Roger Marolt: Roger This

Roger Marolt
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

The noblest thing an animal can do is give its life for the next one up in the food chain.

That’s not a quote. It’s not a paraphrase. Hmmm, it must be an impression I got from reading Dan O’Brien’s book, “Buffalo for the Broken Heart.” Whether O’Brien intended to leave me with that notion, I can’t say.

What I do know is that it is that type of idea that cannot rattle around in my skull without provoking thought. The statement is simple enough, so is it possible that its answer is simply true or false?

In asking the question, the first subject for examination that comes into my mind is my dog. As far as I’m concerned, her becoming part of the food chain is what I try to prevent. She possesses many other qualities more valuable to me than her hind quarter might to a pack of coyotes. Since I can pretty much keep that from happening, I get the final vote. No, my dog’s most noble act is not living her life to feed the cycle that keeps our ecosphere in balance. It is being our family’s best friend.

But, my dog is not what O’Brien had in mind. He didn’t have human beings in mind either. As the most intelligent animals by far (my apologies to elephants and donkeys, which have been unfairly used to symbolize the sub-species of politicians), it appears that we have many more noble causes to pursue than to simply grow old and then feed worms; cure cancer, feed the hungry, consciously take care of the planet, or basically to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I think it’s fair to say, then, that the idea of becoming a meal to fulfill life’s greatest purpose is limited to animals other than people and pets, although, perhaps ironically due to our relatively comfortable existences, even we will feed the lowest organisms in the food chain eventually.

So, in this context is the premise true? Is the ultimate grand purpose of these animals to give their lives to sustain another’s and thus keep nature in balance? I think so. What else could it be? A dolphin can’t create medicines. A bear can’t figure out a way to increase crop production. Since an elk can’t choose between doing good and evil, it can’t spread love throughout the world. The most magnificent thing, and it is magnificent, that any of these creatures can do is play its part in maintaining the natural order, which is necessary to continue all life on our planet.

Great. How does this conclusion affect anything? I’m glad you asked. As a polite and considerate man, I would say that if an animal’s death is part of its noble purpose on this earth and we are the beneficiaries of its purposeful death, we have an obligation to do our parts to make sure that that animal lives and dies with dignity. This is less of an impression and more of a paraphrase, although not a direct quote of O’Brien’s.

And, this is where the buffalo from the title of his book come in. He is raising them in South Dakota on a couple of thousand acres of the expansive Great Plains. It is part of the natural habitat where as recently as 130 years ago, 60 million of the great animals roamed. Being indigenous to the land they are much better equipped than cattle to survive the harsh winters there, they unearth their own water sources on the land, and their grazing habits promote the healthy growth of the natural flora, and thus other fauna. So healthy and varied was the ecosystem of the Great Plains in the buffalos’ hay day (pun and misuse of the homonym intended) that O’Brien accurately describes it as being the Serengeti of North America.

But, we wiped out the buffalo. I’m not going to go into that here. There’s plenty of history about that shortsighted episode of our history elsewhere. What is not much discussed elsewhere, however, is the question of why cattle were imported to the Great Plains to take their place as a food source for us. It makes little sense. Cattle are susceptible to freezing during the harsh winters. Their grazing patterns and hoof configuration are not copasetic with the natural vegetation so that it no longer grows abundantly enough to feed them there, and the natural habitat for many other native animals has been destroyed. And, the resulting necessity of the non-natural feeding of cattle (e.g. feedlots) leads to diseases that are addressed with antibiotics, vaccinations and steroids. The result to us is that the meat we consume is fatter and contains more cholesterol than is good for us.

In short, the introduction of non-native cattle to the Great Plains is not treating that animal with dignity or respecting what that animal’s purpose is. It upsets the natural balance of that ecosystem. And, it gives us heart disease.

I suppose then that the ideal situation would be to get our meat from bison (that is what the animal is properly called) that are free to roam the Great Plains feeding on natural grasses with as little supplemental feeding or medication as possible and then shot humanely in its natural habitat in a death more suitable to its noble purpose; “an inch behind and an inch below the ear.” We are the intelligent being; we can do it less painfully than a pack of coyotes does during a harsh winter.

This is the way Dan O’Brien does it on his Broken Heart buffalo ranch. His operation is recognition of our part in the food chain and is built on respect in maintaining it by using our greatest resource, intelligence. The funny thing about it is that raising an indigenous animal for food in its natural environment has seemed to make economic sense, so far, too.

All of this came from a book and a 30-pound box of buffalo meat shipped overnight from the Wild Idea Buffalo Co., compliments of a good friend. It was a pretty incredible gift.


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