Reflection- Of wolves, George Floyd, and the limits of human empathy
The Ecological Citizen Vol 4 No 1 2020: epub-033 [online first]
First published: 23 July 2020
Like many people throughout the world, I am deeply saddened by the murder of George Floyd and by the ignorance and callousness that led to his death. One upshot, however, is that Mr Floyd’s death has resulted in a groundswell of collective outrage and empathy, which in turn has led to a commitment to be more humane and just in our treatment of others. This is the good news. We can rejoice that we are now on the verge of much needed and potentially seismic change. The bad news is that the benefits of this movement do not extend to other underserved, under-represented and voiceless communities that are no less deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Many Americans are familiar with the predator extermination campaigns of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, but what people may not know is that those campaigns, and the fear and ignorance that inspired them, are very much alive and well in state legislatures and the agencies that do their bidding. The greatest offender is the US Department of Agriculture, whose Wildlife Services agents kill tens of thousands of carnivores each year – including coyotes, lions, bobcats, black bears and wolves – under the pretext that they pose a significant threat to livestock, deer, and elk (Predator Defense, 2020).
As a rule, predators rarely prey on livestock. Weather, respiratory disease, and plant poisoning are by far the greatest cause of livestock mortality. In fact, more cows are stolen by rustlers and killed by domestic dogs than are killed by either wolves or bears (WildEarth Guardians, 2020). And yet state legislators and the agricultural and hunting communities they represent continue to peddle a grossly uninformed anti-predator narrative. Although their complaints may differ in their particulars, they all share the goal of sterilizing public lands by eliminating these vitally important animals, often using methods – guns, traps, snares, poison, snowmobiles – whose brutality rivals the recent and horrifying treatment of Mr Floyd.
If the comparison offends, I would ask readers to reflect on the limits of their own empathy and to consider why it ends with humans rather than beginning with them. The connection between our mistreatment of other humans and the natural world is well-established and probably derives from our tribal-animal nature. Fortunately, and as many of us demonstrate each day through our care of each other and of the non-human world, we can choose which aspects of our nature to live by. Unfortunately, when it comes to predators, too many of us choose the path of least resistance: Having decided that our satieties and desires are more important than other animals’ lives, we destroy rather than coexist.
A prime example of this failure (what I call ‘low road’ human–wildlife interaction) is Utah’s recent, reactionary and needless plan to trap and kill a lone wolf – one of only a handful that has wandered into Utah over the last 80 years – blamed for the death of a calf in the north-eastern part of the state. As design would have it, wolves entering that part of the state do not enjoy the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Recognizing that the area is a natural corridor for wolves travelling out of Idaho or Wyoming, the Utah legislature, in a moment of surprising clarity but misguided insight, got the jump on wolves and wildlife advocates by turning the area it into a kill zone for any wolf unlucky enough to wander into it.
But this geographical damning of the wolf is just the most obvious way that Utah and other western states are failing in their responsibility to honour the values of its people, not just the values of ranchers and hunters. When the citizens of Colorado were polled last year, 84% indicated their support for the reintroduction of wolves (Blevins, 2020). Similarly, the majority of both rural and urban Utahans polled a few years ago welcome the canid’s return (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Utah Wolf Working Group, 2005). Despite the public’s support, state officials show no sign of slowing their brazen and shameful assault on wolves and other carnivores.
Although we know very little about the circumstances surrounding the calf’s death, articles that have been published on the subject include enough information to show the state’s wanton bias against wolves. A KSL.com article quoted Leann Hunting, Utah director of animal industry for the Department of Agriculture and Food, as saying that “the trapper estimated the attack had happened about four days before the animal was discovered” (Williams, 2020). Assuming the trapper’s estimate is correct, all kinds of animals could have fed on the calf carcass over the course of four days, which makes predator confirmation difficult at best and guesswork at worst. In light of this uncertainty and numerous other factors, including that ranchers will be compensated for losses, state trappers should stand down and let wolves continue their already imperilled journey.
Instead of showing some restraint, Utah seems determined to pursue this wolf with an almost religious sense of mission. A couple of sentences later, Ms Hunting stated:
It is our job then to track the wolf or trap it and take care of the problem so it doesn’t continue to depredate livestock and our wildlife populations […] It’s also important to have it done in a timely manner because these predators move so quickly.
