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Ethics and Morality

Compassionate Conservation: A Green Conversation

It's time to factor compassion for individuals into conservation projects.

The text that follows stems from a "Green Conversation" with renowned ecologist and filmmaker, Michael Tobias, titled "Compassionate Conservation: A Discussion from the Frontlines With Dr. Marc Bekoff".

Michael Tobias (MT): Marc, our species causes deep and enduring pain all over this amazing planet, as if human destruction of other life forms were instinctive. No species or landscapes are immune. While the various animal protection movements (animal liberation, animal rights, animal welfare, veganism, etc.) seek to save individuals, conservationists – and conservation biology specifically – are invariably more focused on habitat, or whole populations, or taxonomic groups at the species or sub-species level, a standing bias, obviously, since the late 18th century binomial nomenclature of Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). Is “compassionate conservation” the ultimate scientific and ethical reconciliation?

A Brokpa, Eastern Himalayan Boy and His Family Dog, © M. C. Tobias

Marc Bekoff (MB): At a symposium on biodiversity, conservation, and animal rights held in March 2012 at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, you, Michael, in your Keynote Address, referred to all those myriad of places on earth where our species has had the most devastating effects as “pain points;” noting that there are many “pillars of pain” on Earth, some right in our own backyards. I was deeply moved by what you said and couldn’t agree more.

MT: I greatly appreciate that. That was key material in the book Jane Gray Morrison and I wrote, God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor.

A Beloved Friend, Not Dinner, Outside Auckland, New Zealand, © M. C. Tobias

Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, a Friend, © J. G. Morrison

MB: And, this is where compassionate conservation can come to the rescue because we must be motivated by the universal moral imperative, namely, “First do no harm.” We need to ask how other animals feel about the loss of their homes because solid science tells us that they suffer like we do when we lose a safe and peaceful place to live, thrive, and survive.

MT: Of course, we all know that it is impossible to fully do no harm. A Digambara Jain monk tries, and comes about as close as is humanly possible. But I realize you are speaking directly to a specific, narrower context. How would you summarize the concept?

MB: Compassionate conservation is concerned with the humane treatment and welfare of individual animals within the framework of traditional conservation biology in which the focus is on species, populations, or ecosystems, as you pointed out. Often there is polarization between those interested in animal protection and those interested in conservation. It is all too easy to trump individual animal welfare for the widely shared goal of preserving biodiversity. Compassion for animals should be fundamental for conservation because poor conservation outcomes are often consistent with the mistreatment of animals.

A Bird Market in Malaysia. © M. C. Tobias

Skull of poached, Critically Endangered Titi Callicebus monkey, Brazil, © M, C. Tobias

Ignoring Nature No More, by Dr. Marc Bekoff, Photograph (and Front Cover Above) Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

MT: Are we only now waking up to this?

MB: Not necessarily but the implications are becoming increasingly important as conservation actions intensify in the wake of climate change, losses of critical habitat, and changes in the behavior of animals that influence activity budgets, social organization, and mating patterns. Dr. Daniel Ramp at the University of Technology, Sydney (Australia), where a centre for Compassionate Conservation is being established, notes, by placing compassion alongside conservation, decision-making that results in poor animal welfare and conservation outcomes should become more transparent and avoidable and this will be a great aid to wildlife management.

Compassionate conservation is a rapidly growing international and interdisciplinary movement. An inaugural symposium was organized in 2010 by the Born Free Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) of the University of Oxford and to date there have been three further international meetings in the UK, China, and Australia. The unedited text of the talks can be seen online.

At a Temple in Western India, © J. G. Morrison

It’s very important for traditional conservation scientists to embrace the feelings of other animals: No longer is it the case that human interests should necessarily override those of individual animals and within this avenue of thought and action exists a broad, bold, challenging, and forward-looking agenda that is compassionate conservation.

© M. C. Tobias

Pacific Pocket Mouse, one of the most Critically-Endangered Mammals in the United States, with radio transmitter, Marine Corps B

MT: What are some of the most relevant and urgent areas of focus?

