On Why, and Why Not

A Texas longhorn. Photo by Larry D. Moore

A Texas longhorn. Photo by Larry D. Moore

I began this piece in response to a recent Texas Tribune/New York Times article discussing a hundred iconic longhorn cattle Texas recently decided to sell, two thirds of the Big Bend Ranch State Park herd. The article cited a local park manager, a longhorn breeder, a Sierra-minded group, and an elected politician, with views much as you would expect (resignation, respect, distaste, pride). For this week I got derailed thinking about the emotions behind our relationships with animals, particularly when it comes to protecting them (or not).

I don’t mean the usual answers: charisma, to support ourselves, human guilt; or even wonkier reasons like potential pharmaceutical inspiration or ecosystem services. I mean to get at something deeper: none of this is objective, and there aren’t always right and wrong answers.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of your point of view.

If you like longhorns, they’re maligned, a great symbol of Texas. If you like pristine wilderness-style nature, they’re a pest.

Because I’m not as up to date on all things Texas as certain people may be (*cough*), I was surprised to learn they had nearly disappeared by the 1920s. Because of changes in fencing practices, ranchers started crossing them with other cattle breeds to take advantage of traits that were now considered valuable–but diluting the traits that made them longhorns. US Forest Service auditioned more than 30,000 cattle, selected 30, and sent them to the Wichita State Forest and Game Preserve in Oklahoma, now Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, where the population recovered. The worthiness of the longhorns didn’t change, human opinion of them did.

A similar issue that’s been in the news lately is the conflict between (invasive) domestic and feral cats and birds. It’s getting particularly tense in New Zealand, where high rates of cat ownership and high rates of native bird species means people choose sides, and sometimes it gets nasty. There are legitimate arguments on both sides, but in the end it boils down to the fact that cat people are cat people and bird people are bird people.

Livestock and invasive species are two big villains in a lot of environmental storylines. But in the end, livestock and invasives are species just as much as a panda or giant sequoia. Why are we willing to spend millions of dollars trying to coax panda libidos, yet also willing to kick longhorns out of Texas heritage?

After all, every species on the planet evolved: the same blind principles of natural selection have created and destroyed every shade of life ever to exist on Earth. The question isn’t whether a species is “good” or “bad,” but whether its members’ offspring last long enough to make more offspring. Increasingly, the answer is shaped by humans–sometimes consciously, sometimes accidentally, sometimes without our even noticing it, or asking why.

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And a quick off-site recommendation:

  • I have NO idea how it took me this long to find Inkling’s Tumblr, but it is all things beautiful and bookish.
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