15 April 2011


WILD = HAPPY ? I'm one of those humans who is predisposed to believe that wild animals in their natural state, undisturbed by humans, are inherently more fulfilled, freer in spirit, and in some vague sense happier than their domesticated cousins. I have no scientific evidence to support my conviction, other than a long-standing identification with the natural world. When I regard a lowing, apparently witless cow grazing in a pasture, sublimely ignorant of her state of slavery, and compare that vision to an elk or a gazelle in the wild, sometimes in danger and always with senses heightened, I cannot help but admire the wild creature's fuller, more engaged existence. A free-ranging tiger simply radiates life, especially when compared with a caged lion in a zoo. I realize that I'm anthorpomorphizing like crazy, but for me any wild animal lives in a nobler state than its subjugated cousin.

Christie Wilcox in a guest blog at Scientific American addresses this very question in her essay Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier? She carefully examines our assumptions about animals that are wild, feral or domestic, as well as our assumptions about what constitutes happiness. A few exerpts --

"First and foremost, it's important to realize that not all animals are the same. Domesticated animals are fundamentally different from their wild counterparts. They are not just wild animals that have been raised in captivity; they have undergone evolutionary changes through artificial selection that have altered their bodies, brains, and behaviors. We have no evidence whatsoever that wild animals are, in any way, happier than domesticated ones which are treated well. One of the consequences of domestication is a decrease in stress across the board. Studies have shown that domesticated animals are less stressed to begin with, and freak out less in response to stressful things like unfamiliar habitats or predators [known in science as perturbations in their environment] .... When we domesticated animals, we forever altered how they respond to their environment. We reduced their sensitivity to things that are otherwise very upsetting to their wild relatives -- like interacting with us.

"Stress is important for surviving in the wild. Stress tells you when you're in danger, and provides your body with the boost in performance needed to get out of the situation. The attenuated stress response exhibited by domesticated species doesn't just make them easier to keep happy in captivity. It makes them less fit to survive outside of it. The vast majority of domesticated animals wouldn't survive in the wild, period.

" .... evidence suggests that wild animals can be as happy in captivity as they are in nature, assuming they are treated well. Confinement alone doesn't mean an animal is automatically worse off. If we give an animal all the good things they would have in the wild (food and water, fellow members of their species, a certain amount of space) and take away anything that stresses or hurts them (predators, parasites, extreme weather), then it can live just as happily in an enclosure. Zoo animals with proper care and enrichment, for example, have similar hormone profiles, live longer, eat better, and are healthier than their wild counterparts. Why? Because life in the wild is hard. In captivity, it's easy."

So far, so good. Where I respectfully disagree with Wilcox's analysis is our hubris in imagining that we understand the full range of a given creature's living requirements. In the wild, for instance, individual top predators like wolves, mountain lions or grizzley bears have ranges of hundreds of square miles. So do their wild prey -- elk, wildebeasts, bison. What zoo has the resources to provide such an enclosure? I'm persuaded that it is precisely the stress of survival under sometimes adverse conditions which, over time, has produced the magnificently adapted and highly adaptable wildlife which has survived human intervention (or human predation).

Further, our stewardship of nature and wildlife is riddled with gross mistakes which have resulted in the loss of entire ecosystems, and the extinction of countless species of flora and fauna. We understand so little about ourselves, yet we imagine that we grasp the myriad needs of even one species, much less millions of species.

We have benefitted undeniably from encouraging our symbiotic relationships with domestic plants, with lifestock, with dogs and cats. In some measure, they have benefitted too. But at what cost? A nature writer (whose name escapes me) once recalled seeing a bighorn sheep lounging on a ledge overlooking a sweeping view of the Rocky Mountains, motionless and content from having just fed. The writer, attuned to the bighorn's mood, had the distinct impression that the bighorn, in addition to checking out its environment for predators, competition or other bighorns, was doing something more sublime which we normally ascribe only to humans -- enjoying the view, the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Anthropomorphizing? Possibly. But who's to say? Wild creatures which use their wits for survival may indeed think in ways at which we can only guess.

CANNABIS. Here is a link to a recent, very informative PBS special, Clearing the Smoke: The Science of Cannabis. In the atmosphere of conservative hysteria which pervades political issues, it is refreshing to see and hear both empirical evidence, and a reasoned debate over that evidence, with regard to medical marijuana. Given that all sides are represented, I invite you to view the entire hour-long special, and see if perhaps you don't discover viewpoints which may broaden your own horizons a wee bit. I surely did.

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