Sharing space: Living alongside wild animals

This is yet another huge area for discussion so I’m going to look specifically at how humans and elephants live together as well as lions and humans.

It is easy for those of us in Britain to look to Africa and feel shocked and appalled that lions and elephants are being killed.  And in some cases I think this reaction is justified but as I mentioned when I was talking about canned hunting, some of this is down to the inevitable conflict between local human populations and animal populations.


Elephants are huge and powerful animals which often travel in herds across historic migration paths.  As human populations continue to expand and spread out, they are encroaching into elephant habitat and building across these traditional routes.  In addition to this, elephant habitat is shrinking as we destroy it.  This means that elephants and humans are living closer together than ever before and this brings inevitable clashes.

Elephants and humans are competing for land and for food, elephants are trampling through and destroying crops, they are eating the crops because they’re hungry and the food is there.  But the same plants are needed to feed the humans and are farmers’ livelihoods.  As such, when elephants threaten to destroy their crop, they try to drive them away because their entire crop can be destroyed overnight which has potential to lead to financial ruin.  But scaring the elephants means they get scared and attack.  Or they kill or injure humans as the elephant tries to run away.  Elephants do not eat humans so it is generally when they are afraid that they will hurt us.

Elephants need a lot of space as they are huge and attempts to relocate them having been very successful.  A herd of elephants needs hundreds of square kilometres of land to sustain them.  And with an ever growing and sprawling population this is hard to find and the elephants are not very good at staying where we want them to.

In India, the people living near elephants have an incredibly complex relationship with them.  They love them, they worship them, and in the past it was seen as a good omen to have an elephant on your farm – a sign of a divine blessing and a good harvest.  But today, as elephants become more commonplace in fields, fear and hatred has crept into the relationship.  And this is understandable.  Elephants raid fields, destroy homes, hurt and kill people and inadvertently cause chaos just by being there.  People are frustrated and angry and they have had to change their way of life because of the elephant.  There are children who don’t go to school every day because if an elephant is nearby it is not safe to walk there.  People no longer feel safe going out after dark either.

  • In India 100-300 people (depending on the report you read) are killed by elephants each year
  • In Kenya, over the last seven years, 200 people have been killed by elephants
  • In Sri Lanka, about 50 people a year are killed by elephants

It is not surprising then that some of these people call for elephant culls.  But there are ways of reducing elephant human conflict which do not harm the elephant, most of which involve trying to steer the elephant away from villages.  These include using natural deterrents such as chilli and tobacco which the elephants doesn’t like.  Planning farms in such a way that they are easier to defend.  Growing food the elephants don’t like but which there is market for – I think sunflowers are one such crop.  Better fencing.  Early warning systems.  And bees.  I find this last one an interesting idea – it is said that elephants do not like bees so having a fence system which has bee hives at regular intervals keeps them away.  It also means that honey can be harvested and sold along with other by products of beekeeping.


Lions kill livestock and people, and people then retaliate and kill the lions.  And lion numbers decrease.

As with elephants, some of this conflict occurs because lions and humans are geographically closer due to habitat loss and fragmentation and desertification.  The lines between lion and human land are blurring and overlapping.  And there is less food for lions so when they see an easy meal, they take it, regardless of whether the cattle might have human owners or not.  And then humans try to fight back.  They might try to shoot the lion or poison it.  But the carcasses laced with poison may be eaten by other carnivores, or it might wipe out an entire pride of lions.

It is important to note, that like we saw with foxes, the damage done by lions is often overestimated.  In fact more livestock is lost to disease and drought than to lions, and lions are not the only predator responsible for killing livestock – leopards and hyenas are also responsible but shoulder little of the blame and retaliation.  I wonder if this is because lions as seen as top predator, as king of the beasts and hence remind us that we are not top of the food chain?

In terms of reducing lion human conflict, a number of methods have been tried primarily aimed at keeping the lions at bay.  These include noise, use of lights at night, better fencing, setting out farms so they are easier to protect and having adults protect the livestock not children as it seems that lions can tell that children mean they stand a better chance at a kill.  Having dogs to act as early detection and warning systems is another way of reducing livestock loss.  As is education, in particular, if we can learn where and when the lions travel, we can try not to get in their way.  Similarly, there are other ways we can reduce human vulnerability, for example by what colour clothing we wear, which would hopefully reduce human deaths and hence retaliation kills.  Wildlife tourism and compensation schemes are other suggested ways of moving away from seeing lions as pests.

As I said at the start, it is easy for those of us who live in the UK to cast judgement over elephant and lion killing, and other species who are also in conflict with humans but we don’t have to live with the consequences.  In these cases, the hunting debate is intensely complicated and it does not feel like it’s my place, that I’m not informed enough, to make any kind of judgement about the ethics.  It seems that prevention and deterrent work is a good way forward but if a lion was getting close to my child I don’t know how I’d react.

