Politics & Policy

Traitors to Animal-Kind

A big cat in Palo Alto says much about the culture.

Dangerous cats, like most dangers, are uncommon in mellow, affluent Palo Alto, California. Then two horses were attacked by a mountain lion near the Stanford campus earlier this month. Stanford University’s response to this assault was decisive and emphatic: Jeff Wachtel, Senior Assistant to Stanford’s president, immediately announced that no firearms could be used to capture or kill the creature, citing concerns about public safety. Nothing would actually be done to capture the panther.

Following the horse-slaying, the cat apparently worked its way up creek channels into residential Palo Alto, and rumors of its arrival followed. A professor I know correctly instructed his children that, should they encounter the beast, they should shout and raise their arms over their heads to look big, in order to frighten it off. His concern was appropriate: Mountain lions, though rare, have killed at least six Californians over the past 114 years and mauled eight more.

On Monday, Palo Alto police tracked the mountain lion to a tree on Walnut Drive. According to a grim video report by area TV station KPIX, police considered using a tranquilizer dart, but decided against it because local elementary schools would soon release their students, and darts might take 20 to 30 minutes to knock the animal out. So an officer aimed her rifle at the mountain lion’s heart. The sleeping cat stirred, and the officer fired. It tumbled through the tree past a child’s swing, ran behind a hedge, crossed a driveway, and lay down to die amid some cactus and lavender.

That is quite a bit of excitement for these parts, and it is not surprising that it has generated some headlines. What is surprising is the way a wildlife-control operation unleashed such a torrent of moralizing and outrage. Second-guessing and recriminations began immediately. KPIX showed a video of the shooting to Alfredo Kuba, a member of a group called In Defense of Animals. “I think it’s absolutely atrocious the way the police behaved,” Kuba told them. “Obviously the animal was not posing a threat to anyone. It was in a tree.”

Meanwhile, the Palo Alto Daily News headlined Wednesday’s paper with “Lion’s Killing Sparks Furor.” It included a picture of flowers and written tributes left at the base of the tree, including this eulogy: “Your death will not be in vain. Tears are shed for you, and this brutality will inspire ACTION. You are loved.” (This was not the only written message directed to a specific animal in connection to this incident. The San Jose Mercury News reported that the owners of Kelsey, the Labrador retriever who chased the cougar up a tree, received an e-mail calling their dog a “traitor to animal-kind.”)

The letters page of the Daily News carried four notes condemning the shooting. A letter asked where the “backup plan” was to prevent the suffering of the dying animal. Another from a South African biology student faulted the “trigger-happy”, “incompetent” police for not packing adequate firepower, and noted that the lion was not a threat because it was chased up a tree by a dog. Another allowed that, had the cat been “alert and aggressively approaching something or someone, then shooting the animal might have been the only option,” but insisted there had been time for “trained professionals to be brought in.”

A fourth letter–by Robert More of Palo Alto–compared the shooting of the mountain lion to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and found both unnecessary. “It seems to me that what is potentially dangerous is the attitude that we need to annihilate anything determined to be potentially dangerous.”

I disagree with More’s conclusions, but we both draw the same analogy from this situation: There are underlying cultural ideas at work that inform reactions both to the cougar’s shooting and to the war in Iraq. It is not a perfect analogy: The young cougar was a genuinely beautiful creature and its death is regrettable, while Saddam Hussein’s regime was a hellish travesty of government mourned only by the deluded and the complicit. Nevertheless, these (over)reactions to the cougar’s demise stem from some of the same ideas that drive opposition to the current worldwide war against terrorism. Whether on the local scale of a dangerous predator loose in the neighborhood, or on the grand scale of rogue states that sponsor terror and proliferate weapons, many of the same ideas about the legitimate uses of force shine through.

Idea #1: Weapons are bad, and taint those who use them.

The comment that “trained professionals” should have handled the situation ignores the fact the officer who killed the mountain lion was herself a trained professional, not some jackleg vigilante. There is a notion shared throughout these letters and comments that the force used was excessive, and that a tranquilizer gun should have been employed. But tranquilizer guns are not instantaneously effective, and they are not standard issue. There was no non-lethal option at hand that could neutralize the threat quickly. The officer on the scene could have stood there wishing for such a device, but instead she did her job with the best tools and judgment at her disposal.

In the right hands, tools like that rifle make civilization possible. Without them, we’d be up to our navels in mountain lions, or worse; and we’d have no time for civilized pursuits like writing panegyrics to feline martyrs and e-mailing canine traitors.

On an international scale, weapons under the command of a competent and disciplined military are especially good for deterring human threats, because humans are social animals that can occasionally learn from others’ experiences. An excellent example of this sort of behavior is Muammar Qaddafi’s relinquishing of Libya’s WMD programs. After seeing how dictatorial regimes like Taliban Afghanistan, Saddam’s Iraq, and Charles Taylor’s (remember him?) Liberia fared against American resolve, Qaddafi folded, without a shot being fired. This example is antithetical, however, to the blue-state mantra that violence absolutely never solves anything.

Idea #2: We had it coming.

What do you expect, when development expands relentlessly into the habitats of wild creatures? Each new house and road and parking lot destroys more habitat area, and then the creatures have nowhere to go. We have two choices: somehow stop the expansion of civilization, or learn to live with bears rifling through our garbage, deer crashing through our windshields, and mountain lions carrying off the occasional cyclist. A third option, resisting these incursions, would be immoral, since we are all complicit in prosperity’s depredations and the animals don’t know any better.

The same principle is writ large in the opposition to the war on terror. Western success, according to anarchist philosopher Franz Fanon, rests on slavery and oppression–an idea shared by both the American and European Left, and the terrorists. So what do you expect when unjust Western prosperity establishes a toehold? It causes an inevitable reaction, in the form of terrorism. This principle assumes that, like wild animals, potential terrorists are utterly incapable of exercising the restraint we demand of ourselves. This idea is dreadfully condescending, of course, as well as wrong: See Qaddafi, above.

Idea #3: Treed animals don’t pose a threat. And Saddam was up a tree.

Nice theory–but in fact, threatened, cornered, or wounded animals are at their most desperate and dangerous.

Saddam was boxed in, all right. The problem was that the population of Iraq was boxed in with him, and paying a terrible price for our forbearance. And the other problem is that through the corrupt U.N. Oil-for-Food program, through payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and through relationships with terrorists like Abu Abbas, Abu Musad Al-Zarqawi, and possibly even Mohammed Atta, Saddam continued to threaten and corrupt the world.

Idea #4: A deadly attack must be imminent to justify deadly force.

In criminal law, this statement is strictly true. But when dealing with rogue nations or terrorist groups seeking WMDs, just as against stealthy predators in the neighborhood sizing up the schoolchildren, imminent is far too late. As President Bush put it in his 2003 State of the Union address, “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?”

Considering this list of reasons shows how simplistic and wrong it is to accuse the antiwar left of cowardice. In fact, they are quite brave–I would even say reckless–to bear the risks of predatory felines and predatory states so cheerfully (if, that is, they truly understand the risks.) But that bravery is simply the logical outcome of these deeply held, deeply flawed principles that deem effective resistance to be immoral. Stoic resignation is the only option left to them.

I, on the other hand, remain an unabashed coward. Hungry cougars, sarin-spewing terrorists, nukemongering dictators–I lack the courage and the intellectual agility required to keep on ignoring them. Threats to civilization must be confronted, with deadly force when necessary. Waving our arms around, shouting, and trying to look big is no way to go through life.

Clinton W. Taylor is a lawyer and a Ph.D. student in political science at Stanford.


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