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

A conservation biologist claims emotions and compassion are anti-science.

Key points

  • Using the Precautionary Principle and bridging the Knowledge Translation Gap help conservation efforts by applying what we know about sentience.
  • Scientists shouldn't balk at the use of words such as emotion, compassion, heart, and love.
  • Emotion and compassion should be embraced as core virtues of conservation. Our emotions and those of other animals matter.

"Our emotional bonds with other species and their members [are] fundamental to conservation..." —Michelle Nijhuis, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (p. 269)1

I recently received an email from a renowned conservation biologist I'll call Jonas who wrote: "I know you are a behavioural ecologist and strongly support the field of compassionate conservation, but a recent essay on which you are a co-author is anti-science and anti-conservation. Emotions and compassion get in the way of making progress and we cannot let that happen."

Soon after, I received an email from a group of seventh grade students who are working on a project focusing on two very interesting questions that are related what Jonas wrote to me. They asked: (1) "How much more information do we need to stop hurting animals?" and (2) "Why do so many scientists avoid talking about animal emotions?" I had recently read Michelle Nijhuis' Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction and I remembered the quote with which I begin this piece.

I've been thinking a lot about both of these emails and this morning I decided to write about them because they raise a host of questions about the fields of compassionate conservation and cognitive ethology and two ideas that can be used to further discussion—the Precautionary Principle and the Knowledge Translation Gap.

The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle has " four central components : taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making." 2 Simply put, the Precautionary Principle " emphasizes caution , pausing and review before leaping into new innovations that may prove disastrous." Not only does it apply to scientific decisions in general, but it also applies to one of the foundational principles of compassionate conservation, namely, "First Do No Harm," and to the study of animal sentience and animal emotions. The other guiding principles of compassionate conservation are, Individuals Matter, Value All Wildlife, and Peaceful Coexistence . 3

Let's first consider the idea that emotions and compassion are anti-science and get in the way of making progress, although this misguided thought is related to questions about how much information we need to work hard to protect nonhuman animals (animals) and don't we really have enough data right now.

The essay to which Jonas is referring is called " Emotion as a Source of Moral Understanding in Conservation. " In this piece, we note that recent debates around the meaning and implications of compassionate conservation suggest that some conservationists consider emotion a false and misleading basis for moral judgment and decision making. We go on to trace these beliefs to a long-standing, gendered sociocultural convention and argue that the disparagement of emotion as a source of moral understanding is both empirically and morally problematic.

We also argue that according to the current scientific and philosophical understanding, reason and emotion are better understood as partners, rather than opposites. Nonetheless, the two have historically been seen as separate, with reason elevated in association with masculinity and emotion (especially nurturing emotion) dismissed or delegitimated in association with femininity. These associations can be situated in a broader, dualistic, and hierarchical logic used to maintain power for a dominant male (White, able-bodied, upper class, heterosexual) human class.

We conclude that emotion should be affirmed by conservationists for the novel and essential insights it contributes to conservation ethics. We consider the specific example of compassion and characterize it as an emotional experience of interdependence and shared vulnerability. This experience highlights conservationists’ responsibilities to individual beings, enhancing established and widely accepted beliefs that conservationists have a duty to protect populations, species, and ecosystems (or biodiversity). Compassion, thus understood, should be embraced as a core virtue of conservation.

From a scientific point of view and applying the precautionary principle, there are many conservation successes using the basic principles of compassionate conservation and the protocols favored by compassionate conservation don't go beyond available data on animal sentience and animal emotions . There also is no evidence that the application of the principles of compassionate conservation is less successful than traditional conservation protocols. Harming or killing other animals " in the name of conservation " or in other venues is not especially compassionate from what we know about the emotional lives of a wide array of other animals.

