Compassionate Conservation Isn't Veiled Animal Liberation

This growing field isn't "animal liberation dressed up as conservation science."

Posted May 28, 2018

An essay called "Compassionate conservation or misplaced compassion?" takes cheap shots against the field and is seriously flawed

A few days ago, Dr. Arian Wallach, a leading compassionate conservation researcher, told me about an essay by Dr. Peter Fleming, a self-proclaimed "lower case compassionate conservationist (i.e. a conservationist with compassion)" with the catchy title "Compassionate conservation or misplaced compassion?" published by Australia's Invasive Species Council. I read it, was totally unimpressed for reasons about which I write about below, and forgot about it. However, some other people also wrote to me, including some well-known conservationists. They not only asked me what I thought about this "rather confusing" piece, but also offered their own views about how Fleming misrepresents compassionate conservation and those who follow its basic guiding principles by taking cheap shots against the field and its advocates and for making sweeping and misleading generalizations while offering few data to support his support of killing rabbits whose ancestors were introduced to Australia. 

Fleming's essay is available online, so here are a few comments offered as a corrective about his misunderstanding of the core tenets of compassionate conservation, namely, First Do No harm, Individuals Matter, Valuing All Wildlife, and Peaceful Coexistence. Individuals matter acknowledges the intrinsic value of wildlife individuals, resisting any tendency to reduce them or their value solely to their position as members of collectives (populations, species, ecosystems). Simply put, compassionate conservation recognizes conservation as a moral pursuit and demands clear ethical guidelines. (For more discussion, please see "Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age" "Compassionate Conservation Finally Comes of Age: Killing in the name of conservation doesn't work," Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation and many links therein. And, for more information on New Zealand's horrific and brutal war on wildlife that lacks any sort of compassion and empathy, please see "Killing Animals Is 'Weirdly Addictive' Says New Zealander" and references therein. For far too many New Zealanders, killing other animals is a sick game that relies on kids and adults to meet its goals via so-called sanctioned "educational" programs and competitions to see how many animals they can kill.)

So, what's wrong with "Compassionate conservation or misplaced compassion?"

Fleming makes misleading, sweeping, and sensationalist claims that are not supported by the basic principles of compassionate conservation or by most of those who are working hard to develop this interdisciplinary field. He writes, "Compassionate Conservationists cannot usurp the moral high ground by implying, as they do in their self-descriptions, that those who reject their laissez faire approach to invasive animal management are uncaring and somehow morally inferior." This sweeping generalization is utterly false, because no one of whom I'm aware has made the claim that those who don't adhere to the basic tenets of compassionate conservation are "morally inferior." I've stressed many times that traditional conservation biologists are not necessarily "cold-blooded killers who don't care about the well-being of animals.

Furthermore, there's a lot of variation within the compassionate conservation community. For example, I've written essays with Wallach and also with Dr. Daniel Ramp of the Centre for Compassionate Conservation, and we don't always agree on the best practices for a given situation. Disagreements and different views are challenging and will only help to define and contribute to the future of compassionate conservation. Those who try to apply the basic principles of compassionate conservation don't all look alike, just as more traditional conservationist don't either. 

Fleming also writes, "Although a noble and admirable ideal, unfortunately, respecting the rights of one individual or group of animals may involve trampling on the rights of others." While this might be the case, the entire tone of his piece reeks of unbridled anthropocentrism because according to him, "a lower case compassionate conservationist," while nonhuman animals (animals) shouldn't be killing individuals of other animal species, it's perfectly okay for humans to do this. He doesn't argue this view, but rather, he simply states it as if it's doctrine. He writes, "Often humans have to kill individuals of one species to achieve conservation of broader intrinsic, economic and environmental values." So, for him, the pain, suffering, and death for which humans are responsible is different from the pain, suffering, and death for which nonhumans are responsible. To acknowledge intrinsic value in nonhumans de-centers humans from the moral universe, embedding us within a complex biosphere of others with whom we ought to engage in moral relationships (Batavia & Nelson 2017). Fleming also accuses those who follow the tenets of compassionate conservation of "outsourcing" the killing of some nonhumans to other animals, rather than having humans do the dirty deed. 

Compassionate conservation is not "animal liberation dressed up as conservation science"

"Fleming’s contention that Compassionate Conservation is merely 'animal liberation dressed up as conservation science' seems intended to direct our attention away from the fact that his tortured reasoning is actually a desperate attempt to regain these failing methodologies’ stature as legitimate conservation science." (Ed Boks, "Is compassion ever misplaced?")

Toward the end of his piece Fleming writes, "Compassionate Conservation has the capacity to do harm to the cause of conservation in Australia and elsewhere because it has little foundation in biology. It is animal liberation dressed up as conservation science." (my emphasis) This is an inane and sensationalist statement that clearly shows that he hasn't read much about the field itself (its foundation in solid biology and its successes) nor about the ethical framework of animal liberation. Simply put, compassionate conservation incorporates recognition of the intrinsic value of wildlife and the sentience of nonhuman animals. A compassionate conservation approach "allays practices that intentionally and unnecessarily harm wildlife individuals, while aligning with critical conservation goals." It seems like he feels that the cavalier way in which he dismisses and disparages compassionate conservation and it's advocates will gain acceptance by cashing out it and its followers as not being part of more accepted mainstream thinking about how to deal with animal-human conflicts. 

