Thank God for Carnivores

Thank God for Carnivores

I have observed both inside and outside the church a growing trend of viewing carnivorous activity as a natural evil that pervades the animal realm. This thinking is especially evident among people who spend their lives cooped up in cities. For those of us who live in cities, our exposure to carnivores and their hunting often is limited to television documentaries of lions, polar bears, wolves, and eagles tearing apart cute, cuddly herbivores. Many wonder how a good God could possibly tolerate such pain and suffering.

The pain and suffering these animals experience by their predators causes many people outside the faith to doubt the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God. Within the faith many conclude that such pain and suffering are not God’s fault but man’s. Consequently, a doctrine has developed that declares carnivorous activity did not arise until after Adam and Eve had rebelled against God’s authority. Today, this no-death-before-the-Fall teaching is ubiquitous among those holding to the belief that the Genesis 1 creation days are six consecutive 24-hour periods (young-earth creationism).

Job gave this exhortation to his three friends, “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you.”1 Could it be that those who judge carnivorous activity as evil are overlooking some important instruction (see figure 1)? Both of God’s revelations to humanity, the book of nature and the book of Scripture, say yes.

In Genesis 1 God tells us that he created two kinds of large-bodied mammals: animals easy for humans to tame and animals difficult to tame. God made both kinds of creatures before he created Adam and Eve. Field observations readily confirm that for adult mammals, herbivores prove easy to tame while the carnivores present more of a challenge. Job indicates that God gave us “soulish,” or nurturing, animals to serve and please us. That is, God designed birds and mammals not only to provide labor, transportation, and agricultural products but also to bring enjoyment as household pets and entertainers. Contrasted with herbivores, carnivores make for poor agricultural service but are easy to housebreak and train, eager to entertain, and capable of forming deep emotional bonds with their owners. (The two most popular and beloved animal companions in the United States, cats and dogs, are carnivores.) In both Psalms and Job, God declares that he shows his love and care for predators by providing them with prey. Clearly, the Bible identifies carnivorous activity as one component of God’s good creation.

In a previous Today’s New Reason to Believe post, I described how new research proves that the carnivorous activity of sperm whales brings great benefit, not only to their prey, but literally to all species of ocean life. They even play a crucial role in helping resolve our global warming problems. Sperm whales and other carnivorous whale species bring about all this benefit by recycling crucial nutrients in a manner impossible for herbivores to achieve. Now, another piece of new research demonstrates that what is true for whales is true also for the remainder of Earth’s predators.2

Three ecologists from Yale and Northeastern Universities, led by Oswald Schmitz, reviewed the current scientific literature that shows increasingly that predators deposit concentrated, nutrient-rich feces. These feces stimulate plant growth (especially angiosperms), which are the most food-productive plants on Earth. Consequently, predators benefit the entire food chain.

Schmitz’ team went on to demonstrate that most predator species, in their search for prey, are forced to forage over relatively large territories. Thanks to such behavior, predators translocate their nutrient deposits widely within and across ecosystem boundaries.

Predator hunting forces herbivores to translocate as well. Thus, herbivore feces, though not as nutrient rich as the predators, also gets deposited in ecosystems that otherwise would never benefit from such enrichment. For example, mountain goats are chased into near vertical landscapes by the threat of grizzlies. The fecal and urinary deposits of those goats support an entire ecosystem of plants and animals in an environment that would normally be deemed too harsh. To quote Schmitz’s team, “Depending on their behavioral ecology, predators can create heterogeneous or homogeneous nutrient distributions across natural landscapes.”3

The team points out that predators deserve human protection and care, not so much because they are cute or because they make endearing and loyal pets, but because they do so much to support all the rest of Earth’s life. I would add one more observation: carnivores appear to be optimally designed to maximally benefit the health and population levels of the herbivores they prey upon by selectively weeding out the sick and the dying. In fact, carnivores appear to be optimally designed to benefit all life-forms, including human beings. Such ubiquitous optimal designs displayed across all species of predators are clear evidence of the handiwork of supernatural, super-intelligent, super-beneficent Creator. As the psalmist declares, “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”4

Figure 1: Young Male Lion at the San Diego Wild Animal Park
Through their research, the San Diego Wild Animal Park discovered that herbivore mammals are healthier and more reproductive when they can smell and see the presence of nearby lions. Consequently, the Park displays lions next to antelopes with no separating fence or wall—only an impassible ditch.
Image credit: Hugh Ross

  1. Job 12:7.
  2. Oswald J. Schmitz, Dror Hawlena, and Geoffrey C. Trussell, “Predator Control of Ecosystem Nutrient Dynamics,” Ecology Letters 13 (October 2010): 1199–209.
  3. Schmitz, Hawlena, and Trussel, 1199.
  4. Psalm 104:24.