Dirge for a Lonely Planet: The Sixth Mass Extinction

squirrelby Julie at ProgressiveKid

A sweet-looking older woman with a cloud of hair and an oxygen machine at her side told me a story recently about a friendly squirrel that lives in her yard. “It seems to want us to adopt it.” I love hearing about interspecies connections, so I listened eagerly. She went on to describe how it comes on her back deck, eats nuts from the tree there, and walks right up to her and her husband as if to say hello every morning. Getting to the point, she then explained that they were going to kill it, either by poisoning or trapping, because it just didn’t respect their property. “I’ve had enough of them [animals]. We [people] are so generous, and they don’t respect it. We are the ones who know how to share, and they just abuse it.”

Mike, at our local wildlife shelter, on his fourteenth hour of tending the 90-some animals in his care, most of whom were hit by cars, told me the other day that he sees the same kind of attitude. People call the shelter regularly, angry about “trespassing” animals and insisting that they be removed. Too tired and mild-mannered to be appalled, as I was, he just shrugged and went off to feed the barred owl with the crushed foot.

There have been five mass extinctions on our planet in the 3 billion years since life blinked into existence. A mass extinction is defined by at least half of all species on Earth dying out in short order. The biggest of such events was the Permian-Triassic, when upwards of 95 percent of species were snuffed out. The time of dinosaurs’ demise was less dramatic, with about 50 percent of species disappearing. Right now life on Earth is enduring its sixth mass extinction event. The normal rate of extinction is about one species every four years. Today it is about one species every ten minutes. And many of the ones that are still hanging on are not doing well. From honey bees to Atlantic salmon to black rhinos, Earth’s menagerie is faced on all sides by an increasingly uninhabitable world.

The mass extinction happening now, in which 40 percent of species will be gone by 2050 and far more by the end of the century if carbon-belching business as usual continues, is unique. This is the first of such catastrophic planetary events to be propelled by a single species—homo sapiens—through relentless hunting, developing, and polluting. And as we turn up the global thermostat, things are getting much, much worse for already beleaguered Life on Earth.

I am fortunate to live in a place where there is still wildlife: woods, birds, deer, raccoons, rabbits, and a few frogs, salamanders, foxes, beavers, otters, and coyotes. But my home is changing too, and as wild land is cut and burned for human housing and business, fewer and fewer animals are surviving in the dwindling remainders. The people here are more “green” than most. Many say they moved here for the trees, water, mountains, and bald eagles, and many are distressed to see development run amok.

Yet even among the “enlightened” there is a persistent species-centric narcissism like the old lady with the oxygen tank. As bee populations crash around the world, overwrought parents hire exterminators to get rid of hives in their yards. Dog walkers unleash their dogs at the park on rabbits that have managed to survive having been dumped by human captors. People trap and “relocate” hungry raccoons prowling for food. To kill mosquitoes, people are buying carbon-dioxide emitting electrocution machines that happen to also kill pollinating moths. To kill “weeds,” people are poisoning the local water supply and entire food chain with pesticides. A thriving wasp hive was destroyed just last week at our local park because it was thought to pose a risk to kids, though it was distant from play equipment and easily avoided. The list goes on. And these are relatively mild examples. People do far, far worse things to wildlife.

If we do not heed the warnings that are everywhere around us, we are on our way to making a very lonely planet out of the rich and wondrous one we were lucky enough to have been born into. During summers in the woods of Michigan, as a kid I would commune with porcupine, black bear, tree toads, deer herds, crayfish, trout, kingfishers, hawks, and too many trees and wildflowers to count. Even in the quasi-urban world on the northern border of Chicago where I spent most of my time, there were plentiful butterflies, frogs, and fireflies.

Now the animals that live in or visit my yard feel like fleeting blessings: the doe and spotted fawns that ate my attempt at a shade garden, the red squirrel that disrupts my thoughts with is neurotic warning call, the old raccoon with half a tail that climbs the bird feeder and stirs my dog into a frenzy, the spiders that string their ghostly webbing around my ceilings, the starlings nesting in my rafters that poop on my siding, the indignant mallards that impatiently await their morning ration of corn.

I’d like to have my perennials back. I’d like for the squirrel to pipe down. I’d like for there not to be poop on my house or webs in my corners. I’d like a relaxing morning without traipsing outside with corn in the rain. But, really, I don’t care about any of these inconveniences half as much as I love having the hungry deer family, shrill squirrel, marauding raccoon, pooping starlings, messy spiders, and demanding mallards near me. We share an ecosystem, and we are a family. Compared to me with my energy-sucking house, loud polluting car, and comparatively obscene appetite for stuff, they ask for so little.

I have taken the lion’s share, an expression that should change, and they coexist literally in my enormous shadow. It is embarrassing to me that they require so little, and I feel I require so much. I admire them, and they tolerate me, taking what I give because they depend on it for their survival. I worry that the next time I see the deer one of the fawns will be gone, hit by a car. I hope the fact that I haven’t seen the old raccoon lately is because she is finding plenty of food elsewhere this summer. I pray that cats don’t get the squirrel and that the old mallard pair is managing to bring some ducklings into the world this season. I hold onto them desperately in my heart. They are most likely too busy to think much about me other than as the driver of the dangerous car or the provider of seed and corn.

But, unlike them, I have time to think. I think about how both fragile and resilient we all are and how beautiful and excruciating that is. I think about the foolishness and destruction wrought by my species and what it means for all the other species. I think about the lonely planet they are leaving us as they go. I think about how lonely we are becoming, the billions of our kind alone with each other.

Image by Gilles Gonthier 2007, Creative Commons

©2007 ProgressiveKid. May not be reprinted or redisplayed without permission.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for writing this.

    We don’t use pesticides, herbicides, racoonicides, etc. We love the heron and other unknown predators that completely cleaned out our fish pond in one night (bummer!), and the doe and her two fawn who annhilate our roses but will come almost up to the house just to play standoff with our cat (another predator…sigh). It’s wonderful to live with these critters.

    Tell me more about my brand new mosquito zapper :(
    We bought it so we could be outside on our patio in the summer–had no idea there were problems with it. Is there a website you can send me to so I can get the lowdown?

  2. Hi Althea. Thanks for the feedback. Our little pond was cleared out too, I think by a kingfisher and/or heron. I know that some mosquito zappers work by emitting carbon dioxide, which makes insects think there is an animal around because we breathe out CO2. I know that these things electrocute moths and possibly other important pollinator insects. I don’t know if this is how your machine works, but that is the kind I’m aware of. I was truly amazed when I learned of this CO2 emitting machine, which is sold in major stores everywhere! There are some ways to reduce mosquitoes, such as removing ivy and other mosquito-breeding conditions in your yard. I’m not an expert, so I suggest looking online or asking at a garden store. Good luck and good living! —Julie

  3. Thanks for this great post. I stumbled upon it while looking up some information for my own blog post (which happens to be about the same topic, but way more grumpy than yours) and am so glad I found it!

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