The manatee is a very special creature. It is the only aquatic mammal to subsist solely on plants. Manatees live peaceable lives: they eat no other creature, and no other creature eats them. The human hunting of manatees, never especially popular, is now prohibited, though Florida Men occasionally get caught riding them—and there is, of course, the speedboat problem.
The relative lack of violent interaction between manatees and other creatures (besides speedboats) explains why it hasn’t hurt them, evolutionarily speaking, to be extremely slow-moving. Having no predators, they do not need to avoid being caught, and not being predators themselves, they have nothing they need to catch. It is a relatively simple matter to obtain the sea grasses and other aquatic vegetation upon which they subsist. (An adult manatee can eat an astonishing 108 lbs of leaves and grass every day.) On land, many herbivores are constantly on the run, and much of their physical and mental energy must be spent eluding those who wish to tear them to pieces and devour them. Not so the manatee. Gently it bobs along, minding its business.
Not only does a manatee do no harm, it cannot do harm. The shape of a manatee’s snout is such that it can’t actually attack with its teeth. The website SwimmingWithTheManatees.com, which promotes “Captain Mike’s” manatee tours, reassures readers that manatees move so slowly that “they can’t gain enough momentum to cause harm with their bodies [and a] manatee’s body is so soft that if the animal crashes into a swimmer, it’s like being bumped by a giant pillow.” The manatee is a pacifist by design. If irritated, it has no option but to slowly move away. Under conditions of “extreme provocation” it may attempt to splash water or use its tail to beat away an intruder, but manatee authority Captain Mike insists that this is “very rare.” Sciencing.com says that “manatees protect themselves by avoiding trouble,” since their lack of any defensive weapons means they are totally incapable of fighting.
Occasionally, manatees do have slightly hostile interactions with other creatures in Florida’s coastal waterways. Catfish try to eat algae from the manatees’ backs, which can annoy the manatees. Manatees can be curious about alligators, and have been known to follow them around, but usually the faster-moving alligator just takes its leave when it grows tired of this. (The manatee, being something like a giant sea potato weighing approximately 1,000 lbs, would be difficult to tussle with. One YouTube video of a manatee-alligator interaction shows a confident manatee approaching an alligator and booping its snout, prompting the alligator to turn around slowly and leave.)
The tranquil lives of manatees are worth contemplating, because they are such an exception in nature. The wilderness is, for the most part, “red in tooth and claw.” Most creatures spend their days savagely hunting and running away from other creatures. The amount of pain and fear and horror in the animal kingdom is disturbing to even begin to think about. If we accept animals as sentient beings, often intelligent and even emotional ones, then a colossal amount of conscious life is suffering horribly all the time. Everything is killing everything else constantly.
Consider the world of My Octopus Teacher. This Netflix film, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, depicts the one-year relationship between a South African diver—Craig Foster—and a female octopus. Foster discovers the octopus living in a kelp forest off the coast of Cape Town, and decides to visit her each day to see what she gets up to. He develops an interesting bond with the octopus, which appears to like him (she clings to him for seemingly no other reason than that she enjoys being around him), and he is devastated when her life cycle completes and she dies after reproducing. The discovery of a tiny baby octopus at the end of the film, thought to be one of hers, offers an uplifting coda: the life cycle continues.
Foster presents the kelp forest as an enchanting and mysterious world-within-a-world, one whose workings take time and patience to understand. Indeed it is that, and encountering the myriad strange underwater fauna can feel like finding extraterrestrials here on Earth. The conservation of these precious, and fragile, ecosystems is a high priority, because kelp forests have been disappearing around the planet. Tragically, 95 percent of Northern California’s kelp forests have already been destroyed, replaced with vast “urchin barrens”—stretches of sea floor covered with nothing but millions of spiky purple urchins. The kelp forests have collapsed abruptly due tomarine heat waves, which helped to spread “sea star wasting disease,” an illness which has driven some types of sea stars to the brink of extinction. Sea stars eat urchins, and urchins eat kelp, so when the sea stars die, the urchin population explodes, and the kelp forest is devoured. (Interestingly, introducing more sea otters may help the kelp forests, because sea otters like snacking on urchins.)
But even when kelp forests are healthy, they are also brutal places. The life of the octopus in My Octopus Teacher is anything but tranquil. She is constantly having to avoid being eaten by pyjama sharks, who at one point tear off one of her tentacles. (It slowly grows back.) She herself is a vicious predator, constantly strategizing new ways to trick crabs and lobsters into getting eaten. To the animals she eats, she undoubtedly appears an absolutely terrifying monster, rather than the charming clingy companion she is to Foster.
