June 2014 by Marc Bekoff and Daniel Ramp
Killing and harming animals in the name of conservation is not just unethical, it is counterproductive
EARLIER this year, a hunter based in Texas paid $350,000 for the dubious privilege of being allowed to kill a male black rhino in Namibia. The rhino, Ronnie, was past reproductive age and deemed to be a danger to other wild rhinos. Profits from the hunting permit are supposed to be ploughed back into conservation in the country.
A few weeks later, keepers at Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed Marius, a healthy young male giraffe, publicly dissected him and fed his remains to the zoo’s carnivores because he didn’t fit into their breeding programme. Several offers to rehouse him were declined on the grounds that the facilities were unsuitable.
The same zoo later killed four healthy lions because a male lion they wanted to introduce to a female may have attacked them. Then Dählhölzli zoo in Bern, Switzerland, killed a bear cub over fears his father would kill him.
These cases made headlines and caused global outrage. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. Zoos often kill healthy animals considered surplus to their needs: around 5000 a year in Europe alone. This isn’t euthanasia, or mercy killing, but “zoothanasia”.
The killing of “surplus” animals is just one example of people making life-and-death decisions on behalf of captive and wild animals. These are difficult decisions and various criteria are used, but almost without exception human interests trump those of the non-human animals.
Often, for example, animals are harmed or killed “in the name of conservation”, or for the “good of their own (or other) species”. The result is unnecessary suffering and, commonly, a failure to achieve sustainable and morally acceptable outcomes.
Increasingly, scientists and non-scientists are looking for more compassionate solutions. Compassionate conservation, a rapidly growing movement with a guiding principle of “first do no harm”, is just such an approach. It is driven by a desire to eliminate unnecessary suffering and to prioritise animals as individuals, not just as species. It is also a route to better conservation.
Although one of us, Marc Bekoff, has been writing about the importance of individual animals in conservation for more than two decades, it took an international meeting at the University of Oxford in September 2010 for compassionate conservation to get a big push. There have since been three more meetings. NGOs are becoming interested and a Centre for Compassionate Conservation has been established at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.
One sign that the influence of compassionate conservation is growing is that conservationists are questioning the ethics of producing captive pandas as ambassadors for their species. These animals have no chance of living in the wild and their existence is increasingly seen as indefensible.
Biologists are also re-evaluating the merits of reintroduction projects. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, for example, resulted in numerous wolves dying or being killed “for the good of other wolves”. The surviving wolves also lack protection, especially when they leave the park. As a result, scientists are concerned that the project is failing.
Other reintroduction projects are being similarly reappraised. A team at the University of Oxford assessed 199 such programmes and found potential welfare issues in two-thirds of them, the most common being mortality, disease and conflict with humans.
Urban animals also get into the mix. Marc was recently asked to apply the principles of compassionate conservation to a project in Bloomington, Indiana, which proposed to kill numerous deer even when no one knew if they were causing a problem. In Cape Peninsula, South Africa, non-lethal paintball guns are being used to reduce conflicts between baboons and humans.
Compassionate conservation is also offering solutions to previously intractable conflicts. Innumerable wolves, coyotes, dogs, foxes and dingoes are killed by livestock farmers, often by trapping or poisoning. A recent study showed that poisoning dingoes by dropping tainted meat from aeroplanes changes the dynamics of the ecosystem and reduces biodiversity.
Management of this problem is being revolutionised by the use of guard animals such as Maremma sheepdogs, donkeys and llamas. These guardians bond with the livestock and protect them, not only reducing losses but also costing considerably less than shooting programmes. Even colonies of little penguins in Australia are now protected from foxes by Maremma sheepdogs.
Compassionate conservation is also changing the way researchers tag animals. This is an integral part of conservation as it enables scientists to identify individuals and estimate population sizes. But it is often harmful or painful and can reduce the animals’ fitness, which compromises the usefulness of the data collected. More researchers are now using methods that don’t stress animals or alter their behaviour, such as unobtrusive tags or remote camera traps.
There is often conflict between those interested in animal welfare and those interested in conservation, with the latter viewing concern for the well-being of individuals as misplaced sentimentalism. It is not.
Compassion for animals isn’t incompatible with preserving biodiversity and doing the best science possible. In fact, it is a must. Mistreatment of animals often produces poor conservation outcomes and bad science. It is also immoral. Only through compassion can we advance global conservation.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Cruel to be kind?”
Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He edited Ignoring Nature No More: The case for compassionate conservation (University of Chicago Press). Daniel Ramp is director of the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology, Sydney