I hiked along the trail, finally dried out after a wet and long winter. Despite the bright sun, the hills still looked gray, even monotone. A western meadowlark sang from a nearby bush, but no wildflowers were yet blooming.
That lack of color made the splash of bright red stand out even more, immediately drawing my eyes to it. It took seconds to process I was staring at a deer, dead but not for very long. The blood, still bright, had not yet congealed. In places it still dripped, although a good deal of the carcass had been eaten.
I approached. I saw a puff of hair, the sight of obvious struggle. The doe had then been dragged about ten feet. I could see – and there’s no delicate way to put this – its throat had been ripped out.
An obvious sign of predation. I quickly scanned the hills. I’ve never felt fear of large predators, but realizing something is nearby that could tear your throat out demands your attention. I can assure you I did no navel gazing on the rest of this hike.
Mostly, I was curious. A carcass is always a mystery for a naturalist to solve. What killed the deer?
My first thought was mountain lion. But perhaps I was violating my own wildlife-watching rule: if you are unsure, it’s probably the least exciting option. This area has a robust coyote population. I’ve seen a lot of them recently. They are known to attack deer by the throat.
Still, I sought additional clues. I found a very large hairy scat. Still inconclusive. I resolved to keep an eye on the carcass, although I knew that ravens and other scavengers would make quick work of it.
I’m always eager to share my sightings with like-minded naturalists, so I posted the photo on my preferred social media platform. Within 30 minutes, I received a notification that I had been blocked from using the site due to violating a rule, in this case “posting graphic or gory content.”
To regain my social media account, I had to immediately delete the content or face a permanent ban. I took the gory photo down. I can’t help but note that the new owner of this particular platform has made a big show of allowing “freedom of speech,” which in turn means I now daily view a bunch of conspiracy theories, misinformation and offensive material.
But a dead deer is apparently too much.
Some well-meaning people wrote me and suggested I should have just used a warning, so that potentially offended viewers could avoid my image. This never occurred to me. Yes, the deer was quite bloody and dismembered. It’s also, well, nature.
It is difficult for me to get my head around a trigger warning for natural history.
I’m sure my post was not flagged by a human but rather a program designed to ferret out bloody images. Still, I can’t help but wonder if, deep down, people still struggle with the concept of predation.
Maybe it’s time to embrace the gore. I suspect even that statement makes some readers uncomfortable.
The New Case Against Predators
If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that recent human history has not been kind to large predators. They’ve been seen, especially among European cultures, as a threat to livestock and human safety, and prosecuted with little mercy.
That anti-predator sentiment is alive and well, as anyone who has followed the gray wolf situation in the Rocky Mountain West knows all too well. Ranchers and big game hunters hold banquets to fundraise to kill wolves. Large predators are still villains, just as they were in fairytales.
And many conservationists shake their fingers at this backwards thinking. They lead outreach campaigns about the importance of predators to healthy ecosystems, and rightfully so.
But there’s another view of predators that seems, one some level, equally uncomfortable with their presence. This view presents an almost sanitized image of the large predator, quickly dispatching the weak and old. It’s the predator as euthanasia agent.
Many prefer to think of predators like those in The Lion King: their role in the ecosystem is acknowledged, but you never see them actually eat a wildebeest, let alone tear into one while it’s still alive. Predators and prey join together to sing about the “circle of life.” The only sign of death that appears is when Scar, the villain, tosses a zebra leg to hyenas.
In reality, predation isn’t always pretty, at least to our allegedly refined human sensibilities. I’ve seen a Cooper’s hawk knock down a quail and begin eating it while the quail is very much alive. I will fully confess that I find such sights incredible, while also acknowledging the quail’s terror and pain.
I’ve talked to other nature writers and editors who have found that many readers have a negative reaction to showing the harsher realities of nature. Even many self-described conservationists don’t want to see images of death. They don’t want to see the realities of predation.
The Predator Problem
Taking this belief even further, there’s a philosophical viewpoint called “the predator problem” that posits that, if we truly care about limiting pain and suffering in the world, we must reduce or even eliminate predation. Some recent advocates have suggested we allow large predators to go extinct, gradually fading out.
The “predator problem” argument can easily be dismissed as one of those views best suited for late-night dorm room arguments or those corners of academia that ignore the living, breathing world.
Still, I can’t help but notice this idea gain legitimacy. It’s been featured in major media outlets, including The New York Times. A lot of what is called “compassionate conservation” veers closer and closer to this line, promoting the idea that conservation is not only about preserving species and ecosystems, but also about reducing suffering.
And reducing suffering is a good thing, right?
As a naturalist, the absurdity of the “predator problem” borders on disbelief. It’s interesting, for one thing, that it focuses on large predators. Articles about this philosophy inevitably feature lions or wolves. But the large ones are such a tiny component of the ecosystem. So many species eat other animals, some full time and some opportunistically.
As I write this, great blue herons line up in a local field. They’re picking off voles, small rodents that are abundant there. Do advocates of the predator problem want herons to go away, too? If not, why? Is it because rodents are smaller and therefore seem more inconsequential than a deer or a wildebeest? I suspect the vole would disagree.
And here, we approach the problem with the “predator problem.” It begins to look much like other anti-predator sentiments over the centuries. Only human values matter. Anti-predator sentiments always seem profoundly arrogant, as if we are the sole arbiters of kindness and compassion.
The “predator problem” is, ultimately, an anti-conservation view.
Embracing Nature, All of It
I’m often asked why I’m a conservationist. There are, of course, many answers to this. One of them is that I believe the billions of years of evolution that has resulted in the diversity of life on earth is the greatest story we will ever know. And I agree with E.O. Wilson that if we squander that diversity, future generations will find it difficult to forgive.
Predation is part of that story. A bloody, gory, unsettling part of it. I know some conservationists think that makes wildlife seem sensational. Others like the idea of predation but don’t want to see wolves tackle a bison calf.
But if we’re to have a world where people and predators coexist – a worthy goal of conservation – we have to actually know and value predators. We can’t do that by presenting simplistic images of them.
This is the world we live in. Let’s embrace it. Let’s share the scenic mountain vistas but recognize that those pretty scenes contain a lot of animals that are eating and being eaten.
When I come across a freshly killed deer, I do feel a bit of remorse for the animal that lost its life. It was a beautiful creature, with its own relationships and own desire to live.
But I also feel a sense of awe at the predator. Both have been honed over time in this beautiful, bloody, messy dance. It’s what keeps me going to the hills, and what keeps me going as a conservationist.