Every creature's needless death diminishes us all

A 60 per cent decline in our national species should alarm us, yet few of us act. But to mind more about animals would reflect well on society

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Last week's State of Nature report, from 25 wildlife organisations, suggests a decline of 60 per cent in our national species in the past 50 years – with the prospect of the loss of 10 per cent of species in the near future. It is an doomy scenario – one sadly matched by our daily experience of nature. Those smiling, knowledgeable presenters of Springwatch, which reappears on our TV screens tomorrow, are generally jolly fellows, but their view of wildlife sometimes seems far from our experience of it – as urban death.

The other morning I picked a dead squirrel up off the road. It was a fresh kill – couldn't have been more than a few minutes since it realised, at the last moment, that it wasn't going to make it back to the trees on the other side. I had been watching it for a few days, as I cycled past, admiring its daredevil leaps and bounds over the fence and across the street.

Now it had lost the gamble. I held it up by its paw. There seemed to be a startled look in its big black eyes. Then I noticed its dugs – prominent, and lactating. Somewhere, nearby, there would be a dray full of orphans.

Yesterday it was a hedgehog, in an adjourning suburban road. First plump, now eviscerated. It's around now, as spring gives way to early summer, that the toll starts to mount. More flattened mammals and birds to be scraped off the tarmac. Or left to become two-dimensional versions of themselves. Death isn't only dealt on the highway. Overhead are other, casual casualties. The major anthropogenic cause of avian death (if you discount cats) is from birds flying into tall buildings. It is estimated that in North America alone, up to one billion migrating birds die in this way each year. There they slump, in the canyons of Manhattan, Toronto and Los Angeles, now among the angels, fooled by reflecting glass into thinking they were flying into blue sky.

Nor is it only cars and buildings that kill, unthinkingly; passively, even. Last year, the carcase of a fin whale (the second largest whale species in the world) arrived draped across the bows of a merchant ship in Portsmouth Harbour. It was speedily and unceremoniously taken off to the city dump, as if the guilt of accidental death on a leviathanic scale were too much for civic responsibility to bear.

For most of my adult life, like most people, I've taken animals for granted. Birds are merely shapes against the sky, a kind of ubiquitous aerial litter, only impacting on our world when they caw or cry or let loose white splats on our cars. In the city, animals are little more than street furniture; a pigeon perched on a lamp post, or maybe a fox prowling the pavements in search of our cast-offs. In the country, when most of us visit it, they're just a sort of living decoration or a rural commodity.

It is hard for us to see such creatures as anything less than generic, as opposed to specific. Occasionally we will look at them in newspaper stories of cuteness or threat, seeing them perform in online film clips in what amounts to little more than animal porn, as if, when the cameras and mobile phones are taken away, they might as well not exist at all. They are only adjuncts to our modern state.

But having spent the past five years writing my new book, The Sea Inside, I've become more attuned to animals as an alternative world, another existence beyond our own. Yet even then, there are problems. In our anthropocentric lives, nature is only a physical reflection of our mental selves. We project our emotional states upon it – a poor benighted fate for animals, to bear such human sorrow as well as their own.

Our conflicted attitude to animals – both caring, and distant – has remarkably early roots. It was St Cuthbert, Britain's answer to St Francis of Assisi, who instituted the first legislation protecting animals in AD676, when he declared that the eider ducks on his beloved island retreat of Inner Farne should be ensured from human harm. Much later, philosophers began to think seriously about the vexed relationship between human and natural history. They were writing at a time of the Enlightenment, of Carl Linneaus and a new awareness of the natural world.

Some even drew parallels between the way we enslaved humans and other species. In the 1820s, the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham accepted that man might kill animals for food. "But is there any reason why we should be suffered to torment them? Not any that I can see. Are there any way we should not be suffered to torment them? Yes, several." Bentham equated slavery with animal cruelty. "The denomination of slaves have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still …." For him, "the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?".

Bentham wrote at a time when the Industrial Revolution was separating humans from the natural world. Menageries had become the common interface between the general public and wildlife. Places such as the Exeter Exchange in the Strand, where, in an upper storey room, lions, zebra and even an elephant were held captive in what amounted to a feral department store. Indeed, it was the fate of Chunee, the Indian elephant held there, which contributed to a new awareness. In 1826, the unfortunate pachyderm accidentally killed one of its keepers, and began behaving erratically.

Fearful it was about to burst out of its cage – and perhaps free its fellow prisoners, the authorities ordered it to be killed. Spears could not do the job, and eventually a platoon of soldiers were summoned to pump volleys of lead shot – 152 in total – into Chunee. His terrible, protracted death and dying groans, when reported, angered public opinion – and that of the poet William Blake, who wrote that such an event "puts all Heaven in a rage".

Chunee's appalling demise led correspondents to The Times to begin a campaign for better conditions for captive animals – a campaign which resulted in the formation of the RSPCA.

Some have given up hope. In an elegiac essay, the American poet Hayden Carruth, who died in 2008, wrote: "This has been the time of the finishing off of the animals. They are going away – their fur and wild eyes, their voices …. I have lived with them fifty years, and we have lived them fifty million years, and now they are going, almost gone. I don't know if the animals are capable of reproach. But clearly they do not bother to say goodbye."

It may be that conservation merely extends that protracted, painful farewell. Yet there is a happier resolution – and it lies in the next generation. Organisations such as the British Wildlife Trusts are doing brilliant work in education – and we can all have own effect, in encouraging and leading by example.

The other day I came across a couple of young boys about to stamp on a stag beetle in the gutter. I stopped, picked up the beetle, and held it out to them, showing them what a wonderfully alien-looking animal it was. Five minutes later, they were beetle converts, their faces beaming with fascination and even delight at the shiny, hard-backed little survivor as it crawled away into the safety of the suburban park.

Philip Hoare's new book, 'The Sea Inside', is published on 6 June by Fourth Estate

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