Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ethics and Morality

Wildlife Conservation: Bringing Compassion to Wild Animals

Anja Heister offers a fact-based case for moving from killing to coexistence.

Key points

  • A new book is an informed and passionate critique of the dark side of government-orchestrated exploitation and destruction of wildlife.
  • It convincingly argues that we need to replace power and violence with nonlethal coexistence and bring compassion and justice to wild animals.
  • We need a new psychological framework that shifts from anthropocentrism to concern, empathy, and respect for the lives of individual nonhumans.
Palgrave Macmillan, with permission.
Source: Palgrave Macmillan, with permission.

Wildlife populations globally are in deep trouble because of human exploitation that ranges from slaughtering individuals "in the name of human interests" so that people can selfishly satisfy their peripatetic whims to recreational trophy hunting for fun, with no regard for the well-being of the nonhuman animals (animals) into whose lives we've trespassed.1

The history of much wildlife conservation has been bloody and more and more people are tired of the bloodshed and want to live in peace and coexist with wild animals. Sadly, the notion of coexistence has been perverted to allow for killing other animals for human-centered reasons. In the U. S., Wildlife Services killed more than 1.75 million animals in 2021, around 200 an hour.

I've long awaited the publication of Dr. Anja Heister's book, Beyond the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation: From Lethal to Compassionate Conservation, and am pleased she could answer some questions about her informed and passionate critique of the dark side of government-orchestrated exploitation of wildlife and her call to open our hearts to the value of each and every individual's life and the importance of compassionate conservation.2,3

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Beyond the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation?

Anja Heister: The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM) is the dominant approach to wildlife conservation. It is the driver of a strong anthropocentric (or ‘human supremacy’) stance, which has legalized an ongoing, annual slaughter of hundreds of millions of wild animals through trapping, hunting, and other lethal practices. Increasingly, the American public opposes the killing of wild animals for such frivolous purposes as fun, recreation, trophy, and profit, but has little—if any—knowledge of the NAM. My intention is to raise awareness of the injustice committed against wild animals by sportsmen and -women, hunters, and trappers.

I hope my book empowers, motivates, and inspires readers to speak up on behalf of wild animals as subjects with needs, interests, and rights, and demand policy changes toward a conservation approach that is grounded in empathy, respect, and compassion. Expediting the shift from killing to compassionate conservation, is an endeavor urgently needed, particularly under the threats of climate change, human population growth, and accelerating plant and animal species extinctions.3

MB: Who is your intended audience?

AH: My book is particularly interesting to students and academics in the fields of environmental ethics and philosophy, animal law, public policy, wildlife conservation, environmental ethics, human-animal connection and animal rights. However, my writing style is accessible to anyone, who is passionate about animal rights/liberation or interested in learning about the need to change and improve our relationship with nonhuman animals toward a more empathetic, compassionate, and respectful one.

MB: What are some of your major messages?

AH: My book provides a critical analysis of the NAM along with its links to the billion-dollar Conservation-Industrial Complex, the wildlife killing industries, including wildlife-related governments, trophy hunting organizations, trapper associations, outfitters and more.

With a focus on trapping, I expose the NAM’s belief in human supremacy and its consequences for wild animals and their ecosystems, the same value that is driving the ongoing global destruction of nature and accelerating species extinction. This book presents a case against trapping, hunting, and other traditional, lethal wildlife management practices, and is a clarion call for compassionate conservation, which urges conservation to expand its moral community by recognizing all sentient beings as persons.

I show how the NAM uses selective ethics and outdated science that fail to recognize the intrinsic value of animals and animal consciousness and contrast this with our contemporary knowledge of other animals as thinking and feeling subjects with lifestyles that often parallel our own. Indeed, the consensus in animal ethics and science has firmly established that other animals are agents of their own world, and subjects, who have rich conscious, emotional, and conative lives, experiences, and abilities that are often on par with human abilities and often exceeding them—being different does not mean being inferior.

I employ the theory of Animal Standpoint, which recognizes that, as subjects, nonhuman animals have a particular viewpoint from which they perceive the world, and thus we can ask what their interests are. Throughout the book I maintain that taking the perspective and attitude of animal standpoint is essential to 1) overall efforts to de-center humans and move animals from the periphery to the center of our moral concern, and 2) to dismantle the hierarchy in human and animal relations in order to recognize and afford animals their subjectivity.

