Biology Reference
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fications of form and structure, they present some of the most interesting objects of
contemplation. Their utility, either in diminishing noxious animals, or in furnishing food
to others, has been lost sight of; and because they were cold to the touch, with a na-
ked slimy skin without hair or feathers, they have been considered as loathsome and
hideous, although their structure displays as much of the omnipotence and care of the
Creator as can be seen in those which are considered to be the most gorgeous and an-
imated of his beings.” 4
By the late twentieth century we'd learned a lot more about serpents, so it's surpris-
ing to find a modern equivalent of Linnaeus's ignorant sentiments coming from Alexan-
der Skutch, widely acclaimed for studies of Costa Rican birds. Skutch despised pred-
ators, condemned snakes with special vengeance, and among raptors praised only the
laughing falcon, a coralsnake-eater. In earlier writings he grudgingly allowed for predat-
ors in wilderness but preferred a “principle of harmonious association,” whereby “every
member is compatible with every other and there is mutual exchange of benefits.” To
justify killing tiger ratsnakes and other nonvenomous species, he labeled them “never
really social” and “devoid of parental solicitude,” then got really steamed up: “The ser-
pent . . . crams itself with animal life that is often warm and vibrant, to prolong an exist-
ence in which we detect no joy and no emotion. It reveals the depth to which evolution
can sink when it takes the downward path and strips animals to the irreducible minim-
um able to perpetuate a predatory life in its naked horror. The contemplation of such an
existence has a horrid fascination for the human mind and distresses a sensitive spir-
it.” 5
Granted, this all gets complicated, and my own exposure to the philosophical prob-
lems posed by predators began with a pragmatic rural slant. As a child, I saw Grandpa
Gibson resolve snakes versus eggs by dispatching henhouse marauders with a hoe, and
raptors soaring over his farm were shot as “chicken hawks.” Nonetheless, I began over-
turning rocks in search of herps, whereas aspiring ornithologists looked skyward. My
interests later converged with theirs because some snakes rob nests, some birds kill
snakes—and like some but not all bird lovers, Skutch saw good and evil in those utterly
natural dynamics. In one last essay he even argued against conserving tigers and barely
stopped short of advocating extirpation of all predators. 6 Of course, some character-
istics of birds evolved as defense against enemies, and without predation overpopula-
tion favors disease and starvation, but beyond such factual matters, here is the heart
of it: Can we appreciate animals as they are, even if dangerous to us and our livestock,
or must we imbue them with human motivations, judge them by our goals and values?
Skutch treated favored creatures like exhibit pieces or cultured pearls, existing for his
enjoyment, whereas I'd rather watch and wonder what it's like to be a coachwhip or a
house wren.
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