With a Million Species at Risk of Extinction from Human Causes, What’s an Individual to Do?

Note: This piece was originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera on May 24, 2019.

The recently released summary of the upcoming UN report on nature describes a biosphere rapidly degrading under the profoundly deleterious influences of Homo sapiens. (Yes, the upright species with the opposable thumbs and magnificent brains.)

Most of us have seen the headlines covering one of the study’s more frightening conclusions – that humans are putting a million animal and plant species at risk of extinction. That’s one in every nine.

The summary’s key messages:

  • Nature embodies biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • Nature sustains and inspires humans.
  • Nature is deteriorating at an increasingly accelerated rate at human hands, and in turn is increasingly less able to sustain and inspire humans.
  • “Transformative change” is required to effectively address this crisis.

The authors define transformative change as “a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Transformative change is a rather tall order in a world of conflict and competition, diminishing resources and increasing human population – where one human’s disappearing ice caps and starving polar bears are another’s emerging trade routes.

Spoiler alert: the humans who value nature over wealth acquisition are the only ones who can guide us out of this mess.

The good news, I suppose, is that with one in nine species at risk of extinction, we don’t have to fly to Africa or bus down to the zoo to see endangered animals. They’re right in our backyard! The study essentially asserts they’re actually inside our homes, too – get up close to a mirror to see one.

The assessment’s authors rank the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far. They are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use (2) direct exploitation of organisms (3) climate change (4) pollution and (5) invasive species.

It will not surprise you, reader, that our species is singularly to blame for these adverse impacts … though I do fault prairie dogs, too; more on that below.

I think it was Einstein who said, “Transformative change cannot be achieved by the same ninnies who created the need for transformative change.” Maybe not verbatim. The good thing is that change can happen in a generation. Perhaps we’ll lose only a half million species!

In the meantime, it’s high time for us – each of us – to get right. Those deleterious changes in land use? We’re fattening up animals to fatten up ourselves when we should be feeding our fellow humans. We need to eat lower on the food chain. More plant protein. More local. Same with “the direct exploitation of organisms.” The biggie there is commercial fisheries. Consuming more plant protein covers those first two, and arguably it’s the best thing you can do to combat climate change, not to mention that fewer wild horses and badgers and coyotes and mountain lions will be killed by ranchers and government agents in your name. And we need to buy less stuff. Stuff is not the stuff of happiness.

Now that we are surrounded by endangered species, our everyday actions can effect transformative change. This starts by valuing the wild animals and plants around us. Cherish and support pollinators. Keep cats indoors; better yet, give them access to the elements from inside a screened-in deck or porch. Domestic cats and dogs kill billions of wild animals every year in the United States. Make your windows bird friendly – a billion birds die in this country each year from window strikes. Drive carefully. Animals haven’t adapted to our highways and fast-moving vehicles. Don’t use glue traps – they are criminal, whether they ensnare a target or nontarget animal. If you see abandoned fishing line on your next hike, retrieve it. If you’re tempted to abandon fishing line/gear, just abandon fishing instead, please.

Be ready if you encounter injured, potentially orphaned or distressed wildlife. Downloading our free app. Hug your local wildlife rehabilitator. Hug a hunter, too, if you want to, but let’s modify the funding mechanisms for our state wildlife agencies so those of us who don’t hurt and kill wildlife have much more say in wildlife “management.”

Be humbled. We humans are not that great. We could be, but that would require … what’s the term? Oh yeah, transformative change! Read the nature study summary (bit.ly/IPBESReport) and the 14-page Green New Deal (https://www.brightest.io/green-new-deal).

Oh, and about those prairie dogs – I was just kidding. We have met the destructive pests, and they are us.

Ethics: Killing One Animal to Save Another

A big ethical issue in rehab is the killing of one animal to support the rehabilitation of another.

As far as I can tell, not a lot of people are talking about this, but I think it’s something each of us has to at least acknowledge, if not reckon with.

A classic example is raptor rehab. Although I’ve been behind the scenes in one acclaimed raptor rehab center, I don’t know much about day-in, day-out practice of helping prepare raptors for their introduction to life in the wild, or their return thereto. I do know that live animals are used in rehab in teaching young raptors to hunt.

Baby quails for sale.

For a human who values one animal life as much as another, this of course presents an ethical dilemma.

This dilemma likely will be influenced by whether or not one values ecosystems, in that placing high value on healthy ecosystems may make it easier for one to justify the taking of one life to support another.

Of course, one doesn’t simply value ecosystems or not value ecosystems. One might value an ecosystem that is rare and endangered over an ecosystem that is more common and not endangered. One might value an ecosystem that is relatively pristine (such as a remote Brazilian rainforest) over an ecosystem that is characterized by human activities and impacts (such as a Chicago suburb).

If one places no value on ecosystems, is it a slam dunk to decide whether to kill one animal to save another? No quail shall be bred to be fed alive or dead to a raptor. Perhaps it is.

There’s also the issue of whether to value the educational and inspirational aspects of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation? If the story of a successful rehabilitation of an orphaned raptor educates and inspires, say, a group of schoolchildren, what if any value does this inspiration hold?

And what may it hold? Increasing appreciation for and attention to wildlife rehabilitation may well result in the development of technologies and approaches that minimize the “need” for the use of live animals in learning-to-hunt situations. It’s readily apparent that the development of cell-cultured animal flesh will eventually save lives in the everyday rehabilitation of omnivores and scavengers.

I rely, perhaps too heavily, on the adage that human-created problems often defy elegant solutions. Nutria. The killing of “unwanted” dogs and cats in shelters. Climate change. Examples abound.

To be sure, what’s under discussion here is not whether or not to save a bunny from a hawk attack. What’s under discussion is whether or not to save a hawk who has been hit by a car. Few animal rights people would say, don’t save the hawk, but few too would be willing to put a live quail in an aviary as part of the hawk’s rehab effort.

To be more accurate, what’s under discussion here is the need to confront and come to terms with unpleasant truths. In the absence of elegant solutions, what is important first and foremost is that those who care enough to explore the ethical implications of carnivore (and probably omnivore) rehab recognize that there’s no one pure ethical stance.