MB: Reducing or eliminating altogether the harm being meted out to individuals in captivity and in the wild. These include keeping animals in zoos or aquaria in the name of conservation and education, captive breeding, methods used to mark or tag animals for identification, conservation consequences of wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and release, the reintroduction (repatriation) of animals into habitats from which they have disappeared, the international trade in live wild animals, pest management and sustainable use, and the whole substitution concept, wherein one death is ethically proposed as the solution for another’s life – so-called pest eradication as the salvation for certain native or endemic species. This is very tough.

One of the world's foremost conservationists, John Muir, Photograph in Private Collection, © M. C. Tobias

MT: These are indeed difficult areas of burning concern for conservationists. I know that for the more disengaged lay public, many people find zoos to be a major problem. Others, in the name of conservation and education swear by them.

In Bangkok © M. C. Tobias

MB: There’s very little evidence that zoos actually make any meaningful contribution to conservation, and it’s important to note that few animals who live in zoos are ever introduced to the wild. While some money does go from zoos to conservation there are ample data to indicate the vast majority of people who visit zoos don’t make any meaningful contributions to conservation projects later on.

MT: In your new edited work, Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation the range of subject matter within this field is quite illuminating, the topics covered at the heart of animal protection and ecology – and certainly key to much of my own research and initiatives and that of my many colleagues around the world. And it obviously echoes many of your own earlier investigations over the years, as in such pieces asEthics and the study of carnivores: Doing science while respecting animals,” (with Dale Jamieson, in J. L. Gittleman, ed., Carnivore behavior, ecology, and evolution, Volume 2. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1996), and “Human-carnivore interactions: Adopting proactive strategies for complex problems,” (in J. L. Gittleman, S. M. Funk, D. W. Macdonald, and R. K. Wayne, eds., Carnivore Conservation, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2001). But what do you now see as key for people to better appreciate differing perspectives between animal welfarists, animals rightist, and conservation biologists?

Over 30 million visitors and celebrants at New York's Central Park every year, © M. C. Tobias

Dr. Birute Galdikas, animal rights and conservation biology visionary, President of Orangutan Foundation International with Frie

MB: The differences can be enormous, leading to very different priorities about who lives, who dies, and why. Welfarists and conservation biologists argue over whether, for example, a specific project needs to be put on hold until animal suffering is eliminated, or that a project needs to be terminated if this is not possible.

People who believe that it’s permissible to cause animals pain, but not unnecessary pain, argue that if we consider the animals’ welfare or well-being, or their quality of life, that’s all we need to do.

These people are called “welfarists” and they practice “welfarism.” Welfarists believe that while humans should not wantonly exploit animals, as long as we make animals’ lives comfortable, physically and psychologically, we’re respecting their welfare.

If animals experience comfort and some of life’s pleasures, appear happy, and are free from prolonged or intense pain, fear, hunger and other unpleasant states, they’re doing fine. If individuals show normal growth and reproduction, and are free from disease, injury, malnutrition and other types of suffering, they’re doing well and we’re fulfilling our obligations to them.

This welfarist position also assumes that it is all right to use animals to meet human ends as long as certain safeguards are employed. They believe that the use of animals in experiments and the slaughtering of animals as food for humans are all right as long as these activities are conducted in a humane way. They also believe keeping animals in zoos and aquariums where there are high death rates is permissible. Welfarists do not want animals to suffer from any unnecessary pain, but they sometimes disagree among themselves about what pain is “necessary” and what humane care really amounts to.

Freddy with Loving Visitors, Tiere von Michael Aufhauser, Photograph Courtesy of Gut Aiderbichl, Salzburg, Austria

Extremely Rare Yellow Eyed Penguins, New Zealand, © M. C. Tobias

Dr. Birute Galdikas and Friend © M. C. Tobias

MT: But in the end?

MB: In the end, welfarists agree that the pain and death animals suffer is sometimes justified because of the benefits that humans derive.

MT: That the ends, in other words, justify the means.

MB: Right. As long as humanity somehow benefits. That’s the logic.

MT: What about the animal rights position?

