Posted on February 12, 2010 by David
Ever seen an aurochs? Ever heard of one? Answers to the latter query may vary but the response to the former is assuredly “no.” The aurochs is an ancestor of domestic cattle and went extinct in 1627. Though domesticated 8,000 years ago, it also lived in the wild in much of Europe until the end of the Middle Ages.
Today, there is an effort to bring back the aurochs using a technique called “back-breeding.” Here’s how they hope it will go:
Scientists will first scour old aurochs bone and teeth fragments from museums in order to glean enough genetic material to be able to recreate its DNA. Researchers will then compare the DNA to that of modern European cattle to determine which breeds still carry the creature’s genes and create a selective-breeding program to reverse thousands of years of evolution. If everything goes as planned, each passing generation will more closely resemble the ancient aurochs.
The idea is that eventually animals whose DNA is 100% aurochs will wander Europe once more.
This endeavor raises a vexing ethical dilemma. Though I believe it a net positive to retrieve a species that went extinct due to human causes, I cannot placidly sign on to using domestic cattle to achieve an end into which they have no input or agency. Furthermore, the recreated aurochs will enjoy a freedom that their domesticated producers never knew and that western society has no interest in providing for them.
Putting aside the (still unsettled) issue of whether it is ever appropriate to sacrifice the autonomy of one animal for the good of another, there is a threshold and issue-specific question that remains unaddressed: Why do the aurochs deserve liberty while existing breeds of cattle do not? Furthermore, how do such questions get decided? And by whom?
Read more about the Aurochs Project here
Filed under: animal ethics, animal rights, environmental ethics Tagged: | animal ethics, animal rights, animal welfare, aurochs, Aurochs Project, back-breeding, cattle, environmental advocacy, environmental ethics