At the same time, I believe that empathy is the key to a meaningful shift away from our human supremacy attitude. With empathy and compassion comes enormous power to change our relations with other animals. A commitment to a non-violent relationship with other animals is a good start. Nonhuman animals cannot mobilize themselves. We must on their behalf with a courageous heart, a decisive mind, and actions that are dedicated to dismantling the system and institutions that profit from exploiting and killing animals. It is time for us to think and feel beyond ourselves and across species lines.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

AH: This is the first book I am aware of that provides a comprehensive critical perspective of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. It’s a trailblazing publication on presenting trapping, hunting, and other wildlife management practices as acts of human violence. I present the Animal Standpoint (theory) to help us recognize that wild animals have a perspective too and discuss how can we speak on their behalf.4

MB: Are you hopeful that change is in the wind and people will embrace non-killing conservation protocols?

AH: I struggle with this question because truth be told, I am not very hopeful. Eventually, I think there is a good chance that we as a species may reach a tipping point at which things could change for the better. Overall, I’m afraid that change is coming too slowly and that means that trillions of animals—wild and domestic—continue to suffer and be killed, and many of them will go extinct. Some people are already making some changes in their lives to reduce or even eliminate harm to animals but unless we have a ‘compassion revolution,’ these changes by individuals are not strong enough to overcome systems and industries that exploit animals. I do believe in education and that books can open people’s eyes and reach people’s hearts, so therein lies my hope.


In conversation with Dr. Anja Heister, an independent researcher, writer and lifelong animal rights activist. A co-founder of Footloose Montana, an organization working toward the end of trapping on public land in Montana, Anja is committed to social change for animals and publishes frequently on topics related to wild animal conservation, animal liberation, ethics, and policy.

1) For discussions of trophy hunting click here.

2) The book's description reads, The North American Wildlife Conservation Model (NAM) is the driver of a strong anthropocentric stance, which has legalized an ongoing, annual exploitation of hundreds of millions of wild animals, who are killed in the United States through trapping, hunting and other lethal practices. Increasingly, the American public opposes the killing of wild animals for recreation, trophies and profit but has little―if any―knowledge of the Model. The purpose of this book is to empower the public with knowledge about the NAM’s insufficiencies and to help expedite the shift from lethal to compassionate conservation, an endeavour urgently needed particularly under the threats of climate change, human population growth and accelerating plant and animal species extinctions. With a focus on trapping, this book exposes the NAM's belief in human supremacy and its consequences for wild animals and their ecosystems, the same value that is driving the ongoing global destruction of nature and accelerating species extinction. Motivated by a deep concern for wild animals who suffer and whose lives are extinguished each year by 'sportsmen and women', this book exposes the violent treatment of wild animals inherent in governmental-promoted hunting and trapping programs, while emphasizing the importance of empathy and compassion for other animals in conservation and in our lives.

3) For more information about compassionate conservation click here and here.

3) As a lifelong animal advocate and a co-founder of Footloose Montana, a Montana-based nonprofit organization to end trapping on public lands, I want to see nonhuman animals—domestic and wild—be free from human harm and thrive in their species-specific ways. I see our ubiquitous, culturally deeply embedded yet never questioned human supremacy worldview as the root of what is causing so much suffering and death to billions of innocent and sentient animals, who are brutally treated as mere means to an end either as ‘food,’ biomedical research objects and, as living (moving) targets for so-called ‘sportsmen- and women. It is this enormous injustice committed against other animals that is keeping me awake at night.

4) I blend animal rights with rights for wild animals and emphasize the importance of the individual animal along with the need to elevate the status of the individual nonhuman animal to ‘persons’ because only persons are recognized under the law and in our minds, as subjects with rights. I identify the NAM as a framework of institutionalized violence against and oppression of wild animals, all of which is a matter of social justice concern.

Batavia, Chelsea et al. Emotion as a source of moral understanding in conservation. Conservation Biology, 2021.

Bekoff, Marc. Killing "In the Name of Coexistence" Doesn't Make Much Sense.

Do Emotions "Get in the Way" of Progress in Conservation?

Best, Steve. The Revolutionary Implications of Animal Standpoint Theory.

Heister, Anja. Beyond the North American Wildlife Conservation Model and towards Earth rights. The Ecological Citizen, 2019.

Milman, Oliver. ‘A barbaric federal program’: US killed 1.75m animals last year – or 200 per hour. The Guardian, March 25, 2022.

Wallach, Arian. et al. Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation. Conservation Biology 32, 2018.

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today