Sentient animals: We’re all on the same team, right?

Grizzlies and bobcats are more than just native wildlife here in Montana. The University of Montana Grizzly football team (go Griz!) takes on the Montana State University Bobcats (grrrr) in the Brawl of the Wild every year–the state’s biggest, most ferocious rivalry. This past year, when both teams were heading to the FCS quarterfinals, ESPN didn’t offer television coverage and the scat hit the fan.

In less than a week, the outrage spread to 90,000 Facebook users. More than 23,000 signed a petition. ESPN was bombarded with messages. A state university system regent sent a plea. One fan contacted a law firm. Montana’s congressional delegation intervened, and finally, a pay-per-view solution materialized. Wrote one protester on his Facebook page: “You just don’t push a Bobcat and a Grizzly into a corner without someone getting hurt…and it ain’t gonna be the wild critters.”

This got me to thinking about the real wild critters–the ones whose admirable qualities we love to appropriate as our own–and how the reverse is true: the wild ones do get hurt when they pursue their interests too close to human concerns, prejudices, and appetites. When they are intentionally killed for their behavior (“euthanized,” we like to call it) or their fur, petitions seldom circulate and viral protests don’t materialize.

Take grizzlies. Despite the rare, fatal mauling, bears are usually on the receiving end in human encounters. In 2010, according to a Missoulian article, “humans killed at least 50 grizzlies in and around Yellowstone Park, mostly by accident or for getting into livestock or other human food sources.” Up in northwest Montana, 28 individual bears were captured 44 different times in 2011; six of those bears were killed. If they are sows with cubs, the kids are carted off to zoos, their lives as wild bears terminated. Within roughly a week at the end of November, six wild bears were ejected from the game when two moms were executed (let’s call it what it is) and four cubs captured. They had gotten into accessible attractants–chicken coops, animal feed, and pigs.

Let’s review the play: Humans encroach in griz territory; they provide attractants to which bears become habituated; they blame the animals (label them “problem bears”), call a foul and demand a penalty. While it might seem logical and ethical that humans should alter their behavior to accommodate their wild neighbors, MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the state management agency, calls a different play: “As the (Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem) grizzly bear population continues to grow, FWP can be more aggressive with removing those females and males that continue to conflict with humans.” Humans get to punt away their responsibility and accountability AND keep the ball. Go team!

Bobcats? Brought down by baited traps in their own territory. In seven trapping districts across Montana, a total of 1,925 bobcats can be killed (some districts exceed their quota). At $411.84 each (2010-11 prices–this year’s will likely be higher), trappers can walk away with just under $793,000 for someone else’s skin. No wonder Montana is called the Treasure State! But the bobcats themselves pay–in pain, terror, exposure to intense cold and predation, and the final “dispatch”–provided they survive their time pinned in the trap (there’s no required trap check interval in Montana). Bobcats are also subjected to hunting and chasing with hounds, including a “chase-only” overtime season that extends to mid-April.

It’s a sad world where our mascots garner more passionate support than the real-life counterparts who inspired them. But this is a human conundrum—our fascination with animals, our admiration and proclaimed love for them, coupled with our willingness to exploit them or let them be exploited while we stand by, mute. This is particularly true for animals “grown” to be eaten. Though their wildness was domesticated away thousands of years ago, they still feel pain, know fear, love their babies, and would choose to walk into the sun, if only they could escape the industrial hell into which they’re born, they live, and die. To deny them even this much consideration is to deny 500 years of advancement in ethics and science.

But whether factory farmed or wild, animals are at the mercy of humans, and our species hasn’t been particularly merciful–allowing even our beloved cat and dog companions to be killed by the millions every year. If we prefer to relate to our fellow animals in the abstract–in heart-warming movies, as “ham” instead of pig, or wearing our team’s jersey–we’ve already won.

But if we want more for them–and us–we need to change the rules, if not the game itself. A new year is the perfect time to recruit compassion and fair play to our side because, when the clock runs down to zero, we’re all on the same home team.

A shorter version of this post appeared in the Missoulian on 1/9/12.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *