Wildlife Welfare: Adopting a New Ethic Everyone Can Agree Upon

Michelle D. Land

Stacked Harris Hawks

Harris’s Hawks, native to the Southwest, form complex social groups and hunt cooperatively, sometimes stacking 3-birds high to maximize good perching locations and find prey more efficiently.

Why animal protection organizations and environmentalists don’t collaborate more meaningfully is a long-standing question without a satisfactory answer.

Typically, the explanation for a lack of sustained cooperation between the two is that animal protectionists are concerned about individual animals, while environmentalists care only about populations or healthy ecosystems. This “mission loyalty” is a false dichotomy. Climate change perturbations, palm oil plantations, industrial farming, habitat loss, over-harvesting…the list of intersecting interests is too long to exhaust. Ecosystems are comprised of millions of individual animals. And individual animals depend upon healthy ecosystems to thrive. Conservation biologists, Chris Darimont and Paul Paquet in their 2010 article, Wildlife conservation and animal welfare: two sides of the same coin? illuminate this point:

Although rarely considered, depriving animals of their life requisites by destroying or impoverishing their surroundings causes suffering of individuals through displacement, stress, starvation, and reduced security. The same human activities driving the current extinction crisis are also causing suffering, fear, physical injury, psychological trauma, and disease in wild animals. These discomforts are well beyond and additive to what might occur naturally (i.e., non-anthropomorphic).

On November 18th, a report by the Endangered Species Coalition entitled
No Room to Roam: 10 American Species in Need of Connectivity and Corridors” was released. It is an all-too-familiar plea for human “progress” to proceed responsibly for the sake of wildlife species on the brink of extinction. Road mortality, dams, persecution, wetland loss, and isolated populations with insufficient genetic diversity are among the culprits.

According to UCLA biology professor, Thomas Smith:

[T]he average annual rate of loss for animal and plant populations and their habitats is estimated to be 1 percent with two-thirds of the world’s terrestrial land area now devoted directly to supporting human populations, either through agriculture, fisheries, urbanization or infrastructure.

The most unusual feature of the “Room to Roam” report was its list of signatories – national environmental groups and Florida Panther HBCwildlife-specific organizations, such as NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, Save the Frogs! and American Bird Conservancy. Absent from the signatures were animal welfare groups. There are as few as 100 – 180 individual adult Florida Panthers left on the planet, living on the tip of South Florida at risk of getting hit by vehicles (25 panthers were killed by traffic in 2014 alone). How is this not an animal welfare concern?

David S. Favre, Professor of Property and Animal Law, offers theories in his forward of the recently published casebook, What Can Animal Law Learn from Environmental Law?  Favre explains that “the world views and priorities” of the environmental and animal welfare groups are different and sometimes at odds.

The environmentalist sees the world as interacting ecosystems, complicated, and with many species and large numbers of unseen individual animals. Wildlife and wild place are just a subset of the bigger issues. Death of individual animals is accepted as part of the natural order of things, driving the engine of evolution.

A potential short-term solution is for all sides to adopt a new ethic of wildlife welfare: “In general, the notion that animal welfare actually applies to wildlife has escaped most welfarists and conservationists” according to Darimont and Pacquet.

Rather than wait for wildlife species to be in crisis, and thereby trigger our only tool for protecting them – the Endangered Species Act – animal welfarists and environmentalists should together call for proactive protection of all wildlife for the sake of individuals and populations alike.

Let’s take our cue from the Harris’s Hawk. Though not yet listed as endangered, it is on the fast track thanks to dam construction, habitat loss, excessive human disturbance, electrocution, even intentional shootings . Animal protectionists and environmentalists should emulate the bird’s natural instinct for cooperative behavior and band together to advocate for wildlife welfare. After all, “The welfare of individuals, the integrity of populations, and the preservation of species depends on the maintenance of ecological processes.” (Darimont and Pacquet)

2 Responses

  1. While there are some issues on which the environmental and animal rights movements should be able to agree, unfortunately the two movements have different approaches to ethics.
    Environmental ethics is often identified with Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. Leopold, who founded the profession of game management, saw the need to regulate hunting in order to prevent extinctions, while promoting hunting up to the point of extinction.
    Animal rights is associated with Peter Singer, who included nonhuman animals in the utilitarian ethic of the greatest good for the greatest number. Since the greatest number of nonhuman animals are domesticates, animal rights activists are primarily concerned with farm animals and pets.
    Where does this leave wildlife such as hawks, who are not officially endangered? Environmental organizations ignore them because they are too numerous, while animal rights organizations ignore them because they are too few.

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