Environmental questions such as “What kind of frog is this?” and “Is it legal to have a pet skunk in my state?” Relatively simple, with straightforward answers to it. Questions that require subjective assessments, such as “What is the value inherent in that animal?” require a more precise response.
s. I live in Florida and have written to state and federal wildlife agencies but have not received a satisfactory answer to this question: What is the rationale for conserving dangerous reptiles like the alligator? It’s a flimsy excuse to say it would upset the “ecosystem”. Are there specific and documented reasons for protecting the American alligator? What is the real value?
A: Aspects of sociology, psychology, economics, and of course ecology play a role in looking at the value of any element in the natural world and whether it is worth preserving.
For some people nothing can justify keeping animals that can kill us, such as grizzly bears, tigers and sharks. Other people will always stand by the animals – but they will do so for a number of reasons.
Six loose and sometimes overlapping categories can be used to classify people’s attitudes toward wildlife.
The utility category includes the letter writer above, someone who believes that for an animal to have value, it must have at least the possibility of practical use by humans, and must not be a competitor, a threat, or even a nuisance to us.
The humanistic point of view holds that the feelings of an animal and its right to exist are just as important as our own. These two positions are on opposite ends of the spectrum. A supporter of one is unlikely to make a convincing case for a supporter of the other.
For those who adopt an aesthetic stance, dangerous animals, such as the crocodile, deserve protection if for no other reason than their sheer splendor. People who take an ecological stance assert that any species is part of a complex network and has a role in nature.
Scientists who want to study all forms of wildlife, including crocodiles, form another category. And in today’s society, a final category includes hunters, who want to conserve crocodiles and other wildlife so they can kill them.
As for the danger posed by the crocodile in its natural range: who defines them as dangerous? What danger do they represent? To whom? Alligators clearly pose little threat to ordinary Americans going about their daily lives.
Let’s put it in perspective. Are alligators more dangerous than lawn mowers or electrical outlets? Thousands of people are killed or injured every year by cars. Cars kill more people in a day than a crocodile in a century. Few people in the United States are infected with wild animals. Die fewer encounters with them.
Most injuries caused by alligators — as well as those caused by snakes, bears, and other North American wildlife — occur when humans encroach on the animal’s habitat. I don’t think any wild animal should be accused of that. Nor should it be eliminated simply because it has no apparent value to humans.
Another reason to protect all kinds of wildlife is that once we declare a particular species unworthy because someone somewhere doesn’t find value in it, another plant or animal will be next on the list.
Do we get rid of the species that are the biggest nuisance, the most dangerous, or the least useful at any given moment? Should we get rid of blue maples because they are noisy or channel catfish because they have lateral and dorsal spines that can injure us or get rid of squirrels because they raid our bird feeders? And who will decide which species should be next?
Finally, some of us, perhaps the majority of North Americans, simply love wild creatures. This may be the best reason not to eradicate any of them – including the alligator.
Witt Gibbons is Professor of Zoology and Chief Biologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you have an environmental question or comment, send an email to [email protected].