For a long time, the animal welfare movement was concerned mostly with domesticated animals—the plight of pigs in factory farms, dog fights, etc. But recently, some animal welfare advocates have turned their attention to the question of what ethical obligations humans have in regard to animals in nature. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews writes:
[A] small movement of philosophers and zoologists has coalesced around the idea that wild animal suffering is a very serious moral problem, that the pain suffered by a jumping snake plucked from the jungle matters the same as the pain of a chicken in a factory farm, the pain of a cat in an apartment unit, and even the pain of a human being. Once one accepts that pain matters, wild animal suffering advocates argue, what, if anything, can be done about it becomes an urgent concern…
If the suffering of wild animals should be our concern, however, we are faced with the problem that there are an astonishing number of wild animals who suffer. Matthews cites numbers suggesting there are at least 10 trillion fish in the world, as many as 400 billion birds (though bird populations are declining rapidly thanks to us), and perhaps 1 trillion mammals. But those who have become interested in wild animal suffering suggest that even if we cannot somehow bring a diplomatic peace to the natural world, we can and should take into account the welfare of wild animals when we act. If the population of pigeons is getting out of hand, for instance, the conventional approach is to cull a bunch of them through massacre. Introducing pigeon birth control to their food supply might be more humane. (On the other hand, it’s eugenics, which is… also icky.)
There is a widespread belief that humans should not “tamper with” nature, because doing so will upset delicate ecosystems and is not our place. Foster shares this belief, and in My Octopus Teacher he shows anguish when he decides to help his octopus in the recovery process for her tentacle wound by bringing her a clam to eat. He rationalizes this intervention by insisting it is very small and she didn’t seem to enjoy the clam. But he knows that there’s no logical reason why the octopus’ life matters more than that of the clam, or of the pyjama sharks that want to eat her. He just loves her, and love makes us do things that make no sense.
Still, the idea of non-intervention in the natural world is increasingly untenable, given that we inhabit the “Anthropocene,” the era where the entire direction of life on the planet is shaped by human choices. Human choices will, whether we like it or not, determine what happens to wild animal populations, and so we have to have debates over what our obligations are. Is it bad when urchins take over the sea floor? Is a kelp forest an objectively better place than a field of urchins, merely because the lives in the forest are more complex and diverse?
Personally, I have never been especially fond of nature, in part because it seems deadly rather than beautiful. It’s full of creatures that want to kill each other, and kill me. No, give me the reading room of a quiet public library instead. It may be dead, but it is not deadly. And yet, despite not being someone who enjoys romps through the forest, I do find life itself beautiful. The octopus is clearly majestic, even though it is a predator, in the same way that the human body and mind are miraculous things despite the fact that we commit genocide against one another and exterminate the natural world.
Does this mean that zoos, where animals live confined but less fear-ridden lives, are actually less terrible than nature? No, for the same reason that prison remains a punishment even if life outside is harsh. Freedom is something animals deserve just as we do. But it does mean that we ought to think seriously about how we can make the natural world a more hospitable place for the creatures that inhabit it. Protecting them from each other might upset the balance of life, but protecting them from diseases and needless untimely deaths might be morally important.
The first obligation, of course, is to do less harm ourselves. Thanks to humans, manatees are constantly under threat. The good news is that their population levels are up since the early 1990s—we have gone from having about 2,000 manatees in Florida to about 6,000. The bad news is that 2021 has, so far, been a horrible year for manatees. They are starving to death en masse due to the disappearance of the sea grass on which they depend. Boat strikes are the human threat discussed most often, but a bigger one is our ongoing transformation of the environment to suit our purposes, without consideration for the catastrophic effects to other species.
We really do suck sometimes: in the 1740s, humans hunted to extinction the “Steller’s sea cow,” a kind of colossal mega-manatee the length of a school bus that had been hanging out in the Bering Sea since the Pleistocene. According to The Atlantic, the German naturalist Georg Steller (for whom they are named), said that they were:
…gentle giants, whose only real defense against being harpooned was their incredibly thick hides. He also notes that they seem to have been unusually loyal to one another, which proved to be more of a liability than an asset when the Russians began hunting them for food. They had, in his words, “an uncommon love for one another, which even extended so far that, when one of them was hooked, all the others were intent upon saving him.” When the Russians harpooned one of the sea cows, others would come to its defense, making a circle around their wounded comrade. When they killed a female, they were astonished to see its mate visit the beach where its body lay day after day, “as if he would inform himself about her condition.”
