Killing "In the Name of Coexistence" Doesn't Make Much Sense

Some conservation organizations have misleading mission statements.

Posted Aug 05, 2018

Killing animals "in the name of coexistence" or "in the name of protection"

"With a guiding principle of ‘first do no harm,' compassionate conservation offers a bold, virtuous, inclusive, and forward-looking framework that provides a meeting place for different perspectives and agendas to discuss and solve issues of human-animal conflict when sharing space."

I'm a strong supporter of the growing field of compassionate conservation that centers on four guiding principles: First Do No Harm1; Individuals Matter; Valuing All Wildlife and Their Intrinsic Value; and Peaceful Coexistence. The vision of The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at The University of Technology, Sydney, is "to better conserve nature by protecting the welfare of individual animals in captivity and in the wild." (My emphasis) Simply put, conservation is a moral pursuit and demands clear ethical guidelines. (See "Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age," "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation," and numerous references therein.) Compassionate conservation isn't merely "welfarism gone wild," nor is it veiled animal rights or "animal liberation dressed up as conservation science." The latter view is a misleading, ill informed, and confused attempt to dismiss compassionate conservation as something it isn't. (See The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.) 

I've argued that killing nonhuman animals (animals) should be off the table, so killing them "softly" or "humanely" is not an option because it's inarguable that "killing in the name of conservation" remains incredibly inhumane on a global scale. (See "Compassionate Conservation Meets Conservation Psychology.") The phrase “killing softly” is an oxymoron, and the good news is that, slowly but surely, more people are coming out against killing in the name of conservation. Those who try to apply the basic principles of compassionate conservation don't all have the same beliefs and there is some variation within the community about whether there are animal-human conflicts in which it would be permissible to override any of the four guiding principles. (See Brandon Keim's "Do Conservation Strategies Need to Be More Compassionate?") These disagreements and different points of view are challenging to compassionate conservationists (as they are to more traditional conservationists), but it's important to have healthy debates that will help to define the future of the field.  

The focus on individual animals stresses that each and every being has inherent value and cannot be dismissed as an object or metric who can be traded off for the good of their own or other nonhuman species, for the good of humans, or for the good of species or populations (called "collectives"), or for biodiversity. Sentience, or the ability to feel, also is an important emotional capacity for some people, but animals who aren't thought to be sentient or aren't yet known to be sentient also are of concern. The focus on individuals also stresses that they're not merely important because of their instrument value or utility — what they can do for us. Rather, because they are alive they are to be valued. 

In the essay I focus on "killing in the name of coexistence" and "killing in the name of protection," rather than "killing in the name of conservation." I also focus on organizations, rather than on individuals who work for them or for other groups and who might have views differing from their parent organization. When talking with different people it became clear that "killing in the name of coexistence" and "killing in the name of protection" are different from "killing in the name of conservation," but there can be some overlap among them. Here I consider the mission statements of a number of national organizations housed in the U.S.A. that have many of the same general messages, but which radically differ in the actions they permit to resolve different types of nonhuman-human conflicts. 

Wildlife Services: The mission statement of Wildlife Services (WS) reads, "The mission of Wildlife Services of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) is to provide Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist. WS conducts program delivery, research, and other activities through its Regional and State Offices, the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) and its Field Stations, as well as through its National Programs. Along these lines we also read, "WS' vision is to improve the coexistence of people and wildlife." Anyone who follows the killing ways of WS fully realizes that their conception of "coexistence" — living in harmony or peacefully with other animals — is a rather perverted one in that it has entailed the killing of millions upon millions of animals using brutal and inhumane methods. Clearly, WS allows "killing in the name of coexistence." And they also put out false information. (Please see, for example, "Reports of record wolf depredations based on misinformation" in which it's reported, "The Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission has been claiming that wolves killed a record number of livestock last year. But that’s misleading, because Wildlife Services, the secretive federal agency in charge of killing wolves in Idaho, is using a new method to verify wolf kills that is inaccurate and overbroad.")

Defenders of Wildlife (DoW): On their homepage we read, "Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities." (My emphasis.) We also read, "Founded in 1947, Defenders of Wildlife is a major national conservation organization focused solely on wildlife and habitat conservation and the safeguarding of biodiversity. We believe in the inherent value of wildlife and the natural world, and this singular focus defines our important niche in the environmental and conservation community and serves as the anchor for our organizational values. (My emphasis.) 

Clearly DoW is not dedicated to the protection of all native animals, for in certain situations they allow animals to be killed (and have not formally spoken out, to the best of my and others' knowledge, on the use of steel jawed leg hold traps). And, if they believe in the inherent value of wildlife, why would they, along with Wolf Haven International, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and Conservation Northwest, voluntarily belong to Washington state's Wolf Advisory Group (WAG), a a collection of organizations and individuals that does not allow members to dissent and who support killing the "authorized removal" — the killing — of wolves. (For more discussion, click here.) The mission statement for Wolf Haven International reads, "The mission of Wolf Haven International is "To conserve and protect wolves and their habitat," that of the Humane Society of the United States is "Celebrating Animals, Confronting Cruelty," and that of Conservation Northwest reads, "We protect, connect and restore wildlands and wildlife from the Washington Coast to the British Columbia Rockies." Nonetheless, they all tacitly support killing wolves simply by being a member of a group that allows it to happen and does not accept dissent. 