Aside: if you want to find out more about these two magnificent creatures, including symbolism and their roles in myths and religion, have a look at my animal spirit posts:


October’s Poems

As we will see over the course of this month, animals feature heavily in literature and poetry is no exception.  We write about animals, about animals and us and use animals as metaphors to say things which otherwise would be very difficult.

Phillip Larkin, 1977, The Little Lives Of Earth And Form

The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set.

And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
And it is you I see.

This ties in nicely with the question about whether humans are animals, in this case Larkin is looking more broadly and declaring that humans are a part of nature, not apart.

It has a nice lyrical feel to it and shares a similar message to that of Wordsworth, both valuing nature and seeing humans within nature. It also places value on a simpler way of life, one that is concerned with day to day needs.  Like Wordsworth, Larkin draws the readers attention to the little, every day things – the rock, the clay, the chalk – and imbues them with greater significance and meaning.

If nature erected walls, Tanya Cliff

I enjoyed this poem alongside some of the themes I’ve looked at this month.  In particular it chimes strongly with one of the articles I read about humans and nature.

It casts nature in the role of an artist and asks what she would chose to leave out of her masterpiece.  Inevitably, whilst Cliff doesn’t answer the question explicitly, the message is that humans would be the ones kept out.

This poem also reminded me of the dingo fence.  It is a huge fence in Australia which is designed to keep dingoes out of certain areas.  Work on it was started when British arrived and started trying to control the world they found themselves in.  Up until that point, Australians had been living alongside dingo and whilst I’m not saying it was an easy relationship, it was one which accepted other lifeforms.

The Fox, Simon Armitage, 1996

The discussion around the poem in the Independent article probably says most of what I was going to so I won’t!  When I first read the poem, I didn’t know that there is a constellation called the fox and that knowledge really helped.  It actually features in a collection that is focused on the stars so reading it in context probably adds a lot.

I like the honest humanness to this poem.  The starry, sky fox comes down to the earth and so close to our own lives that we could “hit it…with a stone”.  But instead of revering it or romanticising it, Armitage tells of the damage the fox has done whilst also emphasising the physical proximity of man and fox.  The violent, unforgiving ending, harsh as it may seem to the reader is one which echoes our wider feelings of nature and our impact.  We seem to be emotionally disconnected and apathetic towards death of animals and even extinctions pass us by, mostly unnoted or uncared about, with the exception of those animals we deem particularly cute.

What we lose, Kate Tempest

This is one of those apparently simple poets which I return to over and over.  The premise is that as we get older, the gulf between humans and animals grows wider.  As I’ve already mentioned a bit, children’s books are filled with animals and we befriend these characters and they help us navigate the world as we grow up.  And then, one day we turn around and find ourselves disconnected from nature.

I read Tempest’s poem with an air of sadness but as I said, it’s deceptively simple, so I can’t point to any words or images which show this, it is just a feeling that comes through the poem.  It leaves me with a heavy, regretful feeling.  And a longing to return as much as possible to that childhood state.

On being eaten by a snake, Susan Wicks, 1994

I don’t really like sharing poems when I don’t have copyright so where possible I try to link to the poem (except where they’re older poems which are absolutely everywhere).  Normally I can find a version somewhere but not this one…

Knowing they are not poisonous
I kneel on the path to watch it
Between poppies by a crown of nasturtiums,
The grey-stripe body almost half as long
As my own body. The formless black head
Rearing, swaying, the wide black lips seeming
To smile at me. And I see
That the head is not a head,
The slit I have seen as mouth
Is not a mouth, the frilled black under-lips
Not lips, but another creature dying; I see
How the snake’s own head is narrow and delicate,
How it slides its mouth up and then back
With love, stretched to this shapelessness
As if with love.  The sun stroking
The slug’s wet skin as it hangs
In the light, resting so that even the victim
Must surely feel pleasures, the dark ripple
Of neck that is not neck lovely
As the slug is sucked backwards
To the belly that is not belly, the head
That is merely head
Shrinking to nameable proportions.

This is one poem in a collection about Wicks’s illness and was written during a reprieve, something which I feel really adds to the reading of it.  We start with the declaration that the snake is not poisonous, perhaps a statement about the respite from her illness?  The start of the poem talks of bodies; she kneels, there is the grey-stripe body, her own body and a formless black head.  As someone who has chronic illness, I enjoyed this last image in particular.  Illness can certainly feel like a formless thing.  Especially if it is undiagnosed or unpredictable or unreliable – you cannot manage or fight with something formless.

