Traditional Conservation Science Is Ethically Challenged: Compassionate Conservation Fixes That

Author's note: Many of the ideas in this essay were developed in close collaboration over the past few years with Drs. Arian Wallach and Daniel Ramp of the Center for Compassionate Conservation. I am deeply indebted to their breadth of knowledge and wisdom. We might not always agree, but that's just fine for getting much needed discussions and debates on the table.

Compassionate conservation is a rapidly growing transdisciplinary field that aims to safeguard the flourishing of species and individual nonhuman animals (animals). Next week, at a much anticipated international meeting in Sydney, Australia, people from all over the world will gather to continue to discuss and to implement the major agenda of compassionate conservation that centers on four guiding principles, namely, First Do No harm, Individuals Matter, Valuing All Wildlife and Peaceful Coexistence.

Simply put, conservation is a moral pursuit and demands clear ethical guidelines. I've had a good number of emails from people all over the world about this gathering and this is a good time to write some more about the upcoming meeting and to briefly summarize what compassionate conservation isn't and is all about. More details can be found in many of the links below. 

While there have been a number of previous gatherings focusing on compassionate conservation, this meeting will be a major factor in helping compassionate conservation to come of age:

The conference will help expand the horizons of compassionate conservation, by driving the development of practices and policies that transition away from harming wildlife and towards the guiding principles of compassionate conservation. The conference presenters will make bold, thought provoking, forward-thinking talks from across science, law, and the humanities to inspire paradigm change in our relationship with nature. This year the talks will concentrate on six key themes:

  • Novel ecosystems
  • Wild animal welfare
  • Predator friendly ranching
  • Compassionate law and policy
  • Conservation ethics
  • Land sharing and coexistence

Compassionate conservation isn't simply 'welfarism gone wild'

Let me first briefly note what compassionate conservation is not. The easiest way to summarize this topic is to say that compassionate conservation isn't "welfarism gone wild" and that it is not an "animal rights" position per se. Traditional conservation science is ethically challenged and conservation has had a very bloody past and continues to do so. Of course, this does not mean that conservation biologists are cold-blooded killers who don't care about the well-being of animals, but rather that the problems that are faced throughout the world, most brought on by human intervention in the lives of other animals, are challenging to the point of being daunting. Often, it seems as if the only and easiest solution is to kill the "problem animals" and move on to the next situation, in a never-ending series of conflicts. However, killing simply does not work in the long run. And, of course, as numerous people have pointed out, it is ethically indefensible. 

Compassionate conservation also doesn't allow for people to play what I call the "numbers game." Claims that go something like, "There are so many members of a given species it's okay to kill other members of the same species" are not acceptable. With its focus on the value of the life of each and every individual, no single animal is disposable because there are many more like them. 

Killing to save: We/I really don't want to kill others animals but...

Compassionate conservation also is not concerned with finding and using the "most humane" ways of killing other animals, so killing animals "softly" is not an option, because it's inarguable that killing individuals in the name of conservation remains incredibly inhumane on a global scale. 

Compassionate conservation also frowns on views that go something like, "We/I don't like it that animals are being killed now, but it's ok to do so because this will prevent future killing." The allowance for killing using the word "but" as a caveat doesn't really work, and a good case in point is the past and continued killing, sanitized as "authorized removal," of wolves in the Western United States. For example, some people who, and organizations that, say they're against the killing haven't stated clearly and publicly that they're against it. Silence can be, and is, deadly. Some have said that it's essential to kill some wolves to save others—to trade dead wolves for live wolves—and that opponents are overstating what's really happening. Some might also say something like, "We don't like what's going on, but that's the way it's got to be." However, they conveniently ignore the fact that no one has to kill these wolves. It's their choice to do so, and they have to live with their decision. 

A brief summary of what compassionate conservation is

I've touched on some of the main goals and foci of compassionate conservation above, so here's a simple and concise summary. Compassionate conservation is concerned with species and biodiversity, often called "collectives," but individuals come first. While there are shades of gray among people who consider themselves compassionate conservationists, all of whom I'm aware ascribe to the four principles listed above. 

The focus on individual animals stresses that they are to be regarded as sentient beings who (not that or which) care about what happens to them, their families, their friends, and others, rather than being dismissed as objects or metrics to be traded off for the good of their own or other nonhuman species, for the good of humans, or for the good of populations or for biodiversity. Of course, 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 recognizes that individuals are to be valued for who they are and the very fact that they are alive, often referred to as their intrinsic value. They are not valued because of their instrument value or utility, namely, what they can do for us. 

The bloody practices of traditional conservation

As science writer Warren Cornwall points out in his excellent essay called "There will be blood" (see also "Killing Barred Owls to Save Spotted Owls? Problems From Hell"), conservation has a bloody history. Compassionate conservation strives to change these practices. An excellent discussion of ways in which conservation is ethically challenged can be found in John Vucetich and Michael Nelson's essay called "The Infirm Ethical Foundation of Conservation" in a book I edited called Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation

Some recent and current examples of how the spilling of blood continues include the killing of rare flying foxes in Australiaputting a price on the scalps of adult feral cats, also in Australia, and slaughtering prairie dogs near my home in Boulder, Colorado. These are but three of numerous examples where animals are killed "in the name of conservation" or "in the name of humans."

