A coyote, a badger, and respectful environmental stewardship

The video is only 13 seconds long and it has been viewed more than 20 million times. A happy coyote playfully waits for a badger before they walk together through a culvert under a busy California highway. The tweet with the video notes that “Coyotes and badgers are known to hunt together.”

If there is a concise explanation of why it is important to base environmental policy on reality – by demanding effective stewardship rather than feel-good symbolism – this video is it. Watching the badger and coyote happily collaborate is a reminder that our environmental policies have effects on creatures that are more like us than we sometimes realize. It is reminder of our obligation to avoid making environmental policy based on self-regard and political symbolism.

That a coyote and badger would work cooperatively together is truly remarkable, and apparently this case is not unique. In 1884, a geologist in Wyoming reported seeing “a coyote and badger walking together, and every few minutes stopping and playing.” Another report I read noted that hunting together made sense because coyotes could chase prey that tries to run away, while the badger can burrow after prey that tried to escape by digging.

The complexity and mystery represented by even this short glimpse at animal behavior adds to my reverence for the natural world. The ability to collaborate is more common and sophisticated than we usually think it is among wildlife. Our human response to animal behavior we do not understand is to ascribe it to “instinct,” which often simply means we don’t know why animals do what they do.

The case of the badger and coyote, however, is hard to explain this way. Collaboration requires communication that not only expresses the intent to collaborate but also a strategy. How do a random coyote and random badger, coming across each other, express not only that they aren’t hostile, but that they want to work together? How do they build trust? How do they decide when to go hunting and where? How do they decide to share what they catch?

It amazes me just to think about it. It is hard enough for two humans to agree about ordering a pizza.

For me, this is just the latest example of animal behavior that inspires awe. Con Slobodchikoff, a biologist who studies animal language, describes the story of man talking with crows in his book “Chasing Doctor Dolittle.”

The man, a Russian who had fought behind enemy lines during World War II, realized that crows would follow his squad, hoping they had food. The Germans quickly realized this too and would look for crows to locate enemy partisans. The man learned the calls made by crows and mimicked them to chase them away to confuse the enemy, and then to call them back when he wanted to feed them. Ultimately, he learned dozens of different calls used by the crows to communicate in a variety of situations.

Crows aren’t unique in this way. Every bird has a unique set of calls, to mark territory or to call for others to protect a nest from predators, called “mobbing calls.” Birds can even learn the calls of other birds, using the alarm calls as a signal to take cover themselves.

In Washington state, we were witness to an animal behavior that provided an emotional connection to the natural world. People watched as an obviously grieving orca mother carried its dead calf through the waters of Puget Sound, day after day. The reaction was powerful because people could relate to the emotion and anguish they were witnessing.

Perhaps it is not too surprising that a large mammal like an orca would have emotions and behaviors that we can recognize. It is more surprising that insects might have predictable behaviors and discernible moods.

In the summer, as I tend to my honeybees, I prefer not to wear gloves, leaving my hands exposed to thousands of stinging insects. I’ve been stung a few times on my hands as a result, but usually the bees leave me alone. On a sunny day when the hive is busy collecting nectar, feeding brood, and caring for the hive, as long as I don’t bother them too much, they don’t bother me. If I only have something quick to do, sometimes I don’t cover my head with a veil. To some, this seems completely reckless.

The reason I can do this, however, is that after working with a hive, I learn their temperament, and know whether the bees are happy or angry. I can sense their mood and how they are likely to behave. And, if I misjudge their mood, I can pay a quick price. Usually, however, I do pretty well, and they don’t take advantage of my exposure.

One winter, researchers studying honeybees put a glass top on a hive to watch the bees. The bees attached several honeycombs to the glass to store the honey they needed to make it through the cold part of the year. One of those combs collapsed because glass does not provide a good surface to attach wax. Not only did the bees quickly repair the broken comb, they reinforced the other combs to buttress them in order to prevent a similar occurrence. The bees demonstrated an understanding of engineering, and they all came to a similar conclusion and worked together on a practical solution.

I could go on about honeybees. They are amazing and I try to be responsible in how I care for them. One of the first things I learned as a beekeeper was how to put a hive back together, so I squish as few bees as possible. I have hundreds of thousands of bees, but I feel badly whenever I inadvertently kill even one.

In each of these cases – from coyotes, to birds, to bees – I recognize a shared attitude. The coyote and the badger can see each other as allies. Humans and birds can communicate. Tiny insects have moods. The recognition of these commonalities is why it is so important that our personal and political environmental decisions prioritize effectiveness over symbolism and politics. We must not to let the desire to appear environmentally righteous corrupt our thinking about public policy.

The coyote and badger video reaffirms why we must be serious about environmental policy decisions. Making the right environmental choices, personally or in our public policy, is difficult. I understand that we cannot always know how best to help protect wildlife or to reduce our environmental impact. The respect we feel for wildlife and the recognition of common traits does, however, require that we be humble and honest, acknowledging when we make policy mistakes, and holding ourselves to high standards of success in ways that truly benefit the environment, rather than just make us feel good about ourselves.

Being reverent of nature and wildlife does not mean we should be blind to tradeoffs or be absolutists when it comes to our relationship with animals. I’m not a vegetarian and although I don’t hunt, I’m not opposed to it.

I recognize that we can use nature in the same way animals do. The bear who destroyed two of my beehives didn’t feel guilty about doing so. Much of my environmental work these days is designed to create more salmon specifically so they can be eaten by orca. I don’t feel badly when I enjoy smoked salmon or when I eat honey from one of my hives. In that sense, orca, the bear, my bees, and I have something in common.

Some would disagree, arguing that hunting or eating meat isn’t respectful of nature. However, some of those same people are not careful about making sure the environmental policies they support are effective. To me, that is truly disrespectful of nature. They may not be using animals for their own enjoyment as food, but they are using them to feel good about themselves.

The coyote and badger video reaffirms why we must be serious about environmental decisions. Making the right environmental choices, personally or in our public policy, is difficult. It is easier to point out where our political opponents don’t live up to standards we believe they should have, and that sometimes substitutes for hard thinking about complex policy.

I understand that we can’t always know how best to help protect wildlife or reduce our environmental impact. The respect we feel for wildlife and the recognition of common traits does, however, require that we be humble and honest, acknowledging when we make a mistake, and holding ourselves to high standards of success.

It is not quite right to say if a decision or policy makes us feel good it is wrong, but to be true to the connection we feel to animals when we see them behave in ways that are familiar requires that we be careful that those feelings don’t lead us astray. It will help ensure there are many more coyote and badger videos in the future.

Todd Myers is the Director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center. He is one of the nation’s leading experts on free-market environmental policy. tmyers@washingtonpolicy.org