There’s trouble in paradise again: Cape Cod, land of sand dunes and seafarers, is all a-twitter in the battle between the plovers and the crows. For the last several years, crows have preyed upon piping plovers, a cute, threatened species that is protected by the U.S. National Park Service and beloved by beachgoers. As part of its protection plan, the Cape Code National Seashore has proposed “predator management” — i.e., poisoning the crows. The Humane Society has cried foul and threatened a lawsuit.

For those of us who care about the environment, this is a classic conflict between environmentalism and animal rights. Often, the two ideologies work together: Protecting habitats, for example, protects the animals living in them. However, sometimes they work against each other, as in this case. Plovers are important to environmentalists not just because they are cute but also because they are a threatened strand in the web of life. Biodiversity is important to the Earth and to humankind, which is why we fight to save shrubs and bugs around the world.

But if your primary interest is in respecting the rights of animals, then promoting biodiversity should never come at the expense of animal cruelty. From an animal rights perspective, killing crows to save plovers is ethically wrong — just as it would be, say, to kill some human beings to save others.

This is the stuff of movie plots and college philosophy classes. If two people are in the desert with just enough water for one person, how do you ration the water? Should both die so that no one chooses their life over another? If a choice is to be made, what are the criteria? Strength? Age? Intelligence?

Now, in all such hypotheticals, as in the real case of the plovers and the crows, we all want to find a way out. Maybe there’s another way — more water, better predator management techniques — and, of course, that would be for the best. On Cape Cod, for example, it might be possible to put cages around the plover nests (the crows prey on baby plovers during nesting season) rather than just poison the crows outright. Surely this is what the Humane Society will argue: that there’s another way to solve this problem.

But what if there isn’t? What if, no matter how ingenious the cages, the crows find a way through? This year, for example, only 52 plover nests have been observed on the Cape Cod National Seashore — and 14 have already been lost to predation by crows. And crows? Crows are about as beloved to rural-dwellers as pigeons are to city-folk, which is to say, not a whole lot. Humans have shot, poisoned, and otherwise sought to kill crows, which we often regard as pests, for hundreds of years. The only reason this case might go to court is that it’s the government doing it.

Cases like these cause us to look closely at our ethical priorities, and that’s important when the stakes are a lot higher than plovers and crows. Down in the Gulf, for example, should limited resources be used to rescue individual pelicans, or to protect un-photogenic but biologically crucial swamps and wetlands? Or right here in my literal backyard, do I respect the interests of the trees growing on my property, or protect biodiversity by cutting down the many invasive species that are taking over my part of upstate New York? (Just for the record, the Humane Society does not protect the rights of trees; they are interested in animals, which can suffer and feel pain.)

Personally, I’m more an environmentalist than an animal rights guy. I eat meat, wear leather (but not fur), and generally feel that, while we humans have a moral obligation to rise above our supposedly “natural” instincts to kill (and make war, and commit other acts of violence), we are also wired to be omnivores and to sit toward the top of the food chain. So my sentiments tend to side with the endangered plovers rather than the pesky crows.

But “sentiments” (I almost said “instincts”) are only part of the moral equation. Studies have shown that our human sentiments tend to value beautiful bodies over ugly ones, but no one would ever claim that beauty should be the basis of ethical consideration. Indeed, “sentiments” might also cause us to be racist, sexist or homophobic. So, I wonder, am I really being an environmentalist? Would I really be so eager to kill the crows if they were eating endangered slimy mudskippers? Doubtful.

I think I still side with the plovers, even as I hope the Seashore rangers can find a better way to protect them. But whenever I find myself a little less sure of my opinions, I think I’ve made progress. In protecting Mother Earth, there’s rarely a clean-cut answer — and that might be the most important lesson of all.

Jay Michaelson is a columnist for the Forward newspaper, the Huffington Post, and Reality Sandwich magazine. Jay holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and is completing his Ph.D. in religious studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Do you want to be a guest columnist one day? Send a pitch to bcohen@mnn.com with "I want to be a guest columnist" in the subject line.

MNN homepage photos: GlobalP/iStockphoto and Andrew_Howe/iStockphoto