In addition to making the absurd claim that a single wolf poses a significant threat to livestock or wildlife, Ms Hunting’s comments reveal a highly regrettable double standard as well as ignorance of basic investigative protocols: When determining what role, if any, a wolf might have played in the demise of the calf, Ms Hunting implies that time does not matter. But when it comes to trapping and killing the wolf, by God, time assumes great urgency. Compare this shoddy detective work with the high level of care that the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources gives to elk poaching and the state’s bias becomes even clearer.
What should alarm us more than anything, however, is the open contempt that state and federal agencies throughout the American West have for these amazing, complex and important animals, as well as for the ecosystems they help to create. Another quotation from Ms Hunting, in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, is illustrative (Podmore, 2020):
If we didn’t eradicate the predators […] if we didn’t do what we can to level out the playing field, it would completely dissolve our wildlife and livestock population.
First, if all it takes is one wolf to perturb an industry with several hundred thousand livestock animals on its ledger, maybe livestock producers should consider another line of work. No, the playing field isn’t level… for the wolf, and it hasn’t been for centuries. Ms Hunting’s use of the word “eradicate” should also give us pause. The US has a long and brutal history of eradication, and not just of wolves, but of other people who got in the way of our so-called destiny. And we are still dealing with the consequences of that history.
Perhaps one day not too long from now our concept of justice will include other animals that also deserve to live their lives free from persecution. But given everything it has taken just to get people to value the lives of other people, without another groundswell of empathy, I have little hope that wolves and other imperilled carnivores will survive the century. ■
Blevins J (2020) Survey shows overwhelming support for reintroducing wolves in Colorado. Colorado Sun, 24 January. Available at https://is.gd/dHKzWK (accessed July 2020).
Podmore Z (2020) A gray wolf is in Utah for the first time in years. The state is setting traps. Salt Lake Tribune, 3 June. Available at https://is.gd/mC5uxc (accessed July 2020).
Predator Defense (2020) The USDA’s war on wildlife. Available at https://is.gd/2bsWyG (accessed July 2020).
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Utah Wolf Working Group (2005) Utah Wolf Management Plan. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City, UT, USA. PDF download available at https://is.gd/P4V89r (accessed July 2020).
WildEarth Guardians (2020) Livestock losses. Available at https://is.gd/Cz0vbr (accessed July 2020).
Williams C (2020) Wolf killed livestock animal in Rich County, Utah agriculture officials say. KSL.com, 3 June. Available at https://is.gd/kcdEse (accessed July 2020).
Maximilian Werner is Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah. He is the author of six books. His seventh book, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns -- Death and Coexistence in the American West, was published in May. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @ProfMWerner.
13 Responses to Reflection- Of wolves, George Floyd, and the limits of human empathy
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Excellent post, thank you!
Level the playing field by exterminating wolves? Long past that point, I think.
True – the attitudes towards “others” is the same whether its other humans who dont look like us or other nations – the other species that live on this planet. I’m guessing that someone with no empathy or concept of the fact that we NEED all others – whether human or animal – in order for this world to function. Removing predators in order for prey species to flourish? Really? I think nature is far better able to decide how the environment & all species survive when humans keep their fingers AND noses out of it!
Very good article.
sorry – re-read this.
I should have written “no empathy HAS no concept of the fact”.
Thank you for this poignant piece; so sad and so true.
Professor Maximilians article makes sense but what I have actually experienced in the past, is that the primary motivation for the USDA Wildlife Services at least, to kill wild animals comes from budgetary concerns. Animals become a “commodity” in their view and they don’t just kill predators.
To give the reader an idea of the gravity of biological crimes committed by “Wildlife Services” I have included some data from the USDA official website. (Report from 2018). They killed the following (partial listing of species).
2,977 killdeer plovers; 1,028 turkey vultures; 22,521 beavers; 515,915 red-winged blackbirds; 10,175 double crested cormorants; 537 river otters; 5,223 cattle egrets; 6,332 ring billed gulls; 1,321 red-tailed hawks; 24,335 Canada geese; 54 sandhill cranes; and 504 robins.
Yeah! We all known how ‘dangerous’ killdeer plovers and robins are. This folks is the commodification of life itself. A virulent strain of capitalism that is consuming the planet. It is a kind of rabid arrogance and disregard for life that is literally killing our chances for survival.
