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Florida Bear Hunt Cancelled: Win for Conservation Psychology

Humane education about the importance of the lives of individual animals works

Last October, the State of Florida allowed recreational hunters to kill 304 Florida black bears in a weekend of carnage that shocked the conscience of the world, coming mere months after a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe had killed Cecil the lion. At the time, I condemned Florida's bear hunt as a brutal massacre: The Florida bear slaughter is an event that should disgust anyone with a heart, anyone who really cares about the magnificent nonhuman animals (animals) with whom we should peacefully coexist. These sorts of bloodbaths – thrill killing gone wild – have not and do not work and should be terminated immediately.

The cancellation of Florida's bear hunt is a milestone for conservation psychology and compassionate conservation

On June 22nd, in response to massive public pressure, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) decided not to authorize another bear hunt in 2016. Although the vote was close (a detailed policy analysis can be read here), and future hunts remain a possibility, this change of course is a remarkable victory. First and foremost, it means that hundreds of nonhuman sentient individuals will not be murdered, injured, or left orphaned by another ghastly expression of “the rage of humanity” in a human-dominated world. But it also represents a milestone in the evolution of popular attitudes toward animals – a case in which a moment really did become a movement. The overwhelming popular resistance to another bear hunt underscores the relevance of the field of conservation psychology, and demonstrates the willingness of humans to apply the principles of compassionate conservation in order to find ways to coexist with animals who are often wrongly feared and misunderstood.

When conservation psychology emerged as a discipline, researchers and practitioners identified four inter-related dimensions of enquiry, with a focus on encouraging people to care about nature, and behave toward nature, in ways that would promote “harmonious relationships and an environmental ethic.” Florida provides a remarkable, real-world case study across these four dimensions.

Connections to animals: The importance of sentience

The first set of questions raised by the pioneers of conservation psychology concerned how caring relationships with the natural world develop, and how caring for animals could expand to caring about the environment as a whole. Much of this early discussion centered on the role of zoos, which I have discussed a great deal lately since the killing of Harambe at the Cincinnati zoo. But Florida's bloodbath involved wild animals killed in their natural environments – animals who, even for Floridians unfamiliar with the ecological concept of an umbrella species – symbolized wilderness in a powerful and immediate way. The hunt tied a human-interest story for the title of biggest news item in the state in 2015, reflecting an unprecedented amount of public attention on animals. And, although many of the ordinary people who opposed hunting were not familiar with the principles of compassionate conservation, those principles were being put into practice by all of those who sought to prevent harm to animals and who recognized them as individuals, not as sources of meat and fur to be “harvested” like row crops.

On Saturday, June 18th, people all across the state participated in more than 20 protests against bear hunting – probably the largest protest for black bears that had ever occurred anywhere. Protest signs such as “Don't kill my mom” were dismissed by hunters as manipulative appeals to human emotion, but should be seen instead as a recognition that animals suffer emotionally in much the same way that we do, a position that is supported by a large and growing body of peer-reviewed science.

As Florida's human population continues to swell – taking it to the rank of third-most populous in the nation – this level of interest in animals can only be seen as a beacon of hope that people do indeed value animals and the natural habitats that are disappearing at an alarming rate. Even before the outrage of the bear hunt, 75% of Floridians approved a state constitutional amendment in 2014 calling on the State to purchase vital parcels of land for conservation purposes. Habitat loss is, ultimately, the greatest threat to the wonderful animals with whom we share this world – but it is a stealthy, gradual killer, not a sudden outburst of senseless violence. It is encouraging that so many Floridians recognized this even before the horrific events of last October.

Connections to place

This aspect of conservation psychology seeks to develop “a place-based environmental identity in an urbanizing world.” In Florida's case, this provides the most obvious intersection between conservation psychology and compassionate conservation, because it is in Florida's (sprawling) suburban areas where concerns about human-bear conflicts have risen to the level that encouraged the FWC to intervene with lethal responses. As I discussed last year (please see "Florida Bear Hunt Ignores Conservation Psychology & Science"), the science is clear that conflicts with wildlife are best resolved through non-lethal techniques like trash management and other, relatively simple behavioral changes by people. The brutality of the hunt has done more than anything else to push local governments to implement bear-wise trash ordinances that have been proven to work in many other jurisdictions. Ordinary citizens, determined to deny the FWC another pretext for slaughter, have worked tirelessly to lobby towns and counties to adapt, and this was one of the factors that helped persuade the FWC to postpone hunting to evaluate the effectiveness of other measures.

