"More than ever conservation needs new ideas, risky ventures to find out what will work and what won't; biodiversity doesn't benefit from us calling each other stupid as a substitute for rational discourse." (Harry Greene, 2015, Pleistocene rewilding and the future of biodiversity, in Ben Minteer and Stephen Pyne (editors), After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans)
The broad and interdisciplinary field of conservation biology has received a good deal of attention in the past two weeks that has stimulated researchers and others to weigh in on what sorts of human-animal interactions are permissible as we try to save nonhuman animals (animals) and their homes. For example, some of the challenging questions that arise are: Should we kill in the name of conservation? Is it okay to trade off the lives of animals of one species for the good of their own or other species? Is seeking the "most humane" way of killing animals the only way to move forward? Is it possible to stop the killing of other animals and factor compassion that centers on the lives of individuals into our decisions? Should we try a "hands off" policy to see if it works where it's clear our interference, despite our best intentions, has not solved the problems at hand? How do we factor in the interests of other animals and humans as we deal with the numerous -- and growing -- challenging and frustrating conflicts at hand? The field of anthrozoology focuses on these and other questions.
Clearly, there are going to be differences among the people who are trying to save other animals and their homes and also take into account the interests of humans. And, this is what makes the field of conservation biology so exciting, for we are the only animals who are able to do what needs to be done to reverse the rather dismal and depressing situations in which humans and other animals find themselves in conflict. It goes without saying that the major problem is that there are too many humans and if we don't stop making more of us it's going to be a long and hard battle to right the wrongs for which we are responsible. And, given all of the information that is currently available, I like to call attention to a quote from William Wilberforce sent to me by Sadie Parr of Wolf Awareness, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”
Compassionate conservation comes of age
A recent meeting that centered on the rapidly growing international field called compassionate conservation brought people together from all over the world, all of whom are trying to reduce or eliminate human-animal conflict. The conference was sponsored and coordinated by the Born Free Foundation and the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology, Sydney and hosted by the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia (for more on compassionate conservation please click here, here, and here). A most exciting part of the meetings was the presence of numerous students and young researchers. And, also very stimulating, were the obvious differences of opinion -- the expected shades of gray -- in what is possible and what methods are permissible as we try to deal with rampant and growing global human-animal conflicts. The ability of people who differed to talk with one another, not at one another, also was a very positive aspect of this gathering. Some people argued that in the "real world" the "most humane" ways of killing are the only ways forward, whereas others argued that compassionate conservation is not about the "most humane" way of killing, but rather centers on stopping the killing because it is unethical and in many instances it really hasn't worked. For them, individual animals are the focus of concern and the guide for compassionate conservation and "First do no harm" means not harming or killing other animals "in the name of conservation."
There also was very valuable discussion of the words people use to refer to the killing of otherwise healthy animals "in the name of conservation," with the recognition that it is not euthanasia, or mercy-killing, but rather "zoothanasia" when it's done in zoos or slaughter when done in other situations (please see "Animal 'Euthanasia' Is Often Slaughter: Consider Kangaroos"). Also of interest was the use of the word "pests" to refer to animals who are causing problems. Many agreed that it's humans who are the pests, but because we can dominate and control other animals, they pay the price for just doing what comes naturally for them but is bothersome for us.
Clearly, there were many valuable discussions, and the abstracts of the broad array of papers that were presented can be seen here. They are a goldmine of information on the broad topics that were covered, the numerous different species discussed, and anthrozoologists should find them to be indispensable for future studies of human-animal relationships. We learned that many wild animals really aren't free (Yolanda Pretorius of the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria told us that elephants in South Africa are fenced and can't migrate) and that "methods to assess the well-being of elephants are not included as a requirement for developing an elephant management plan." Moles are ruthlessly killed in the UK because they destroy gardens and in many locations geese are killed because they poop on golf courses. We take away the geese's habitats and then we kill them because they have nowhere else to go.
We also learned in a paper by MarÍa Fàbregas and G. M. Koehler of Save China’s Tigers that in order to reintroduce critically endangered captive South China tigers back to restored protected areas within their historic range in China, they are allowed to practice killing ungulates. Many people were rather concerned with this practice, and it reminded me of breeding golden hamsters to allow endangered black-footed ferrets to practice killing them before being released into wild habitat. For many, these sorts of trade-offs are unacceptable.
