By Chuck Klosterman [The NYtimes Ethicist\
Despite their romantic appeal, horses are an invasive species on this continent with few natural predators. In the United States, it’s illegal to kill a wild horse on public lands. Yet wild horses can have destructive grazing behavior, and indigenous grazers and browsers (deer, for example) presumably have to compete with them for land. Advocates for wild horses like to compare the ecological impact of horses with that of cattle, but that’s sort of like saying we should protect the Asian long-horned beetle because it kills fewer trees than lumber mills do. Is it unethical to protect wild horses? T.G., NEW YORK
It should be noted that the ancestral lineage of the modern horse has origins in North America, from about four million years ago. From here, they migrated to Eurasia over the Bering land bridge and became extinct in North America at the end of the Pleistocene era, only to be reintroduced to the Western Hemisphere by the Spanish in the 16th century. But I don’t see this as a meaningful part of the dispute, anyway. Regardless of how horses ended up here, they’re here now. Your argument is that wild horses hurt the environment; I’d argue that wild horses have become part of the environment itself. Horses alter the ecological landscape, but we’d be altering the landscape by eliminating the horses.
If your point is that there’s a degree of hypocrisy in the human relationship with horses, I can’t disagree. There are certain animals humans tend to care about more than others, and it can seem arbitrary. If your thoughts on animal rights exist at one of the philosophical poles — if you believe no animal should ever be killed, or if you believe any animal can be killed for any reason — this question is easy. But most people exist somewhere in the middle, holding views that don’t always make rational sense. For example, I find the extermination of invasive Burmese pythons in Florida less unsettling than the extermination of invasive mustangs in Nevada. This is my emotional reaction. But ethics forces people to consider things that might contradict their feelings.
The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 33,780 wild horses on public U.S. rangeland. The optimal population would be smaller by several thousand. Some may argue that thinning the herd increases the quality of life for the species as whole, which is true — assuming you’re not one of the horses to be eliminated.
I would ultimately say this: It’s unethical to protect wild horses (which are currently not categorized as endangered) if our only reasoning is that we happen to like horses and believe they deserve preferential treatment. Our policy and criteria for horse populations should be the same as our policy for pronghorns or coyotes or any other mammal. But none of these species should be radically culled unless they pose a direct threat to human well-being, which does not appear to be the case. Now, if that sounds as if I’m “privileging” human life over nonhuman life, it’s because I am. I don’t think humans and nonhumans are equal. But that doesn’t mean we can treat animals as bloodless statistical populations that we control at our convenience.
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