What the Wessie Phenomenon Says About Our Attitudes Toward Nature

One of the fun stories from Maine this year to help take our minds off natural disasters, Presidential elections, and ill-behaved Olympic athletes is the tale of Wessie.  In case you have been living under a rock, Wessie is the affectionate name given to the large snake reported in the Presumpscot River in Westbrook.  Reported sightings and now a large snake skin suggest that this is a tropical snake, perhaps someone’s pet released into the wild once it no longer met the needs of its owner.  TV journalists have been dispatched to the scene and Wessie provides much amusement for the local newscast amidst the dreadful stories of the day.

What is missed is the meaning of the very existence of Wessie in our culture, assuming that this is not some cleverly managed hoax.  The very fact that someone may have been keeping this exotic snake as a pet before releasing it is a sad commentary on our general attitudes toward nature and toward wild animals specifically.  What this says is that nature is worthwhile to us for its instrumental value and little more.

This is seen in the keeping of exotic animals as pets.  Not only snakes but also parrots, ferrets, and even big cats (not felis catus), to name just a few.  We kidnap these creatures from their natural lives or force them to reproduce in captive (aptly named) breeding programs.  We then literally cage the animals for our entertainment as pets.  Zoos, marine mammal exhibits, and wildlife parks do the same on a larger scale, though usually with some lame rationale that the facilities are conducting science and fostering conservation.  The animals are caged and presented for our pleasures nonetheless.

This instrumental value of wildlife is seen also in our management of wild species for human use.  So, for example, in Maine we “manage” coyote populations as part of our deer management program.  That is to say, we allow virtually unlimited hunting of coyotes because they sometimes kill a species, deer, that we prefer be available for us to kill instead.

A lot of Mainers understand that nature is more than just stuff for our consumption Survey dataand amusement. It is intrinsically valuable, not needing to satisfy human wants and needs to be worthwhile.  A question asked on multiple surveys done in the past shows this attitude and how strong it is.  Nature is valuable for its own sake.

A little humility for humans is called for.  Everything in nature does not exist just for our use and pleasure.  Parrots and tropical snakes deserve to live the lives of parrots and tropical snakes in the wild, not caged in our homes and apartments for our entertainment.  Dolphins and whales belong in the oceans rather than as part of faux conservation organizations that in reality are circus acts for our entertainment.  And coyotes and bobcats should be able to live at least in some places without being targets for human gratification, pawns in some larger management program to maximize human values.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.