Picture the wild deer: all elegant neck, soft fur, tawny eyes staring back at you like butter wouldn’t melt. The stag too: a rare glimpse of those striking antlers flashing through forest leaves or the wire mesh of a fence, gazing gallantly over the hillside – a little like a proud lord, a patriarch admiring his land. There is something quite British about the graceful deer; something evocative of country outings, of heritage and sprawling estates, of heads rather unceremoniously stuck on pub walls.
Today, there are more deer in the UK than in any time since the last Ice Age. It seems poetry is the wrong way to go about this; deer have become a real issue.
On the radio this morning I heard reports proclaiming new figures representing an excess in numbers of British deer. Deer, it is argued, in their proliferation, are posing a serious threat to British biodiversity. The overspill of deer will lead to more traffic accidents, more damage to crops and a drain on natural resources. With estimates of the current deer population positing 1.5 million, new research has suggested it will be necessary to kill off 50% to 60% of the animals to fully address the problem.
The above arguments may seem persuasive reasons for tackling ‘The Deer Problem’, but I would like to step back and question these fundamental justifications given for widespread slaughtering. I want to question the idea that the – let’s face it, unintentional – disruption of food-chains by deer warrants their culling.
My objection to culling derives not from an inherent concern with the ethics of killing animals – the morality of the practice of culling is another difficult issue – but from the premises given to defend culling by appeals to the negative consequences of an excessive deer population.
The problem I have with culling can be understood by considering a convincing argument offered by Australian philosopher and rights activist Peter Singer. Singer declares, somewhat radically, that ‘all animals are equal’. Yet this statement is not as controversial as it appears. By ‘equal’, he means not that we should treat all animals the same – Singer is not justifying giving rabbits the right to vote or freedom of speech to chickens – but that we should give equal interest to all creatures, regardless of species. Singer points out that any claim asserting the superiority of human beings over other animals is arbitrary, speciesist.
Consider the reason we typically give for justifying the accordance of moral supremacy to humans:
1) Humans are rational creatures, or at least significantly more rational than other animals, and this makes our lives intrinsically more valuable.
Singer’s problem with this is that not all humans are rational. What about a child with Downs Syndrome, or a person in a coma? What makes them more superior to say a highly-intelligent primate if they lack rationality? Consequently, Singer states, any attempt to argue for human rights over animals is going to run into the problem of speciesism, since there can be no universal claim for the rationality of all humans. Speciesism is just like racism or sexism, in that it appeals to untenable claims about the essentially superior ‘nature’ of a particular race or sex which gloss over the reality that not every person within a race, sex or species shares these characteristics. If the sexist argues that men should be paid more because all men are more intelligent than women, his argument is rendered invalid by the stark fact that this is a sweeping, fallacious generalisation. Likewise, the speciesist cannot justify exploiting animals for human need by claiming humans are intrinsically superior because all humans are more rational than animals.
Therefore, for example, an argument justifying animal vivisection to support the more-valuable lives of humans (by exploring cures for cancer) will have to concede that this argument also, logically, licenses vivisection on non-rational humans. And I think most people would agree this seems a little distasteful.
Singer’s argument is compelling: the only relevant consideration that unites all humans, then, is sentience – the experience of pain and pleasure. An experience inherent to the lives of most animals and all humans.
Back to deer then.
The justification for culls is primarily their threat to the food-chain: too many deer means too much consumption of natural resources, too much disruption to the natural environment which other animals are dependent on. Deer, munching and treading and stomping all over our country’s flora and fauna, are threatening other wildlife. All very well.
But what about us? Aren’t we a threat to wildlife? What about our fossil fuel omissions, waste disposal, annihilation of forestry for paper, our excessive industry, infrastructure? Our pollution of lakes and rivers? Surely all this amounts to much more destruction than an overabundance of deer trampling on the landscape and eating too many acorns?
Well, it may be argued that we are humans; we are entitled to do these things because they fuel our rational progress towards more enriching lives. What gives us the right to think the world is ours to destroy, but not that of the deer? I would argue that our threat to the food-chain is significantly greater than that of our deer population, and yet I hear of no ecological experts advocating human culling.
Let’s be clear: I am not advocating human culling. But think about it: are we morally justified in killing deer because too many of them destroy the environment, when we wouldn’t do the same to humans, whose excessive population is also consuming too much of Mother Nature’s milk, and tainting it with acid rain in the process? If there is no relevant moral distinction between humans and animals, I find arguments which devalue animal life in favour of maintaining human interest deeply problematic. And after all, this isn’t just about preserving nature for nature’s sake, this is about preserving nature for people – for farmers, ramblers and future generations.
I acknowledge that there may be other reasons why culling might be justified – I am no environmental expert. Reducing deer numbers may work in the favour of their species, as too many deer means many will starve due to lack of resources. It is obvious how this can be turned around to humans: again, most people would object to human-culling because there isn’t enough bread to go round. Therefore, if there is no plausible moral distinction between humans and animals, then culling is difficult to morally justify, even if it produces certain good consequences.
It’s a thorny issue, and one that people often don’t consider; culling doesn’t seem to raise the same controversy as animal testing, hunting or meat-eating, because it is seen as a largely benevolent, if a little unpleasant, way of improving conditions for people and wildlife. I believe, however, that we should be concerned – at the very least, philosophically – with the flawed argument that lies at the heart of culling practices.