DEAR DR. FOX: I am having a debate with a friend, who says that my partner and I going out to rejuvenate our spirits in nature disturbs the wildlife. We are always quiet, we avoid early mornings and evenings, and our dogs never run free.
I feel that the physical and mental health benefits of viewing wildlife are important, and so is protecting that same wildlife. We can strike a balance for the benefit of all. -- P.S., San Francisco
DEAR P.S.: I appreciate your concern about this important issue. There is much to consider, from parents not teaching their children to quietly respect wild places to the "democratic" multiple-use concept for public spaces. The latter leads to littering, fire-setting and the use of noisy, polluting all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and snowmobiles in wildlife-inhabited areas. Nationally, almost 85% of wildfires are started by humans, according to the National Park Service.
The appeals by hikers, naturalists, wildlife photographers and other lovers of nature to prohibit such vehicular traffic and other harmful human incursions -- including trapping and hunting -- are generally ignored by state wildlife management authorities. But an "eco-cratic" stewardship of wildlands would be just. It would also be in our enlightened self-interest, because our ultimate well-being is dependent upon restoring and protecting natural biodiversity.
A new study has found that human hikers create a "landscape of fear" that chases other animals into hiding. Even when hikers are unarmed and using the landscape peacefully, they can cause disruption on par with that of apex predators, according to the study published in January in Scientific Reports (A.K. Anderson, et al: "Partial COVID-19 closure of a national park reveals negative influence of low-impact recreation on wildlife spatiotemporal ecology").
Limiting the numbers of visitors to wildlife habitats during certain seasons and times of day will help reduce wildlife disturbances, which can include disruptions in feeding, breeding and care of young. The associated stress from these disruptions can increase animals' susceptibility to disease. Core areas should be strictly off-limits, allowing trail cameras, at most, for noninvasive wildlife research and monitoring.
IN MEMORIAM: ROGER PAYNE, ETHOLOGIST
I mourn with others the passing of Dr. Roger Payne, who electrified me and other scientists at an international ethology conference where he first played his recordings of the humpback whale. His "Songs of the Humpback Whale," released in 1970 as an LP, helped turn the world against whaling, making him one of my heroes in the fight for animal rights and conservation.
INSIGHTFUL INTERVIEW WITH ANIMAL RIGHTS PHILOSOPHER
On the June 15 episode of the BBC program "HARDtalk," hosted by Stephen Sackur, philosopher Peter Singer gave a memorable interview. Singer was promoting his updated book "Animal Liberation," originally published in 1975. While the book helped launch a worldwide movement, it did not stop the proliferation of cruel farmed animal factories or the numbers of animals exploited for research and other purposes, as Sackur pointed out. Ethical arguments and reason alone rarely change public opinion, especially over such matters as culturally and religiously condoned animal consumption and exploitation.
Singer is now emphasizing the harmful environmental consequences of meat consumption and of raising animals for food -- a major contributing factor to the climate crisis. As I have written, we need to go beyond concepts of animal rights and degrees of animal sentience (including their capacity to feel pain) and emphasize that it is ultimately in our own self-interest -- economically, ecologically and from a One Health perspective -- to immediately reduce our consumption of animal-derived foods. We must adopt vegan/vegetarian diets to support environmentally regenerative, low- to zero-emission, organic agriculture, and restore natural biodiversity to help prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases.
The multiple drivers of government-subsidized farmed animal factories include the livestock feed, agri-petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries and their high-paid lobbyists, all of which must become something of the past. But progress in bioethics will continue to be minimal so long as basic human rights continue to be violated worldwide.
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