The wild and the free

‘I used to think I was wild.’

One of the narrators in Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs felt wild when motorcycling through empty streets early in the morning. Alone, independent and free.

Mrs Lomez used to think she was wild when she stayed up late and purposefully deprived herself of sleep, did not change out of her clothes and did not shower, ate only coffee. Trying to find a natural state without the things that surround you in abundance. Ah, student days. We grow up and realise not that we have grown into domestication but that these little quirks and gestures were never signs of wildness.

When we talk about wildness, we invoke independence, rebellion, passion. For humans maybe and for some animals too: often we talk about wild wolves, wild foxes, wild boars and all sorts of other wild ‘life’. Badgers are not a species we’d associate with wildness, though perhaps with the more politically correct ‘free living’.

Politically correct it may be but it also gives false ideas about how much these animals are allowed to keep to themselves. Take British badgers, for example, going about their lives and then one day, with the passing of new legislation, humans are shooting guns at them. As a good badger friend of Mrs Lomez once said, ‘life in the wild is tough enough without some wanker with a gun trying to hunt you down’. Wild animals also have homes, families, responsibilities, patterns of behaviour; they do not live in isolation.

The reason for the shooting, supposedly, is that these free-living creatures pose a threat to domesticated cattle in the form of bovine tuberculosis. Mrs Lomez won’t go into why this is a load of crock here – all that information is available for those who care to look for it, dairy farmers and government ministers included – but it shows how the domesticated is perceived to be more valuable than the wild. These cows are someone’s property, they are the symbol of someone’s livelihood. And human livelihoods always win out over other animals’. And because badgers are not especially forthcoming in their affection toward humans, being nocturnal and shy, they are expendable.

You wouldn’t think it would be such a big deal, sticking up for badgers in the face of a massacre by stealth. This is not loaded with class connotations as fox hunting is. But the badger cull has been obscured into nationalistic solidarity with dairy farmers against a benign and unsuspecting little furry animal. Never mind that the cause of bovine TB could very well be found in intensive farming practices, nor that the British public has already unwittingly been eating cows infected by TB and still declared safe by the Food Standards Agency. It is difficult to see what British dairy farming or the UK government could stand to gain from killing badgers.

So it was that on June 1 thousands of people dressed in black and white marched on London town, from Millbank to St James’s Park, in support of badgers’ right to life, a free life. Just days earlier a report into the decline of British wildlife, State of Nature, had been published, showing a concerning drop in populations of wild animals and plants. The preplanned route of the march was diverted by police trying to appease the English Defence League, which had organised an impromptu rally. Mrs Lomez wonders who the police thought posed the bigger threat: a right-wing, anti-migrant group, or a bunch of animal advocates. The badger march was peaceful, would you believe: so many thousands of animal activists showing non-violent solidarity with a species that cannot vocalise its own defence. One domesticated species standing up for the wild.

Like Kinsey’s spectrum of sexuality, perhaps all animals, human and otherwise, exist on a continuum of wildness at one end and domestication at the other, and we move along this scale in both directions throughout our lives. Wild spirits are meant to be prized. The free-living are meant to be protected. The narrator in Wild Dogs lives with a dog who decides to join a wild pack. A dog that chooses a life in the wild over domestication. These wild spirits get a reputation for being uncontrollable and dangerous. And they are hunted down.

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