Guest Post by Jane Smith. Jane is deputy leader of the Animal Welfare Party and the UK’s first elected animal rights councillor. She runs Smallwood Toad Patrols and co-ordinates Staffordshire Wounded Badger Patrol.
Her post-species-ist children’s picture book ‘Some Animals’, with illustrator Melanie Selstrom, will be published in late 2021.
All Our Wild and Precious Lives
Is there such a thing as wildlife? There’s definitely such thing as the Earth. There’s also such a thing as life on Earth. But doesn’t ‘wildlife’ imply an us-and-them situation? Are we ‘tamelife’?
All of our human and pre-human ancestors came from the wild. But at what point did they stop being wild life, to become something else? Was it when we made fire? Was it when we started to speak with words? Was it when we started to own things?
Our physical and spiritual connection to other species got very lost somewhere along the line. Nowadays, Nature is so often seen as a thing ‘out there’, with wildlife taken as ‘species out there’. It’s a separation mentality, and it’s not only unhelpful but it’s also untrue.
It’s unhelpful because it’s brought us to a point in human history where we’re raised with a binary system in our heads of ‘civilized humans’ and ‘wild other stuff’. Things might be different if our human systems were able to have us live alongside other species while affording them the respect they deserve. But we’ve been unable to, because our human systems generally teach us to value things with financial worth, and to disregard pretty much everything else.
Wild Animals: No Price Tag, but Priceless
As the UK’s first Animal Welfare Party councillor, a big part of my job is speaking up for animals and their habitats in our human planning system. Sometimes they’re badgers or bats, but more often rabbits or hares or moths or foxes or toads. And unless a particular species enjoys a rare level of legal protection, then with regards to human planning other animals have almost no consideration at all.
Wild animals don’t come with a price tag. Their value is other – deeper, truer, but not calculable in terms of human economies. Without a price tag, our economies and our governments and our corporations don’t value them. In fact, they ride rough-shod over them, stealing their habitat, fouling the rivers and oceans that all species share, polluting the air, even enslaving some animals, farming them and using their body parts for meat or clothes or five pound notes.
Wild animals don’t come with a price tag, but they’re our relatives and our neighbours. The value they add to our lives is inestimable, because they belong here on the same planet as us. We’re kin, sharing the same ecosystem, even when that ecosystem has become broken.
Wild animals don’t come with a price tag – but they’re priceless.
Our Natural Heritage
In 2019, there was a global news item and an outpouring of grief when Notre Dame Cathedral was partly destroyed by fire. That was sad, yes, and we’re of course right to acknowledge our human history and its landmark places. But what about our natural heritage? Where are the shock waves, and where are the emergency relief funds from big business, when a lake runs dry, or when a forest burns, or when the last North American monarch butterflies are fighting for survival? Many of our most local streams, looking so small and taken for granted for so long, pre-date Notre Dame Cathedral by a very long time, and they’re part of our life-giving natural heritage. No human city is as old as a river.
Badgers, one of our most iconic native mammals, survived the Ice Age here. They pre-date farmed cattle by millennia. And yet they’re being slaughtered in their thousands upon thousands through licensed culling because the government says it wants to protect the dairy industry. How can anyone allow this? Again, it boils down to economics, and therefore to politics – badgers don’t come with a price tag, but cattle do – and so dairy output trumps badgers’ wild lives. Land also comes with a price tag, and we all know that land is, sadly, much more valuable financially without badgers on it. Landowners and developers don’t want protected species knocking around when they need planning permission to build houses, roads or runways.
Farmed Animals: Enslaved Descendants
Some animals who didn’t originally come with a price tag now have a very clear price tag because they’re no longer wild, but farmed. Billions of descendants of wild animals have been enslaved by humans to the point that we forget their species were once wild. These are the billions of farmed animals – and I always say ‘farmed’ because farming is something that’s done to them.
Every pig on every farm has a wild boar ancestor; every hen has species history in the jungles of South East Asia; all the farmed cattle of Europe have a common ancestor in the auroch. Our human disregard for the needs of these animals means that we’ve almost totally forgotten where they came from – and yet everyone who’s ever re-homed an ex-battery hen, for example, witnesses their in-built instincts to dust-bathe and to enjoy the sunshine on their backs and all of those natural behaviours held in an ancient body-memory from the wild.
Becoming Connected, Engaged and Active Earth Citizens
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” asked the late poet Mary Oliver1.
I think one of the very best ways we can live is in active solidarity with all the other lives, seeing them as every bit as precious as our own.
Firstly, we need to renew our connections with the land and with the species who share the Earth with us. We can start by adopting a patch near our home, whether it’s a field or a square foot in a park or a grass verge, spending time there, getting to know it, and feeling that deep and true relationship with the land and its species. If we have children, or students, or nephews and nieces, we can also help them connect with the land and its species, because they’re the decision-makers and guardians of the future.
Our birthright is freedom, healthy soil, clean air, clean water, and peaceful co-existence with other species. And all the other species’birthrights are exactly the same!
As humans, we’re one species among many, on a shared Earth. We need to cherish our connection with the land, even when the land has become toxic and concreted over. It is still our land, and things can always be different.
Secondly, as engaged Earth citizens we need to keep our eyes and ears open. We need to be informed about what’s going on, and question the narratives that we’re fed. We’re told we need to earn lots of money to be successful. We’re told we need to be able to buy cheap mass-produced food. We’re sold air travel as if it’s perfectly natural and harmless. All of those narratives are wrong, and we need to see through them, replacing them with valid, meaningful, truthful ways of situating ourselves in the wider world.
Our task at this stage is to stand in true solidarity with our fellow species and their habitats, and to tend to their needs by being vocal about them in our human governments and our human councils and our human planning systems.
Humanity, or inhumanity, has indeed been waging a war on wildlife – and winning. We now need to urgently help redress the balance.
My deepest hope is that we learn to respect other lives, whether they’re wild, farmed or tamed. And we need to remember, too, that situations created by humans can be changed by humans; history has shown us time and time again that courage and sacrifice can dismantle huge power and injustice against all odds.
We need to role-model a fierce and loving solidarity with other animals, our kin. Real power is in us when we’re connected to our world, thinking with our brains, understanding with our hearts, processing and organizing and educating and speaking and representing.
This is the eleventh hour for so many species who are facing extinction at the hands of human idiocy and greed. Radical empathy and resistance can make a huge difference – but the hour is late, people, and animals need us to speak up for them now, tying our own wild and precious lives to theirs in our one shared world.
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1 From the poem ‘The Summer Day’ in House of Light, Beacon Press, 1990.