Beloved Beasts raises some of the same questions that we do about racism and discrimination against women. 1 Michelle Nijhuis confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism, notes that "humans are capable of protecting the rest of life from ourselves" (p. 212), and argues that the practice of conservation biology "can't be left only to the biologists." (p. 212)

The Knowledge Translation Gap

We also can apply the Knowledge Translation Gap in which it's argued that we must use what we know on behalf of other animals and we already know enough to so. The ideas behind the Knowledge Translation Gap are closely related to the Precautionary Principle.

Basically, the knowledge translation gap refers to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. On a broad scale, it means that what we now know about animal cognition and emotion needs to be translating it into an evolution in human attitudes and practices. A good but depressing anti-scientific example of the knowledge translation gap is found in the wording of the Federal Animal Welfare Act, which explicitly excludes rats and mice from the kingdom Animalia , although a first-grader knows that rats and mice are animals.

A consideration of the two questions from the seventh-grade students: "How much more information do we need to stop hurting animals?" and (2) "Why do so many scientists avoid talking about animal emotions?" also can be handled by applying the Precautionary Principle and bridging the Knowledge Translation Gap, and I carefully explained to them why this is so. They had no trouble understanding what I said.

Moving On

There are no reasons why we cannot use the Precautionary Principle and bridge the Knowledge Translation Gap in conservation protocols and in determining how we should use other animals in other venues. We know enough right now and have known enough for decades to confidently state that other animals are sentient and feeling beings and should be treated with compassion and respect.

Some people are content to repackage the message that "we need to do better," engage in humane-washing and compassion-washing, and continue to do things that severely compromise the well-being of other animals. They also say they're doing the best they can so that makes what they're doing acceptable, or that the animals really don't have the rich and deep emotional lives although solid data clearly shows they do.

Of course we need to do better. An ample and ever-growing database on animal sentience is staring us right in the eyes and it's high time to move on beyond the status quo. Using the Precautionary Principle and bridging the Knowledge Translation Gap offer practical, viable, and reasonable ways to move on, to better conduct conservation and other projects, and to place emotions—theirs and ours—and compassion in future protocols involving nonhuman animals.



1) The description for Beloved Beasts reads: "A vibrant history of the modern conservation movement―told through the lives and ideas of the people who built it. In the late nineteenth century, as humans came to realize that our rapidly industrializing and globalizing societies were driving other animal species to extinction, a movement to protect and conserve them was born. In Beloved Beasts, acclaimed science journalist Michelle Nijhuis traces the movement’s history: from early battles to save charismatic species such as the American bison and bald eagle to today’s global effort to defend life on a larger scale. She describes the vital role of scientists and activists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson as well as lesser-known figures in conservation history; she reveals the origins of vital organizations like the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund; she explores current efforts to protect species such as the whooping crane and the black rhinoceros; and she confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism. As the destruction of other species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species―including our own." Two excellent reviews of this book can be found here and here.

2) More information on the precautionary principle can be found here.

3) Further discussion of compassionate conservation and its many successes can be found here.

Bekoff, Marc. The Animals' Agenda: An interview About Animal Well-Being.

_____. Sentience and Conservation: Lessons from Southern Africa.

_____. Compassionate Conservation, Sentience, and Personhood. (Conservation efforts should be guided by compassion rather than by killing.)

_____. Animal Emotions, Animal Sentience, and Why They Matter.

_____. A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending. (A discussion of the results of more than 2500 papers on animal sentience.)

_____. The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals.

_____. Mice Share Each Other's Feelings of Pain, Fear, and Relief.

_____. Compassionate Conservation Isn't Seriously or Fatally Flawed. (Two essays, one in popular press and one in an academic journal, have it wrong.)

_____. Compassionate Conservation and Sustainability in Bhutan.

Birch, Jonathan. Animal sentience and the precautionary principle. Animal Sentience, 2 (16), 2017.

Kriebel, David et al. The Precautionary Principle in Environmental Science. Environmental Health Perspectives , 2001.

Proctor, Helen. Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading? Animals, 2012.

Ramp, Daniel and Marc Bekoff. Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation. BioScience, 2015.

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