If we are going to continue to intrude into areas that previously belonged to wild animals, thereby forcing them to adapt to our presence in what used to be their homes, then we must learn to adapt to them, too. Compassionate conservation teaches us, first, to do no harm, and the science on bear management resoundingly validates this principle.

Encouraging environmentally friendly behavior and environmental values

Public outrage over Florida's bear hunt has coincided with increasing awareness of severe water-pollution problems, oil and gas exploration in wild areas, and massive development plans that will destroy huge areas of habitat for the Florida panther, one of the world's most critically endangered mammals. All of this has caused people to question the sustainability of exploitative behaviors in an environment that seems increasingly fragile, and to reach for new ways of relating to the world around us. These two aspects of conservation psychology take us into the realm of public policy.

Earlier this year, I interviewed Tom Mangelsen and Todd Wilkinson about their beautiful new book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek. The grizzlies of Greater Yellowstone could very soon be hunted for fun, just like Florida's black bears, if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes their protections under the Endangered Species Act and turns management over to the states, which are actively considering hunt plans. I reminded readers that wild animals do not belong to the government (which seems willing to ignore sound science in order to bend to political pressure from special interests); rather, they belong to the people. The concept of wildlife as a public trust is not new, but has been receiving increasing attention from environmental scholars. In fact, public-trust principles apply to a host of other environmental issues besides wildlife management. In a landmark lawsuit that recently survived an important challenge in federal court, a group of young Americans is suing the federal government for failing to take action to prevent climate change. The suit – which has been copied by young people in New Zealand and Pakistan – relies very heavily on an innovative application of public-trust principles.

In Florida, the statewide protest group, Stop the Florida Bear Hunt, applied public-trust principles in a long and detailed letter to the FWC, which I co-signed along with several other animal advocates, arguing that hunting bears could never be legitimate when the value that the people place on their wildlife is not given the recognition it deserves in the policy-making process. Such efforts are important in helping people to develop a sense of ownership of our environmental treasures, fostering personal involvement in problem-solving and protection.

A moment that became a movement: Individual lives matter and everyone can make a difference in how we interact with other animals

The killing of Cecil in Zimbabwe, while it has not yet led to the permanent banning of trophy hunting in Africa, most assuredly acted as a catalyst to accelerate the phasing out of a barbaric tradition that has no place in the modern world. Numerous airlines changed their policies to deny trophy hunters the ability to bring their trophies home by air. The federal government has taken significant steps to help shut down the markets for ivory that are driving the decimation of elephant herds.

The killing of Harambe has sparked serious debate about the role of zoos, questioning not just their dubious claim to promote conservation, but the ethics of imprisoning sentient beings for human entertainment (and business profit). The recent decision by the Buenos Aires zoo to close and convert its facilities into sanctuaries attests to a spreading global awareness of the plight of individual animals. Hopefully, the desire to prevent harm to fascinating animals will come to exert sufficient social pressure on those who have been infected by the epidemic of taking “animal selfies” that represents another manifestation of the unjust elevation of human wants over the well-being of animals.

Humane education works, individual animals matter, and all people can make a difference in the lives of other animals

Chronologically placed between these two events, Florida's bear hunt certainly rivals them in terms of its impact on popular attitudes toward animals – recognizing each and every animal as an individual being who deserves to live – and the places that sustain them, with tangible results in the policy landscape that will actually save lives and prevent tremendous harm and suffering among highly complex, sentient beings. Humane education works and all individuals can make a difference in the lives of other animals

All in all, canceling the Florida bear hunt is a victory for compassionate conservation and conservation psychology but, most importantly, it is a victory for the wonderful animals with whom we share our magnificent planet.

This essay was written with Adam Sugalski and Richard Foster.

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: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017. (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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