I find it difficult to reconcile how a group (or an individual) can both be “for wolves” and allow them to be killed. These inconsistent views remind me of people who say they love other animals and then feel comfortable harming and killing them (the essay for which I provided a link was motivated after a 6-year old asked me, "How come people say they love animals and kill them?"). Some individuals speaking for themselves or for different organizations have declared that killing some wolves will stop killing more wolves in the future, but the killing of wolves in 2016 did not stop further killing in 2017. WAG members call the killing of wolves "regrettable," but really, it's deplorable. The phrase “authorized removal” sanitizes the killing for which they're directly responsible. I’m surprised that some people buy into this cover-up, but I've been told that more than 90% of people who are asked about the WAG's involvement in the killing of wolves did not know about it. Numerous people with whom I've had conversations also had no idea. 

I realize that some people fully support both DoW's mission statement and their actions. However, what they say they represent and what they allow to happen are contradictory; they don't protect all native animals" and I've learned that many people don't realize this. Obviously, some organizations allow "killing in the name of 'protection' and 'coexistence'".

Project Coyote: The mission statement of Project coyote reads, "Project Coyote is a national non-profit organization based in Northern California whose mission is to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence between people and wildlife through education, science and advocacy. Our representatives, advisory board members and supporters include scientists, educators, ranchers and citizen leaders who work together to change laws and policies to protect native carnivores from abuse and mismanagement, advocating coexistence instead of killing. We seek to change negative attitudes toward coyotes, wolves and other misunderstood predators by replacing ignorance and fear with understanding, respect and appreciation. (My emphases.) "Project Coyote envisions a world where Human communities coexist synergistically and peacefully with wildlife; Science empowers lasting solutions for resilient carnivore populations; Native carnivores are valued for their critical ecological role and their intrinsic worth; Children understand the value of Wild Nature; and Compassionate conservation drives wildlife stewardship." Note the their mission statement includes compassionate conservation and advocating coexistence instead of killing (Please also see "Let’s learn to live safely and peacefully with coyotes"). The mission statement for Advocates for Snake Preservation also refers to compassionate conservation and coexistence; "Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP) uses science, education, and advocacy to promote compassionate conservation and coexistence with snakes. Learn more about us."

Predator Defense: On its website we read, "Since 1990 our efforts have taken us into the field, onto America’s public lands, to Congress, and into courtrooms. Here's just a sampling of what we do: Help the public, elected officials, agency personnel, ranchers and others understand that people and predators can peacefully co-exist. Promote non-lethal predator control that helps people and preserves wildlife." We also read, "The commonly held belief that we need to kill predators to control their population is a myth. Predators should not be hunted or trapped. Individual animals matter. No animal should suffer. (My emphases.)

Who lives, who dies, and why: It's time to do what's right, stop putting out mixed messages, and take killing off of the menu of options 

“It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”  Mahatma Gandhi

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”  Martin Luther King Jr.

Humans are the most powerful and dominating species on land, in water, and in the sky. We can do whatever we like to members of other species and we have caused, and continue to cause, untold pain, suffering, and death to individuals of countless species. The anthropocene, often called "the age of humanity," really is "the rage of inhumanity." Future generations will likely look back on what their ancestors did with incredulity — how in the world could we treat other animals the way we did "in the name of coexistence?" 

I fully realize that some people disagree with my and others' take on the misleading messages that some conservation organizations put out — that their words and the actions they allow are inconsistent. However, they continue to put out these sorts of mixed messages. It's also difficult to figure out how some who say that they or certain organizations embrace the basic principles of compassionate conservation allow wolves (or other animals) to be killed. Compassionate conservation stresses the importance of individual animals, so trading off individuals of one species for others of their own or members of different species is inconsistent with the guiding principles of compassionate conservation. It's individuals who count, rather than species or populations. 

Killing "in the name of coexistence" or "in the name of protection" makes little sense and surely doesn't respect the inherent value of each and every individual. Killing some individuals so that others may live at the same time or in the future is inconsistent with the goals of compassionate conservation. And, the slippery slope of killing "here" but not "there" gets awfully greasy awfully fast, and the end result is that individuals are killed because it's OK to do so in this situation but not in others. It's high time to take killing off of the menu of options.

My purpose here is simply to generate discussion and to ask organizations to clearly state what they mean in their mission statements about the actions they permit to resolve animal-human conflicts. If they say they protect "all native animals," then they are obligated to do so, rather than killing some for the benefit of others. The word all is a powerful and inclusive term, so one has to be very careful when they use it. Likewise, if they claim they're for coexisting with or for protecting other animals, then they need to work for coexistence and protection that does not entail killing. The inconsistency with which some organizations (and individuals) act despite what they claim they believe about the way in which other animals are treated needs to be openly discussed. Organizations and individual people can always change their ways. 

Offering ideas with which some people feel uncomfortable gets much-needed discussions going. If we don’t work diligently for nonlethal solutions, they won’t materialize and the killing fields won’t go away. People who are arguing for nonlethal practices need to get their place at the table so they can participate in honest and respectful discussions and debates.

All animals depend on us for our goodwill and for being concerned with the life of each and every individual. If killing isn't an acceptable way to resolve animal-human conflicts, it's essential to express it clearly, get killing off the table, and to work for this virtuous goal.

Note

1"The takeaway point of 'first do no harm' is that, in certain cases, it may be better to do nothing rather than intervening and potentially causing more harm than good." It turns out, "Although this is generally thought to have been taken from the ancient Greek Hippocratic oath, no translations of the oath contain this language." 

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