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Compassionate Conservation Finally Comes of Age: Killing in the name of conservation doesn't work

Ethics must be firmly implanted in conservation biology

A forward-looking and long overdue symposium called Compassionate Conservation will be held from September 1 - 3, 2010 in Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford. The meeting, sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and the Born Free Foundation, will focus on major themes including animal welfare and the conservation of wild animals, captive animal welfare and conservation, conservation consequences of wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and release, and the international trade in live wild animals.

My presentation at the symposium, titled First Do No Harm: Hamsters, Ferrets and Killing in the Name of Conservation, will ask these questions in light of the black-footed ferret recovery program, in which hamsters are bred solely to be killed by the ferrets. How should humans balance the interests or right to life of individuals of one species with those of another? Can people who value individual lives work with those who are willing to trade off individuals (like the golden hamsters) for the good of an ecosystem or species (like the highly endangered black-footed ferret)?

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Other questions that need to be considered when evaluating reintroduction and conservation projects include:

  • Why are we doing what we're doing?
  • Can we really recreate and restore ecosystems?
  • Should we kill for conservation?
  • What trade-offs must be made between ethics and conservation goals?
  • Can conservation biologists do good science - save individuals, species, and ecosystems - and also be compassionate?
  • What role does sentience play in our decisions?

When we close our hearts to animal sentience, we ignore and violate nature. Conservation biologists like to talk about re-wilding nature and building corridors through which animals can move undisturbed. Compassionate conservation will help us re-wild our hearts and build corridors of compassion and coexistence where we can all travel together.

We suffer the indignities we impose on other beings. The animal manifesto is simple and direct: Treat us better or leave us alone. The Oxford meeting will move us in this direction.

Speakers include myself and other people who have worked around the world on various conservation issues: Kate Evans from Elephants for Africa in Botswana; David Fraser, animal welfare expert at the University of British Columbia; David Macdonald, world renowned conservationist at the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit; Georgia Mason, expert on stereotyped behavior in captive animals from the University of Guelph; Ron Swaisgood with the Giant Panda Conservation Unit at the San Diego Zoo; Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation, UK; and Camilla Fox of Project Coyote and the Animal Welfare Institute.

Compassionate conservation is no longer an oxymoron. Ethics must be firmly implanted in conservation biology, even if difficult questions move us outside of our professional and personal comfort zones. Ethical questions must be addressed, even if asking them means some projects might be put on hold temporarily or abandoned.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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