Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Noblest Predator

When we think of the kinds of predators that inspire respect and admiration, the creatures we put on coins and flags and coats of arms, it's often animals like lions, bears and eagles we choose. I'd like to suggest that these aren't necessarily the models of courage and nobility we should be inspired by, and nominate instead an unjustly maligned predator as a moral exemplar.

The lion, for instance, while certainly a majestic looking beast, is a cruel and murderous patriarch. When a dominant male (or usually a gang of two or three) takes over a pride (by the violent overthrow of the previous regime), the first order of business is to kill any nursing cubs, so as to free up the mothers to start a new litter with the invaders. Can we think of this as anything but reprehensible?

Such behaviour isn't limited to lions. Mother bears are well-known among mammals for their fierce defence of their young, but part of the reason the cubs need such defence is that other bears will think nothing of eating someone else's cubs.

But quite apart from the intraspecies conduct of these predators, there are moral issues with their predatory styles, as well. For one thing, most predators are cowardly, when you think about it: they attack the sickly and frail, the most vulnerable prey they can find, as if their sharp teeth and claws weren't enough of an advantage. And many predators go after prey very much smaller than themselves, so much so that we don't even really think of them as predators; consider the baleen whales, who lazily scoop up vast numbers of invertebrates, small fish and anything else unfortunate enough to be in the wrong  volume of seawater, swallowing their prey whole to be digested alive en masse. I sometimes suspect that the majority of individual animals in the world spend their last living moments in the stomachs of such predator like whales and anteaters, who simply gulp down tiny victims without even doing them the courtesy of a merciful euthanizing chewing.

It is, after all, generally only the predators with enough courage to take on prey closer to their own size who bother to kill before eating. Not out of any compassion for their victims, mind you; it's just easier to eat a zebra when it's no longer trying to kick your teeth out. And the methods used are far from humane, anyway; teeth and claws, drowning, suffocation, venom, even electric shock in the case of certain sea creatures. There are even predators, like the ichneumon wasp, who go out of their way to keep their prey alive as long as possible so as to keep it fresh for when the eggs laid inside the hapless victim hatch.

Even on those rare occasions when we humans, the most terrifyingly effective killer of other creatures on the planet, bother to concern ourselves with minimizing the suffering of our prey, the fact remains that we kill what we eat, and there really is no such thing as a nice way to kill someone.

So allow me to recommend as the most noble, heroic and courageous predator this: the lowly mosquito.

The mosquito lives most of its life as a vegetarian, after all. Loath to harm another sentient creature, it takes most of its sustenance from plant juices. It is only when a female finds herself with developing eggs that she is compelled to take a meal of animal blood, and not even for her own sake, but solely for the benefit of her children.

Yet what does the mother-to-be mosquito do when she needs protein for her babies? Unlike more cowardly predators, she does not seek out smaller, more vulnerable creatures to kill. No, she doesn't pick on someone her own size; she goes after prey that dwarfs her by many orders of magnitude. Indeed, she often goes after that very deadliest of animals, Homo sapiens. And not to kill, but to humanely harvest a tiny quantity of blood, ideally without causing the slightest discomfort whatsoever. (A mosquito does not want to be noticed, after all.) Less than a drop of blood is all she seeks, never to be missed by the donor, and that only to feed her babies. And to get it, she faces the grave risk of being smashed into paste by her gigantic prey.

Now, it's true, of course, that mosquitoes are blamed for many human deaths annually, as diseases like malaria are spread by insect bites. But it's not fair to hold the mosquito responsible for what is really done by the malaria parasite; the mosquito is if anything another victim of the parasite's exploitation. Indeed, just counting sheer numbers, the number of mosquitoes slain by pesticides and other measures aimed at controlling the spread of insect-borne diseases is astronomically larger than the number of humans who will ever have lived, let alone be affected by all of those diseases combined. I expect that if the malaria parasite were to go extinct tomorrow, few creatures would have more cause to celebrate than the mosquito.

So let us admire the courage and compassion of the noble mosquito, even if we don't stop swatting them.  And best of all, these valourous little bloodsuckers don't sparkle!

1 comment:

  1. Simple respect for life is something that can only help the human race. It's not about not being a carnivore, but respecting the animal that you eat, making it's life as enjoyable as possible while also make it's death quick and painless.
    The empathy that we have with all the other creatures around us might even begin to extend to other humans. You just never know.
    Thanks for the thoughts on this, Tom :)