Unfortunately, these solidaristic sea cows also happened to be delicious, and these holdover megafauna were extinguished within three decades.
Pacifism is a tough stance to maintain, because it depends on nobody being too willing to kill you. The manatee survives because humans have decided to (somewhat) protect it through legislation like the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. But if we ever decided to get rid of it, or simply became indifferent to whether our actions caused its extinction, the manatee would not be long for this world.
In 1937, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote what is possibly one of the dumbest passages ever drafted. In his pacifist book Which Way To Peace? Russell suggested that a pacifist stance was the best way to deal with rising fascism, and that Britain should follow the policy of “gradually disbanding the army and navy and air force, disposing of India and the Crown Colonies, and announcing that we intend never again to fight another war.” Certainly, shedding the colonies was a moral and prudent suggestion, but Russell also believed that if Britain abandoned its army and navy, it would be far more effective against Nazism than if it fought Hitler with force. He believed that if his country laid down its arms, Germany would lose its desire for war:
“[I]f we refrained from force and violence, I do not think it can be doubted that the mood of the Germans would change. It is difficult to remain fierce when there is no occasion of fear or envy, and when pride has been fully gratified. A great civilized nation, in the absence of all Stimulus to hatred, cannot long remain in the mood that has put the Nazis in power. With the fear of war removed, bullying would soon lose its charm, and a liberal outlook would become common… Suppose England and France were both to disarm. If the Nazis endeavoured to continue their military parades arid their glorification of war they would cease to look heroic and would become ridiculous; their own compatriots would begin to laugh at them, and to reflect that so much strenuousness was no longer called for. Is it not clear that this is the really effective way of fighting militarism? War is brutal and horrible, but seems to be ennobled by the fact that the warrior risks his life. If no one resists, the heroism is gone.”
As we know, Russell horribly underestimated the evil of Nazism. Those who did not resist the Nazis were simply killed more quickly. If there was one time in which absolutist pacifist principles should not have been applied, it was in Britain in 1937. But Russell’s naïveté is understandable in its way; his argument about unilateral disarmament destabilizing militarism might well have been more applicable in the 19th century, or in the leadup to World War I. Nazism, however, was an ideology of pure domination and conquest. It was utterly sociopathic, impervious to reason. Resistance or death were the only options.
Personally I am a believer in pacifism, in the sense that I share Russell’s horror of war, and his belief in disarmament, even if I think the application of that belief necessarily varies according to circumstance (as in, don’t do it when Hitler is about to attack you). The problem for the pacifist has always been that they are helpless against an external threat, and have to simply hope one does not arise.
But this has not stopped the manatee, and that should give us some hope. The demise of Steller’s sea cow shows that having no means of defense can indeed be suicide. But the survival of the Florida manatee for an astonishing fifty million years without any defenses shows that a long-term pacific existence is possible. If humans would show even a modicum of consideration for the humble manatee, there is no reason why it cannot last another fifty million years, over the course of which it will not take a single animal life. (Plant lives are an entirely different story for the hundred-salads-a-day sea cow.)
In a way, it is sad that human beings became the dominant species on Earth. 6,000 manatees is a tiny number. If the ratios were inverted, and there were 6,000 humans and billions of manatees, it would be a more peaceable world. A “Planet of the Manatees” would not go to war, because the manatee’s pacifism is absolute. Frankly, a “Planet of the Apes” would also be superior—the gorilla, too, subsists mostly on plants and commits few murders. Gorillas have not invented police or militaries. They are muscular vegans (or mostly vegans), intelligent without being sadistic. They are far more entitled to rule.
In the manatee, we can see a model for how life can be conducted without brutality or cruelty. A social utopia is clearly possible, because a species with vastly less intelligence and ability already lives in one. If the manatee can get through a dangerous world without hurting a soul, and without being hurt itself, why can’t we? The manatee is a living reminder that we have no excuses for not being good, and they present a vision of a natural existence that is not built on the most brutal and competitive type of Darwinian struggle. In the manatee’s world, it is not kill or be killed. The point of life is to drift along slowly and live amiably alongside one another.