Not Your Enemy: Reimagining the Human-Wildlife Divide

The new book Tenacious Beasts explores how we can work in partnership with our fellow animals

Dayton Martindale March 25, 2023

When Christopher Preston moved to the United States from southern England, the untamed landscapes of the Mountain West unnerved him.

“When I camped,” he writes, “I was awake for much of the night, heart thumping as I strained my ears at the snap of every twig.” He marveled at raccoons, deer, and moose. But he feared for his safety, expecting “a bear or a mountain lion behind every bush.”

“To live safely in rural America,” he believed, “you had to be Annie Oakley. And I had no gun.”

Now a philosophy professor at the University of Montana, Preston has grown more comfortable around wildlife. In fact, he argues in his new book, Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think About Animals, “we need greater tolerance for the company of nonhumans, thinking of them not as adversaries but as kin.”

In the United Kingdom, he says, it was easier to maintain the polite fiction that civilization and nature are wholly separate spheres—humans over here, animals over there. But in the Rocky Mountains, as in much of the United States, those lines begin to blur. Breaking down that barrier, he argues, may be key if we hope to help wildlife species recover.

Erasing the human-animal divide

“The news about animals is bleak,” Preston writes. The story of wildlife over the past century is a story of destruction, with plummeting populations, compounding extinctions, and looming climate change ready to make it all worse. But, while acknowledging this reality, Preston chooses instead to focus on a small handful of species who are trending the other way. These relative success stories, he hopes, while a small minority, may contain important lessons.

His examples vary from owls to otters, but the core of his prescription is simple: We must stop treating human society and the wild as two separate things.

He traces the separatist approach to conservation to figures like Teddy Roosevelt, who established large tracts of wilderness often while forcibly removing the indigenous human inhabitants. This was not only unjust toward the people in question, Preston says, but an ultimately damaging approach to conservation. Confining wild creatures to a handful of protected, human-free areas is insufficient—in part because these creatures will not stay confined.

While we welcome some of these boundary-crossers, such as birds in our gardens, Preston begins with wolves, who after centuries of persecution are starting to bounce back in both the United States and Europe. (The book limits itself to these two regions, with which the author is most familiar, rather than casting a global net.)

Wolves challenge the human/nature barrier simply by crossing it, taking matters into their own paws as they spread their range closer to human settlement. “You have to take the animal seriously as beings with agency,” says Dutch philosopher Martin Drenthen, “who have some kind of justified claim on space.”

Their complex lives, full of play, risk and family drama, also challenge our sense of uniqueness. Wolves are “individuals, each with their own strengths and idiosyncrasies,” Preston writes, recounting the message of wolf biologist Rick McIntyre. “If you look at them this way, the gap between the human and the wild world does not appear so vast.”

Bringing back the wolf, Preston explains, is as much a social problem as an ecological one. Many rural landowners in the United States and Europe are skeptical of a potentially dangerous predator. Some conservationists, such as Bryce Andrews of the organization People for Carnivores, are understandably frustrated at the resistance of ranchers in particular.

“We think a lot about how the animals affect us, but we think very little about how our use of the landscape affects them,” Andrews tells Preston. Ranchers today “talk of being bound by tradition,” Andrews says, but in reality every generation of ranchers has had to innovate.

Fortunately, some are doing just that. Preston tells the story of the late rancher Ralph Thisted in Ninemile, Mont., who had been a vocal advocate for wolves in local community meetings. Preston also documents the German organization WikiWolves, whose members help farmers build fences to protect their livestock from carnivores. The social connection struck up between WikiWolves volunteers and farmers, it turns out, is just as crucial to helping German farmers accept the wolves as the more practical steps.

As Preston writes, it can be easier for urban environmentalists to embrace the return of large predators than for more vulnerable rural people, whose economic security may be threatened. Organizations such as WikiWolves and People for Carnivores can help bridge the rural/urban divide along with the human/nature one.

The trouble with purity

When you stop defining wildlife as pristine from human influence, a lot of other dominoes begin to fall. For instance, Preston looks to bison: Most U.S. bison at this point have some level of cattle DNA. While some conservationists question whether these bison are still “pure,” Preston writes that they continue to fill their former ecological roles: Their dung still spreads seeds and cycles nitrogen, their fur still lines the nests of songbirds, their wallowing still compacts the soil and creates pools for insects and reptiles. The ostensible corruption in their DNA does not keep them from being functional wild beings.

