By the time the scherm[1] was finished the moon peeped up, and our dinners of giraffe steaks and roasted marrow bones were ready. How we enjoyed those marrow bones, though it was rather a job to crack them! I know of no greater luxury than giraffe marrow, unless it is elephant heart, and we had that on the morrow. We ate our simple meal by the light of the moon …

H. Rider Haggard[2]

That’s disgusting!

G. Sallust[3]

 [Sometimes I just don’t understand this place. Here am I, the blog philosopher; as such I’m supposed to be the conscience of this outfit, empathic and sensitive to everyone’s needs. So when I pick a quote that’s offensive, or possibly even revolting, you can be sure I didn’t do it just for the shock value. There’s a higher purpose, usually to educate, and that was my reason for choosing Mr. Haggard as our guest moralist. People back in the 19th Century didn’t necessarily think about things the way many of us do today. Take hunting, for example. Our ancestors knew it was a bloody business, and often they made a virtue out of that. Rider Haggard’s description of eating giraffe marrow and elephant heart in the African bush is almost poetic.

Today, of course, many think meat comes from the super market, wrapped in plastic, rather than from animals, and are offended when someone points out the obvious. Forget the plastic; we still get our meat from things that move and make noise. Perhaps someday test tubes will substitute,[4] but not yet. The people who work in our slaughter houses and meat packing plants already know this. The children of our middle class and other hyper-civilized folks should learn it too.]

Death & Dying

I got to thinking about this the other day when I stumbled across a bunch of odd news reports. Or perhaps they’re not odd, but common, and I just hadn’t noticed their kind before. Anyway, the stories were about animals and what happens to them. As you may know – we’ve talked about it before – the folks in Venezuela are suffering rather badly right now because their economy is on the rocks. I won’t get into why that’s the case – lots of people have opinions and most of them are better grounded than mine – but the signs are that the people are hungry, don’t have enough money for food, and forage to supplement their diets. Local wildlife, such as pink flamingos and giant anteaters, find their way on to local tables, along with dogs, cats and donkeys.[5] That was the same day I learned monkeys were falling out of the trees near Minas Gerais, Brazil, due to an epidemic of yellow fever. The disease also affects local humans.[6] And finally, there was the woman caught on an aircraft recently with 22 pounds of raw animal brains.[7] She was bringing them in from El Salvador.

Granted these are only anecdotes from one day, but they have three things in common: (i) animals died in greater numbers than normal, but (ii) not in the normal way, i.e., not on farms or in meat packing plants; and (iii) humans were responsible, either as hunters or disease carriers. The sample was too small to really tell anything about trends, so I looked further.

And I found a lot.  There was a mass fish die-off in California in 2011.[8] Fish had died and birds were falling in Arkansas.[9] Pesticides may be killing our honey bee population, or it may be something else.[10] Nevertheless, the bees are dying. A White Nose syndrome is striking bats, leaving a fungus on their noses, wings and bodies, and eventually leading to starvation. The syndrome kills millions.[11] One year a virus killed over 6 million baby pigs, and bacon prices rose.[12]  And so on, and so on, and so on.

A Recent Study

It turns out that it’s not unusual for animals to die in quantity, but it’s happening more often.[13] How do we know this? Well, National Geographic reports it,[14] but, more importantly, there’s a study put out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that says the same thing,[15] but with greater rigor.

  • The report deals only with “Mass Mortality Events” (MMEs). MMEs are “rapidly occurring, catastrophic events that punctuate background mortality levels.”[16] They stand out because of the sheer size and intensity of the dying. “Individual MMEs are staggering in their observed magnitude: removing more than 90% of a population, resulting in the death of more than a billion individuals, or producing more than 700 million tons of dead biomass.”[17]
  • The authors believe their report is the “first … quantitative analysis of MMEs across the animal kingdom and, as such … [explores] novel trends, patterns and features associated with MME’s.”[18]
  • Reports of MME’s increased during the period studied. The question is whether actual MME events increased, or the reporting of them simply improved. The authors conclude that both are the case. Reporting was spotty in the 19th Century, but has been much more consistent since the 1940s. Nevertheless, “more than half the variation … in changes in the occurrence of MME’s through time was not explained by increases in publication output alone.”[19] So MME’s – inherently catastrophic events – increased over time.
  • The report focuses on MME’s in the animal kingdom. If there’s a horserace – my bad metaphor – one might say that currently fishes are the “largest contributor of reported MME’s;[20]” amphibian and reptile MME’s increased sharply beginning in the 1970s, but recently declined; and the same can be said for birds and mammals.[21]
  • These events also vary in size. “[M]agnitude increases for birds, marine invertebrates and fishes; remains invariant for mammals; and decreases for amphibians and reptiles.”

