the right we have to exist. We’re all just trying to survive. Killing an animal is the same as killing a human in that you have ended the life of a living being. You can tell yourself that it’s not the same in order to feel better about yourself, but your feelings don’t change reality. We’re all flesh and bone, organic. We all take in information about our surroundings and process it in some way, we all have a sense of awareness.
Studies into animal consciousness are changing what we once believed true about how they perceive the world around them, how they process this information, their social behavior, and their ability to think and reason through situations and problems they encounter. Any dog or cat owner can tell you that their pet is more than just some mindless, emotionless, entity they feed and live with. Through varying personalities and behavior these animals become members of the families they live with.
Humans are neither better nor worse than other living things, but our level of critical thinking and the expansion of our cortex grants us a higher sense of moral being and this ability gives us the opportunity and quite possibly the obligation to sustain the living things we share this planet with. Through preservation and protection, through environmental awareness, ecological impact, conservation education, and the general realization that we don’t own this Earth, but that we coexist on it, we can work towards a more sustainable future for ourselves and the living things we share this planet with.
This writing is available as an audio track on SoundCloud: