Predator Blues



Predator Blues



We humans have a tendency to admire, even envy, what we are pleased to call apex predators: big cats, eagles, sharks, polar bears, and the like. We thrill to their powerful jaws, vice-like talons, speed, agility, and ruthlessness. No one pushes them around, they dominate their worlds: king of the jungle, master of the air, most-feared in the seas. They eat other animals for breakfast, and no one eats them. They are at the top of the heap, the aristocracy of the animal kingdom. We view them as one step down from us, the supreme beings, though we admit that in a dark alley they would have the edge.

But this is a biased and anthropocentric view of the life of a premier carnivore. They too are victims, sad, suffering, vulnerable, anxious, fear-ridden, teetering on the brink of death: for they are afflicted with a highly selective digestive system that can process only meat. The result of this is that when hunger strikes they must hunt to survive; and the hunt is strenuous, exhausting, uncertain, and dangerous. The prey does not give in easily and the predator can be injured both by the chase and by the animal being chased. The lion is kicked, the eagle crashes, the shark is blinded—all in the cause of a full stomach. No ruminant must undergo such peril just in order to eat—the grass just sits there waiting to be nibbled at. Do you think lions like to chase big strong beasts and fight to bring them down? Would you like to do that? How about if whenever you fancy lunch you have to have a fistfight with a burly attendant? You emerge bloodied clutching your sandwich, but at least you are fed for another day. Do you think mother eagles like to watch their young starve while they fail to bring back enough meat to eat? Food gathering is a constant battle punctuated by periods of excruciating hunger and anxiety. Imagine being so weak from hunger that you can’t give chase to the only food source that can save you from death. And then there are the fights with other predatory animals chasing the same scarce food: you finally bring an animal down to save yourself and your family from starvation and immediately you are set upon by a bunch of vicious coyotes. None of this is fun.

Carnivores are the helpless victims of their own digestive limitations. Just think how much easier life would be if they were omnivores: when meat was scarce they could fall back on nuts and berries or chomp on grass. They wouldn’t need to starve when fleet-footed prey elude them. There is nothing more pitiable than an old or sick lion unable to hunt any more lying down to die—how much better if it could adopt a vegetarian diet at that point. Lions don’t choose to be exclusively carnivorous—they don’t think it’s cool or a matter of pride. They were born that way, evolved that way: that’s how the gene machine made them, willy-nilly. All around them animals happily chew on their various preferred foods, but the carnivore has no other option if its supply of meat runs out—and meat is always hard to come by. It’s like being at a feast in which you can only eat one dish and that dish is always running out (literally). Surely no benevolent god would ever design a species that exists only on meat: quite apart from the fate of the prey animals, there is also the stress and strain of catching dinner (you might actually die in the attempt). When I watch a nature documentary and see a lion bring down a deer, I am conscious of fear on the part of the deer but also of relief on the part of the lion—finally this gnawing hunger will go away, at least for a while. A hard-pressed lioness could be forgiven for reflecting that life would be so much easier if she could just stay at home with her cubs and eat peanuts.

And these reluctant predators are victims of another biological limitation: not only the limitation on what they can digest, but also a limitation on the means of obtaining it. We humans have the kind of intelligence that allows us to hunt without taxing our bodies too much: bows and arrows, spears, guns, four-wheel drives, helicopters. The eagle is impressive in its aerial feats, powerful talons, and keen eyesight; but it lacks the ability to shoot at prey from afar or catch it in a net or organize a hunting party. So the carnivore is also a victim of its limited brain: it is condemned by its brain to using only what nature gave it. We humans have the advantage here: not only are we omnivores, we can also use our brains to augment our body’s natural endowments. No doubt this looks like cheating from an eagle’s point of view, but it is a moral certainty that the eagle would accept the augmentation were it offered. Natural selection, however, in addition to giving nature’s top predators a restrictive digestive system, has also given them a restrictive cognitive system, which makes life even harder. You can only eat meat andyou can only obtain it by running it down yourself. The apex predator is thus restricted in its ability to live an acceptable life; indeed, we might say that it is condemned to live one the toughest and most demanding lifestyles on planet earth. If I try to imagine what it is like to be a lion, I picture intense hunger, anxiety, fear, fatigue, and pain—with brief periods of relief from the strain of simply staying alive. God did lions no favors when he made them apex predators, and he must have disliked eagles equally. Why not at least give them the option of eating something else when the going gets tough?

I have two cats and one of them likes to catch lizards and chew their tails off while they are still alive. I feel for the poor lizards (sometimes I manage to save them) but I also wonder what it would be like for the cat if this were its only source of sustenance. It’s hard to say who has it worse, predator or prey. No doubt we like to project our own fantasies onto the animal world, elevating some animals to the pinnacle of the food chain, but really we should spare a thought for those poor apex predators. Life at the top is not always what it seems.[1]


[1] It is a good question which animal has the cushiest lifestyle. All life is afflicted with scarcity and danger, but some animals seem less stressed than others. Tree dwellers always strike me as more content than other animals, because of the availability of food and the relative safety of life in the trees. Bees used to be happy.

4 replies
  1. jeff kessen
    jeff kessen says:

    I visit Ft. Lauderdale quite often, always staying at a friend ‘s house. There’s a black cat that’s been prowling the neighborhood for years. Many, many times have we witnessed her strutting proudly with an iguana clenched firmly in her jaws– iguanas sometimes as large as herself. That’s a fierce pussy-cat. A tigress. Queen of her limited eco-system. Yet she’s welcomed into everyone’s homes. Her utterly placid demeanor when around humans is a wonder to us all. Apex philosophers, however, are a notoriously surly lot, especially when around humans (just joking).

  2. says:

    Just found out this morning that my friend from Lauderdale is back in prison—possession of cocaine. Christ, he just got out two months ago. He was in for three years previous to this (same charge). Kind of a manic-depressive sort, clinically diagnosed, but always friendly and funny when straight. He often wrote us about the living hell of being in a privately run prison, where gangs rule the roost. But I guess the prospect of returning to it wasn’t deterrent enough. Now he’s facing fifteen years—prey again to the predators. Prey have their “blues” as well as predators.


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