Wilderness, be it forests or plains or deserts or lakes or ocean tide pools, is the home of free-living animals. These animals might be large (wolves, dolphins, deer), small (squirrels, carp, blue jays) or tiny (caterpillars, minnows, field mice), but they all depend on wilderness.
Over millennia, we've co-evolved with these animals. They're our neighbors and the Earth is also theirs to share. So I wonder why more groups are not speaking up for better protection of habitat. What is the point of all our advocacy if there is nowhere left for animals to reside?
The needs of domesticated animals are central on the radar of advocates; we’re all familiar with how many cats and dogs need homes. We’re also familiar with the need for homes for animals rescued from roadside zoos and those occasionally released from laboratories. And then there are sanctuaries for farm animals. But another kind of homelessness, overlooked by nearly all animal charities yet affecting vast numbers of animals, involves the usurping of wilderness.
In Victoria, British Columbia, my home town, as in an increasing number of cities across North America, we’re finding unexpected wildlife in the city. Most commonly seen are deer, and they can be found regularly in nearly all neighborhoods now - something nearly unheard of just a decade ago. Following them are the predators: black bears and cougars. The response to their appearance, from the inappropriately titled conservation officers, is ruthless and swift.
It’s unfair to begrudge deer, cougars or bears for wandering this way. It’s been but a few moments, in evolutionary terms, that our cities have existed. We’ve sprouted very quickly, and taken more space than we deserve or need. We’ve expanded our populations much too quickly, and the rest of nature simply cannot keep up. In building our homes, we compromise or destroy theirs. Moreover, we reduce their genetic diversity by cutting off communities’ ability to mingle, so they are now isolated from one another.
Planning green corridors is one important response. Is it fair, in addition, to try to control or manage their populations?
Lee Hall doesn’t think so: “[P]robably the last thing advocates need to do is buttress the view of an overpopulation of free-living animals or offer new ways of thinning the herd. Respect for other animals’ autonomy fits with the answer that most closely mirrors the way of the natural ecology, and the other animals’ capacity to adapt to it.” Further: “We need a social movement that inspires us to respect non-human animals, to want them to remain capable of living and moving freely in the habitats to which they’ve naturally adapted, rather than be alienated from those spaces.”
This is, I believe, where we need to steer ourselves. I can envision cities that, while not encouraging of visits from others animals, know how to respond, and can cohabitate. We'd welcome many more green spaces that would allow their communities to stay connected. At least 10% of a town or region should be set aside as wilderness, barring animal farming, commercial use, off-road vehicles and thrill sports like helicopter skiing and personal watercraft racing. These spaces require protection from habitat manipulation projects, predator control, mining, logging, trapping, hunting and fishing. (Unfortunately, most towns have already eliminated acres of land that could be designated wilderness, although reclaiming commercial lands and converting them to wildlands has been successful in some areas.)
In turn, we would also have the privilege of being able to visit their spaces, to marvel at the wonders of nature, as we learn to live peacefully in their world. As David Attenborough sang, adapting Louis Armstrong's classic in the “Frozen Planet” series, what a wonderful world that would be.