And then, the poem pivots.  The midline sentence end takes us from what she sees to her realising that what she sees is not how things are. Another parallel with illness – I regularly doubt my own health, thinking I’m not as bad as I am, or seeing through the eyes of depression which do the opposite of rose tinted glasses.

From here, we discover nothing is as it first seemed.  She also shapes this image of a snake eating a slug into something sensual and dreamy.  There are a lot of s sounds – “slides it’s mouth”, “slugs wet skin”, “slug is sucked” – which add to this sexuality and echo the hissing sound of the snake.  The event ends with the “dark ripple of the neck” which feels to me like a metaphor for an orgasm which is followed by the “head shrinking to nameable proportions”.  Obviously this has one particular sexual interpretation.  But returning to the running symbolism of illness, to be able to name your illness is powerful and to have it in suitable proportions makes a huge difference.  The formless, intangible, overwhelming beast has become something you can handle and label.

I found the snake in this poem a fascinating metaphor.  Snakes are associated with the medical profession and with healing as well as with change and transformation.  There is also an element of the unknown, most of us in the UK don’t regularly see snakes or interact with them.

Canned hunting and motivations

Having looked at hunting in the UK and the law, I want to look at why people hunt and the highly controversial world of canned hunts.

Canned hunting

Canned hunting is hunting where the animals are almost certainly going to die because the odds are stacked against them.  The success of the shooter is virtually guaranteed with some venues offering a no kill no pay policy.  These hunts charge the clients to kill an animal without the concept of a fair chase.  Animals may be shot in cages or within fences, they may be shot at feeding stations and the animals may be tame or semi-tame or even sedated to ensure the hunter is successful.  I find this disguistin and I really do not understand the motivation here.  Interestingly, many people within the hunting community don’t agree with canned hunting either.

Canned hunts are turning hunting “into this caged, paid affair and it bears no resemblance to what hunting is, was, and could be. Like so many things in our world, people want to buy the product (the trophy) rather than experience the process (meeting the animal on its own terrain).”

– Ted Kerasote, quoted in Canned hunts: Unfair at any price

Grouse shooting can be considered a form of canned hunting but here I’m more focused on the hunting of bigger animals, killed primarily as trophies.

There are a couple of key ways that canned hunting takes place.  In the US there are landowners which set up nice hotels with chefs and gun ranges.  Local and exotic animals are kept on the land and the client essentially choices from a menu the animal they would like to kill.

The exotic animals are often bought from breeders, are surplus zoo animals or retired “entertainment” animals which are no longer valuable. This means they are accustomed to humans, they are used to spending time near us and in many cases humans means food.  These animals may either be kept in cages until the time of the hunt, or are fenced in (in larger areas) with regular feeding stations so it’s easy to predict where the animals will be.  The vehicles used to feed them are often the same ones that bring the hunters in so they are associated with food and not fear.  The animal might have been sedated in order to get them into the hunting pen or may be old and in pain and unable to really run away.  Once you have made your inevitable kill, your carcass can then be taken to the onsite taxidermist so that your trophy can be prepared for you.  Depending on what you have killed, you may get to eat some of the meat but this doesn’t seem to be an important part of the experience.

In Africa, canned hunts work in a very similar way except of course the local animals are the exotic animals.  In both cases, animal welfare concerns around the keeping of the animals must be considered.  They are often kept in overcrowded and unsuitable cages with inadequate access to food and water.  And when they do get “released” they are shortly going to be slaughtered.  And not necessarily cleanly, because canned hunters are not necessarily skilled marksmen.  Other concerns include the stress on other animals from the sound of the shots.

Whilst the trophy is a key part of canned hunting, it is important to differentiate between trophy hunting and canned hunting.  The latter is rigged in favour of the human and is undeniably unfair.  The former includes “fairer” and more traditional hunts such as going after wild stags in their natural habitat.  I’m not saying I agree with either but the fairer hunters are a little more equitable and from what I can tell, the hunters are more likely to eat the meat and do not expect guaranteed success.  I can see that there is a lot more skill involved in this and thus the sense of achievement is higher.  I don’t see how you can feel proud or like you’ve really experienced a hunt in canned situations.  There is nothing noble, honourable or even challenging about canned hunting, instead it is an extreme example of man seeking dominion over beast.  As one hunter put it in a documentary with Louis Theroux, it comes down to money, if you have the money, you can shoot it.  And he went on to explain that it doesn’t matter about the species.  If he had enough money, he’d kill an elephant. It was all about money.  There was no consideration for the endangered status of the species.  This feels like a very easy way to kill an individual, or even destroy a population, arguably too easy.