MB: These advocates stress that animals’ lives are valuable in and of themselves, not valuable just because of what they can do for humans or because they look or behave like us. Animals are not property or “things,” but rather living organisms, subjects of a life, who are worthy of our compassion, respect, friendship, and support. Rightists expand the borders of species to whom we grant certain rights.

Thus, animals are not “lesser” or “less valuable” than humans. They are not property that may be abused or dominated at will. Any amount of animal pain and death is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Skeleton of Extinct Elephant Bird, Madagascar, © M. C. Tobias

Conservationist luminary, Marieta van der Merwe and Friend, Harnas Wildlife Foundation, Namibia, Africa © M. C. Tobias

MT: And the conservation biology and general environmentalist camps?

MB: Typically, they’re welfarists who are willing to trade-off individuals’ lives for the perceived good of higher levels of organization such as ecosystems, populations or species. Witness the reintroduction of Canadian lynx into Colorado or wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Some conservationists and environmentalists, in contrast to rightists, argued that the death of some individuals (even the agonizingly painful starvation of lynx who were placed in a habitat where it was known that there wasn’t enough food) was permissible for the perceived good of the species. Some even say that we should concentrate on the animals who are known to be alive, rather than the dead or the missing.

MT: And the utilitarian view?

MB: Yes, people who claim it’s all right to kill “pests” such as brown rats, coyotes, and other animals because they are numerous.

MT: “Pests” in quotation marks, of course. Namely, bio-invasives. Not inherently “bad,” so to speak, just misplaced, like weeds through no fault of their own.

MB: Right. And then there all those who advocate for captive-born predatory animals to kill and eat other animals (prey who can’t get away); to even go so far as to train them so they can be released into the wild. These are forms of the utilitarian position. One such case involves the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets. Golden hamsters were bred only to be used as practice prey for the ferrets.

Trio Indian Companion Parrot, Southern Suriname © M. C. Tobias

MT: Now: herein lies the rub. Should we be breeding animals as “ambassadors” for their species only to have them live out their lives in cages or released into wild habitats expressly for purposes of their death? Aside from such huge questions as sport hunting – people killing for fun – your book addresses other extraordinarily compelling issues with respect to conservation practices, from the Giant Panda to wolves to kangaroos.

MB: Absolutely. As compassion for individuals is factored into conservation practices and decision making, more people are asking, for example, if it is ethical to breed captive pandas who will never be released into the wild to be “ambassadors” for their species. These charismatic animals generate a lot of money for zoos and are shipped here and there and made to breed. People are also re-evaluating the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park because many wolves died or were killed “for the good of their species.” And, despite the cost to individual wolves, these predators are well on the way to being removed from the U. S. Endangered Species List. Why bring wolves back if we’re only going to kill them again?

Dr. Francisco Fonseca, President of Portugal's Grupo Lobo with rescued Iberian Wolf Friend © M. C. Tobias

MT: Which invokes a re-consideration – if repeat killing becomes a conservation vogue – of the whole Endangered Species Act (ESA). It also touches deeply upon the whole national park, or scientific reserve arena; protected area networks, and the like. Now, we actually have park managers speaking (theoretically) of moving whole national parks due to climate change; or reconstructing past biomes, ecosystems, based on linear perceptions of what those systems used to be like.

MB: To the point exactly. Moreover, people who actually study wolves strongly disagree with the de-listing (off the ESA) of these wonderful beings. Some argue it is better to sterilize animals than to kill them.

MT: We’ve been looking at immuno-contraception for years, as you know. For island nations particularly, where bio-invasives are frequently spell the number one cause of native species mortality, we feel it to be a conservation priority, as it has become in many nations, including parts of the US and also Australia. But many will argue it is not yet ready to be unleashed in the wild; that there could be collateral genetic damage. This remains a point of pressing controversy. My argument is: if it has come of age for humans in the form of birth control, why can it not be perfected, targeted, and rendered efficacious and humane for other vertebrates, whether possum, rat, mustelid-family species, mice or deer?

In places like the Channel Islands National Park, California, or the Galapagos, the Falklands, New Caledonia, Guam, Hawaii – not to mention New Zealand, it is really crucial.

