Compassionate Conservation, Cecil the Murdered Lion, and Blaze the Slaughtered Yellowstone Bear

"More than ever conservation needs new ideas, risky ventures to find out what will work and what won't; biodiversity doesn't benefit from us calling each other stupid as a substitute for rational discourse." (Harry Greene, 2015, Pleistocene rewilding and the future of biodiversity, in Ben Minteer and Stephen Pyne (editors), After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans)

The broad and interdisciplinary field of conservation biology has received a good deal of attention in the past two weeks that has stimulated researchers and others to weigh in on what sorts of human-animal interactions are permissible as we try to save nonhuman animals (animals) and their homes. For example, some of the challenging questions that arise are: Should we kill in the name of conservation? Is it okay to trade off the lives of animals of one species for the good of their own or other species? Is seeking the "most humane" way of killing animals the only way to move forward? Is it possible to stop the killing of other animals and factor compassion that centers on the lives of individuals into our decisions? Should we try a "hands off" policy to see if it works where it's clear our interference, despite our best intentions, has not solved the problems at hand? How do we factor in the interests of other animals and humans as we deal with the numerous -- and growing -- challenging and frustrating conflicts at hand? The field of anthrozoology focuses on these and other questions.

Clearly, there are going to be differences among the people who are trying to save other animals and their homes and also take into account the interests of humans. And, this is what makes the field of conservation biology so exciting, for we are the only animals who are able to do what needs to be done to reverse the rather dismal and depressing situations in which humans and other animals find themselves in conflict. It goes without saying that the major problem is that there are too many humans and if we don't stop making more of us it's going to be a long and hard battle to right the wrongs for which we are responsible. And, given all of the information that is currently available, I like to call attention to a quote from William Wilberforce sent to me by Sadie Parr of Wolf Awareness, "You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know."

Compassionate conservation comes of age

A recent meeting that centered on the rapidly growing international field called compassionate conservation brought people together from all over the world, all of whom are trying to reduce or eliminate human-animal conflict. The conference was sponsored and coordinated by the Born Free Foundation and the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology, Sydney and hosted by the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia (for more on compassionate conservation please click here, here, and here). A most exciting part of the meetings was the presence of numerous students and young researchers. And, also very stimulating, were the obvious differences of opinion -- the expected shades of gray -- in what is possible and what methods are permissible as we try to deal with rampant and growing global human-animal conflicts. The ability of people who differed to talk with one another, not at one another, also was a very positive aspect of this gathering. Some people argued that in the "real world" the "most humane" ways of killing are the only ways forward, whereas others argued that compassionate conservation is not about the "most humane" way of killing, but rather centers on stopping the killing because it is unethical and in many instances it really hasn't worked. For them, individual animals are the focus of concern and the guide for compassionate conservation and "First do no harm" means not harming or killing other animals "in the name of conservation."

I summarize the mission of compassionate conservation as follows, and fully recognize that because it's a developing field -- a work in progress -- this characterization may change over time. Thus, I offer that compassionate conservation is a growing international, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary field for which the guiding principles are "First do no harm" and the lives of individual animals matter. In addition, compassionate conservation fully recognizes that human lives also matter and in our complicated and challenging world the interests of all stakeholders need to be given close attention. Thus, trade-offs among the interests of humans and nonhumans demand close scrutiny, but human interests should not necessarily trump those of other animals as we strive for peaceful coexistence.

There also was very valuable discussion of the words people use to refer to the killing of otherwise healthy animals "in the name of conservation," with the recognition that it is not euthanasia, or mercy-killing, but rather "zoothanasia" when it's done in zoos or slaughter when done in other situations (please see "Animal 'Euthanasia' Is Often Slaughter: Consider Kangaroos"). Also of interest was the use of the word "pests" to refer to animals who are causing problems. Many agreed that it's humans who are the pests, but because we can dominate and control other animals, they pay the price for just doing what comes naturally for them but is bothersome for us.

Clearly, there were many valuable discussions, and the abstracts of the broad array of papers that were presented can be seen here. They are a goldmine of information on the broad topics that were covered, the numerous different species discussed, and anthrozoologists should them to be indispensable for future studies of human-animal relationships. We learned that many wild animals really aren't free (Yolanda Pretorius of the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria told us that elephants in South Africa are fenced and can't migrate) and that "methods to assess the well-being of elephants are not included as a requirement for developing an elephant management plan." Moles are ruthlessly killed in the UK because they destroy gardens and in many locations geese are killed because they poop on golf courses. We take away the geese's habitats and then we kill them because they have nowhere else to go.

We also learned in a paper by MarÍa Fàbregas and G. M. Koehler of Save China's Tigers that in order to reintroduce critically endangered captive South China tigers back to restored protected areas within their historic range in China, they are allowed to practice killing ungulates. Many people were rather concerned with this practice, and it reminded me of breeding golden hamsters to allow endangered black-footed ferrets to practice killing them before being released into wild habitat. For many, these sorts of trade-offs are unacceptable.