Another example of "killing in the name of conservation" that will result in the spilling of incomprehensible volumes of blood is New Zealand's well known all-out war on so-called pests—aka "invasives"—that includes using 1080 poison and other brutal methods of killing, and also training youngsters to become card-carrying animal killers. As David Paxton notes, by training youngsters to abuse and to kill other animals, New Zealanders are assuring a "breeding nucleus" of future killers.

(For more details about New Zealand's war on wildlife see the following essays: The "Possum Stomp" vs. Compassionate Conservation and EthicsImprinting Kids for Violence Toward AnimalsScapegoating Possums: Science, Psychology, and Words of WarLong-Term Effects of Violence Toward Animals by Youngsters, and Youngsters Encouraged to Kill Possum Joeys in New Zealand.)

Of course, there is nothing humane about this current and pending slaughter, so those people who, and organizations that, say it's okay to kill the animals as long as it's done with compassion and empathy, are misleading a naive public and perhaps themselves into thinking all the killing, some call it murder, will be done "softly" or "nicely." And as Arian Wallach notes, sentience, and the ethical demands that arise from this capacity, do not change when an organism is moved to a new locale. They are who they are, and feel what they feel, no matter where they live. 

Compassionate conservation matures and comes of age: Compassion as a practical and evolved ethic for conservation

Individual animals should not be paying the lethal price for our behavior and indiscretions. (A focus on the value of individuals forms the basis for the development of the science of animal well-being and the replacement of the science of animal welfare with this new approach to animal-human interactions.) However, they continue to do so by the billions. Some people continue to deny the unprecedented negative and irreversible effects of what we're doing to other animals and how we're decimating their homes and a wide variety of ecosystems globally. It's astounding that they continue to do so in the face of what we now know based on solid scientific research. I often call humans Homo denialus because so many people are so skilled at lying to themselves and to others. Denial, like silence, is a killer, and taken together they're a lethal cocktail that results in horrific animal abuse and slaughter. 

It's important to note that compassionate conservation is concerned with human animals as well as nonhuman animals. All animals—human and nonhuman—are considered to be stakeholders in projects that seek compassionate and humane outcomes. In our challenging, complicated, and heavily over-populated and consumptive world, it's naive to expect that humans can be left out of the equation. We're all over the place, there are far too many of us, and conflicts with other animals are inevitable, even in remote places that seem to be outside of our reach. As the Beatles rightfully exclaimed, we are "here, there and everywhere," and the situation is getting worse, rather than better, because there are too many of us trying to live on a tired and less resilient planet. 

All in all, there are four guiding principles—

  1. First, Do No harm
  2. Individuals Matter
  3. Valuing All Wildlife
  4. Peaceful Coexistence

By adhering to these guiding principles, compassionate conservation establishes compassion as the position driving conservation decision-making, and transparently describes what the costs of achieving “the greater good” actually represent.

As such, compassionate conservation is far more ethically defensible than bloodier paradigms. It offers many different ways of dealing with human-animal conflicts without blood being spilled. In our essay, "Compassion as a Practical and Evolved Ethic for Conservation," Daniel Ramp and I wrote: 

The ethical position underpinning decision-making is an important concern for conservation biologists when setting priorities for interventions. The recent debate on how best to protect nature has centered on contrasting intrinsic and aesthetic values against utilitarian and economic values, driven by an inevitable global rise in conservation conflicts. These discussions have primarily been targeted at species and ecosystems for success, without explicitly expressing concern for the intrinsic value and welfare of individual animals. In part, this is because animal welfare has historically been thought of as an impediment to conservation. However, practical implementations of conservation that provide good welfare outcomes for individuals are no longer conceptually challenging; they have become reality. This reality, included under the auspices of “compassionate conservation,” reflects an evolved ethic for sharing space with nature and is a major step forward for conservation.

We also wrote,

"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 decision-making 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. This is important not only because of what we now know about the cognitive and emotional lives (consciousness and sentience) of other animals, but also as a moral imperative for providing modern solutions for sharing space with nature and for fostering the possibility for diverse species to live in peaceful coexistence. Compassionate conservation allows for—but does not prescriptively dictate—outcomes in which the interests of others supersede those of humans."

While, as expected, there are different voices within the compassionate conservation community, it's high time to change the bloody history and present and future course of many conservation practices. There doesn't have to be blood and we must do all we can to stop the blood flow and to remove killing from the menu of options.  

Compassionate conservationists aspire to set forth a paradigm change in how we deal with all sorts of animal-human conflict, and I anticipate that the forthcoming meeting will indeed motivate a global paradigm shift for how humans and other animals can peacefully coexist. I wish them every success. Given its broad transdisciplinary nature, compassionate conservation is a wonderful meeting place for people who are interested in animal-human interactions, including conservation psychologistsanthrozoologists, and others who focus on different aspects of animal-human studies to interact and to exchange ideas. 

It's really exciting and inspirational to see compassionate conservation mature and come of age. When the killing stops it'll be a real game-changer and a win-win for all individuals involved, nonhumans and humans alike. 

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission.


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