While working through the night elf starting zone, I found myself reflecting on the morality of killing wildlife in order to preserve what we humans consider the natural balance. Nature is fluid, flexible, ever-changing over time. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a “natural balance.” Even if there is, how do we know what it is? The night elves claim to know; perhaps they are wiser than we. In any case, this starting zone prompted me to propose this zone’s use for grappling with two environmental issues: (1) the conflict between the rights to life of individual wild animals and the need for a healthy biotic community and (2) the practice of eradicating “invasive alien species.” First I present Yvois’ narrative on her experiences as an apprentice forest conservator and then look at these two issues.
In her boughs the great tree Teldrassil holds my homeland, a lushly forested island. Growing up in Darnassus, Teldrassil’s only city, I romanticized the forests I’d never entered and dreamed of becoming a defender of Nature’s wild children. Finally I was old enough to join the conservators as an apprentice. I packed a little rucksack, said my goodbyes, and hiked along a forest path to meet my mentors in the small village of Shadowglen – where my very first assignment dashed my romantic notions.
Conservator Ilthalaine told me that an overabundance of rain had thrown the nightsaber population out of balance. My job was to thin their numbers. Leaning over the body of my first kill, I watched as the green fire left its eyes. It was little more than a kitten. Overcome by the horror of what I had done, I ran back to Ilthalaine and told him I couldn’t do this. He explained, “The resources of the forest will be depleted too quickly if the problem is not addressed. Killing nature’s beasts is a necessary evil for the good of all who share the land.” I finished the job, then sat behind a tree and cried.
From Tarindrella, a dryad woodland protector, I learned that our greatest problems extended far beyond the usual conservation issues. She had returned to Teldrassil on “grim business,” she said, because here “something foul lingers.” Many of the forest’s children were corrupted by a mysterious evil force. We saw this first hand in the Shadowthread Cave filled with vicious, corrupted spiders. We killed as many as we could and, in the bowels of the cave, found their broodmother: Githyiss the Vile, a giant green tarantula. After we killed her, Tarindrella’s eyes pooled with tears. “It pains me,” she said, “to have to inflict such violence on creatures of the forest, corrupt or not.” Right then I knew we would become good friends.
But Githyiss was not the corruption’s source; near her corpse was a Gnarlpine furbolg totem – a clue to the deepening mystery. Saying we would meet again, Tarindrella left to pursue the bear-like Gnarlpine. In time, I would kill many a Gnarlpine, including their leader, Ursal the Mauler. But my task then was to complete my first moonwell ritual, one of many. It was on my return from that moonwell when, to my great shame, I was duped by satyr Zenn Foulhoof, about whom I’ve already written.
Speaking of satyrs, I was charged with assassinating one even fouler than Foulhoof: Lord Melenas, whose cave lair was protected by a host of imps. Tallonkai Swiftfoot told me that Melenas was plotting “something most foul” and that he wanted his head. I was given no clues as to the satyr’s plans or why I was to keep my mission a secret. Even so, I did as told – but not before a horrid imp took me down. My wound was so grievous that my spirit left my body, which fortunately allowed me to scout around the labyrinthine cave to discover Melenas’ whereabouts. When spirit and body reunited, I went right to the satyr and chopped off his head.
It was a nasty business redeeming our great tree from corruption – and frustrating too. I’d kill one corrupted creature and another’d pop up. Rushed from one mission to another, often without knowing why, I hardly had time to think. But one time I did get a break: A young forest elf asked me for a favor, to take a book of recipes to his sister who was in Darnassus studying to become a priestess of the moon. She was homesick, he said. I was homesick too and looked forward to the trip. He paid my passage on the hippogryph – my first time flying! While there I briefly visited my family, then returned to the young elf with his sister’s thank-you note.
The prospect for more relief from my work’s horrors came when I was sent to help botanists with their experiments on timberling seeds. They hoped to discover what plagued the timberlings, mobile tree-like creatures with a hulking humanoid appearance. But the seeds were so corrupted that killing the most tainted adults was the only option until a cure could be found. The killing part fell to me, natch, and I brought their mossy tumors back to be destroyed. A little later the botanists discovered that within the once-gentle, giant timberling called Oakenscowl was the mother tumor of them all. I killed him and extracted his gigantic, poisonous tumor. With the tumor destroyed, the disease would spread no more among the timberlings.
Soon we conservators received excellent news from the Oracle Tree: Teldrassil was experiencing new growth. Though our many efforts had lessened the corruption, our world tree was still tainted. To my delight, I was assigned to work again with Tarindrella in our final push. Teldrassil’s growing strength and the moonwell waters I’d collected gave her the power to empower me to fight my way to the Heart of Corruption. Here I killed the Bough of Corruption and all its minions. Teldrassil was cleansed!
