*Note: this essay, obviously, discusses animal death. Sensitive viewers are advised to be cautious.
During my college years, I worked for an environmental consulting company for a summer that was mist-netting for bats. If you have never mist-netted for bats (or birds), well, it can be quite a treat. Technicians set up delicate, nearly-invisible nets within gaps in the canopy to catch flying creatures unawares. The purpose of this is to be able to quickly identify and survey what is flying in the area in order to study them; the animals, sparing any accidents, are then released unharmed.
Since we were mist-netting for bats, we had to set up our nets at night, of course, and our nets occasionally caught other flying nocturnal creatures besides bats. We caught flying squirrels on occasion (don’t let their cute looks fool you, they bite far harder than any bat) as well as catbirds and even small owls. But the most frequent unwanted guests in our nets were giant nocturnal moths.
There was the occasional giant, gorgeous luna moth, but more common were brown polyphemus moths and yellow imperial moths. Both of those species are still quite striking and have a wingspan than can surpass the length of my palm, so I have to admit that I was enchanted when I first saw them. And when they got caught in our nets, I wanted to free and release them.
This was not what most of the biologists and technicians mist-netting for bats did, and a few scoffed at my attempts to rescue the insects. The problem is that it is much harder to detangle a soft-bodied insect from a fine net than it is to detangle a vertebrate with flesh propped up by firm bones. Removing the moths from the nets was time-consuming and inevitably they would come away wounded at best, with many scales missing from their glorious wings due to incessant flapping.
My enchantment with the giant moths waned rapidly as I spent more time mist-netting. Their struggles alerted the bats to our nets, driving them away, and on some nights our nets would simply be full of bright flapping wings. And they tended to reward their rescuers by slamming straight into their faces.
I regret to say that I only spent a few nights freeing moths. After a while, I began doing what the more experienced techs and biologists did: I ripped them out in pieces.
It does not sound pleasant, and it was not: I still remember the dreadful popping sounds. And the first time I did it, I was actually sickened by myself, watching the halves of the moth that I had destroyed flap vainly on the ground in the throes of death.
But that was the first time. As it got later in the season, and we grew busier and busier- netting twenty, thirty, forty bats each night- the removal of moths became methodical.
I bring up this anecdote because it is a good example of animal death becoming casual. Moths are indeed animals, and very attractive ones at that. To have killed so many of them at a point in my life feels very disturbing. I certainly would attempt to free, rather than crush, a moth that I found caught in something now. Why the change? Because I find them less annoying when they aren’t interfering with my work? But isn’t a life a life, no matter the circumstance?
But here’s another wrinkle to this tale. That same summer, I killed hundreds of mosquitoes without a second thought. Both moths and mosquitoes are insects: but only killing the moths feels bad, because they are attractive to my human eyes.
Our perception of death, I think, changes constantly. As I mentioned before, we obviously want to believe that a life is a life no matter what. Yet it is difficult- I would argue impossible- to follow through with this credence. So if all lives aren’t equal, which lives do matter? Most restrict it to animals, ignoring plants, fungi, protists, archaebacteria, and bacteria- even though all those groups combined make up the vast majority of life, of which animals contribute just the tiniest sliver. We believe that animals have more of a right to live even than plants; this is obviously due to our own bias and perceptions.
But fine, let’s limit it to animals. We still give some animals more allowances than others. Moths deserve to live more than mosquitoes because they are more attractive and usually don’t bite us. Vertebrates deserve to live more than invertebrates (with the exception of the charming octopuses and other cephalopods) because they look and act more like us. Furry vertebrates get precedence over reptiles, fish, and amphibians… and so on.
At this point you could bring up the fact that some animals have a greater capacity to suffer than others. A bear, for example, is capable of feeling more complex pain than, say, an earthworm.
This is difficult to flawlessly prove, but probably true. But the thing is that we are not talking about suffering: we are talking about death. There are different shades of suffering; there is only one kind of death, and everybody, from single-celled protist to hairless ape, experiences it the same way.*
So while we can argue a great deal about suffering and the proper contexts that animals and others deserve to live their lives in, death is separate from all that. Death can result from suffering, it’s true. But it’s also true that we often euthanize our pets to stop their suffering.
As Gavroche said in Les Misérables, “Everyone’s equal when they’re dead.” So, again: if a mosquito and a chimpanzee experience death in the same way, is it really right to value one life over the other?
From a biologist’s point of view, yes. It is a factor of numbers: the mosquito population can survive the losses of thousands upon thousands of individuals each summer, but not so the ape population. But in this scenario, based upon populations, the right to life of any individual is totally erased: all that matters is how many there are in total. This would be terrifying if, say, we ever applied it to human populations (and in fact, across history, we have).
I’m not in favor of advocating for any lethal human-population control measures myself. Of course I’m not, I’m human too! And I think most humans would agree with this. But the problem is if we then try to apply this same rhetoric to the lives of other animals: simply put, we usually can’t follow through.
I think we all have to admit that we are biased.
And I don’t think that our bias is necessarily a terrible thing.
I don’t know whether valuing the life of an individual mosquito over the life of an individual human is really right or wrong. Right and wrong are quite frequently hard to discern; especially when you realize that there really isn’t a user’s manual on morality. But should we feel ashamed if we value human life over animal life? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a factor of self-preservation; it’s who we are. And we value the lives of animals that look, act, or think like us more than those that do not because of this sense of self-preservation. Because if we apply death to these individuals, it feels only a step away from applying death to ourselves.
It stems from the most primitive type of morality: empathy. But our empathy is rarely fixed firmly in one place. When I was busy and the moths got more annoying, I killed them; otherwise, I did not. My sense of empathy was totally dependent on the circumstances, and it’s a little terrifying to realize.
When is a death a casual death? When is death excessive, and when is death acceptable?
We all need to admit that the answers to these questions are constantly changing. And I hope you didn’t read through this essay expecting me to give them definite answers: I cannot. If you think you can do it, kudos to you.
Perhaps, though, rather than considering the cost of death to the dying animal, we should focus more on what that death gives to the survivors. A mosquito, as far as we know, will not mourn for one of its smashed brethren: but the loss of a matriarch will shatter an elephant herd. Conversely, the deaths of a few hundred overpopulated deer might alleviate the suffering of their starving, disease-ridden brethren.
Yet this is not still not flawless, because we can’t apply it to humans. We still have to be biased: I think it is wrong to say that a human with no family deserves to live less than a human that would have a hundred mourners at her funeral.
Maybe the final difference there is that we are the only animals who have a concept of death, and are able to stay awake at night afraid of it.**
But who really knows? Again, I don’t claim to have any answers, though I think the most probable one is our inherent need for self-preservation. And honestly: is it wrong?
I am sorry about the moths I killed, though.