In time for lost species day, November 30th, we have moved on to look at animal studies and animal criticism. We are currently living in the sixth period of mass extinction, with 50% of the combined population of animals being lost in the last 40 years. The world’s anthropocentric way of thinking positions animals as a product for consumption. Animals are not a resource. We are at a tipping point of crisis, and it is time to change the way to view and treat animals.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s novel, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, looks into the consequences of extinction, exposing us to the devastating effects that humans have caused to other species and the planet itself. This period of mass extinction is predicted to be even more catastrophic than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, however, this time the cause is unnatural. Dissimilar to a natural disaster, we are aware of the impact we are causing, leaving a disastrous legacy behind us, unlike any other species before.
This extract of Kolbert’s novel focuses on the extinction of the Golden Frog, declared extinct in 1989 by the ICUN.
‘As recently as a decade ago, golden frogs were easy to spot in the hills around El Valle. The frogs are toxic—it’s been calculated that the poison contained in the skin of just one animal could kill a thousand average-sized mice—hence the vivid color, which makes them stand out against the forest floor. One creek not far from El Valle was nicknamed Thousand Frog Stream. A person walking along it would see so many golden frogs sunning themselves on the banks that, as one herpetologist who made the trip many times put it to me, “it was insane—absolutely insane.”
Then the frogs around El Valle started to disappear. The problem—it was not yet perceived as a crisis—was first noticed to the west, near Panama’s border with Costa Rica. An American graduate student happened to be studying frogs in the rainforest there. She went back to the States for a while to write her dissertation, and when she returned, she couldn’t find any frogs or, for that matter, amphibians of any kind. She had no idea what was going on, but since she needed frogs for her research, she set up a new study site, farther east. At first the frogs at the new site seemed healthy; then the same thing happened: the amphibians vanished. The blight spread through the rainforest until, in 2002, the frogs in the hills and streams around the town of Santa Fe, about fifty miles west of El Valle, were effectively wiped out. In 2004, little corpses began showing up even closer to El Valle, around the town of El Copé. By this point, a group of biologists, some from Panama, others from the United States, had concluded that the golden frog was in grave danger. They decided to try to preserve a remnant population by removing a few dozen of each sex from the forest and raising them indoors. But whatever was killing the frogs was moving even faster than the biologists had feared. Before they could act on their plan, the wave hit.’
The most striking part of this extract is not the sudden deaths of the species, but the way in which the decline was only noticed at the point when a human needed the frogs for their own purpose. Although the research did not involve harming the frogs, they were still viewed as a resource to be used, their disappearance being an inconvenience to the human. The frogs were relocated to a new site at this point, not because their safety was in jeopardy, but as a device for the girl who ‘needed frogs for her research.’
When thinking about our duty of care over animals, and how they are monitored, it appears that we act from a level of hierarchy. We have to bestow capacities of emotion, intelligence and endangerment upon animals for them to be recognised. This process of recognition is portrayed throughout the text, beginning with the disappearance of the golden frogs which was ‘not yet perceived as a crisis’, to then later be ‘concluded’ that ‘the golden frog was in grave danger’. At this point it was evidently too late, resulting in their extinction, however, it makes us question why do we only act purposefully when things hit a point a crisis?
This extract from Kolbert’s novel forces us to think about the ways in which we treat endangered animals, as well as exposing us to the truths of our existence causing these extinctions. Why are we focusing so heavily on the solutions to mass extinction, rather than looking into preventive methods? Are we past the point of crisis? Or are we just unable to take responsibility for our actions and change our way of living?
Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014) Online: http://lithub.com/the-sixth-extinction-an-unnatural-history/