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Interview with Author Clare Palmer – Wildlife Ethics: The Ethics of Wildlife Management and Conservation

17 November 2023

Following the publication of the latest book in the UFAW/Wiley-Blackwell book series, Wildlife Ethics: The Ethics of Wildlife Management and Conservation, we spoke to one of the authors, Clare Palmer. Clare is the George T. and Gladys H. Abell Professor of Liberal Arts & Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at Texas A&M University in the USA.  

This is the first systematic, book-length discussion of the ethics of wildlife conservation and management. What issues have you looked to address?
Well, the book is very wide-ranging, as we thought a systematic account should be. The first half of the book deals with more theoretical issues, though every chapter also contains at least one case study. We began by exploring some of the key values at stake in the conservation and management of wild animals, such as the value of species and biodiversity, whole ecological systems, wildness, and animal welfare. We then look at some different theoretical approaches to wildlife ethics, including ecocentric, utilitarian and virtue-based approaches. We also thought it important to discuss more traditional value frameworks for thinking about wildlife ethics, including the North American Model of wildlife management and ideas from conservation biology. Then we turned our attention to some challenges to those traditional frameworks, challenges arising from the growth in the environmental justice movement and concern about individual animal welfare.

The second half of the book is very different. It’s composed of chapter-length contemporary real-world case studies. These case studies are centered on ethical questions raised by a wide variety of issues, including the trade in rhino horn, the merits of Predator Free New Zealand, the spread of zoonotic diseases from bats, the threats posed by windfarms to flying wildlife, and conflicts over Indigenous people’s consumptive use of wildlife. The case studies span several continents and have all played out over recent years – we wanted to cover a wide range of pressing ethical issues.

Tell us about your co-authors. You have a range of backgrounds and different views on wildlife ethics, did you manage to come to a consensus on some of the issues?
Yes, the co-authors for this book have diverse backgrounds, although we all have a history of engagement with, and publication in, the fields of environmental and animal ethics. One of the early decisions we made as authors is that this book would not advocate for a single ethical approach, but would present a plurality of ethical perspectives. We consider that this feature makes the book especially useful for readers navigating conversations with colleagues from different disciplinary and professional backgrounds, as well as with different ethical commitments. This also meant that we didn’t need to come to consensus, because we weren’t trying to defend just one view. In fact, I think having a diversity of perspectives between ourselves was helpful, in terms of being sure we took different perspectives seriously. For instance, we definitely have different views about culling hyperabundant wild animals, but the format of the book allowed us to present multiple positions on that issue. This isn’t to say we didn’t have disagreements – but these were more about things like what case studies to select and what photos to include!

Is wildlife ethics special? What differs from the ethics of our interactions with captive animals?
Well, when you say “captive animals,” that sounds like you mean wild animals being kept in captivity. We do actually include zoo animals in the book – we have a case study about breeding Giant Pandas in zoos. Of course, captive wild animals are dependent on people in ways that free-roaming wild animals are not; and that is likely to generate additional ethical responsibilities in terms of providing appropriate food, social grouping, space to move about and so on. Questions about how much assistance or consideration we owe to animals living somewhat independent lives are much more challenging. More generally, however, what makes wild animals especially interesting is that they are both individuals who can be harmed and benefited, and members of what are often highly-valued ecological wholes, such as ecosystems and species. Some of the most complex ethical problems arise where the protection of ecosystems and species seems to come at the expense of the welfare of individual animals, as I think emerges in a number of these questions.

Broadly, we can separate wild animal welfare challenges into those that occur “naturally” and those that are a result of human activity. Is there a difference in how we should approach welfare challenges depending on whether they are human-generated or not?
This is a really interesting question, and we discuss different answers to it in the book. On some views, if animal welfare challenges are “anthropogenic”, meaning a result of human activity, then humans (or, at least, some humans) have a special moral responsibility to do something to try to fix them. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that humans have any general obligations to improve wild animal welfare. After all, ecological processes that cause considerable suffering such as predation and parasitism drive natural selection, the process that has generated the biodiversity we have today. But there are also increasingly popular and somewhat radical arguments, especially within the academic field of animal ethics, that if we can reduce animal suffering, including naturally-caused wild animal suffering, without causing something worse to happen, we should. This could entail practices such as vaccinating wild animals to protect them (rather than us) from infectious diseases, and assisting them after natural disasters. We don’t explicitly defend one view over the other in the book, but we do discuss a number of cases where human impacts might be argued to generate special obligations to wild animals, including the anthropogenic introduction of species and the impacts of anthropogenic climate change.