Mr Maximillian, try comparing wolves to police…I agree there is a lot of ignorance when it comes to wolves and their interactions with humans, but I could argue the same for the police. George Floyd died because of his criminal lifestyle..not by the hands of the police. The autopsy says so. Get the facts before you condemn a whole community. Your just as guilty as Wildlife Services, ranchers and hunters for passing judgement on something you know little about.
“George Floyd died because of his criminal lifestyle.. not by the hands of the police. The autopsy says so. Get the facts before you condemn a whole community”
George Floyd was murdered, Mike and the world had a front row seat to that murder via video from numerous sources. You might want to get YOUR facts straight.
And ponder these thoughts since you obviously feel the need to blame the victim (i.e. his lifestyle) instead of the callous, smug SOB who took Floyd’s life away from him and all but grinned while doing it, on video.
Yeah Nancy, it’s like Mike thinks George Floyd got what he deserved. Last I checked the police are NOT judge and jury as well. He may have been a criminal but that does not justify his murder. I would add: NO ONE deserves to be executed like that, without trial, without due process, stripped of his/her rights and humanity. Even Nazis had trials. I bet if that had happened to someone Mike knows he might feel different. Otherwise we become savages.
Sad and awful. 🙁 Understatement, I know.
Very sad and very true Werner. There’s no shortage of intolerance, cruelty, hate and ignorance where wolves and other predators are concerned. And only those of us who want to see them survive and flourish dare to have empathy for them.
Yes, there are connections between the struggle for justice for black Americans and the fight to end brutal U.S ’management’ practices on land and wildlife, but now is not the time to pivot. Nor is simple ignorance the root cause of either. Violence is a deliberate act that proceeds in the face of opposition to oppressive power and supremacy. The battle against hundreds of years of systemic racism is not near over, nor are we as a nation on the verge of seismic change, but rather we are just at the starting gate of the larger public awareness that it is needed to truly begin. The movement for black lives requires the continued attention and support of all Americans who believe in justice for all. The environmental community must fully engage in the fight to support and uphold black lives, must address its own shortcomings in valuing and including black lives, and above all must not co-opt this moment to make the case for another cause, worthy though that other cause may be.
Amaroq Weiss, Senior West Coast Wolf Advocate, Center for Biological Diversity
Lia Cheek, National Director of Field Campaigns, Endangered Species Coalition
Kim Crumbo, Carnivore Ambassador, The Rewilding Institute
Kelly Burke, Executive Director, Wild Arizona
I disagree with the suggestion that we cannot simultaneously pursue justice on multiple fronts without undermining the goals of “this moment.” I do it every day (even at this moment), and I’m guessing that other members of the environmental community, including the writers of the above response, do as well.
And doesn’t an ecocentric worldview lie at the heart of what we do as environmental advocates? And isn’t the goal of an ecocentric worldview to define “other” as broadly and as inclusively as possible so as to achieve the greatest awareness of and care for the world and its inhabitants? If so, my argument is only a “pivot” if viewed through the narrow lens of strictly human interests.
Also, the idea that “Violence is a deliberate act that proceeds in the face of opposition to oppressive power and supremacy” invites the perpetuation of social and environmental strife. No matter who commits it, violence as a means of conflict resolution is a zero sum game, and as such offers little hope of unification. We can do better.
Make no mistake, I “believe in justice for all,” but my “all” includes wolves and other voiceless species that have also suffered at the hands of humans for hundreds of years. Would I be accused of “coopting” if I noted the parallels between the maltreatment of black people and Native Americans? Probably (and rightfully) not. Is it justice for “all” or is it justice for “All”? I can work with both. Can you?
In the fight for justice we are all drawing from the well of what is best in us. Please don’t tell me what kind of ladle to use.
No not “coopting!
I have been wondering why Native American’s treatment for hundreds of years – the abuse, slaughter, lack of law enforcement follow-up – to be honest, the same abuse that black americans have had to put up with for hundreds of years – together they could be a stronger force.
I’m not a member of either community so I cant truly know why there isnt more joining together.
Truly, the treatment of other races AND the treatment of our native animals and wild places sure does seem to be one big picture with the same end result!!