Animal Conservation

What it means to be wild

In 1985, biologist Michael Soulé introduced the burgeoning field of conservation biology, a scientific response to the planet’s many ecological disturbances. Its purpose, he writes, was to support efforts to “conserve biological diversity”. He also stated several core values ​​to guide the emerging discipline; chief among them: Biodiversity has intrinsic value.

Soulé also stressed that the protection of populations of organisms must come before the well-being of individuals, although the suffering of any individual can be “regrettable”. At the time, he envisioned the stoic biologist resisting the urge to “rescue” an abandoned young bird or injured rabbit, and called for putting the best interests of a species first. Survival of the fittest, after all.

Today, human interactions with wild animals have become, perhaps, exponentially more complex. It is almost impossible for nature to avoid our influence, which renders the long misleading definition of “savage” as “unresponsive to humans” unnecessary. We disrupt the global climate, moving around plants and animals, plowing under virgin forests. As humans try, on a limited scale, to undo the mistakes of the past, it is not without its own dangers: from capturing every free-roaming individual of a species to the excruciating deaths of some animals in the world. hope to save others. Moral dilemmas abound, but for environmentalists, the end often justifies the means if they preserve biodiversity.

For a long time, environmental writer Emma Marris tended to agree. Her identity, both personal and professional, is deeply linked to the idea that biodiversity is valuable and deserves to be preserved, and as a journalist, she has spent years reporting on the efforts made in this regard. goal. She has seen up close how far humans will go and witnessed the cost of blood and fur that can come with purchasing protection for rare and endangered species. Yet these experiences have led her to question many assumptions about how we treat wild animals. In his new book, Wild souls: freedom and fulfillment in the non-human world, Marris revisits many fundamental values ​​and approaches to modern conservation with a critical eye. To do so, she employs philosophical tools to delicately weave her own path through the field of ethical blocks that is our evolving relationship with wildlife. She writes:

“We have touched many animal species so deeply with our global remodeling of planet Earth that we have likely altered their evolutionary trajectories. I wanted to know if the massive human impact on Earth changes our obligations to animals. What about animals, like the polar bear, that have lost their hunting grounds due to melting sea ice? Do we have an obligation to feed them? What about wild wolves that mate with wild dogs? Should we stop them? What about introduced mice that prey on rare seabirds? Should we poison them? In a man-made world, it seems impossible to continue to say that our only ethical responsibility to “wild” animals is to “let nature take its course”. However, I still wasn’t sure exactly what this increased responsibility might include. Should we, in some sense, take care of all wild animals? But if we do, will we make them even less wild, less free?

If we could better understand our ethical obligations to our non-human parents, it could dramatically improve the way we make decisions in wildlife conservation and management and even in areas like town planning, veterinary science, pest control or agriculture. At present, whether we legally protect an animal or blithely put it to an excruciating death depends more on the context of the action and the rarity of the species than on whether the animal can feel pain or in pain. Our rules and manners for interacting with animals are capricious and contradictory. We can do better.

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