June 21, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Dangers of Viewing Animal Death as Helpful

It’s one thing to say an ecosystem can take care of recycling a carcass. It’s another to say the ecosystem needs the carcass to thrive.

Credit: Stefan Swanepoel, Wikimedia

Consider this headline from National Geographic: “How 2 Million Pounds of Rotting Flesh Helps the Serengeti.” Shaena Montanari’s article reports on findings by four Yale biologists who measured how many wildebeest drown crossing a river during their annual migrations, and what becomes of the remains as scavengers feed on them. The scientists did not say that the carcasses floating downstream “help” the Serengeti. They only reported that the mass drownings “influence” the ecosystem. There’s a big difference. Yet Montanari practically celebrates these mass casualties as she continues, “The thousands of wildebeest that die during their yearly migration are a critical ecosystem resource.

Everyone knows that many living things thrive on the remains of dead animals. Who has not witnessed crows picking at roadkill along the highway? Vultures, flies, bacteria, fungi and other scavengers help to recycle the remains of the dead, turning death into life for the next generation. In that sense, this is a helpful and necessary thing. Without it, the earth would be littered with the rotting corpses of the dead for decades, centuries, or millennia. We humans pretend that burying our dead in fancy coffins will preserve them in suits and gowns, but you wouldn’t want to look at the remains after a few years’ work by worms and soil organisms. Death, decay and recycling are part of our natural reality. We accept this and move on.

But imagine if National Geographic implied that soil organisms “need” our dead corpses. What kind of demented government policies might result from too much emphasis on the “help” that our corpses give the worm ecosystem? This cartoon by Brett Miller expresses the danger of twisted values based on moral equivalence:The Yale biologists, publishing in PNAS, measured the nutrient content of drowned wildebeest as the carcasses floated downstream. The biomass is substantial:

Here, we show that mass drownings of wildebeest occur nearly annually during the Serengeti wildebeest migration, and these mass drownings contribute the equivalent biomass of 10 blue whale carcasses per year to this moderately sized river. Soft tissues of the carcass decompose within several weeks and are assimilated by both in-stream and terrestrial consumers. Bones decompose over years, which may influence nutrient cycling and food webs in the river on decadal time scales. The loss of migrations and associated mass drownings may fundamentally alter river ecosystems in ways previously unrecognized.

Whale carcasses are known to support organisms living at the bottom of the sea that make quick work of them. That’s why whale fossils are unusual (see 2/02/04). The Yale biologists do not suggest that wildebeest death is good or necessary for the downstream ecosystem, even though they find that vultures, fish and other opportunistic scavengers profit from the remains. One of the new findings was how much the bones of the unfortunate wildebeest contribute phosphorus to other organisms downstream. In fact, “contribute” is the only word they use in the paper that comes close to a value judgment on the benefits of wildebeest drownings to the ecosystem. As published, the paper adds to our knowledge of how ecosystems work without capitalizing on any “benefit” the tragic drownings might provide to other organisms. We might compare it to an earlier paper we noticed (11/14/14) that quantified the amount of carbon transported down African rivers by hippopotamus poop. The organic matter was found to be “nourishing a whole food web of insects, fish, and other animals.”

The thousands of wildebeest that die during their yearly migration are a critical ecosystem resource.

When a reporter focuses on the benefits of death, bad ideas can follow—and ideas have consequences. Would totalitarian dictators and mass murderers justify their genocides by arguing that they just want to benefit the ecosystem?

Many of us have watched nature documentaries of these river crossings by herds of wildebeest. Producers like to accentuate the drama and danger, showing crocodiles snatching a vulnerable juvenile and dragging it off, making us gasp as are hearts are stirred with sympathy for the poor victim. But who are you going to root for, the wildebeest or the starving croc? Actually, not that many are killed by crocodiles, the scientists found. “They can only eat so much,” Montanari quips. Most die of drowning. Let us note in passing that nobody knows how the migration patterns might have changed since the Serengeti ecosystem became established. Perhaps the rivers have gotten deeper and more dangerous over time. Many variables could have changed.

There’s a scene in the IMAX film “The Serengeti” that shows how producers tug at our emotions. A newborn wildebeest calf can’t get up. The narrator says that unless it can get up and follow its mother, it will die. The cameraman zooms in on the lurking lions and hyenas waiting to take advantage of the situation. Adult wildebeest, needing to move on, pause momentarily and stare silently at the helpless calf, wondering if it will get up in time to follow the herd. Seconds seem like hours as the calf keeps struggling to stand, only to fall back in a heap again and again. The predators sneak closer. The music becomes more tense. Finally, like the breakthrough of sunshine through a dark cloud, the music becomes celebratory as the calf succeeds in standing up. It  trots happily off to mom who gives it a loving lick. The adult wildebeest all “moo” in chorus, nodding their heads in satisfaction.

Actually, this incident (highly staged, for sure) says more about humans than wildebeest. Whether wildebeest are capable of emotions like ours is debatable, for one thing. And every successful calf leaves a hyena hungry; who will root for them? Couldn’t the producer create a tragic episode, music to match, about the mean old wildebeest that gets away or kicks him in the face? Certainly many of the newborns do fall prey to the lions. By now, many of our readers have seen an exceptionally dramatic video of an iguana escaping snakes in a desperate chase (BBC Planet Earth II). So yes, prey animals are well equipped to give their predators a challenge. But do iguanas celebrate courage, tenacity and perseverance? Are the snakes sad that they missed a meal?

The fact that we care about triumph over death points to something unique in mankind. We sense that death is wrong. It’s an intrusion into the natural order. It’s an alternative natural order that works, recycling nutrients, providing food for living things in a complex food web. We should not forget that most wildebeest usually enjoy a long and contented life in their own reality, grazing peacefully with their kind, succumbing only after years of satisfying abundance. But the reality of death keeps us humans on edge, knowing our time is short, and that we need to think about eternity. The Bible points to death as an enemy, something that was not part of the plan when God looked at everything he had made and pronounced it “very good.”

National Geographic and the Yale scientists recognize the tragedy of death in spite of their evolutionism. As scientists, some of them try to report what they observe as dispassionately as possible. But without that innate sense of human value that celebrates life and weeps at death, wildebeest carcasses become little more than sources of carbon and phosphorus. By extension, that kind of thinking could lead to dictators using “ecological science” to justify sending hordes of humans to firing squads, killing fields and gas chambers in order to nourish the worms.

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