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A Story of Natural Evil and the Suffering of Animals

Nathan Jacobson & Dace Starkweather

William Rowe’s widely discussed argument from evil imagines a fawn, alone in the woods, engulfed by a raging forest fire, suffering for days before dying. How could a good and powerful God, if he existed, allow this kind of suffering, which is immeasurable every day?

In more recent philosophical expressions of the Problem of Evil, the argument is carefully articulated to ensure that the evil under consideration is unquestionably gratuitous. That is, while there is suffering for which the theist can posit some countervailing or soul-making purpose, there is also suffering for which it is nigh impossible to imagine any greater good being served.

Specifically, attention has turned to natural evil, and to the suffering of animals in particular. Consider the tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra attempting to cross the Mara River as they finish their annual migration across the Serengeti. Many are violently ripped to pieces in the attempt by basks of writhing crocodiles. It is not self-evident to me that this militates against the existence of God.1 I am awed and quickened by the spectacle. Though I naturally root for the antelope, I see tragic beauty in this contest for survival, red in tooth and claw. I’m not altogether sure that a world without peril — a world of harmless bunnies, tribbles, and parakeets, one without riptides, sandstorms, cliffs and fires — would better bespeak a great and beneficent creator. Indeed, I wonder whether a world whose magnificence is due in part to its being as wild and untamed as ours is not itself a justification for the peril and pain entailed therein.

When I say that I am not sure, that is the truth. I am by no means unsympathetic to the suffering of animals. My heart is rent when I watch PETA’s documentaries exposing our oftentimes callous and cruel treatment of animals bred for human consumption. It is egregious to kick a dog, to string up a cat. Furthermore, we have the biblical vision of heaven which portrays a time and place when the lion lies down with the lamb, implying perhaps that the current, ravenous state of nature is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Considering the abundance of animal suffering, it has always struck me as a bit unfortunate that the examples offered by Rowe, Tooley, and others in these arguments are usually abstract, when they needn’t be.2 So, as I continue to reflect on what we should infer from a natural world that is as violent as it is breathtakingly beautiful, I offer the following contribution. It is a riveting account from the journal of a close friend, Dace Starkweather, who experienced the very real, fiery devastation of Pike National Forest3. He bore witness to the woodland creatures and free range cattle that suffered there. I don’t think anyone has ever questioned whether Rowe’s example is paralleled in the real world, but this vivid, real-life account makes the question of apparently pointless natural evil all the more poignant.

Dace writes:

I believe I left off describing my sleepless night and smoke filled lungs. Obviously I couldn’t tell this at the time, but the fires surrounding me covered a fifteen mile radius. At some point, I did drift back into a sleep. I remember hearing the familiar sound of the engine of my Toyota pickup returning to the ranch. My truck had survived! I was glad, but I was too exhausted to get up and check it out or even open my eyes. If it was running… that’s all I needed to know. By the way, as an aside, Jeb told me later that when he fetched my truck, the ground was scorched all around it, but that there was a small triangle where my truck was parked that was left untouched. When Jeb popped the hood (which you have to do in order to start it) he said it was the most crazy thing — mice were everywhere. On the engine block, down behind the wheel wells. These homeless field mice were looking for any object to take refuge in to avoid the heat waves of the fire, to avoid being burned.

I had overslept on my shift and the sun was just coming up. I got up and felt like I had the taste of campfire in my mouth and a grimy layer of dirt and ash was still covering me from head to toe. I had slept in my clothes. As I looked around, everything was peaceful, including this blanket of white smoke that just hung a few feet above the ground across the entire valley. I saw my truck and was relieved. Then I was momentarily startled as I noticed some homeless guy asleep inside of it. It was Jeb. We both looked pretty rugged and were covered in ash. I let him sleep. After  completing a round on the buildings — putting out various ground fires and digging some trenches — I went and saddled up my four-year-old, Casper. We rode the perimeter of the property and up into the woods. It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. The best way to explain it is to recall the opening scene in Gladiator. They had just finished the battle and Maximus is walking back through the battle grounds that are still smoldering, small fires burning everywhere. It was like that. The valley was incredibly green and vibrant, but fifty yards up into the trees it turned into a lunar moonscape. The pine trees were black totem poles and the ground was a dusty ash grey and white. There was no vegetation, just scarred boulders and black gravel. Casper and I walked past hundreds of logs, stumps and trees that were on fire, still smoking or reduced to heaps of soft red coals.

Then I realized that they were not running away because their hooves and paws were singed.