Arguments for canned hunting include the importance of income into communities, although this has been shown to often not be the case.  Despite the cost of a kill ranging from roughly $10,000 for a hippo up to $42,000 for an elephant, reports suggest that less than 5% of hunting revenue goes to the local area.  Conservation is another key argument, the idea that if hunters are killing specially bred animals, they aren’t killing wild ones and this sort of makes sense, except illegal hunting has been shown to occur alongside legal hunting.  And as these animals aren’t part of the wild population they don’t add to conservation efforts.  Perhaps the biggest argument that I’ve heard over and over, in UK hunting as well, is that it is traditional, that it is a way of life.  And if this was subsistence hunting I would give this some weight but it isn’t.  This is not purposeful hunting.  This is not hunting for food or because the animals in question are threatening us.  This is hunting as a tourist industry for rich, mostly, American travellers.

In the context of the African canned hunts, the conversation is more complicated because it is not always easy or appropriate for the business owners to look to other ways of making money.  For example the infrastructure may not yet be suitable for photo tourism etc.  And I don’t know enough of the details to discuss this.  I do know that Africa is often referred to as a single entity but it is such a diverse continent and each country must find their own, place appropriate, way forward.  What works in one place may not work in another.

Moving away from canned hunting, but before we look at motivations, I want to end with a note about non commercial hunting in Africa.  Apparently far more lions are killed by cattle herders protecting their livestock and families than by trophy hunters.  This is a very different motivation and one which I feel differently about to tourist hunting.  And the solutions for this are going to be very different.  We need to look for ways in which people and animals can live alongside each other, looking with a long term perspective.

I hope to look at wild animals and humans, such as the lions above, and domesticated animals, primarily pets. The way we live alongside these different categories of animals is so different and yet to some degree the line between them is an arbitrary one.

Why hunt?

Those people who are for hunting have their own take on the subject.  In the case of birds in the UK, it’s claimed that landowners involved in “field sports” are more likely to conserve and reinstate woodland, hedgerows, to plant shrubs and to coppice trees.  They also argue that wildlife benefits, and as we’ve seen this is true, but it’s also at a cost to other wildlife.

There is also the argument that the shooting and hunting industries bring money into communities where it is much needed.  We’ve already seen that this is unlikely to be the case in canned hunts in Africa and when it comes to canned hunts in America, yes some money will be bought into the area and jobs will be created but from what I can tell, the hunting lodge is a self enclosed complex so local shops etc will only benefit if they can sell to the lodge.  So local artisans are unlikely to see any of that money although catering related businesses may do.

We’ve already seen that pest control is not an argument that stands up to scrutiny.  But even if it was, it’s been shown that killing foxes doesn’t actually reduce the population, they fill to fit the space as it were.  Also a Scottish study in 2000 showed that only about 1% of lambs are lost to foxes and a 2003 British study estimated that foxes save crop farmers about £7 million a year.

Another, often cited, justification is that organised hunts brings the community together.  Obviously this is immediately excluding anyone who is against hunting from the community and given the stats we saw, I suspect it divides the community more than anything.  David Bowles says that illegal hunting is connected to rural crime, giving the example of criminals using the cover of a hare hunt to scout out a farm and see what’s available to steal.  Apparently a crack down on illegal hunts in Oxfordshire (I think) has led to reduced rural crime.  This suggests that hunting isn’t really bringing the community together at all.

Having said that, I can see that the hunt would bring those involved together.  The combination of the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush that engulfs the hunters probably does help to bond the group.  But surely there are other ways?  Perhaps these groups would like to try abseiling or paragliding or other extreme sports where they only risk their own life?

And you can’t look into the two sides of hunting without the word traditional popping up.  Yes, it may be traditional, although grouse shooting only dates back to the mid 1850s, but so is bear and bull baiting and slavery.  Tradition is not a solid argument for any activity or belief.  We must continually question our traditions and ensure that they are relevant to today.

If you are interested in the reasons why people might participate in illegal hunting, Angus Nurse’s talk on Motives for Wildlife Crime is worth a watch.  A very brief summary of reasons:

  • Profit driven, considering hunting to be a low risk high reward crime
  • Wildlife seen as a resource, a victimless crime, denial of injury
  • Not seen as a serious crime, denial of criminality
  • Social factors – social pressure, tradition, part of the culture, bonding aspects, identity expression
  • An excise of power, thrill of the chase
  • A way to challenge and resist the law

I can sort of see why these factors might motivate certain individuals although I’m not agreeing with it.

If you’re interested in this intersection between humans and animals, there is an interesting collection of talks from the Winchester Hunting Symposium which took place towards the end of November 2015.  And Adam Hart wrote an article for the BBC the same year which discusses hunting and conservation.

Hunting in the UK

As a disclaimer, in most situations, I am against hunting.  For the purposes of this aspect of my project, I have tried to get behind the motivations and opinions of people who do hunt, including watching a number of documentaries which are either neutral or on the side of the hunters.

