License to Kill

Passion and pathos in a world of inevitable slaughter

Editor’s Note: We are unlocking this archive piece to celebrate the release of The Book of Bugs, on sale now. 

ONLY EIGHTEEN wood ticks: not bad, after a long May day’s birding in West Virginian woods. The first, adorning my sleeve during beers in the conference center lounge, and the last, plucked from my neck on the way to dinner (after a shower!), went free. But the others, gathered in a tumbler during my tick-check, joined the fetid flow toward the sewage treatment plant. I considered walking them back to the woods, but having already disrobed and de-ticked, I declined. Had they been deer ticks, releasing them would have been reckless in a time of spreading Lyme disease: as one East Coast friend says, “Kill ’em! And kill their filthy spirochetes too!” But even though wood ticks are relatively innocuous, it didn’t seem considerate to pop them right outside the window of Rachel Carson Lodge. So, with more misgivings than most people would consider reasonable, I flushed them.

My action was optional, but many takings are not. To live, we must kill. Almost all animals do it, even detritivores such as clown fish, cellulose feeders like termites, and dead-matter converters like dung and carrion beetles, all of which wreak collateral damage to microorganisms. Herbivores take life just as carnivores do, only vegetable rather than animal. Pruning can enhance plants, as when light grazing strengthens roots; but heavy foragers, like mountain pine beetles in outbreak mode, may reduce viability, even unto death. Plant predators that consume chiefly leaves, fruits, pollen, nectar, or other expendable parts still gobble a certain by-catch of bacteria and tiny larvae. The fact is, it is difficult to occupy space as a living being without taking the lives of others — altogether impossible for large animals such as we.

Some principled people have tried to opt out of the contract of life living off life. There have been the Albert Schweitzers and the storied Jains, followers of a dharmic faith who believe all living things possess souls and should be held in equal regard. Some Jains reputedly wear masks to avoid breathing microbes and sweep the path before them to prevent the deaths of any insects on which they might tread. We all know people who “wouldn’t hurt a flea,” at least as far as volition goes. But volition goes only so far. All such conceits are ultimately in vain, if the objective is to kill nothing. Thoughtful people can take fewer lives than those who stomp every spider without a thought, or worse. Yet there remains the matter of exerting our weight upon the earth, so richly populated with tiny lives. Of eating, whether cattle, pigs, or krill, grains, beans, or spuds, butchered or harvested by the diners or their paid proxies. Of clothing, since cultivating cotton and hemp means displacement (read: killing) of prior residents with pesticide and plow, and the harvest exerts its own toll. And of shelter, because putting up houses means taking down trees. Our transportation, whether Hummer or Prius, train or plane, mines living mountainsides for metals. Communications and energy? Try mountaintop removal for coal, open-pit mines for copper, salmon-stream dams, and the entire oil imbroglio, none of them noted for their nonlethal qualities.

But what I want to get to is the killing we do directly — not by dint of mere existence, but of our own volition. We may hunt beasts, rototill worms, dig or spray weeds, slap mosquitoes, trap mice, or swallow — study the word — antibiotics. We each have our own threshold for taking life. A person at one end of the continuum might join the Jains, pay dues to PETA, or espouse (and try to live up to) some Schweitzerian “reverence for life.” Organic gardeners cause much less mayhem than conventional growers do with their entomophobic, slay-and-spray ways, but the pesticide-free still dispatch slugs and slaughter chard. Fly-swatters come next, then maybe crawdad-catchers, lobster-eaters, and clam-diggers. Those who can get past the backbone and vertebrate eyes might fish, or go whole hog with warm blood by shooting game birds, squirrels, or deer. From there it’s quite a leap to trophy hunters, like our acquaintance who dimmed last year’s Christmas spirit with a card depicting himself, his wife, his gun, and the African lion he’d just shot.

So-called “pest control” might start with termites and roaches and move on to mice, moles, packrats, coyotes, and then to shooting wolves from planes, again legal in Alaska after years of prohibition. Ultimately, inexorably, perhaps inevitably, after wolf-pluggers and whalers, come the real “thou-shalt-not” killers in the Ten Commandments sense — those who willingly take the life of their own species. These are the warriors, mercenaries, assassins, murderers, and executioners — all practitioners of homicide. And finally, at the far other end of the gradient, genocide. Maybe most of us stand closer to Albert Schweitzer than to Adolph Hitler. But if anyone exists wholly apart from this chain of life and death, then saints still walk.

Humans, being (in their own minds) the ethical animals, have now and then attempted to stem killing, with some success: no official executions in most countries (though plenty in Texas), no more leghold traps in Washington State. If Moses’s “thou shalt not” represents the genesis of human efforts against lethality, maybe vegans and anti-capital-punishment activists hold the line today. Surely reducing mortality in the world is a good thing. But just who is throwing stones at the stoners? Animal rightists releasing caged animals such as mink have sometimes caused high losses among the native wild animals in the vicinity. Anti-abortionists have killed doctors with bombs.

One of the more recent anti-lethal lobbies decries the use of insect nets in favor of a strictly observational approach; never mind that I’ve seen butterfly watchers carelessly trample larval host-plants with caterpillars aboard, or that recent research in Illinois demonstrates that cars kill vastly more butterflies than all the collectors combined. The no-net folks insist that butterfly-catching is obsolete, and there’s nothing left to be learned that way. This, at a time when one of our most needful goals, the documentation of biodiversity before it becomes extinct, is still a distant dream. And when another of our most baleful problems is nature-deficit disorder, bug nets are one of the cheapest, most effective means of getting kids away from their gizmos and into direct contact with nature. Insects reproduce prodigiously, so depleting all but the rarest species with an aerial net is about as likely as eradicating West Nile virus with a fly swatter. Besides, an all-optical approach to insect study is elitist, since few children can afford close-focusing binoculars and cameras. And anyway, kids’ attention lasts but a few minutes with lenses, but give them nets and watch them go! Had E. O. Wilson been forbidden his youthful insect collection, would we even have the concept of biophilia today?

Most of my own butterfly study has long been satisfied by binoculars or catch-and-release, but I continue to collect (that is, dispatch) the odd specimen for identification and distributional documentation. Coming home from a recent trip to Seattle, I sampled a pair of ochre ringlets for a long-term study of this butterfly and its status. Some of the subspecies of Coenonympha tullia proliferate in disturbed habitats, while others, more specialized, are in decline. How we understand them may help to determine their future. Two little ringlets, the color of a Dreamsicle, sacrificed for my idea of science. A bull moose with a big rack might be another man’s idea of a good day out, or dinner. I can’t say whether one kind of killing is okay, the other not.

We each have a license to kill, by virtue of being born. Humans might be the only animals that worry about how they exercise this elemental act. But in calculating just whom we are willing to kill, and toward what ends, we should ever be mindful of all the lives lost on our behalf. And since we are all complicit, maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn the lethal choices of others.

ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE grew up and learned his butterflies in Colorado, where he fell in love with the Magdalena Alpine and its high-country habitat, the setting of his novel Magdalena Mountain. He took his Ph.D. in butterfly ecology at Yale University, and worked as a conservation biologist in Papua New Guinea, Oregon, and Cambridge, England. His twenty-five books include Chasing Monarchs, Wintergreen (which received a John Burroughs Medal), Where Bigfoot Walks, Sky Time in Gray’s River and The Tangled Bank, a collection of his columns from Orion. A Yale-trained ecologist and a Guggenheim Fellow, he still studies butterflies, is a full-time writer living in southwest Washington, and is one of Orion’s most frequent contributors.