The Predation Problem

Is saving animals from predators morally justified?

The Predation Problem

Is saving animals from predators morally justified?

Last year, as my parents and I were sitting eating breakfast, there was a small commotion outside. More precisely, it was in the coop where we keep our chickens. To our alarm, we heard the sound of a chick screaming in pain, and realised that it was in the clutches of a large black cat looking forward to a delicious breakfast.

Taking in this scene, my dad quickly took a large log and chased after the carnivore. And somehow, he finally managed to save the poor chick from the cat’s mouth. Though safe, the chick's condition was tragic. Large stab-wounds were visible in its stomach and buttocks, from where fresh blood continued to flow.

This incident made me rethink my prospects and moral position in seeing what the chick went through and what the starving cat did.

How should I view the unfortunate incident that befell the chick above, in a moral context? Ethically speaking, is blocking (or maybe killing) predators which are hunting their prey something that we humans must do?

Many may argue that humans must kill predators to save prey animals, such as the poor chick above, from a terrible death. This opinion is caused by the way we think that tends to describe predators as cold-blooded killers.

In my opinion, the view that assumes that predators are cold-blooded killers that must be exterminated is wrong. It is a common mistake that we tend to project human emotions and attributes onto animals. Predators are not cold-blooded killers who will aim to destroy other animals. What predators like the cat did to the chick above is not just necessary for their survival; it is also done to maintain the balance of the ecosystem.

On seeing the poor chick's plight, my mom and dad immediately applied first-aid. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t help them. Apart from taking what the chicks went through as natural, I’m also afraid of blood!).

The dilemma of whether to stop the cat or not is known as the "Predation Problem", and can be formulated thus: when we consider the harm to a predator and its prey in moral terms, must we do what is possible save the prey from the predators—or not?

Surprisingly, as I contemplated these thoughts, my parents had already finished treating the chick’s wounds. At the end of it,  the chick was able to walk again and gather with her mother and her friends.

Most animal activists seem to agree that what the cat did was barbaric: chickens deserve to live, and the cat is infringing on that right as well as causing it pain and suffering. But what if the cat's actions were such that they would save many lives and keep our ecosystem moving?

In 1954, ethologist John B. Calhoun from the National Institute of Mental Health conducted an experiment on rats. The purpose: to find out what would happen to them in a predator-free environment.

During his first tests, Calhoun placed around 32 to 56 rats in a 10×14-foot case in a barn in Montgomery County. This case was separated into four rooms, each one designed specifically created to support a dozen matured brown Norwegian rats. The rooms weren't isolated: rats could manoeuvre between them by using specially placed ramps. Since Calhoun provided unlimited resources, such as water, food, and also protection from predators as well as from disease and weather, the rats were said to be in “art utopia” or “mouse paradise”, as another psychologist explained.

Calhoun went on to conduct many similar experiments, but they all went the same. Things would start out fine, but then, instead of thriving, the paradise would inevitably collapse. Rats became to stressed to reproduce; they started exhibiting weird behaviours, rolling dirt into balls, fighting with each other, and claiming large amounts of territories for themselves.

In the most famous experiment in Calhoun's series, “Universe 25”, the population peaked at 2,200 mice and thereafter exhibited a variety of abnormal, often destructive behaviours. By the 600th day, the population was on its way to extinction.

It is one of the scary overviews when we try to change the direction of the ecosystem by eliminating factors such as predators and disease to prevent prey animals from a tragic death. So the general ambition to reduce predator populations and deter predators from hunting their prey, in effect, could have dire consequences as the experiment above suggests.

Moreover, prey animals may live longer, but their lives will be dominated by competition for food with others, and will eventually starve. Not to mention there is the possibility of increasing disease due to the dense population. “Let’s say you kill the predators to prevent the prey from suffering,” said Dan Blumstein, an ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “That means there will be more prey, but they’re going to suffer anyway. They’ll become overabundant.”

Life is suffering; nature is red in tooth and claw. Pain is an exquisite warning system, meant to keep an animal alive; the only sure-fire way to avoid suffering is to die. Perhaps, then, the true way to alleviate suffering is to increase, rather than decrease, the number of predators. There will be more deaths—and more animals that are no longer suffering, for that very reason.

Is it a coincidence that the core species that maintain natural ecosystems are predators? Predators hunt and eat prey that reproduces quickly that can destroy and overwhelm an area’s resources; this certainly allows animals that have slow reproductive cycles to get access to the same food. Even case studies have shown that prey animal populations will increase drastically if left unpredicted.

The morning after the cat incident, when I was asked to feed our chickens, I found the poor chick dead next to the mother and her friends. With a body already swarmed by ferocious little predators: the ants. She had died in vain, and the poor cat got nothing.