Brent Beaven, one of New Zealand's great conservation biologists on globally important Ulva Island, © J. G. Morrison

Extraordinarily Rare Southern Bamboo Rat, Midnight, Peru © M. C. Tobias

MB: I agree. A truly humane way to impede the need of further mass-killing. And there is another interesting, if not critical point. Take kangaroos. In Australia, there is great concern that killing kangaroos in the name of conservation, a widespread practice, is not only inhumane but also ineffective in reducing their numbers. When kangaroos are killed, often for sport, targeted individuals and other group members suffer and die. Daniel Ramp notes that shooting breaks up groups when an individual is killed or another flees the group and these losses fracture social learning pathways related to foraging and predation risk vital for survival to adulthood.

Compassionate conservation enters into the discussion because when we kill individuals there is a good deal of collateral damage –a different type of collateral damage than you referenced – but one that equally harms numerous other individuals who are not the “target” animals. Moreover, this totally unnecessary conservation tactic incentivizes recreational hunters who legally kill for the apparent “fun” of it. Whether in a conservation estate, or the urban setting, such mindless killing is ineffective.

MT: They certainly have a robust debate in the UK on this front.

A radio-collared Mountain Lion in the Santa Monica, California mountains, © National Park Service

MB: Especially with regard to urban red foxes. There is no shred of evidence that killing foxes works; or, in the US, the killing of coyotes or gray wolves, species which, in fact, inflict minimal damage to livestock and even less to humans.

MT: In surveying the field of resurgent ethical conflicts within the conservation arena, you have cited any number of case studies that, on face value, would appear to reject the efficacy, let alone morality, of many projects involving introductions, or re-introductions of species back in to the wild.

MB: Yes. In one instance, it was determined that approximately 160 Golden Lion Tamarins (Leontopithecus rosalia) died in a long-term reintroduction program dedicated to saving this species. People vary in their opinion about whether trading off lives is ethically acceptable. I feel the loss of 160 lives is really an issue and it raises a number of questions including why are Golden Lion Tamarins so important? Who really cares if they exist? Could the money have been used for other projects? I know the people who worked on this project really do care about animals so I’m forced to try to understand why the trading off of lives “for the good of their own species” is permissible. I wonder what the animals would think about it all.

Liv Baker at the University of British Columbia has noted that reintroductions often fail because of the lack of consideration of the behavior of animals with different personalities. It has been estimated that 50-80% of introductions are not successful, but much hangs on the definition of success.

MT: I believe this is core frontier ecology, or, as you put it, “applied philosophy” at its most manifestly needed level.

Critically Endangered California Condor. Conservationists are helping to make a comeback for this magnificent native avian, © M. C. Tobias

MB: I think that our increased understanding of how certain personality types (I’m speaking of individuals of other species) respond to potential social and environmental stressors would help increase the survival of introductions and re-introduction projects.

MT: I would add that such profound considerations should be employed in the strategic planning stage of any future conservation biology endeavors involving real lives under what can only be characterized as improvised situations and unrealized scenarios. Ethics need not lag behind, or be merely relegated to the province of hindsight.

But I also know from experience that every situation casts a different ethical shadow over what is often a crisis right there in front of you. Incremental metaphysics creeps into the drama; too many wildfires amidst a welter of imperatives. Do we have an “ethics gene” that can effectively prioritize? Is triage ever morally acceptable in a brutal world that demands one precedent over another, particularly in the realm of ecology and animal rights?

The remarkable Michael Aufhauser, Founder and President, Gut Aiderbichl, Salzburg, With Friends © Gut Aiderbichl

MB: That’s precisely right. Sometimes there is no principle that can be easily generalized. I’ve seen that situation arise in human-tiger conflicts, for example, in Bangladesh.

MT: I’ve seen it in both Asia and Africa with farmers and elephants. Or throughout the US where authorities or so-called “animal control” experts, suddenly confronted with wild animals at large, were either imperfectly acquainted with humane mitigation techniques, or found themselves confronted with scenarios they simply couldn’t get a grip on. We read the newspaper and declare: they should have tranquilized, relocated, etc. but no one is ever certain how to cope with an explosive situation. Whether with a mountain lion, or even a human in a lock-down situation, where their medications were improperly prescribed, or the dose level was off. There are so many vagaries of wild experience that the ethics can become blurred. But what impresses me about the “compassionate conservation” ethos are its underlying assertions and goals. How would you summarize them?