I saw an unusual amount of wildlife. And nothing ran away. I saw deer, bear, elk. They all looked shocked. They just stood there. Then I realized that they were not running away because their hooves and paws were singed. I ran into the yearling bear cub and my close proximity forced him to move. He walked away on his elbows. The pads of his paws were swollen and bleeding. It tugged at me emotionally, but barely. I was in the same daze as they were as I tried to assess this charred world. Two things came to mind: a sense of awesome power… and of an inescapable ugliness.

I decided that at this point, the need of the hour was safety first… that perhaps I didn’t want to try to carry a weapon and live ammo in a hot and ashy forest while on the back of a horse. We rode out south and almost as soon as you cross the property line, the trees turn black. Again, the ground was a soft layer of gray-white ash. It truly looked like what I would expect the surface of the moon to be. There were also sink holes where the fire still burned hot. These holes were formed by the root systems that burned down under the ground. They looked like half-crazed starfish imprints. It was all negative shape, each imprint taking the exact shape of its root system. It was an image I would never have been able to conjure up without seeing it first hand.

I found a buck down by wildcat creek that didn’t make it — of all the fleet footed animals that you think would survive — but perhaps this one turned right when he should have hung a left and ended up running back into the flames. I have heard that animals run back to what they have always considered their home and safety. A famous fire outside of Chicago years ago at a large horse farm is perhaps instructive: the barn was on fire and so they opened all the stall doors to free the horses. In all the panic and confusion, the horses actually ran back into the burning barn to seek safety in their stalls. I have no idea how you would calculate the wildlife lost to the fire. Some of the guys just found a bear last week.

Shortly after finding the buck, Lee radioed me and told us that he had found several dead cows in a draw behind Salt Lick 7. Why we are all wired in such a way that we are so curious and feel the need to witness this gruesome scene for ourselves is beyond me. I think guys are maybe just built that way. Nonetheless, we made a beeline for what we now have deemed “Dead Cow Draw.”

We made a beeline for what we now have deemed “Dead Cow Draw”. … There was a cow hunkered down in this creek bottom trying to stay wet and cool, while her calf was nuzzling up along side of her. And that’s how they were found. Like statues.

Next to the concentration camps I saw in ’95, it is the most disturbing scene I have ever laid eyes on. Eleven cows and ten calves dead. The haunting part is that they possessed a quality that almost made them look as if they were frozen in mid-stride. There was a cow hunkered down in this creek bottom trying to stay wet and cool, while her calf was nuzzling up along side of her. And that’s how they were found. Like statues. Everything was extremely black in this draw … signifying that the fire had come through at a voraciously hot and fast pace. Talking with fire experts later has led me to believe that these cows did not die because of fire or smoke, but rather because of oxygen depravation, that is, suffocation. It has been found that if a draw is steep enough and the fire is hot enough coming over the top of a ridge, it will suck all the oxygen right out of the floor.

The stench invoked my gag reflex, repeatedly. Sorry, but i’m just trying to give you the experience. Lee yelled down to us from up above that he had found a live cow. We all jumped back in the saddle and rode up to where he was. Sure enough, there was a hideous looking cow laying amidst ash and rock. Her body was emaciated, her skeletal frame showing through, and her head was swollen. The white markings she had on her face were a tarnished yellow from the severity of the fire’s heat. She looked miserable. In an act of compassion I got down from my horse and started to move towards this pathetic creature. Instantly she jumped up and rammed me, literally tossing me into the air. I felt like a rag doll. This act of aggression took place in a second or two. We were all stunned to a point of stillness. Then I told the fellas to chase her down. If she was willing to travel, then we were certainly going to bring her in. But she collapsed about fifty yards up the draw. She had used all her energy in that moment of protecting herself from a perceived threat, very unusual behavior for a cow. It made me realize how rattled she was. She was in some half-crazed state. We left her knowing that we would have to put her down.


1 To really see this spectacle in all its fierce glory, see Africa: The Serengeti, especially if it appears at your local IMAX theater, as I saw it.

2 Plantinga also has a habit of referring to Dostoevsky’s famous — but fictional — description of the misdeeds of the Turks and Circassians when addressing the problem of moral evil.

3 The Hayman Fire Disaster destroyed 138,000 acres and 133 homes in twenty days in June of 2002.

2 thoughts on “A Story of Natural Evil and the Suffering of Animals

  1. adamryan says:

    …and the reason for gratuitous suffering is?

  2. nathanjacobson says:

    Hi Adam. It’s true. This time out, I contented myself with embellishing a difficult question rather than venturing an answer, though perhaps there are hints to my own provisional answers in my short introduction. However, serendipitously, William Lane Craig recently offered some cursory thoughts on this issue, and this in the wake of Dembski’s The End of Christianity, treating some of the same. Perhaps they’ll provide some food for thought in lieu of my own attempt to resolve the problem of apparently gratuitous natural evil.

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