In a challenge to the common ethic of “leave wildlife alone,” he tells of Italian conservationists who maintain apple trees specifically to help feed the endangered Marsican brown bear. Some wild species, then, may rely on active human intervention in their lives.

While for some environmental purists this dilutes their “wildness,” Preston sees it as a helping hand, part of a relationship. “Once you abandon the radical separation between people and animals,” he writes, “the idea of one doing favors for the other becomes much more intuitive. Helping wildlife looks less like a questionable intervention and more like a reasonable condition of cohabitation.”

Beaver dams create clearings and wetlands that enrich ecosystem diversity. (Luther C. Goldman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Beaver dams create clearings and wetlands that enrich ecosystem diversity. (Luther C. Goldman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

That relationship goes both ways, as wild animals help us, too. He counsels us to learn from beavers, whose river engineering benefits both themselves and their broader ecosystems—the opposite of our heavy-handed mega-dams, which block migratory fish, erase habitat and disrupt nutrient flows. Similarly, he asks us to see whales as climate allies, storing carbon in their bodies and cycling other nutrients that keep ocean ecosystems thriving. It is more beneficial and ultimately accurate, Preston says, to see ourselves in reciprocal relationship with these other beings, rather than trying to keep them untouched by our hand.

Sometimes our touch can be rough. In certain cases, Preston is okay with still killing these recovering creatures, just not indiscriminately. For instance, while sea otters in Alaska help restore carbon-sucking kelp forests, they also compete with human divers for shellfish. He interviews local indigenous people (the only groups allowed to hunt marine mammals) whose cultures have long histories of both respecting the otter and hunting and using them. The tribes’ selective hunting, Preston speculates, might help find a “sweet spot” that would allow both otters and shellfish to flourish.

But I wonder if this perspective on killing must be adapted for densely populated industrial societies that, as recent history has demonstrated, have the capacity to do more damage more quickly. After all, when considering whales, Preston writes that “not killing can be a remarkably effective conservation strategy.” In fact, he calls our growing cultural respect for whales “an ethical advance, a small sign of moral maturation for our species.” While Preston acknowledges ethical questions around killing wildlife, I am not sure he came to a consistent resolution.

To be fair, a consistent resolution may be hard to come by. While “compassionate conservationists” argue that we can and should protect wildlife without killing animals, others are skeptical that this would work in all cases. Wildlife journalist Emma Marris explores this conflict in her 2021 book Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, delving into the tensions between the well-being of individual animals and broader conservation goals. Although Marris is not anti-hunting, her book stands out for taking seriously the subjective well-being of wild creatures, grappling with the fraught morality of killing in a deeper way than Preston has space for.

I also wondered about the practical upshot of Preston’s lessons: What role remains for protected wilderness areas in this new worldview? Feeding bears may work in Italy, but can’t it be dangerous in some situations? For instance, polar bears are increasingly foraging in Arctic trash piles, which is not only unhealthy but brings them closer to human settlements and thus at greater risk of conflict. Obviously there is a big difference between apple trees and garbage, and Preston agrees it may “mostly be true” that wild bears should be eating wild foods. But if “these rules can flex a bit” in Italy, how do we know where else to flex?

Overall, however, Preston’s book is a compelling step toward a different approach to conserving wildlife, one that takes seriously ideas of reciprocity and partnership. Compared to the traditional human/nature binary, it’s a less lonely story, highlighting the wonder of interconnection. It’s also more hopeful one, allowing a positive role for humanity. Rather than maintain a static vision of untouched wilderness—impossible, anyway, when human-caused climate is impacting every living creature—we can focus on what actually works.

“If we watch and listen [to wild animals],” he writes, “we can gain copiously from their presence. They show us the way, simply by being themselves.”

Dayton Martindale

Dayton Martindale is a Contributing Editor at Barn Raiser, host of Storytelling Animals podcast, and an experienced writer and editor on climate, environmental, and animal issues. His work has appeared in Rural America In These Times, In These Times, Sierra, The Ecologist, Earth Island Journal, Boston Review, The Next System Project and numerous other publications. Dayton's father was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, and grew up on a Washington farm; his mother is descended from a former Navajo slave as well as colonizing Spanish landowners in what is now New Mexico. Dayton grew up in a California suburb, just a few miles away from Los Angeles on one side and farmland on the other, and now lives in Detroit. He is passionate about building a kinder, more just world for ourselves and for the creatures wild and domestic with whom we share it.

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