I write often about the things I see in this park that disturb me; but this time I’m writing about a book that disturbed me, – Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, – and getting jostled out of complacency is a good thing.
Sterba is a noted journalist and Maine resident, who grew up on a farm and sees animals as food, animals as commercial goods, and animals (wild or domestic) that affect human health, or human enterprise as pests, –as such the intelligent thing to do is to kill them. While I certainly do not agree, with him there, Sterba has produced an engaging read that provides a basis for understanding the increase in conflicts between people and wild things. We need to be concerned about rising rates of Lyme Disease, animal- vehicle collisions, and panicked calls from homeowners about bears, raccoons, skunks and other critters in their yards, garages, cellars and attics.
Sterba provides an excellent history of the landscape in the Eastern United States, its many alterations by humans, before and after the arrival of Europeans, and subsequent changes in land use for economic and industrial purposes. He makes valid points about the current and younger generations’ general ignorance of, and isolation from the natural world, – and the impact that entertainment media, from the movie, Bambi, to award-winning nature documentaries have had in promoting unrealistic depictions of unspoiled beauty and harmony. He also opened my eyes to an ad campaign of half-truths run by animal protection organizations in the 1990s motivated well intentioned folks, like me, to outlaw “cruel” Conibear traps, that are less cruel than the live traps now used. It is horrifying realize I may have unknowingly added to the suffering of the trappers’ victims.
I rankle and take strong exception to Sterba’s dismissive attitude toward “kinder and gentler” folks, toward religions and philosophies that hold all life sacred, and with his blanket criticism of people who feed birds to experience a connection to nature. Also, science is well on the way toward proving Sterba wrong for castigating those who imbue animals with human attributes of thought and feeling.
A growing body of research has demonstrated many animals think to solve problems, that animals form deep emotional relationships, and that some animals in groups feed injured individuals that would be unable to survive alone. When we add DNA to the mix, – given the tiny percentage of genetic differences between human and animal species, – it could be argued that it is likely that we inherited our ‘human attributes’ from the animals.
Now that’s out of the way, here are the points on which I agree: (1) Most people are clueless about the natural world and that’s a bad thing. (2) Conflicts with wildlife demand humane solutions and thoughtful stewardship, – right now.
There are chapters in Nature Wars I haven’t touched on here, which are also important considerations for this complex, life-and-death topic. While you may not feel good after you read this book, you will feel smarter.