Deer stalking would be a very fine sport, if only the deer had guns

– W. S. Gilbert

There is a spectrum of different hunting activities:

  • Hunting for food is, in my mind, justifiable provided it doesn’t cause unnecessary pain and suffering. I’m not sure that anyone who eats meat can object to “good” hunting.
  • Hunting to manage wildlife populations is a more complicated area. I can see both sides of this particular debate and I think ethics would depend on the species, the setting and whether culling the species actually affects populations.
  • Hunting for sport. This is the area I’m focusing on here and I cannot find a justification for it.  It is a “sport” where the aim is to torture and kill living beings for pleasure.  In some cases, this is the only outcome as the animals, for example foxes, won’t be eaten at the end of it.  Within hunting for sport, we have yet more nuances and, perhaps the most morally outrageous of these is canned hunting which I will expand on later.

Before I leap into the discussion on hunting, I wanted to share some statistics from a 2016 Ipsos Mori poll:

  • 84% of people thinking fox hunting should remain illegal
    • 84% of people in rural areas think fox hunting should remain illegal
    • 73% of conservative voters think fox hunting should remain illegal
  • 88% of people thinking deer hunting should remain illegal
  • 91% of people thinking hare hunting should remain illegal

As an aside, 3/4s American’s support the right to hunt.

Hunting in the UK

Hunting for sport started life as a royal and elite sport with the first recorded fox hunt with dogs being recorded in 1534.  By the late 1600s, dogs were being specifically trained for hunting.

In 2004, the Hunting Act was passed in England and Wales.  This was highly controversial and recent attempts have been made to repeal the law.  Basically, the act bans the hunting of mammals with dogs except in various circumstances.  It also sets out where you can hunt and what you are allowed to use.  In addition to being illegal to hunt, it is illegal to knowingly allow your land or dogs to be used in illegal hunts.  The penalties are a maximum fine of £5,000 and confiscation of hunting paraphernalia however a lot of people feel that the law goes unenforced and sophisticated work arounds means that hunting illegally continues.

Hunting with dogs

New ways of hunting have been found or old ways continue under the pretence they are meeting the criteria for exemptions.  This includes artificial scent hunting using fox urine, “exercising the hounds” or hunting for “research and observation”.  The species which are hunted in the UK using dogs are hares, foxes, deer and mink. The first three are native species, the latter has been in this country since 1920, and so we should be including them as part of our conservation efforts, not killing them.  Not only are they species worth protecting in themselves, but they play important roles in ecosystems.  For example foxes keep rabbit numbers in check which means less crop destruction.

Criticisms of hunting do not just focus on the animal being hunted but raise concerns about habitat disturbance and destruction and animals which get caught in the cross fire.  Hunting with dogs involves a lot of people (hundreds in the case of stag hunts) and a lot of dogs (30 to 40) travelling at speed through the land and not adhering to paths and roads.  This alone is going to cause damage to the land – that’s a lot of hooves and paws grinding up the soil – but there are also spectators who travel by car or quad bike behind the hunt.  Paths become eroded and whilst the hunt is occurring, they become obstructed.  Imagine being a casual walker who suddenly finds horses and hounds running towards them…

Hedges get destroyed, nature reserves are entered, streams and rivers aren’t even out of bounds.  Cases have been recorded where hunts have trespassed on land including farms (with animals subject to stress) and protected areas such as a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Sites of Scientific Interest.  If these hunts were being carried out for pest control reasons, an argument some hunters use, then they would not be trespassing on farmland where they know there will be animals.  You cannot justify fox hunting by saying they have killed your lambs if you then let your dogs loose near livestock.

Animal disturbance is another concern.  Hunts often disturb wild animals, and we’ve already seen farm animals are not safe either.  They can do this by scaring them when the hunt is on but hunters also interfere with shelters and kill certain animals if they will affect the hunt.  For example, in fox hunting, dens and setts are blocked up to prevent the fox from hiding in them.  These include badger setts which have been recorded being blocked up with stones and wood, even if there were badgers in them (presumably no one checked? or cared?).  Blocked setts have been found with badger cubs dead inside as well as setts where the badger has had to dig their way out.

A less noted aspect of the hunt is the impact of the sheer number of dogs.  A lot of areas have laws which mean dog walkers have to keep dogs on a lead to prevent them from disturbing animals, people and the environment.  This applies even if you have one tiny, incredibly well behaved dog.  So why is a pack of dogs allowed to circumvent this?  And we have to note that crowd mentality applies to dogs as much as humans – get that many dogs in one place and they are going to be very difficult to control.