In another project that was the focus of discussion, almost 900 wolves and other non-target animals were killed in Alberta, Canada to try to save woodland caribou (it didn't work) and not only were families broken up but there also are trans-generational effects. Simply put, far too many other animals are harmed or killed because we move into their homes and they have nowhere else to go and thus, they, innocent victims, become the "problems." It's a no-win situation for millions of other animals and we need to do much better so the killing stops.

Compassionate conservation, Cecil the murdered lion, and Blaze the slaughtered Yellowstone bear

It was also rather timely, and of course incredibly sad, that news about the thoroughly unnecessary killing of Cecil the lion by Walter Palmer (please also see Chris Genovali and Paul Paquet's "Cecil the lion and compassionate conservation") was making world-wide headlines as the meeting got under way and soon after the meeting ended, Blaze, a female grizzly bear mother, was killed in Yellowstone National Park because she was implicated in the killing of an off-trail hiker, and her two surviving cubs were slated to go to the Toledo Zoo where they will spend the rest of their lives living in a cage. Park authorities claimed Blaze was a euthanized, which of course is not the case. Many people wondered why Blaze was killed and why her cubs would not be rehabilitated and put back into their natural habitat. There are many valuable lessons to be learned from the guiding principles of compassionate conservation by the dentist who ruthlessly murdered Cecil, by others who choose to kill animals "in the name of conservation," and by the park authorities who thought it was perfectly okay to kill Blaze and put her cubs on exhibit in a zoo.

Putting an end to dancing bears: All stakeholders count

Another tenet of compassionate conservation is that all stakeholders count, human and nonhuman. Of course, this is very challenging because various animals kill or harm humans or kill or harm animals on whom the livelihoods of humans and their communities depend. In an earlier essay I wrote about two projects in India that stress peaceful coexistence between humans and nonhumans who harm and kill the humans and destroy their businesses. Another excellent example of a project that took into account the interests of humans and nonhumans centered on putting an end to the use of dancing bears. Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani of the organization Wildlife SOS, India presented their findings at the meeting and their abstract can be found on page 25. They concluded "Compassionate conservation is the key to the future ahead of us."

The coming of age of compassionate conservation: It's a "sad bad" if killing is the only viable option for "peaceful" coexistence

The field of compassionate conservation is slowly coming of age and it's essential that all opinions come to the table to be discussed. Ethicist Bill Lynn, who supported the experimental humane killing of a few thousand barred owls to try to save endangered snowy owls, called this practice a "sad good." While it may be a "sad good" for the snowy owls, it's surely not for the slaughtered barred owls. I would call it a "sad bad" for the barred owls and many other animals if killing remains the only option. A "sad good" is a very slippery slope that sets a lamentable precedent for opening the door for the more widespread "experimental killing" of barred owls and other species just to see if it works. (For more details on killing barred owls please see "Barred owls on the hit list.")

Compassionate conservation requires a large change in heart and practices, and like any other revolutionary paradigm shift it will take time. Many hope that this most needed paradigm shift in conservation biology that entails stopping the killing "in the name of conservation" will endure its growing pains as more and more researchers and others realize that killing is not the answer. I hope those who see the "real world" as mandating killing will change their minds and hearts. Future and young researchers are critical to the development and implementation of compassionate conservation, as are those career conservation officers, zoo administrators, and researchers who come to realize that using "the most humane killing" is not what compassionate conservation is all about. I like to imagine a world where killing is no longer part of the conservationist's toolkit. The welfarist calculus patronizes other animals and when push comes to shove, or often when it's merely convenient, the nonhumans suffer and are killed when it's determined that the benefits to humans outweigh the costs to the animals.

It's time to put away the guns, the traps, the snares, and the poisons

It's time to put away the guns, the traps, the snares, the poisons, and other "weapons of mass destruction" (as a few attendees and others call them) and figure out how to live in peaceful coexistence with the fascinating animals with whom we're supposed to share our most magnificent planet. There does not have to be blood. I dedicated my talk to Cecil the lion and also to Bryce Casavant, a most courageous conservation officer who refused to kill two black bear cubs near Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island and was suspended because he said "no." More people simply have to say "no" to killing other animals. We need to stop the violence and recognize that "The world becomes what we teach." Compassion begets compassion and violence begets violence. By rewilding our hearts and by becoming re-enchanted and reconnecting with nature I like to think that the killing will come to an end, slow as it may be.

The next meeting that will focus on compassionate conservation is slated for 2017 in Sydney, Australia. I often say that compassionate conservation is a wonderful meeting place for people who would otherwise not, but should, meet. This was so in Vancouver and I anticipate this will be the case in Sydney. Please stay tuned for more information on this future gathering and the exciting, challenging, and forward-looking field of compassionate conservation in general.