The End of Wild: Emma Marris Explores What People Owe to Animals in a Human-Ruled World

October 8, 2021
Emma Marris

On a planet where people touch every ecosystem, tweak every landscape, adjust almost every natural process either directly or indirectly, humans need to ask just what, exactly, they owe to animals, said Emma Marris, author and environmental ethicist, at a recent seminar sponsored by the S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources

The bad news is that ‘wild’ doesn’t exist anymore, she said, requiring a paradigm shift that’s upending the way we think about our relationships with animals and ecosystems. People have long accepted responsibility for the welfare of domesticated animals like dogs and horses. But for non-domesticated animals they’ve adopted a more hands-off approach, valuing ecosystems over individual critters, assuming that natural systems should be able to self-correct without human help. If a mountain lion is starving to death, they reason, that’s tough, but it’s a tough world out there. But if, in this human-ruled environment, a mountain lion is starving because it can’t get access to food sources on the other side of a sprawling new housing development, or as an indirect result of climate change, how should managers respond?

At the heart of this dilemma is how humans value ecosystems against individual animals, Marris said. Animals lovers and ecologists often face competing values. Take, for example, the captive breeding program for California condors. When the program was initiated, animal lovers protested saying that it was undignified and cruel to capture these endangered birds for breeding purposes—that it spoiled their ‘wildness.’ But without the program, ecologists argued, the species would already be extinct from lead poisoning from ingested hunting ammunition. Both were right.

There aren’t easy answers, said Marris, but there are tools to build an ethical philosophy for interactions with animals on the individual and ecosystem levels. Valuing animal autonomy, for instance, and recognizing that when the lesser of two bad options is chosen, managers need to approach the decision with humility, embracing the ‘moral residue’ that inevitably follows, rather than trying to justify their choice as a black and white.  

In the case of the Tristan albatross, a sea bird native to the Gough Island in the South Atlantic, managers have been forced to prioritize one form of life over another. The bird is threatened by oversized mice on the island, who eat one in three hatchlings. The mice don’t know they are the bad guy, said Marris, they don’t understand the ecological role they are playing. To add to the conundrum, in the 150 years since mice were introduced to the island, they’ve evolved into what some consider a species distinct from their common cousins.

Exploring philosophies about environmental ethics—from compassionate conservation to ecological animalism (considering humans an integral part of the natural ecosystem, rather than a separate category) can move humans forward in grappling with these difficult decisions, she said.Marris has written for New York Times, The Atlantic, Nature and National Geographic. She recently released the book Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, which explores in depth human obligation to animals with whom they share the planet.