The dogs are perhaps an overlooked victim when it comes to hunting.  They have been bred over the years specifically for hunts and those that do not do well in training may well end up killed.  The same being true for older dogs who no longer hunt well or who develop health issues.

And we haven’t even spoken about the animal that is being killed.   In some cases, foxes are caught before the hunt or even bred for the hunt and then released on the day.  This again means we are not looking at pest control.  It also brings up issues around the care and welfare of the fox when it is in captivity.

A well respected report carried out in 1997 shows that deer experience stress when they are hunted and that they are not adapted to the endurance required of them.  Unfortunately similar research hasn’t been carried out on other hunted animals but it is hard to see that they could be considered cruelty-free.  Often the animals are chased for longer than they would be by predators, they are not killed instantly but are instead subject to harrowing by dogs and postmortems have shown animals have died by disembowelling.

Bird shooting

Perhaps the original canned hunt, grouse and pheasant shooting… In the grouse shooting season, about 500,000 grouse will be killed, not to mention all the other birds which are shot each year. It is estimated that about 40% of these are injured and do not die immediately, instead they are wounded and then chased by dogs.

In the case of pheasant shooting, the birds are bred for the purpose and there are huge concerns over the quality of life they have on these farms and how they are transported to the shoot.  So they don’t even get a good start in life.  It also makes them easy targets, something I’ll discuss more when I look at canned hunting outside the UK.

The moorland is managed to essentially be a grouse farm.  Grouse don’t do well in captivity so instead the businesses involved in the shoot have to manipulate the landscape to maximise bird numbers.  In these areas, the grouse population is 10-100 times higher than it would be if left unmanaged.  Animals that are not wanted or which could cause disruption to the shoot are snared.  This might include mammals or birds which eat the eggs, young or adult grouse.  The nests of these predators are also destroyed.  Medicated grit is used to treat grouse for parasites and to kill birds of prey.  Advocates of the industry argue that species benefit and there is no doubt of that – the grouse population does of course do well and so do birds with similar needs but others are significantly detrimented by the activity.

Management techniques affect more than just local birds and animals.  Burning the heather affects flora and releases carbon dioxide and also increases flood risk as burning damages peat forming blanket bogs.  A high population of game birds results in shorter grassland and lower floral diversity as well as having a negative impact on the ecosystem.

And at the end of the day, this time and effort is all for a hobby for the few who can afford to participate.  It is a rich persons day out which is subsidised by the tax payer and is expensive and exclusive.

Next time I’ll be looked at why people hunt and the industry of canned hunting outside of the UK.

Tarka the otter

Tarka the otter, Henry Williamson, 1927

“He was called Tarka, which eas the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor.  It means little water wanderer, or, wandering as water.”

This is one of the books I’ve been reading this month and I love it.  I read it as a child but rereading it has been a beautiful experience.  I have a physical paperback copy which means I have to read it slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, because of my hand pain. And this is extending the deliciousness of the language and the writing.

Williamson did not write Tarka as a children’s book but it became popular with children and hence it is marketed that way today. I know some people are put off and don’t read children’s books, or only do it with adult covers but this really is a book for all of us.

It is a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful and brutal.  Williamson makes an excellent use of language and it contains a number of regional specific words which enhance the imagery.

“Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s”

We have words like ragrowster, aerymouse (a bat), dimity (twilight), yinny-yikker (noisily aggressive) and yikkering.  These tug at my heart in a way that alternatives might not.

We hear the animals calling in wonderfully onomatopoeia:

Hu-ee-ic…. Skirr-rr… cur-lee-eek… aa-aa…

This is not an anthropomorphic tale, it is an otter’s eye view of the landscape and the characters within it.  And yet, we feel we know the animals that weave in and out of Tarka’s life.  Part of this is the marvellous names that the creatures are given.  There is Old Nog, the white owl, and Halcyon the kingfisher.  There is Deadlock, the otter hound and the old dog otter Marland Jimmy.  There are degrees of anthropomorphism but it is not heavy handed and the animals don’t speak.  Because of this, it is imbued with a strong sense of reality and is a great example of writing from the senses.

Williamson wrote a nature journal from his childhood so it is perhaps no surprise that Tarka is so real.  He also sought out hunting experts for advice and to ensure accuracy and rewrote the manuscript 17 times.

“Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.”

As well as conveying a strong connection with nature, Tarka also reveals to the reader Williamson’s close relationship with the landscape.  He moved to Devon in 1921 and his intimacy with this place comes through in his writing.  For context, otters were hunted as vermin at this time and their population wouldn’t decline until the 1950s.  This means that the text is not one about the danger to the otter population and is not intended to influence this practice.  But he did have a strong influence, inspiring writers such as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin and Kenneth Allsop.

This book is a treasure and if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it for a long time, please do!