The book contains a wealth of information. Who do you think would benefit most from reading it?
We wrote this book for a wide audience. We think it will be helpful to wildlife professionals, including those who manage, use, control or protect wild animals. The content will also be beneficial for students training in wildlife management and conservation, who may increasingly be encountering ethical conundrums in their work. We also had an audience of conservation biologists in mind, as well as those working in conservation social science, ecology, animal science and wildlife veterinary care. Obviously, the book could also be of interest for scholars within animal and environmental ethics. And we hope it is approachable enough to be read by anyone who is simply interested in wildlife – this might include suburban residents contemplating whether or not to feed their backyard birds. To cover all of these bases, we have done our best to ensure that the book is accessible: avoiding jargon, explaining key terms, and so on.

In the book, you discuss a range of scenarios where you explore the tension between conservation and the welfare of wild animals. Which of these do you think are the most commonly encountered, and which do you see as the most difficult to address?
We think the most common and difficult issues here are about introduced species and hyperabundant native species. We discuss the former in a chapter on the Predator Free New Zealand policy, which is attempting to eradicate some non-native animals from an entire island nation; we discuss the latter in a chapter focused on white-tailed deer in the United States. These are cases where sentient animals are perceived to be threatening the health of ecosystems or the persistence of native species, and so attempts are made to eradicate (in the case of New Zealand) or to reduce (in the case of the US) their populations. Such cases are often highly controversial, especially if they involve methods of lethal control that impose considerable negative animal welfare impacts, such as anti-coagulant poison baits. Interestingly, though, we also raise the issue that methods of management often thought to be “welfare-friendly,” such as pharmaceutical fertility control, may have welfare costs to the animals that need to be taken more seriously – such as the disturbance of the animals’ social structures and the loss of positive welfare states associated with reproduction.

How do you see the relationship between conservation and wild animal welfare developing? Do you have any suggested approaches?
The relationship between conservation and animal welfare is already highly complex. Research suggests that there’s currently a shift, at least in post-industrial countries and especially in urban populations, to seeing wild animals less as resources and more as beings who are community members and for whom one should care. Related ideas are also becoming more popular among conservationists, with a growth in the idea of what’s become known as “Compassionate Conservation”. However, there are still plenty of conservationists who strongly prioritize whole species and ecosystems (ecocentrists), and who understand negative impacts on wild animal welfare as a natural, unavoidable and morally acceptable part of the lives of wild animals. Attempts to prioritize wildlife welfare also risk escalating the degree and frequency to which humans intervene in the lives of wild animals. This has the potential to reduce wildness value, and  - while “wildness” can be interpreted in many ways, and is somewhat controversial - it is nonetheless a central tenet of increasingly influential conservation paradigms such as “rewilding”. The main thing on which all of us, as co-authors, broadly agreed is that we should be pluralistic about values – that everything that matters can’t be cashed out in terms of just one value. Admittedly that makes decision-making more difficult, and we have a chapter in the book where we discuss both internal and community decision-making where values seem to conflict.

Do you see any novel issues emerging in the future?   
We talk in the final chapter of the book about what issues we think are likely to be prominent in the near future. One thing we expect is the intensification of concern about issues that are already troubling: climate change, species extinction, the loss of habitat, over-exploitation of wildlife, and the increase in pollution. We also expect human-wildlife conflicts, including wild animal attacks on humans, to increase as human population and development continues to expand. But the most likely novel issues – both in terms of threats and benefits to wildlife – concern technological developments, including the use of drones, AI, gene drives, and so on. These may well change the face of conservation, and certainly seem to be pushing it in more interventionist directions.

UFAW seeks to support research to improve or better understand animal welfare issues. Where might research be most useful in some of the ethical challenges you identify?
Given that UFAW has particular expertise in the application of animal welfare science, we see enormous scope for increasing scientific focus on the welfare of wild animals. Research in this field to date has mostly focused on narrow assessments of clearly anthropogenic activities (for example, rodent traps), and the relatively few animals that are directly and intentionally harmed by such processes. In the Anthropocene, there are an escalating number of processes originating in human activity that harm wild animals, but do so in subtle ways that are both unintentional and indirect - for example, changes in infectious disease epidemiology caused by climate change. We expect to see more scientific studies that consider wildlife welfare holistically – including negative and positive welfare as well as assessing the welfare impacts of not doing anything (non-intervention) in many contentious contexts such as droughts. We believe that such studies could lessen uncertainty around vexing animal welfare questions, and allow animal welfare values to be more confidently balanced with other values in ethical decision-making.