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“RIP little one,” read one Facebook tribute to Snap. “You are no longer suffering, so soar high with all the eagles at the Rainbow Bridge.”
Well, I guess so. Our relationship with animals must have felt so much more straightforward, and less mushy, when we viewed them in more strictly utilitarian terms. A century ago, we had no use for bald eagles, and we believed they were a threat to the domestic animals and fish we did have a use for - and so it seemed reasonable for us to kill them like crazy. Now, emotional and aesthetic values have overpowered those pragmatic ones. When it comes to animals, we deal mostly in feelings: feelings of tenderness, or empathy or fear or awe; and in the bald eagle’s case, feelings of patriotism too. We began to love bald eagles, and so it seemed reasonable to protect them like crazy.
Those feelings about animals are so much harder to articulate and defend than the old calculus of useful and not useful. Even the name of Naumann’s department, the “Nongame Wildlife Program,” basically throws up its hands at explaining what, exactly, the kinds of animals it’s responsible for are actually for. All we know is they aren’t game animals - not the ones we want to hunt.
But the paradoxical upshot of Snap’s story may be that not killing certain animals is the way we use them now: The need these creatures are satisfying is our need to protect them. We have a destructive history when it comes to the natural world, and we all know more damage is inevitable. Maybe we latch on to the species we’ve willfully not destroyed as proof of our compassion, and as living props with which to demonstrate that compassion again and again. Maybe it just feels good to know they’re still out there, in some safe-seeming corner of the wilderness. And maybe that’s why we’ve pointed a bunch of webcams at them: so we can check in whenever we want and keep watch.
Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.”
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