Exotic pets

“God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.”
-Jacques Deval

The illegal wildlife is a huge business with numerous different aspects.  For the sake of brevity, I’m looking at the trade in exotic pets.

In 2005, the wildlife trade business was the second-largest illegal trade in the world after drugs.  Some of these animals are rare, endangered or unsuited for domestic life.  For example, in China there is a huge demand for exotic pets which ranges from fennec foxes to saltwater crocodiles to raptors and owls.  Certain species are seen as fashionable and despite it being illegal, there is demand for them and so there is supply.  Some animals are collected specifically because of their rarity, making it a status boost and supporting the owners vanity.  The problem is, that many of these animals are taken from the wild thus reducing populations and causing biodiversity loss.  There are also risks around escape and disease.

Getting animals

Animals may be bred in captivity, in which case they are prone to inbreeding and this results in health issues, deformities and genetic weaknesses.  Those animals which do not have the cute appeal or have health issues will probably find themselves killed.

The other way that animals are obtained is by taking them from the wild.  When it comes to primates, this is often done by killing the parent for meat.  The baby will continue to cling to their mother after her death making it easy for poachers to take them.  The adult is sold for meat and the orphans are then smuggled out of the country.

The journey from habitat to their new owners home is a stressful one for animals.  They are in shock from the abduction and are often neglected, causing starvation and dehydration.  They tend to be crammed in with other animals and so spread disease amongst themselves.  These diseases can also spread to all the areas the animals pass through.  A combination of how the animals are captured, how they are shipped and how they are cared for on this journey to owner means that many animals die before they get there.  This is factored into the retail price of the pets.

Trading animals

If they are “lucky” enough to survive the journey, they then must be traded.

A National Geographic documentary showed slow lorises being used to make money on the streets of Thailand – $10 for a tourist to take a selfie with the slow loris.  But some of these vendors could also, illegally, arrange for tourists to buy one.  Police in the area were bribed to look away and the illegal animals were part of a big criminal syndicate.  This is big business and based on the documentary, one which seems to go on fairly explicitly.

As a side note, this animal selfie trend has it’s own issues.  The animals, which range from slow lorises to tiger cubs, tend to be hand reared to encourage them to behave tamely, they have their own diseases and can spread or catch diseases from the tourists, the animals tend to be sedated and undergo procedures such as tooth removal to make them suitable for handling.  They tend to be kept in unsuitable conditions, with poor hygiene and poor health care.  In the case of some animals, especially those like tiger cubs, they are photographed being fed (presumably because it makes them more willing participants) so are kept underfed – if the cub is not hungry that means no money. 

Some wild animals are available to buy in pet shops.  In America, the law about what can and can’t be sold as a pet varies from state to state and in some cases the law is specific about what can’t be but this means that it is a finite list and with wild animals being turned into pets, the law can’t keep up.  Other options for buying your exotic pet include the internet, local papers, even through social media sites.

This lack of regulation, or enforcement of law, means that animals which are bred for sale may be the result of inbreeding which leads to genetic weaknesses and poor health as well as deformaties.  It also means that checks are not carried out to ensure the animals are going to a suitable home.  In the UK, if you adopt a rescue animal, you often have to have a house inspection first so that the charity know that your cat or dog is going to be looked after.  This won’t happen for illegal or unregulated trade, even though we’re talking lions and tigers and bears, not a little poodle*.

*Not that I’m saying cats and dogs don’t need good care, but the care they need is much easier to meet than the care needs of a big cat or primate.

Keeping animals

It is estimated that 90% of wild caught reptiles die in their first year in captivity.  Figures for other exotic pets are also shocking.  Some of this is due to how they have been caught and transported prior to being sold but there are other factors.

A lot of exotic animals are just not suitable for pet life.  Whether dogs and cats are suitable is an argument in itself but at least they’ve had several thousand years of domestication and we sort of understand and attempt to meet their needs.  The case is not the same when it comes to exotic pets.

Diet and space are key issues in the care of wild animals.  They tend to eat specific foods which aren’t always available outside of their natural habitat and some, such as lions, are going to eat a lot, and that is going to cost a lot.  And this isn’t something everyone considers when they see a little lion cub drinking milk from a bottle…  Space is a huge issue.  Literally.  A lot of these “pets” roam miles and miles in a day in the wild and are then relegated to tiny cages.  Even those who are lucky and have larger cages have nothing like the space they should have.  Lack of stimulation within the pet’s habitat is also going to be an issue.  I’ve been housebound for several months and that drove me to boredom even though my size to home ratio is much higher than most cages and I had all my books and dvds and everything else around me.

The cost of keeping a lion means you’re probably only going to have one, despite them being pack animals.  I’ve also seen documentaries about exotic pets where solitary animals, such as tigers, are kept in a cage with several others.  And cages set up so that prey can see predators, what must that do to an animal to be watched by their enemy all day?

