At present, I’m on Smith Island with Aram where we lived for about three years while Pattrice operated the sanctuary herself and right before we relocated to Vermont. It’s a magical place, Smith Island. It’s the only inhabited island in Maryland that isn’t connected to the mainland by bridge (being, as it is, about 14 miles from shore), and is home to about 150 humans year-round. Much can be said about the people who live here, but I want to focus on everyone else. And when you say “everyone else” on Smith Island, the first people you think about are the birds.
When I woke up this morning, I looked into the back yard (which is a small expanse of grass before the marsh starts) and saw a marsh hen just standing there. This is a common sight. Off a ways into the marsh were two enormous white herons, in the sky were seagulls, crows, cormorants, and ibises, and perching on various wires were sparrows and other random birds. While we couldn’t see them, we knew that there were ducks roaming about, getting their own start to the day. Pigeons live here too; when we were here full time, we had over a hundred pigeons come every day to share the chickens’ food, perching on the roof, on the railing of the deck off the bedroom on the second floor, everywhere. There are finches, and cardinals, and millions of other kinds of birds. It’s phenomenal, the number and variety of birds who live here.
More numerous than birds, though, are the insects. When people in Vermont talk about how bad the bugs are, we both kind of laugh – you ain’t seen nothing until you see the bugs who live in a marsh. And I mean IN a marsh, not NEAR a marsh, as Smith Island IS a marsh. There are several kinds of flies (including the triangle flies who bite into your skin and don’t let go), mosquitoes (several kinds of them too), gnats, ticks, and more. There are also about a billion dragonflies, having a field day living off everyone else. Yesterday evening, one guy who lives here said he feels that they are his protectors as he walks down the road, and that’s absolutely true; the more of them who surround you, the less you’re bitten up by everyone else. And of course, one cannot forget the fiddler crabs who live here – there must be thousands of them making their tunnels under our small yard alone. At the right time of day, you see scores of them waving their one enormous claw in the air, sunning themselves.
Very few mammals live here, other than the cats who are declining in number ever since the spay/neuter people came through a few years ago. There are at least two cats who still have their reproductive abilities, so we’ve seen about six kittens since we got here – not in the best of shape, virtually wild, and doing all right – and it’s interesting to see how that cycle of life seems bound and determined to make a go of it if at all possible. Well – there are some mice and rats here too. But no raccoons, no possums, no other mammals to speak of other than the dogs people bring over. The only large mammals one sees (other than the humans) are the goats who live on Goat Island, which is a short distance across the water from the main dock; many years ago, someone dumped a few domesticated goats there, and they have made a fine living for themselves. Goat Island is uninhabited by humans.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least, what happens in my head when I think about the chickens and other birds who live at the sanctuary and the birds who live here in the marsh. Humans definitely hurt some of the birds here, for sure, particularly the gulls whom most of the world seems to regard on a level with pigeons (which is to say they tend to hate them). Such incidents are very rare, though; and I say that not to minimize how abominable they are, but instead to say that with how rarely such things happen, it’s possible to look out over the marsh and be privileged to witness birds living their lives virtually untouched by human intervention. The herons hunt in the marsh, squabble when one gets too close to another (they like their space, the herons), take off when it’s time to try another hunting ground. The gulls mostly circle overhead, looking for their own food but lacking the kind of patience the herons have (who will stare at the same spot in the marsh for what seems like hours). Crows mostly scavenge what they can but they sure do like duck breeding season when they can swoop down and snatch a duckling or two. And at night, everyone finds their place (sometimes with quite a bit of jostling) and hunkers down. All of them steer clear of the humans.
Compare that with the chickens who live at the sanctuary – not the ones who sleep in the trees, not game cocks and their descendants – but the ones who live in the coops. They hunt for some of their food, for sure, looking for bugs and tender shoots of plants throughout the day, but they are also inclined to eat what food we put out for them. They come running toward us when we approach their yards, wondering what we might have; for the most part, they don’t wander too far from the coops, even though they can; and in general they accept our presence among them without much thought or fuss.
