Moose eating
Moose eating on Isle Royale Credit NPS

Dr. John Vucetich (distinguished professor, Michigan Technological University and IWCN Coexistence Council member) spends a considerable amount of time observing moose. “I know moose better than the average person.” As he sits in the wetlands where the moose travel, he spends hours making behavioral observations. There’s a lot of waiting, writing, and taking notes. One can imagine that John’s mind might start to wander, and it does. One day a thought came to him, a silly question: “I wonder if that moose knows the one who came here before? I wonder how many moose another moose knows? Is it two or three or seven or eight? I wondered what else was happening between the ears of a moose. I know they get hot when temperatures go above 55 degrees, which means they are hot almost all the time. A big part of their lives is managing that heat. I get hot too, but probably not as much as a moose does. Do I experience discomfort in the same way they do? I was captivated. Comfort is very basic. How uncomfortable is it? How often? I was intrigued by the gap between our minds, my mind and the mind of the moose. I have just enough knowledge to know where the points of ownership would be, but an ocean of ignorance. I know that I could never know the answers, but maybe I can get a little closer with studying. I could even get it wrong.

“How can your mind be in that place for too long and not be led to caring about it greatly and have an interest and motivation to want to care for it?” so Vucetich concludes. “I would not expect that most people would connect in that particular way with that particular creature.  But it is all easily transferable to the squirrel outside our house, the robin pulling on the worm…”

John has been studying the moose and wolves of Isle Royale – a remote wilderness island, located in the waters of Lake Superior – for the past 25 years. Here he studies the predator-prey relationships as part of a study that has continued for more than 60 years. It’s clear from this research that wolves and their prey can and do coexist: with swings in populations that can occur for any number of reasons: their relationship with each other, weather, climate change, the abundance of food, and the impact of other species, such as ticks.

It was through all those hours observing moose that John came to realize that animals are people. “The word ‘person’ means much more than Homo sapiens. The word comes from the Greek and refers to actors on a stage. That is, a character in a story – with interests, a history, and a future. This applies to all animals – humans and non-humans.

“In addition to being people, humans and mammals also have much in common when it comes to emotions and personality. Personalities in non-human animals: that is an important field of scientific inquiry, how could you say they don’t have it? If you look at the physiological research on emotions, much of it comes from studying non-human animals. So much of what we know about oxytocin (a hormone with a powerful influence on our emotions) comes from studying nonhuman animals. The notion that only humans have emotions and personality denies and betrays the science.”

Humans often ignore this fact to allow us to make decisions that would be much harder if we factored it in. For instance, some might say if we focus on the feelings of animals, we are anthropomorphizing them. If we ignore those feelings, we can treat animals as populations, and some can be easily expendable for the “greater good.” A good example is the money that comes in from trophy hunting that is used for conservation.  In order for such a policy to make moral sense, you deny the moral value of the individual. “With coexistence, you have to do right by the individual and the population as a whole.”

Bull Moose in Rut NPS
Bull Moose in Rut Credit: NPS Kelly Morrissey

With all his time in the field studying wolves and moose, John has rich thoughts about coexistence, showing that it is more complex than we might think. “Coexistence is more than two things that merely exist side by side; those two things could coexist, but one could be languishing and one flourishing at the expense of the other. Whatever coexistence is, it depends greatly on this concept of flourishing. But flourishing does not mean that everyone gets everything they want, in part because it’s routinely just not possible. So there needs to be this very difficult judgement, continuously reevaluated of what it means to flourish and what we need to flourish. We are not very good at distinguishing between the requirements for flourishing and what we “want.” We confuse one for another all the time, and we discount what others might need. That is just human nature.

“I’ve found it useful to understand coexistence by asking: what is fair, and what is just? Answering those questions regarding coexistence among humans is not fundamentally different than understanding coexistence between humans and nature. There are important differences, but it’s fundamentally similar. Here’s how: Scholars who study distributive justice tell us judgements about fairness are guided by four basic values – all very familiar to each of us:  need, equality, entitlement, and equity. We make decisions about how we divvy up stuff according to those four principles. We humans are masters at litigating these four virtues all the time to make judgements about how we choose to share or not share stuff. I have not seen one reason to think we should treat nature any differently.”

Things might be a lot better for people, wildlife and nature as a whole if we followed the beliefs of the Ojibwe culture, the indigenous people who inhabited the Upper Great Lakes region. They believe that we and nature are siblings, not metaphorically, not symbolically, literally siblings. “There is plenty in western science to lend to that point. Charles Darwin said we are all common ancestors, that’s just siblings.” Your siblings are different from you, you have a different identity, but you are so close, that there is a lot of sameness. How do we relate to nature? Like we do a sibling. And if one needs more resources? You go back to the four virtues.

Dr. John Vucetich

Coexistence can be challenging. But John likes a good challenge. “I have tremendous faith in the power of thinking hard. Faith in Reason with a capital R. It’s easy to be derailed or corrupted. My aspiration is to think in front of other people as clearly as I can and as transparently as I can. Not because I think I am right, but that others can point out what is wrong with it. That is how we’ll get closer to a flourishing coexistence – one step at a time. My aspiration is to help people think more or in different ways than they have before.”

One of the ways he does this is through his two classes at Michigan Technology University: Population Biology and Environmental Ethics. But if you are not lucky enough to have him as a professor, you have some other options. You can apply for an internship or volunteer with the Moosewatch Expedition on Isle Royale to help with research as a citizen scientist. You can also check out his book Restoring the Balance which will be out in October. For more on the use of distributive justice to guide human-nature relationships, you can also check out this paper and this paper – both by John and his colleagues.


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