Most people want baby animals, because they are cute, and this means that there is no market for adults and no market for rehoming unwanted adolescents.  This also increases the number of animals which suffer the trauma of being separated from their mother at a very young age.  Like human babies, some wild animals go through an extended period of dependency and bonding with their caretaker.  Indeed, in one of the documentaries I watched, the owner of a number of large cats was complaining that he didn’t really like them as babies because it was like having a small child around.  They are needy and reliant on their caretaker for their needs and if these are not met, there are consequences.  Obviously certain needs like food and drink will lead to death if not met but there are other needs which help to develop emotional and cognitive aspects and if these are neglected then the animal will suffer and there is a high chance that this neglect will show itself through behaviour and potentially lead to humans being harmed.

Even if an owner does everything right to care for their exotic pet, there is always going to be a risk of escape.  And in the case of wild animals this is more severe.  Spread of disease is one risk.  Another is that it turns into an invasive species and disrupts the local ecosystems.  But in the case of large and dangerous pets, the biggest risk is attack.  And just the risk of the escapee attacking someone can lead to it having to be killed.  There is also the danger to the pet owner.  In 2011 in New York, a woman died after being bit by her pet black mamba.  When pets attack humans, accidentally or intentionally, the result is almost always that the animal pays with its life, even if all they are doing is acting naturally.

Some exotic pet owners claim they are driven by a desire to protect animals and conserve endangered species but the effect is actually the opposite.  The rush to own slow lorises has led to a dramatic decline in wild populations.  They look adorable but are wild animals with venom and a painful bite.  To “turn them into pets”, their teeth are removed.  They have a very complex diet and owners often fail to meet their needs.  In addition to that, they are nocturnal so are not suited to being brought out to be petted and shown off in the harsh light.  The argument that animals can be bred and released later is also not one that stands up to scrutiny as breeding is unregulated and often the animals in question aren’t even living in the right country for rehabilitation.  And in their life as a pet, they will have picked up diseases and illnesses which their wild counterparts do not have defence against.

The subject of disease is one which is worth returning to.  Animals tend to carry diseases and these, like the common cold, tend to be regional specific strains.  This poses a number of risks.  Firstly, the animal may transfer the disease to humans.  Secondly, it may be transferred to other animals and thus spread through a region where immunity is not developed.  This risks a devastating impact on local wildlife.

However cute that picture on Instagram looks, remember that these are animals with needs that we can’t meet and whose lives we are harming and whose populations we are destroying.  I think part of the problem with the exotic pets trade is that the animals are seen as objects, as fashions and as status symbols.  Until we can turn conservation and compassion into more desirable traits, I worry that we will continue to see this form of animal cruelty and neglect.

Animals and the law in the 21st Century

It is, on the whole, no longer possible for an animal to stand trial in the way they have done in history.  Animals do not have personhood and under the law this then makes them objects.  And objects cannot be on trial.

Dogs, especially, find themselves effectively in the position of the defendant without any of the legal protections.  For example, dangerous dogs, regardless of why they are dangerous, are often condemned to death.  There are dogs which are killed, simply for being born a particular breed.

In America at least, cases where animals are shot in retaliation for crimes tend not to see the guilty human punished.  This is the case even when the threat is not immediate, for example in a case in Georgia where a dog have mauled a child, the father killed the dog eleven days later.  He was found not guilty of animal cruelty.  We desire revenge from animals and justify our killing and harming of them because of this.  Is this much different to the medieval trials which aimed to restore order through punishment?

That said, animals do receive legal protection under today’s laws.  The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to implement laws protecting animals. In 1822 an Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle was passed by Parliament.  In 1911, the Protection of Animals Act came in which saw more general protections and has been updated since.  Much more recently, in 2007 the Animal Welfare Act replaced the Protection of Animals Act.  There are a collection of other, more specific laws which aim to protect the welfare of animals, such as the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act and the 1960 Abandoment of Animals Act.  The development of these laws shows how our relationship with animals has changed over the last 100 years or so.

The law is a continually developing beast and in America, a lawyer argued that two specific chimpanzees should be granted personhood.  A few months ago the court found against the chimps but the case is just one part of decades of work in this area.  Because American law can vary state by state, they are now looking to see if other states might be more open to the idea.

Along with animal cruelty, the area of illegal pets and illegal pet trade are probably one of the most important aspects of pet related law.  Other laws such as those around hunting and farming are also both vital for protecting the welfare of animals and also, from a sociological perspective, in seeing what we value and how our relationship with non-pet animals differs.

I’m going to be looking in more detail at the illegal pet trade as well as hunting in the next few posts.