Nature’s unspeakable cruelty

I grew up with nature, in tropical jungles no less. I learned to understand all kinds of animals, reptiles, insects. So I love nature in general. But one thing I saw: there is hardly an animal that is not hunted or hideously plagued by some other creature, sometimes quite fortuitously. And this can cause unimaginable suffering, making the lives of the victims pure misery.

Some years ago I spent a summer vacation in northern Sweden — to see the midnight sun. One memorable encounter was with indigenous reindeer — gentle and friendly animals. But as the evening came they were covered with terrifyingly large mosquitoes, and were suffering intensely. They were shaking their heads and bodies vigorously, all the time.

Our Sami guide told us that wild reindeer go up the mountains every night to sleep on ice patches — which gives them a modicum of protection from the bloodsucking insects.

The next day we went on a trip in the mountains and found remaining patches of snow.
This is me, getting a feel for what it is like for a reindeer to sleep on ice (it is cooold).

The above picture, by Sergey Anisimov, shows reindeer standing on a patch of snow in the Urals. They do this for one purpose only: to escape the onslaught of mosquitoes. I have described it in this article, and speculated on the reason mosquitoes exist.

Animals feed on other animals, there are predators and prey. Some of the latter seem to expect this. They breed copiously, in evolutionary expectation that only a few will survive. I can imagine rodent families thinking: “Wow, only six of us missing. This has been a good day!”

Predators are never tempered by anything that is close to mercy. Perhaps homo sapiens is the only species that has developed the ability to feel pity. Normal predators will hunt and kill with abandon, with maximum efficiency, never concerned by the suffering of their victims. I have seen many examples of this. Recently there was a report on how the brown hyenas on the coast of Namibia hunt baby seals. The documentary was vividly filmed and showed a hyena gently herd a family of seals, until the youngest pup dropped behind, when it would be grabbed and brutally killed. Hyenas are normally scavengers, and these have relatively recently taken to killing and feeding on seal pups. The parent seals watch in distress, but undertake no protective actions. They have not had enough time to develop any kind of defensive strategy. Evolution is painfully slow.

When the Cape fur seals along the Namibian coast have their pups each December, the desert’s top scavengers become seal-hunting specialists. You can read about that in bioGraphic | photo by Solvin Zankl.

The documentary was heart-breaking, probably because seal pups are unbearably cute. The cruelty of the hyena was, however, put into perspective when the documentary showed it carrying its prey ten miles to its own pups.

So it is not pure cruelty. For that you have to look to seagulls. A second documentary showed how Argentinian kelp gulls, which normally live on fish and other small prey, have taken to feed on — would you like to guess? — whales. Live whales! In summer the southern right whales gather to breed off the coast. As they surface for air the gulls land on their backs, and rip out pieces of skin and blubber, inflicting gaping wounds.

The whales try to submerge as quickly as possible, but they have to come up periodically for air. New-born whales have to do it most often, and they also have softer skin. So they are the prime victims of the gulls and suffer the most. Often you see as many as eight gulls pecking one poor calf.

The whales can only defend themselves by staying under the surface for as long as they can, and by exposing as little of their bodies as possible when they come up for air. But their nostrils (blow-holes) are on their backs and so the gulls usually have time to land and get in a ripping peck or two.

I find this atrocious gull activity particularly distressing because I have a personal relationship with whales — which I have described in this article: Whales — love ’em or eat ’em.

If you have very strong nerves you can read this truly disturbing article about seagulls. On the other hand, don’t. It will give you sleepless nights.

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The Friedel Chronicles

The Friedel Chronicles

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Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.