In another project that was the focus of discussion, almost 900 wolves and other non-target animals were killed in Alberta, Canada (please also see and and), to try to save woodland caribou (it didn't work) and not only were families broken up but there also are trans-generational effects. Simply put, far too many other animals are harmed or killed because we move into their homes and they have nowhere else to go and thus, they, innocent victims, become the "problems." It's a no-win situation for millions of other animals and we need to do much better so the killing stops.
Compassionate conservation meets Cecil the slain lion
It was also rather timely, and of course incredibly sad, that news about the thoroughly unnecessary killing of Cecil the lion by Walter Palmer (please also see the numerous articles listed here and Jennifer Jacquet's "The Shaming of Walter Palmer" and Chris Genovali and Paul Paquet's "Cecil the lion and compassionate conservation") was making world-wide headlines as the meeting got under way. A few of us received requests for interviews the first morning of the meeting and Cecil was the topic of conversation at a number of talks and also at the coffee breaks, as was Marius, the young giraffe who was mercilessly killed at the Copenhagen Zoo in February 2014, because he didn't fit into the zoo's breeding program. Marius us a classic case of an animal who was zoothanized, not euthanized, as claimed by zoo administrators.
Many people are interested in the status and fate of African lions and as I was writing this essay I came across a review of a book called Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns by world renowned lion researcher Dr. Craig Packer (the Kindle edition can be found here). In the review by Iris Barber called "Lions in the Balance: Can hunting save the kings of the jungle?" we learn that Dr. Packer argues, "'Lions need trophy-hunting just as much as trophy-hunting needs lions.' His plan: kill only male lions over the age of 6, so cubs aren’t killed by a lion mating with their mother who seeks to safeguard his own progeny. This is a fresh approach to conservation, where hunting is essential to survival." (For more on arguments that killing lions is the only option please see "Outcry for Cecil the Lion Could Undercut Conservation Efforts.")
While numerous compassionate conservationists and others would argue against killing lions, when experts like Dr. Packer speaks, it's highly worthwhile to listen carefully because he makes clear just how complex the issues are. As the book's description notes, "Packer is sure to infuriate millionaires, politicians, aid agencies, and conservationists alike as he minces no words about the problems he encounters. But with a narrative stretching from far flung parts of Africa to the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and marked by Packer’s signature humor and incredible candor, Lions in the Balance is a tale of courage against impossible odds, a masterly blend of science, adventure, and storytelling, and an urgent call to action that will captivate a new generation of readers."
Putting an end to dancing bears: All stakeholders count
Another tenet of compassionate conservation is that all stakeholders count, human and nonhuman. Of course, this is very challenging because various animals kill or harm humans or kill or harm animals on whom the livelihoods of humans and their communities depend. In an earlier essay I wrote about two projects in India that stress peaceful coexistence between humans and nonhumans who harm and kill the humans and destroy their businesses. Another excellent example of a project that took into account the interests of humans and nonhumans centered on putting an end to the use of dancing bears, discussed by Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani of the organization Wildlife SOS, India. The abstract for their talk reads as follows:
"Wildlife SOS spearheaded a conservation success story in India by resolving the barbaric dancing bear practice in which sloth bear cubs were poached from the wild, brutally trained in inhumane ways and spent their short tragic lives at the end of a four foot rope dragged through towns and villages to earn for the indigent, nomadic community called the Kalandars. Wildlife SOS's initiative was to both rehabilitate the sloth bears held in captivity and the Kalandars themselves in alternative livelihoods. This in turn made a huge difference to the sloth bear population in the wild helping in its conservation.
"Compassionate Conservation and sustainability of wildlife and forests was the focus of the program which is still ongoing. Wildlife SOS also works with human-animal conflict situations similarly aiming for compassionate conservation and rehabilitation measures which educate the stakeholders, such as the villagers or dwellers around a forested area, in avoidance behavior.
"The education awareness programs are run in Maharashtra where the conflict species is the leopard and in Kashmir where the conflict species is the black bear and in Delhi and Agra the program deals with the rhesus macaque which seems to be the species humans have declared war on. Attempts at resolution involve creating safe spaces for the animals (rehabilitation centres), teaching people behaviours which do not lead to confrontation with the animals in question (awareness and education), but most importantly to inculcate a feeling for the animals in question, emphasizing adjustment and acceptance of the existence of wildlife close to our human habitations. Our work with captive elephants is yet another conservation attempt at bringing down an ancient Indian traditional bastion that emphasizes training elephants using pain, fear and physical abuse by replacing it with compassion.
