Conservation Biologists Need To Start Caring About Actual Animals – Not Just Species

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Happy, an elephant who has been kept at the Bronx Zoo for the last 45 years, is alleged to be anything but happy. And in June, New York’s highest court handed down the latest ruling against her. She’s been living without another elephant companion since 2006, and despite the Bronx Zoo previously pledging to release her to a sanctuary—on the basis that keeping an elephant in solitary confinement would be inhumane—the exhibit remains open. The New York judge denied the writ of habeas corpus (a legal mechanism used to challenge cases of unlawful imprisonment) filed on Happy’s behalf, saying that the legal procedure only applies to human beings.

Semantics aside, the decision is just plain inhumane and unfair to Happy as an individual. But that’s a symptom of a larger problem: we refuse to consider nonhuman animals as individuals with their own distinct experiences and interests. The Bronx Zoo is ostensibly keeping Happy in solitary confinement on the grounds of “conservation.” But putting aside whether or not that argument is even valid, it begs the question: should one animal be made to suffer for the theoretical good of their species?

And it’s not limited to the issue of captivity. Plenty of animals are even killed in the name of conservation, particularly animals belonging to species that have been deemed invasive. It’s a utilitarian approach to animals, the environment, and ethics: sacrifice some animals for the greater good of a particular ecosystem. Many so-called invasive species ended up where they are because humans transported them there in some century past, unaware of and unconcerned with the effect their actions would have on the environment. And in many of these circumstances, it’s not painless euthanasia that’s employed as a technique – killing invasive species is often turned into sport, like how hobbyists are encouraged to shoot and kill deer across the U.S. In the Florida Keys, the lionfish population is culled with a public spearfishing competition each year. And elsewhere in South Florida, the public is encouraged to kill Burmese pythons on private and public lands. There’s even a 10-day Florida Python Challenge to incentivize python killing by laypeople. Whether or not the cause of conservation is just, it’s hard to deny that the methods are ugly.

From one angle, killing and confining animals for the sake of conservation could be seen as a way humans can (attempt to) right our previous wrongs against the planet’s biodiversity. But if you re-focus the lens, it’s clear that this means humans are enacting cruelty against animals who never had any agency in the situation. When your methods of conservation actually increase the amount of suffering in the world, is it really worth it?

Some scientists are beginning to see things this way, joining a new movement called “compassionate conservation,” which advocates for respectful, just, and humane treatment of wildlife. Compassionate conservation is guided by four basic principles: (1) first, do no harm, (2) individuals matter, (3) inclusivity, and (4) peaceful coexistence. It isn’t posed as an opposition to conservationism; rather, as the name suggests, a call to go about conservation work as compassionately as possible.

It’s all part of a larger shift in cultural thinking, from Romantic-era environmental stewardship to the more holistic, less anthropocentric concept of environmental justice. Stewardship is built on the assumption that we, humans, know what is best for the planet. Compassionate conservation, by contrast, makes no such assumption. Rather, it’s based on the premise that every living thing has interests—such as to stay alive and to avoid suffering—and that those interests need to be taken into account. And additionally, that we can play a positive role in the health of the planet and its inhabitants without playing God. Something as simple as turning off excess light at night is a form of compassionate conservation; the National Audubon Society advocates for “lights out” practices in order to help migrating birds avoid flying into buildings. It’s a win-win for conservationists and animal advocates alike.

Happy’s case seems pretty simple. Putting her in a sanctuary doesn’t pose a risk to native species of plants or animals anywhere, and it wouldn’t harm or even inconvenience any human populations. The Bronx Zoo’s representation maintains that somehow, life in captivity is what’s best for Happy, despite the testimony by wildlife experts that living in captivity is inhumane and goes against the needs and nature of elephants. Meanwhile, the zoo will continue to be able to use Happy’s exhibition to sell tickets and bring in money. It seems as though the primary interest being served here isn’t Happy’s welfare, but the financial stakes of the zoo itself.

But the “right thing” for humans to do in environmental matters is not always that clear. Despite all the unknowns however, there are some factors we can be sure are important to consider—like the suffering of real, individual animals who we can see and touch and name. Many of those animals, like Happy, can feel pain, joy, boredom, loneliness, and sorrow. Conservationists who claim to care about animals cannot continue to completely put that all aside in service of an abstraction. Whatever happens in the long term, there are nonhuman animals who need help now. To turn our backs on them is just wrong.

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