We cheered and hugged, then went our separate ways – Tarindrella to help another forest in trouble; and I to carry the moonwell waters to my mentor, who gave me one last task: to take the waters to the high priestess of Elune, Tyrande Whisperwind in Darnassus. I found her standing next to her consort Malfurion Stormrage in the Temple of the Moon. Stories about them are legend. They’re magnificent to behold together. Awed, I bowed and left in a glowing haze.
My training was over. I could hardly believe it. I needed some time to gather myself and holed up in my family home. But after a few days rest, I was itching to get back into the fray. So now I’m in Darkshore working with the Alliance to secure the town of Lor’danel against Twilight’s Hammer.
DISCUSSION OF TWO ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES
1. Whose Rights –Individual Animals’ or the Ecosystem’s? Yvois is introduced to the realities of wildlife management as soon as she begins her training as a forest conservator. Because too many nightsabers mean too few other wild animals, she has to “thin” their numbers to preserve the natural balance. Did she do the right thing?
The answer may depend on whom you ask. If for nightsabers we substitute whitetail deer, like those found in my northwoods region, the issue comes home. Hunters want an abundance of deer; farmers, gardeners, and motorists not so much; and forest managers value biodiversity and thus healthy sustainable populations of all members of the ecosystem. These groups, however, tend to share one thing in common: they shed few tears over the death of an individual deer (unless it’s a fawn). On the other hand, animal rights advocates object to intentionally harming any animal, especially mammals and fowl, except in extraordinary cases.
Moving beyond the interests of these various stakeholders, we should consider some broader questions: To what extent, if at all, should we try to control wildlife populations? Is it right to kill individual animals in order to protect the biotic community? Should we just let nature take its course? Who presents the best argument in this ongoing debate, Aldo Leopold or Tom Regan?
Leopold speaks on behalf of the biotic community as a whole in “The Land Ethic” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949). While presenting his argument, he states that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.” Regan, however, speaks on behalf of the individual animal in “The Case for Animal Rights” (Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 1989). He argues that any animal who is “the experiencing subject of a life,” human or not, has intrinsic value and thus a right to life: If humans (and night elves) can’t be sacrificed for the good of the biotic community, then why can deer (and nightsabers)?
2. Eradicate Invasive Alien Species – or Not? The nightsabers Yvois encountered were not corrupted, but many of the spiders, furbolg, and timberlings were and, as such, are much like “invasive alien species” ( i.e., non-native life forms that may crowd out native species and disrupt the ecosystem). There seems to be a big difference between intentionally killing a healthy native of an ecosystem and an alien invader that harms the natives. Until recently efforts to eradicate such invaders – like zebra mussels, purple loosestrife, and phragmites in our region – were noncontroversial. But new evidence suggests that eradication is not always the answer.
For example, an invasive salt marsh cordgrass has become the nesting habitat of the endangered California Clapper Rail and an invasive tamarisk is now the nesting habitat of the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Bryan Walsh in Time (5/29/14), summarizing a study reported in Science, wrote that “some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.”
The night elf botanists had the right idea, it seems: find a way to detoxify the corrupted timberlings rather than eradicate the species. The purpose of Yvois’ various missions regarding corrupted creatures was to eliminate the cause – not to eradicate the species. Each mission culminated in finding and destroying the source of a particular species’ corruption. The source was the evil, not the creatures themselves. Of course she never really dealt with the ultimate source, the Burning Legion; efforts to do that would come later.
But the parallel between corrupted species in the night elf homeland and invasive species on Earth breaks down, in part because the line between good and evil is much sharper in the WoW world of Azeroth. There, evil beings unleash corrupted beings. Here, taking the long view as Barbara Nichol of CBC News (4/01/14) does, “bioinvasion” is “nothing new. Camels … are actually native to North America. Hippos and lions and alligators once made their homes in Great Britain,” and so on. Moreover, she says that we humans “are the most damaging alien invasive species of all.” To see that, we need look no farther than the effects of industrialization and urbanization on our natural landscape.
“We don’t appear on the World Conservation Union’s famous ‘World’s Worst 100 Invading Species’ list,” says Nichol. And she asks, “Why not?” Should we? Let’s assume the answer is “yes,” put ourselves on the list, then reflect on this big question: What can we do to get off the list of the world’s worst invaders? At this time, however, it may be more productive to question the concept of “invasive alien species.” Is it wrong-headed? Should humans even be in the business of deciding which species to eliminate and which to protect? Why are our interests more important than those of the zebra mussel?
Deeper questioning still could look at the project of formulating a conservation ethic at all, a project that tends to put humans at the center of the universe rather than seeing us as one among many species in the biotic community. Rather than formulating ethical systems, perhaps we should practice environmental etiquette. We should listen to the “stories” wild species and landscapes tell, as Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston advise in “Environmental Ethics as Environmental Etiquette” (Environmental Ethics, Vol. 21.2, 1999). And, as Aldo Leopold says in “Thinking Like a Mountain” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949), we must learn “to think like a mountain.”
It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else. ~Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides (1135-1204), Guide of the Perplexed III:13