"Our training school - the kindness school provides training to elephant keepers on modern and humane elephant management systems, compassionate handling, replacing negative management with positive reinforcement. However conservation also demands use of the law so the Wildlife SOS Anti-Poaching enforcement unit works to gather intelligence on wildlife traffickers and smugglers and enforces the law working in partnership with the Indian Government.
"Compassionate conservation is the key to the future ahead of us."
Another wonderful project in which human and nonhuman interests were taken into account and satisfied was concerned with how to deal non-lethally with "problem" raccoons at a fast food restaurant in Vancouver. Dr. Sara Dubois, who works with the British Columbia SPCA, outlined various strategies for coming to terms with urban "pests." She noted, "The overall goal of developing humane standards for nuisance wildlife control is to create an educational and enforcement tool, setting a higher bar for control measures, whether they are done for conservation or nuisance purposes."
The coming of age of compassionate conservation: It's a "sad bad" if killing is the only viable option for "peaceful" coexistence
The field of compassionate conservation is slowly coming of age and it's essential that all opinions come to the table to be discussed. Ethicist Bill Lynn, who supported the experimental humane killing of a few thousand barred owls to try to save endangered snowy owls, called this practice a "sad good." While it may be a "sad good" for the snowy owls, it's surely not for the slaughtered barred owls. I would call it a "sad bad" for the barred owls and many other animals if killing remains the only option. A "sad good" is a very slippery slope that sets a lamentable precedent for opening the door for the more widespread "experimental killing" of barred owls and other species just to see if it works. (For more details on killing barred owls please see "Barred owls on the hit list.")
Compassionate conservation requires a large change in heart and practices, and like any other revolutionary paradigm shift it will take time. Many hope that this most needed paradigm shift in conservation biology that entails stopping the killing "in the name of conservation" will endure its growing pains as more and more researchers and others realize that killing is not the answer. I hope those who see the "real world" as mandating killing will change their minds and hearts. Future and young researchers are critical to the development and implementation of compassionate conservation, as are those career conservation officers, zoo administrators, and researchers who come to realize that using "the most humane killing" is not what compassionate conservation is all about. I like to imagine a world where killing is no longer part of the conservationist's toolkit. The welfarist calculus patronizes other animals and when push comes to shove, or often when it's merely convenient, the nonhumans suffer and are killed when it's determined that the benefits to humans outweigh the costs to the animals.
It's time to put away the guns, the traps, the snares, the poisons, and other "weapons of mass destruction" (as a few attendees called them) and figure out how to live in peaceful coexistence with the fascinating animals with whom we're supposed to share our most magnificent planet. There does not have to be blood. I dedicated my talk to Cecil the lion and also to Bryce Casavant, a most courageous conservation officer who refused to kill two black bear cubs near Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island and was suspended because he said "no." More people simply have to say "no" to killing other animals. We need to stop the violence and recognize that "The world becomes what we teach." Compassion begets compassion and violence begets violence. By rewilding our hearts and by becoming re-enchanted and reconnecting with nature I like to think that the killing will come to an end, slow as it may be.
If some people argue the killing cannot stop, it will not stop. It saddens me to think that we've gotten to the point where for some, killing is the only viable option for peaceful coexistence. Shame on us. As Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani concluded, "Compassionate conservation is the key to the future ahead of us." I couldn't agree more. We need to leave our comfort zones and think and act "outside of the box."
The next meeting that will focus on compassionate conservation is slated for 2017 in Sydney, Australia. I often say that compassionate conservation is a wonderful meeting place for people who would otherwise not, but should, meet. This was so in Vancouver and I anticipate this will be the case in Sydney. Please stay tuned for more information on this future gathering and the exciting, challenging, and forward-looking field of compassionate conservation in general.
Notes: I just learned of an essay titled "Mutant Animals Bred to be Brutally Killed by Hunters" in which the person offering up these freaks outlandishly claims, "Conservation is a by-product of what I do."
Please also see:
"Killing the Grizzly Bear Who Killed a Man in Yellowstone and Her Cubs Is a Horrific Idea," for another instance in which an animal is likely to be killed for no good reason at all, and Doug Peacock's, "Murder in Yellowstone: grizzly family is sacrificed for fear of litigation."
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)