Even with these marks of domestication, they retain some amount of their wildness. They dust-bathe and sun-bathe to keep the parasites down, they hide away to lay their eggs (albeit often in the nesting boxes, but still), they know to run under a bush when the roosters tell them some predator is coming – in these and many other ways, you can see glimpses of who they once were before the millennia of domestication took hold and they began their social and genetic descent into who they are now. Because that is exactly what happened – a descent from wildness into dependence. And while they are phenomenal in their own right – in their present incarnation – who they are is a kind of animal that relies for its survival, in large part, upon another kind of animal.
Such dependence is problematic. I firmly believe that the ultimate goal of AR work where farm animals are concerned is to ensure that no more such animals are brought into the world. Let everyone revert who can revert – there will surely be something like cattle, something like chickens, something like sheep – but those who need us for their survival? No. That cannot be allowed to continue, that idea of domestication. Let us close the farms – all the farms, the factory farms and the “happy” farms and the backyard farms – and let everyone live out their lives without making more to replace them. Let all who have a chance begin the process back to wild. And let this concept of domestication join the ranks of other oppressive concepts like slavery and genocide.
Don’t get me wrong – I mean the animals themselves no insult for sure, and as they are now they are still amazing creatures. Yet one cannot help but notice the differences between them and the herons and gulls who live here. I become enraged when I think about what has been taken from the jungle fowl to turn them into the creatures they are today, and only become more so when I imagine what the world will be like in another 50 years, or 100 years, once the full-scale genetic experimentation upon animals has reached the operational level and “mistakes” in the form of brand-new organisms that escape from labs start to happen more often, and on a wider scale, than they already do. Will anything wild remain? Will new versions of cows, chickens, sheep, and others like them survive in this new world, or will they be absorbed into something else? For that matter, what will happen to the wild creatures who have managed to resist human domination until this point?
The outlook is grim, my friends, but it does lead me to think about a frontier of AR work that might be good to jump on now, rather than later (perhaps it is being jumped-upon and I just don’t know about it). The terrorists known as Monsanto, who have already essentially wrapped up our seed supply (and, therefore, our food stores) for the future, are doing with plants what other scientists are also trying to do with animals. Every now and then a story comes out about someone in Israel trying to breed a bald chicken, or someone in the United States growing human ears on the backs of mice – but those are only the stories we hear about. We must take for granted that such experiments are going on as fast and furious as they can, all over the world, because that’s the way with science like this: everything is hyper-secret and incredibly guarded, and if something gets out (either on purpose or by mistake), then one has to see that leaked information as the tip of the iceberg.
Once the breeders of genetic animal monstrosities have done their work, all hell will break loose upon the animal kingdom in rather a different way than we have visited hell upon it already. Imagine the kinds of creatures these sick scientists are breeding (of course with their very well-thought-out excuses and reasons), and then imagine those creatures running loose around the world, breeding with the animals who are already here, creating ever new species and mutations of species. It’s not a pretty vision.
Right now is the time to stop (or slow) this nightmare. It might already be too late in some cases, but as terrifying as our current world is to the billions of animals trapped in farming, vivisection, entertainment, and other industries, it stands to get a bit scarier still; scarier because once unleashed, there will be no such thing as wild any longer. Everything will be tainted with our stain, far more than it already is.
Just as I wrote that last sentence, a dragonfly landed on the corner of my laptop. I sat here for a bit and watched her until she flew away. I thought about how such encounters might have happened between humans and jungle fowl, and wondered about the impulse in those previous humans that made them want to take control of those animals. Was it a power thing? A control thing? Was there any recognition that the proto-cattle and the jungle fowl might have wanted to live their own goddamn lives – any at all? If I was a different person, I’d probably want to take the dragonfly home in a jar – after all, she was very pretty. As it is, I got to appreciate her presence for a minute or two, which was plenty for me. And after she flew away, I realized such encounters might not happen for too much longer. Who knows what her kind will look like in another few generations.
P.S. I realized that, as usual, I have left out something important in this post, which is that in truth, there is nowhere that is untouched by humans. The herons are hunting in marsh that has been touched by human-created poisons; the entire bay is all but ruined by run-off from chicken and pig farms; the jet planes roar overhead, upsetting all sorts of creatures; and in a million other ways, our actions have led to serious damage of the land, the water, the very rocks. At this point in time, that’s a backdrop to everything — a footnote indicating that everything which is said about “untouched” and “unmolested” wild areas must be taken with a very large grain of human-created salt.