While Invasion Biology (if it doesn’t come from here it doesn’t belong here) holds sway in much of the conservation world, the new kid in town is compassionate conservation. The keystone concepts of compassionate conservation are
--First, do no harm
--All wildlife has value
Traditional conservation is ultimately about resource management, and that means people are continually making choices about how to “manage” and “control” the conservation estate. The [unproven] assumption that the elimination of introduced species will benefit native species leads to an inevitable death sentence for many undesirable animals. Sometimes populations of particular animals, even endemic ones like Australia’s kangaroos and dingoes, are considered too abundant in an area, and are thus ripe for culling.
But this raises a question. Should animal welfare be a significant part of conservation? While many people assume it is, the reality is different. Compassionate conservation comes up and along with and part of our growing awareness of the sentience of animals, and the animal rights’ movement.
Sentience is the ability to experience negative and positive emotions such as affection and loyalty and fear, and respond to those emotions, and also to feel and respond to pain. Those of us who have pets have no doubt our “fur babies” experience emotions and react to pain. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate this beyond our household pets to include our livestock, and then, eventually, to animals in the wild. In New Zealand, animal sentience was written into law in 2015, but the law—curiously enough—only applies to “owned” animals—unowned animals (feral) apparently have no legal right to sentience.
It seems almost bizarre to me that animal sentience seems to have been questioned for so long. And yet the reason seems obvious: people like to use animals, and using them implies taking advantage of them, and sometimes--often--that means hurting them. Obviously, we eat many of them. We use them in research. We remove newborn calves from their mothers so we can process and drink the cows’ milk. We wage war on "pests". Many people enjoy the “sports” of hunting and fishing. If we acknowledge animal sentience, then there are some implicit moral and ethical dilemmas that come with these food, conservation, and lifestyle choices.
But back to “conservation”. The invasive biology model purports that to save endemic and vulnerable animals and plants, “pest” animals must be "managed" and that usually means killed. Our current methods for killing unwanted feral animals are fairly blunt and brutal. Poison is top of the pops in New Zealand (often applied aerial, as with 1080), and traps of various sorts are popular. Sometimes deadly viruses, like myxomatosis and calicivirus for rabbits, are released. In both New Zealand and Australia, shooting is also common. In Australia, shot kangaroos (endemic, but not endangered--check out this documentary film trailer) are “harvested” for their skins and meat; in New Zealand possum shoots or hunts even become school fundraisers; sometimes the skins are harvested. Baby kangaroos and possums, like bobby calves in the dairy industry and male chicks, are nothing more than unwanted byproducts. Compassionate conservation, in contrast, has as its first tenant “First, do no harm”.
Traditional conservation is all about management and balancing numbers and resources. Individual animals don’t count, as long as there are more than a few hundred left. It’s all about “populations”. And while science and farming are generally about “bulk” numbers (statistics don’t work with one or two, you need whole populations for them to be valid), with compassionate conservation individuals DO count. The life of one tui, one possum, one skink, one deer…each of them matters, and no one more than the other.
A few questions to ponder on this theme:
Should animal welfare be a part of conservation?
Is it acceptable to kill animals in the name of conservation? How many animals is it acceptable to kill?
Is it ethically justifiable to kill many common or "nuisance" animals in the hope of saving a few rare animals or plants?
Is the life of one kind of animal of more value than the life of another? If so, who makes the judgement call? (Compassionate conservation says no, ALL individuals matter.)
Given death by poison is slow and agonizing, and the use of traps followed by a bash on the head is little better, is killing animals by more “humane” methods acceptable?
If invasive species do threaten rare endemic species, is it okay to allow those vulnerable species to remain at risk of extinction?
If you have found this post of interest, you might also like
The Invasion Biology Movement in Conservation
A Brief History of the Conservation Movement
School Possum Hunt Fundraiser and Drowned Joeys