For the Birds Radio Program: Animals vs. Humans

Original Air Date: Dec. 13, 1995

Do environmentalists really value animals over humans? (4:19) Date verified. This was refashioned a few years late, but I don’t know when.

Audio missing


The morning that I wrote this program, Wisconsin Public Radio’s Jean Farakah was discussing a topic that had something to do with our facing up to evil, and the nature of right and wrong. With only two or three minutes left, a woman called in complaining about the supreme selfishness, and thus the evil nature, of environmentalists who, she said, care more about animals than they do about people. There was no time left for anyone to respond. More and more, I’m troubled by efforts to gut environmental legislation, from sewage discharge levels to the Endangered Species Act, by claiming that environmentalists don’t care about humans.

When I was a nursing mother, I hated DDT poisoning my milk, and in turn my nursing baby, even more than I hated DDT poisoning the blood of Peregrine Falcon mothers, making their eggshells too thin to survive. Our interest in clean air and water go far beyond wanting a pristine environment for plants and animals. We humans and our children live here, too.

Issues pitting animal or plant species against human interests are troubling. I take my code of ethics in the issue of animal rights from Blue Jays. Jays do take eggs and young from other birds’ nests to maintain themselves and their own babies during the critical nesting season. If a baby Blue Jay had a sickness that could somehow be cured if Blue Jay scientists experimented on other animals, you can bet your bottom dollar that Blue Jays would support that research. I don’t know if Blue Jays consider themselves superior to other species or not, but they certainly are loyal to their own kind, and we should be, too. But if a Blue Jay scientist wanted to test, say, shampoos or eye cosmetics on rabbits, my guess is that sensible Blue Jays would be aghast.

How about Spotted Owls, or snail darters? Blue Jays collect enough shiny objects and build complex enough nests to perhaps appreciate Aldo Leopold’s maxim that the first step in intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. Whether it’s a lowly fish or a Florida panther, extinction is forever. Every species plays complex roles in the survival of other species, which we can never fully understand. One important food resource for the Northern Spotted Owl is a tiny arboreal mouse that eats the bracket fungi growing on ancient trees. This owl specializes, snatching mice right off tree trunks. The choice is not between the Spotted Owls or loggers’ and lumber workers’ livelihoods. The real issues are more complex. Japan buys raw lumber from the Pacific Northwest to store underwater. They don’t need it now, but figure, based on our track record, that eventually we’ll chop down all the ancient growth, and they want their piece of the pie while they can get it. Pacific coast lumber yards tooled up to process large trees don’t have enough logs to work on now, But the fault is more with selling out natural resources to the highest bidders than with the environmentalists concerned about one well-known vulnerable species and also a host of other species that also depend on that ecosystem.

When my daughter Katie was five years old, I showed her some stuffed Passenger Pigeons at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis. Katie cried to learn that she would never, ever see one live one. The pleasure many humans take from seeing and living among birds is at least as valid as the pleasure other humans get from money. To accuse environmentalists of loving animals more than we love humans is utterly false. As I watch friends fighting yet another mall built up on yet another wetland, I wonder whether the question is more about developers who love money more than they love people.