Science & Technology

Beyond Animal Rights: Animal Politics


Longtime Hit & Run readers know I have a running interest in encounters between human beings and organized animal communities: elephants, baboons, bees. (OK, the bees are a stretch.) I wouldn't say those animals are asserting rights—or that they have a moral concept of rights in the first place—but they do assert claims, which for much of human history was all we ever did ourselves. When those claims run up against the territories marked by human beings, the results look a lot like low-intensity warfare.

A recent case in point, as described by the BBC:

A troop of vervet monkeys is giving Kenyan villagers long days and sleepless nights, destroying crops and causing a food crisis….

They estimate there are close to 300 monkeys invading the farms at dawn. They eat the village's maize, potatoes, beans and other crops….In addition to stealing their crops, the monkeys also make sexually explicit gestures at the women, they claim….

The residents say the monkeys have killed livestock and guard dogs, which has also left the villagers living in fear, especially for the safety of their babies and children.

All the villagers' attempts to control the monkeys have failed—the monkeys evade traps, have lookouts to warn the others of impending attacks and snub poisoned food put out by the residents.

"The troop has scouts which keep a lookout from a vantage point, and when they see us coming, they give warning signals to the ones in the farms to get away," said another area resident, Jacinta Wandaga.

In less Hobbesian times you get something that looks like a negotiated peace, or at least a rough mutual understanding. One reason the rise in human-elephant conflict is so notable, for example, is because it follows a period when such violence was rare. (I should probably add that it isn't always the beasts who are the aggressors.)

Discussions of animal rights and animal welfare usually focus on nonhuman captives in human societies. But aren't these boundary disputes at least as interesting as dogfighting or foie gras? Such micro-wars imply something about human-nonhuman relations, even if it can't be reduced to a simple moral principle. Readers are invited to debate just what that something is—or, better still, to point me to any anthropologists or political scientists who are already studying these conflicts in a systematic way.