Thinking about animals: puffins and other wild things

Yates Mill Pond

Last week I was notified that I had a spot on a nature photography trip to Lubec, Maine, after waiting for some months on the wait list.  The trip, sponsored by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, has as a prime objective shooting Atlantic puffins, which nest on nearby Machias Seal Island. They’re comically beautiful little birds. With only a week to get organized, I joined the GNPA, booked a room,  bought a plane ticket, arranged for a rental car, and started cramming on Maine and puffins.  

On Saturday, Sally did a hike at Yates Mill Pond park, and saw a family of 5 red-headed woodpeckers.  I took my equipment there on Sunday, and couldn’t spot the woodpeckers, although I’m pretty sure I heard them.  With our hardwood trees now fully leafed in, it’s hard to see birds, but there were plenty singing there on Sunday.  I’ve been refreshing on my bird song ID skills, and recognized perhaps a dozen familiar songs and calls. There were perhaps a dozen more that I couldn’t identify, so I’ve got a lot to learn.  I also took some pictures there of a great blue heron.

A great blue heron

Also last week, I went out to Anderson Point park east of Raleigh on the Neuse River.  It had been a long time since my last visit. The place used to be one of the best places to hear and see birds in Raleigh.  But, as I discovered, the park is now completely gone, replaced by single family homes. It made me very sad to think of the wild creatures that used to thrive there which lost their habitat and their lives.  

Humans are extremely dangerous to non-human animals.  Even when we’re not killing them to eat or just for the fun of it, we hardly give a thought to eradicating them by taking their territory.  This is bad for humans, inasmuch as it makes our world less varied and beautiful, but, obviously, worse for the victims.   

We’re taught from an early age to regard humans as inherently superior to other beings, and as somehow having an unlimited right to exploit and murder those beings.  But the support for this position is dubious.  We tolerate this situation because we’ve been deeply conditioned  to avoid and ignore it.  But it doesn’t take a moral genius to see there’s something not right here.  Once you see it, it’s hard to unsee, and also hard to know how to address it. 

Christine Korsgaard has a go at it in her recent book, Fellow Creatures:  Our Obligations to the Other Animals, which I’ve been working my way through.  Korsgaard, an eminent philosophy professor at Harvard, comes out of the Kantian tradition, but disagrees with Kant’s view that non-human animals are not entitled to moral recognition.  After a multi-stage analysis, she concludes that there is no principled justification for treating the lives of non-human animals as having less value than homo sapiens’ lives. The great Thomas Nagel gives a good summary and endorsement of Korsgaard’s book in The New York Review of Books (subscription required).