Beavers and Wolves
And what they can teach us
Just look at it. It’s so cute, with its long whiskers, tiny hands and big front teeth. Who would want to eat them? Wolves, that’s who. Wolves are mean.
Well, not really. They’re just doing exactly what their prey is trying to do. They’re surviving, and for that they need their meat. And beavers provide that.
By this point, you’ll probably be wondering where this is going. Bear with me.
Back to beavers. Our instinct, as humans who have satisfied their basic needs and thus don’t need to hunt beavers like wolves do, is to protect these cute animals against those ravenous beasts with yellow eyes who seem to only belong in gothic novels about caped, bipedal bloodsuckers and crumbling, windswept castles.
We need to save the poor beavers. They never hurt anyone! Well, it seems that there’s a catch. Left unchecked, the beavers will fill streams and rivers with dams, forming little ponds to the point where they will radically change their environment. They don’t understand what they’re doing and if, in the process, they might be hurting other species with their geoengineering project. It’s just what they do.
Wolves are no different. If, for some reason, beavers became endangered they wouldn’t stop preying on them. They would hunt them to extinction, find other sources of meat and go on hunting. It’s just what they do.
We often marvel at the natural balance, the way ecosystems work in unexpected ways, and how often a tiny change can upset this balance. Hunt the wolves and the beavers will grow unchecked. Hunt the beavers and the wolves will prey on some other animal, which already has its own predators, possibly endangering it in turn. A cascading effect could easily follow.
What we often fail to understand, is that this fragile natural balance is just a snapshot of a living, evolving ecosystem. None of the animals which live in it have the slightest understanding of how it works. Neither did we, until fairly recently. We just hunted and exploited everything we could get our hands on, until species became extinct and then we shrugged and moved on to the next prey.
This went on for millennia, until science brought to our attention that our encroachment on natural habitats was having serious adverse effects on flora and fauna. In other words, we rapidly destroyed entire ecosystems. A bit like beavers on steroids. The difference is, those little animals are simply content to keep on building their humble dams. Even if their population grows to the billions they won’t start making skyscrapers out of logs. They won’t build wooden cars to commute from their towering poplar condos to their giant Hoover dams. And they certainly won’t force other beavers to work all day so that Mr. Jeff Beaver can go touring in space.
Is it because beavers are inherently nice animals who are content to live as they have been doing for millions of years? Not really. They’re just not capable of advanced thought beyond their original biological programming, just like most animals. Animals don’t have any concept of the workings of nature beyond satisfying their immediate needs for food, shelter and procreation. They don’t love or hate it, they don’t really think about it at all. It simply is.
Animals will follow their instincts and find a balance with their environment, based on a myriad interdependencies with other species, which can hold for thousands or even millions of years, until some external factor comes to disrupt that balance. Then the process will start over and, in time, a new equilibrium will be attained.
Humans are different. We constantly think about how we can make our lives better, more comfortable. How to shape our world. How to build and kill bigger, better, faster. Like animals, we lack the concept of balance, but unlike them we actively do everything we can to disrupt any existing balance in our surroundings. And once we “harness nature” and set up a system of our own, we disrupt that too.
If we were wolves, we’d have found ways to hunt prey with increased efficiency, killing more with less effort. We’d have thought of all possible ways to preserve and cook beavers, combining them with fancy spices and other meats. We’d hold hunting contests to see who can kill the most. Until one day someone smarter than the pack would lift their head and make it known that at this rate, we were going to run out of prey, then starve. And we would promptly ignore them, until the problem suddenly became too obvious to ignore.
The truth is, we’re not as special as we think. We certainly can build fancier and bigger than little wooden dams or twig nests or cramped underground warrens. We can make all sorts of fancy dishes instead of the boring, same old raw fare day after day. We even invented burgers! And we can shoot prey with pinpoint accuracy from hundreds of metres away. But, in the end, if we can’t actually stop ourselves before disrupting the remaining ecosystems which keep us fed, healthy and alive, then we’re not that much smarter than beavers.