I was going to write about an entirely different topic until, thanks to our Dear Leader Patrick in San Francisco, the following article entered my life.
“A wolf was rescued at a government building in Qinghai province on Friday after it was found with a leg wound believed to have been caused by an illegal trap. Yang Jian, deputy secretary-general of the government of the Huangnan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, shot some pictures of the injured wolf and put them on his micro blog over the weekend along with a story saying that the wolf was found in an office on the first floor of the building at about 11 am.”
This apparently happened in my town (and without me even finding out!). As such, I feel obligated to lay aside previous plans and write about predators.
Ask my students what animals they truly hate, and you’re likely to get a rousing chorus of “wolves!” in response. Most students have seen wolves, but nearly all have experienced the damage these top predators can inflict on livestock herd in a matter of hours. As such, despite the Tibetan belief in reincarnation and consequent concern for every living creature (to the extent that I’m not allowed to swat flies in my apartment, in classrooms or in our library), wolves are generally seen as unmitigated evil. I’m unsure of how this view is reconciled with Buddhist teachings, but I assume that wolves, simply by virtue of having killed many other animals, are themselves less worthy of life. Or that could be completely wrong. I’ll stop pretending to understand Buddhist theology right here.
But regardless of religious outlook, and despite my semireligious hyperenvironmentalism, I’ve got to admit that the students have a point. Wolf attacks can wipe out chunks of a herder’s flock of sheep or yaks, depriving families not only of their income but also, more essentially, several staples of their diet, e.g. milk, yogurt, cheese and meat. While precautions can be taken against wolf attacks (corralling, etc.), these conflicts cannot be entirely prevented.
And yet, at the same time, the plateau is experiencing the story of the American west. With increased herding pressure on the grasslands and further human encroachment into their habitat, the region’s wolves are more embattled than ever. In addition, the populations of top predators (bear, wolf, leopard) as well as of wild herbivores (such as antelope) that the wolf would otherwise prey upon, have declined throughout the past century. At this point, wolves have little choice but to prey upon the increasingly large herds of livestock for their survival.
Environmentalists demand that wolves enjoy full protection and be allowed to prey upon livestock at will; herders want to kill wolves to protect their livestock and their families. But what angers me about such future-of-the-ecosystem debates is their polarization. Both sides are always wrong. Environmentalists want to create a landscape of original pristinity that may or may not have ever existed, and which – if it did exist – surely never included humans. Herders are understandably focused on their day-to-day survival, but such quotidian focus often comes at the cost of damage to the ecosystems upon which they depend. It’s the same old debate all over again, that of resource management in the wild west. Sometimes I feel like I’m reliving the opening and development of the American frontier, or at least like I’m a minor character on the sidelines of the movie Chinatown, watching the confusion and conflict from afar. For as a foreigner, who am I to judge?
Which brings me back to the wolf in the government office building yesterday. What was the poor animal thinking when it wandered down that long, narrow corridor, paws scratching the fake marble tiles lining the floor? Was it hoping to find sheep to eat? Or was it simply desperate for survival? Is the Big Bad Wolf really as Big or as Bad as we think he is? I wonder how he thinks of himself: as a victim? as a hero? as a ruthless despot of the mountains who takes what he wants? as a Fantastic Mr. Fox-like wily bandit? or simply as a confused, lost soul wandering through a government building far below his home in the mountains?
For before we make any judgments or decide what we’re going to do about animals, or really about anything at all, we should attempt to view things from perspectives other than our own. For are we truly so omnipotent, or at least so omniscient? How much do we humans truly know and fully comprehend about the world that we deserve to play with and joke about and ultimately decide and fix the lives and fates of others?