In "Compassionate Conservation: More than 'Welfarism Gone Wild'" I show that compassionate conservation is not simply animal welfare applied to wild animals, and also explain how it is not an animal rights position. In an essay titled "Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation," Ramp and I write, "Unlike the dominant utilitarian approach to conservation, which puts the cost of reaching conservation targets squarely on the shoulders of other animals, a compassionate ethic for conservation brings empathy into decisionmaking alongside other values. It is not a rights position but, rather, puts forward a scientific and evidence-based conceptual approach that stipulates that conservation initiatives should first do no harm (Bekoff 2010)."

Fleming also writes, " I would add that I get very emotional about the suggestion that populations of Australia’s unique fauna should be exterminated by invasive species overseen by people’s inactivity masquerading as caring or animal rights." The phrase "people’s inactivity masquerading as caring or animal rights" is singularly insulting and baseless. Once again, it's clear that either he hasn't read available literature about compassionate conservation, he simply has chosen to ignore the hard work that advocates for compassionate conservation have done and continue to do, or he thinks that labeling them in a sensationalist manner will get people to question their motives -- their alleged hidden agenda -- and perhaps write them off as "radicals." 

Fleming also claims, "Sometimes it is more ethical to kill animals than not to. Conservation of individuals, species and ecosystems often depends on that ethic. When you must kill individuals of one species to preserve the very existence of another species and prevent it from careening or staggering to extinction, it is a moral act. To stand by and watch extinction happen in the guise of compassion is reprehensible." It would be nice to know why he feels that trading off the lives of one species for the good of another species or for the greater good of collectives is a moral act. There's nothing in his essay that would lead to this unargued conclusion. 

While he focuses on "problem" rabbits, Fleming also writes, "Compassionate Conservation usually cannot conserve." (my emphasis) A lot hangs on the word "usually." He makes this claim without any supporting information and ignores the many successes of a compassionate conservation approach to situations at hand. Numerous examples can be found on the website for the Centre for Compassionate conservation, in "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation," and in references above. 

Where to from here? A view from within Australia

In a comment on Fleming's essay, Wallach notes that compassionate conservation is a new field in Australia, and so it isn’t surprising that key concepts are misunderstood. She doesn't doubt that invasion biologists and wildlife managers are driven by genuine concern for nature and notes that concern for species persistence (no matter how emotionally charged) is not a form of compassion, because compassion is by definition a response to individuals (since individuals – not species – can suffer). Animals don’t suffer more if their predators are introduced or native, and compassionate conservation does not deny or object to predation as an integral part of life. It does however object to needlessly harming mass numbers of sentient individuals in the hope of recreating our fantasies of nature. 

Concerning Fleming's concentration on rabbits, Wallach notes, "The description of rabbits as the cause of vegetation loss is a common exaggeration, which should be discussed in relation to current rates of forest clearing, livestock production, and predator persecution. As long as dingoes and other predators continue to be killed across the country it will be impossible to know what ecosystems actually looks like without poisons, guns, and traps." (Please also see this piece.)

Focusing on his insulting comment about so-called animal rightists or others' inactivity, Wallach writes, "Rather than demanding inaction, compassionate conservation requires action that is far more demanding than killing a rabbit. When addressing conservation challenges the first port of call should be to change human behaviour rather than endlessly externalising the costs onto others. Rabbits cannot protest when they are purposefully infected with viruses or when their warrens are blasted and bulldozed." 

Wallach is all for maintaining biodiversity, and concludes, "I share the Invasive Species Council’s commitment to protecting Australia’s endemic wildlife, but I can also value Australia’s wilderness as it is today – different from the past but just as wild and wonderful – a nature of rabbits & bilbies, cats & quolls. Australian conservation has followed a well trodden (and bloody) path for decades. It is time to make space for dialogue, for different voices, for a plurality of approaches." 

Dr. Wallach and I, along with other co-authors, have recently put forward our argument for compassionate conservation in an essay published in the journal Conservation Biology titled "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation." 

All in all, we should expect much more from people who choose to criticize any scientific discipline. I'm all for discussions from all different points of view, but they need to be accurate and not involve misleading sweeping statements that misrepresent the nuances of a field and its advocates. Indeed, it would be wrong to claim that all traditional conservation biologists believe this or that. As I wrote above, they surely are not necessarily "cold-blooded killers who don't care about the well-being of animals." Fleming's cheap shots against compassionate conservation and its followers are misguided and misplaced. He thoughtlessly ignores the variation in views among those advocating for compassionate conservation, and as such, he (metaphorically) throws the baby out with the bathwater. After my essay was posted I received this note: "Thank you for your essay about Compassionate Conservation. Mr. Fleming clearly is trash talking because he has nothing useful to say." 

Compassionate conservation is no longer an oxymoron and it has no hidden agenda. It considers all stakeholders, nonhuman and human, a point ignored by Fleming. It is firmly grounded in solid biology and stresses that conservation biology must be firmly rooted in ethics 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 or abandoned. And, while progress will only be made when all voices are heard, it's not asking too much to expect them to be informed about what they're arguing for or against. 

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