Isaiah's peaceable kingdom has the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, and all led by a little child. It's not taking the prophet's words too far, perhaps, to conclude that the guiding child represents a quality of human thought that has, itself, progressed beyond predation and wanton killing.
Mankind, after all, is the most potent predator on earth, capable of quickly wiping out whole species - sometimes intentionally, often inadvertently. When people create and enforce laws like America's Endangered Species Act and international treaties to protect wildlife, that's a remarkable break with the past.
Such laws have some spectacular triumphs. The comeback of the American bald eagle, a national symbol, is one. From numbers of breeding pairs in the low hundreds two decades ago, the eagle population in the United States is now estimated at more than 5,000 pairs. That took determined law enforcement, the banning of pesticides that entered the bird's food chain and accounted for most of its decline, and extraordinary efforts to protect habitat and transport young eagles to areas they could repopulate.
But laws protecting wildlife face ingrained resistance. International treaties and federal laws protecting migratory water birds in North America recently suffered two mammoth violations. In late July, the town of Carrollton, Texas, bulldozed a nesting area used by snowy egrets, blue herons, and other birds, killing as many as 1,000. A week or so later wildlife officials discovered that more than 800 cormorants had been shotgunned on an island near the New York shoreline of Lake Ontario.
Motivation was no mystery in either case. Many of the birds' human neighbors in Texas had grown tired of noise and odors from the rookery. In New York, the cormorants were competing all too effectively for bass and trout. Local people felt their livelihoods as guides and marina operators were threatened by the birds, whose numbers have resurged in recent years.
Similar concerns drive farmers in Kenya who find their crops and herds threatened by elephants or lions. The wildlife involved is vastly different, but not the basic dilemma: how to reconcile the human economy and the instinctive activities of wild animals.
In Kenya, of course, wild animals have huge economic value as a tourist draw. But that hasn't stopped farmers' resentments or deterred poachers who ignore antihunting laws. Some grassland species are down 40-50 percent over the last 20 years.
Back to Isaiah. The kingdom he envisioned is a long way from manifest on earth. But today's ethic of stewardship, embodied in laws intended to protect wildlife, indicates an important shift in thinking. Wildlife has to be managed in the modern world, and human needs have to be balanced against the needs of other species. Awful events like the slaughter of cormorants are, above all, fresh incentives to get that balance right and show that man can coexist peaceably with his fellow creatures.