kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, environmentalism
Let's see, there's "My ancestors didn't fight their way to the top of the food chain so I could become a vegetarian"; and there's the biblical "have dominion over [everything]". That's one side. The other encompasses a range of environmentalist activists from the relatively pragmatic PETA to those who think humans need to go extinct to "protect the biosphere".
Overall, I admire vegetarians, because they must be so much more careful what they eat; it's much harder to eat a balanced diet when nearly all animal products are excluded, and hardest for the vegans. I remember in the 1960s and '70s seeing ghastly folks on the macrobiotic "diet". They looked like corpses that hadn't decided to stop moving yet. So I have to hand it to Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who claims to be a lifelong vegetarian; in his jacket photo he looks quite robust and vigorous, so he knows how to do it right!
Masson's newest book is Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals, and what a menagerie it is! Of the hundred essays, some address single species ("Bengal Tiger", "Narwhal", "Wallace's Flying Tree Frog"), some describe genera or family-level taxa ("Flamingos", "Geckos", "Mantises"), and a few cover huge groups ("Pinnipeds", "Beetles"). The essays are eclectic and informative, with a mix of detailed and broad-brush descriptions.
As it happens, more than half the hundred essays contain mini-essays on environmental themes. Many of these "favorite animals" are threatened or endangered, and this frequently seems to be the reason they were chosen. Masson makes his case to the point of tiresomeness, and best states it on page 351:
"Perhaps the hardest thing for us to do as a species is to realize that other life-forms do not exist for what they can give us in gustatory sensations or even in aesthetic appreciation, but exist in their own right, and are valuable simply because they exist. They need not provide us with anything to deserve to live, and the time will eventually come when we realize the best we can do is to leave other species alone."
I am in only partial sympathy with these sentiments. Humans are part of nature. We are, temporarily at least, very influential, though not perhaps as dominant as some folks would like to believe. For example, just considering how many sperm whales there are (at least 100,000; maybe a million or more); and that they eat only large squids; and that larger squid, including the giant squid Architeuthis, reproduce slowly: There's probably a ton of large squid, and likely several tons of smaller ones, per human. We're also outweighed by termites, ants, nematodes, and beetles. No matter how well-adapted we are, including our vaunted technology, many creatures live in environments few humans can even afford to visit briefly (even supported by giant research institutions).
On the other hand, we happen to be well-adapted to live with little technological help in the same environment that supports most of the hundred kinds of animals Masson describes. The ones we haven't domesticated, we're in the process of exterminating. Most of this extermination is being done, not by ravening hunters or even anti-predator ranchers and farmers, but by poor people trying to live to see tomorrow.
Poor people need shelter and food, and usually something to keep them warm, i.e. fire and clothing. While it is true that large "McFarms" in Amazonia are destroying habitat at a great rate, that pales in comparison to the four billion or more poor to wholly indigent people that can't afford to care if some animal might live on a certain plot of ground. They need to grow a crop, or gather fruits or roots, or collect firewood and building materials.
The author is a member of the Western middle class, living in New Zealand. As he is not a Maori, it is simple to infer that he is more prosperous than 98% of humans. He can afford to live as a vegetarian. Most people are near-vegetarians, but not by choice. They eat any meat or fish they can afford or manage to catch. A five-ounce fish or squirrel has equivalent nutrition to a pound of wheat or maize plus half a pound of rice or soy...and it takes less firewood to prepare it. By the way, no one grain has a complete protein, you need at least two, thus the wording above.
Just another side note: in one place the author notes that people who live by hunting and gathering prefer to eat herbivores over carnivores. I have experience in this regard...herbivores taste better. They are also easier to catch and more plentiful.
Well, back to the animals. Masson believes that animals have a rich emotional and mental life, and I agree. Many of the essays contain engaging stories of animal behavior that any of us can recognize as playful or thoughtful. Anyone who has kept pets, even snakes, frogs, or insects, knows they are more than a bag full of instincts.