What to Do

Frankly, I don’t know what to do. It can’t be good that so many things around us are dying before their time, and while the picture is mixed, the overall casualty rate seems to be increasing. My personal preference is to learn more about what’s going on and put a stop to it.

My guess is that nobody powerful in today’s world will want to do that. What’s happening is simply creative destruction, the economists would say; it’s natural, so let it continue. It would be sinful to interfere. And, by the way, we’ll all be better off when that superfluous life disappears. Only then does it stop competing with the rest of us for resources.

Just kidding, Mr. Panda.

 


 

[1] “Scherm” is an old word, not much used today. It means “A screen or barrier constructed of brushwood or the like, to serve as a protection for troops, as an ambuscade from which to shoot game, or to prevent cattle from straying.” If you have an old word, we have the old book to define it.  See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford 1971), at p. 2664, scherm.

[2] See Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (1885) (Octopus edition, 1979) at p. 39.

[3] G. Sallust is our disreputable founder, who comments and criticizes even when he’s not here.

[4] See Huffington Post, Gebreyes, How Lab-Grown Meat May Change Our World (11/24/2015), available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/test-tube-meat/

[5] See Fox News, O’Reilly, Venezuelans killing flamingos and anteaters to stave off hunger amid mounting food crisis (February 10, 2017), available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/02/10/venezuelans-killing-flamingos-and-anteaters-to-stave-off-hunger-amid-mounting-food-crisis.html

[6] See The Washington Post, Reuters, Yellow Fever kills 600 monkeys in Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest (February 10. 2017), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/more-than-600-monkeys-have-died-in-yellow-fever-outbreak/2017/02/10/476420e0-ee45-11e6-9973-c5efb7ccfb0d_story.html

[7] See Dallas Morning News, Dallas News, Woman smuggling animal brains in luggage detained at DFW airport (Feb. 10, 2017), available at http://www.dallasnews.com/news/news/2017/02/10/22-pounds-animal-parts-found-smuggled-luggage-dfw-airport

[8] See CBS Live, CBS/AP, Mass fish die-off in Southern California (March 15, 2011), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mass-fish-die-off-in-southern-california/

[9] See CBS News, CBS/AP, First Falling Birds, Now Dead Fish in Arkansas (January 3, 2011), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/first-falling-birds-now-dead-fish-in-arkansas/

[10] See CBS News, CBS/AP, What’s killing the honey bees? Mystery may be solved (May 14, 2014), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/are-pesticides-killing-off-honey-bees/

[11] See CBS News, CBS/AP, Dying bats called No. 1 mammal crisis in U.S. (July 12, 2011) available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/dying-bats-called-no-1-mammal-crisis-in-us/

[12] See CBS News, CBS/AP, U.S. bacon prices rise after virus kills more than 6 million piglets (April 8, 2014), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-bacon-prices-rise-after-virus-kills-baby-pigs/

[13] See CBS News, Schupak, Mass animal deaths on the rise worldwide ( January 16, 2015), available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mass-animal-deaths-on-the-rise-worldwide/

[14] See National Geographic, Lee, Mass Animal Die-Offs Are on the Rise, Killing Billions and Raising Questions (January 14, 2015), available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/01/150113-mass-die-off-disease-animals-environment-science/

[15] See PNAS, Fey, Siepielski et al., Recent shifts in the occurrence, cause, and magnitude of animal mass mortality events (January 27, 2015), available at http://www.pnas.org/content/112/4/1083.full.pdf?sid=0dc8be03-b3e3-4540-b9bd-7a6a843e9c04

[16] Id. at p. 1083.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at Significance

[19] Id. at p. 1084, Results and Discussion

[20] Id. At 56% of all reports.

[21] I’m grossly oversimplifying this. Take a look at the bar charts at p. 1084 to get a more accurate picture

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