MB: Michael, as I indicated initially, “First do no harm.” In the real and messy world it is essential to have informed discussion about the ways animals are treated and compassionate conservation brings to the table people with rather different views on animal protection. Among the questions that need to be asked are: Is intervention necessary and what are the most humane alternatives.

We squash ants and overfish; we kill billions of “pests” and poison millions of birds without blinking or thinking about how they suffer when we do so.

Left to die in the sun, Gulf of Aden, Yemen © M. C. Tobias

"The Individual Within," Sikkim, 1974, © M. C. Tobias

MT: Hence, the critical re-examination of the individual within; the individual within a species, a population, a habitat. And, at the same time, disabusing people of the word “pests.” They are not pests, inherently: they are living beings, sentient beings.

MB: Exactly. We need to be able to identify those characteristics of an individual or species that warrant keeping them alive or allowing them to suffer or die and when we factor in ecological variables this becomes a difficult practice. Our attempts to draw lines separating species are fraught with error, many actually favoring native species over non-native invasive species.

Yet, I would subscribe that it is a fair and important question to ask when can a non-native or introduced species be considered native? In his seminal work on the notion of “ecological inclusion” – my Australian colleague, Rod Benninson, notes that the term “invasive species” has a negative overtone that already stacks the deck against certain species. You referenced the famous line that a weed is simply a misplaced flower. Bennison suggests using the term “out of place” rather than “invasive” – a move with which I agree.

A Wonderful Family at Farm Sanctuary, Upstate New York © J. G. Morrison

MT: Can conservation biology truly atone for all of our human meddling? We can’t truly rectify the wave upon wave of past cultures that swept over whole continents irreversibly changing ecosystems and driving countless species to extinction. We might try to re-establish niches as they might have existed ten-thousand years ago, but is this ethical in light of fiscal constraints and current biological hemorrhaging on all fronts?

MB: Very good point. We certainly must prioritize. Can we really recreate or restore ecosystems? Should other animals pay for our destructive and selfish ways? What are we really doing? Can we or should we try “to do it all”?

In an internet survey conducted by University of York’s Murray Rudd, of 583 conservation scientists questioned 60 per cent agreed that criteria should be established for deciding which species to abandon in order to focus on saving others. Since we decide who lives and who dies compassionate conservation can easily be integrated into decisions about the fate of individual animals.

Compassionate conservation has catalyzed a much-needed paradigm shift for everyone concerned with protecting animals as well as populations, species, and ecosystems – ‘saving nature’ — by opening the door for interdisciplinary discussions.

Ms. Tashi Payden Tshering, Executive Director, RSPCA-Bhutan, and rescued Friends © M. C. Tobias

MT: Every major ethical tradition of which I am aware speaks of sentient living beings. I often wonder why so many of my fellow conservationists and conservation biologists shy away from sentience.

MB: That’s right. It’s critical to avow that sentience matters. Science tells us animals have feelings, emotions, and preferences and individuals care about and worry about what happens to them and to their families and friends. We need to consider what we know about animal sentience when we intrude into their lives, even if it is on their behalf.

MT: And to summarize?

MB: A humane framework that considers individual animals is long overdue.

Somewhere in Asia, © M. C. Tobias

MT: And I’ve known you for enough years to remind readers that you are an optimist, correct?

MB: Absolutely. I’m personally hopeful that more and more people will come to value the lives of individuals in their work and that compassionate conservation will lead the way. It’s difficult for me to imagine that striving for a more compassionate world wouldn’t be high on the agenda of everyone who has the opportunity and privilege of working with other animals.

Compassionate conservation can rescue other animals and us from the unprecedented egregious and speciesist path of anthropocentric and anthropogenic domination.

We Are All One, © M. C. Tobias & J. G. Morrison

Text and teaser image copyright 2013 by Michael Charles Tobias/Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation

This interview was originally posted at

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