Asked to consider the value of animals, many people’s first thought would be about money. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the price of dogs became a popular talking point. Others might think of the less tangible, but also very real, value they place on their relationships with companion animals, especially pets such as cats and dogs. Fewer would immediately consider the ways in which our entire civilisation rests on animals. The fact is, though, that our society and economy are embedded in a natural system that is maintained by the activities of animals, and without them, we would not be here.
Animals are vital to the functioning of the biosphere in innumerable ways. Their interactions with plants, fungi and microbes sustain the conditions on which we, along with all other life, depend. For example, the great whales that sit at the pinnacle of marine food webs are linked to some of the most fundamental processes that shape conditions in our world. They eat other marine creatures, including krill, and in the process take nutrients from deeper water to be released via their faeces into the ocean, where they fertilise blooms of planktonic algae.
As the plankton grow, they extract carbon from the atmosphere and release oxygen as a byproduct, keeping carbon dioxide concentrations in check and replenishing oxygen at a level that sustains animal life. Those same photosynthetic plankton, powered by sunshine, are at the base of the food webs that feed the rest of marine animal life, including fish and, ultimately, whales. Some plant plankton also releases a gas called dimethyl sulphide, an important contribution to cloud formation, which sustains freshwater security on land.
Tropical rainforests are another vast and vitally important system that removes carbon from the atmosphere. While we tend to think first of their trees, these complex ecosystems are held together by pollinating insects, a kind of animal glue. The myriad plants that inhabit these moist, warm forests are nearly all pollinated by bees, wasps, ants, butterflies and beetles (and some by birds and bats). Rainforest plants produce fruits, animals eat them and, in the process, move seeds around the forests.
Pollinator and seed-dispersing relationships are a key, if undervalued, aspect of the carbon cycle and the climatic stability necessary for human societies and economic wellbeing. Rainforests also play a vital role in global water security, working as colossal pumps, pouring billions of tons of evaporated water into the atmosphere every day – 25bn from the Amazon alone. In the air, that water travels in what have been called “sky rivers”: streams of vapor that can deposit thousands of miles away, watering croplands that sustain food for humans. It is easy to miss the fundamental role of animals, large and small, in enabling all this.
Many creatures also have more specific values for us. Most of the food plants we grow are dependent on animal pollination, mostly by wild insects. In recent decades, we have become obsessed with chemical pest controlbut songbirds, bats and beneficial insects such as ladybirds bring billions of dollars worth of value each year in controlling aphids, caterpillars and other insects that consume or spoil crops.
New drugs to treat HIV infection have been derived from frogs that live in forests and eat insects; butterflies’ wings have inspired more efficient photovoltaic technology. This reminds us how natural selection offers solutions to many of the challenges we face.
Our relationship with animals also has a bearing on our exposure to disease. For example, before a steep decline in the 1990s, there were about 40 million vultures in the Indian subcontinent, playing a vital ecological role in clearing up rotting carcasses. Then the population crashed – traced to the widespread use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac to treat livestock. As a result, the 12m tonnes of flesh these birds ate each year was available for other scavengers. India’s feral dog population rocketed as the vultures declined, which led to thousands more deaths from rabies.
The more we learn about the relationships between humans and other life on Earth, the more it is apparent that we are embedded in a web of connections that have fundamental bearings on our wellbeing and security. In our modern disconnected society, this truth is too often overlooked. The value of animals is conceived as first and foremost transactional, either in terms of market prices or utilitarian value (for example, as food).
If our civilisation is to survive and thrive, we must shift our collective perspective away from being primarily a self-centred species, with demands that must be met and interests that must be served, to see ourselves as part of a wider natural system in which we have responsibilities towards other lifeforms. This is not only an ethical agenda but a question of survival, for if we wish to continue living on Earth, our life-support systems must be protected and repaired.
One way to address the crisis of perception is to foster reconnection with the web of life that sustains us. For many people, especially those in urban areas, meaningful contact with nature can be rare. Solutions can be found, for example, through teaching about nature in schools; creating allotments where people can grow food; fostering wilder spaces for recreation in and around cities; and encouraging active transport outside with walking and cycling in green settings.
We humans are as much creatures of nature as the birds and bees. Remembering that in our day-to-day lives will help to restore our broken relationship with the rest of creation and benefit not only animals, but us too.
Anthony Juniper is chair of Natural England. This is an edited version of one of 19 essays titled What Have Animals Ever Done for Us? brought together by the RSPCA. Each calls for an urgent re-evaluation of humankind’s relationship with animals.