A New Approach emerges, challenging tradition to see each tree within the forrest.
by Maggie Funkhouser
Whether the topic is feral cats or Bengal tigers, bald eagles or pigeons, when it comes to managing animal populations, the traditional school of conservation thinking tends to choose lethal practices as its primary tool. However, with new research and evidence showing that nonhuman animals are more similar to humans than not–studies proving these species think, feel, and possess sentience–traditional conservation is being challenged by a new ethos called “compassionate conservation,” where nonlethal practices are the focus.
Traditional conservation approaches for managing nonhuman animal populations are based on the notion that these individuals have simple minds; like machines, they only respond to stimuli, are not feeling creatures, and are “lesser” in some way. This school of thought is also hunting centric, with a firm focus on the herd or population as a whole. The idea is that if the integrity of the whole is thriving, the well-being of the individual is not necessary to consider.
With mounting evidence that nonhuman animals are capable of feeling a wide range of emotions, from joy and happiness to sadness, sorrow, and even post-traumatic stress, some scientists are beginning to shift their views of these species; and with that, they are shifting their management practices (“Animal Sentience,” 2018). This change in mindset is questioning the status quo regarding ethics and moving towards conservation that again takes into account the value of individual life with a focus on “do no harm.”
“As a conservation community we have normalized the perpetration of significant, intentional, and often unnecessary harm against wildlife individuals. This constitutes a tragic failure to exercise our considerable capacities for compassion,” states Arian Wallach, an ecologist at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, and her colleagues in a recent Conservation Biology essay. With increasing evidence surrounding the “widespread sentience and sapience of many nonhuman animals,” they state, “practices that categorically prioritize collectives without due consideration for the wellbeing of individuals are ethically untenable” (Wallach, Arian et. al., 2018).
Traditional conservationists are having a hard time accepting this new approach of compassion and empathy in managing animal populations. They are holding onto the belief that in order to protect biodiversity, compassion has its limits and killing is necessary. Director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Peter Marra, and bird advocate Chris Santella strongly support this idea. In their latest book, Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, Marra and Santella write, “From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear—remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary” (Marra and Santella, 2016).
This new debate among scientists has placed conservation management practices on a spectrum with lethal methods at one end, occasional killing in the middle, and abstaining from lethal force at the other end of the scale. Dr. Mark Beckoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and a pronounced leader of the compassionate conservation movement, responds to Marra and Santella’s Cat Wars, stating, “The phrase ‘by any means necessary’ is among the most reprehensible statements I’ve ever seen, and of course, in addition to it being morally repugnant, it is not based on science and it won’t work. And, think about the horrific lesson it offers to youngsters. The authors totally ignore the cognitive and emotional lives of cats, and view them as mere disposable objects” (Bekoff, 2016).
Does killing work?
Scientists in favor of the compassionate conservation approach point out that killing often allows root problems o be ignored. It’s easier to kill than to formulate solutions to the underlying causes; lethal practices simply provide a band-aid fix. Whereas the new school of thought looks towards ecology, natural processes, and the interconnectedness of all living things to find the answers that will most likely be more effective in providing long-term solutions over repeated killing. These scientists propose allowing nature to “take its course,” to allow natural processes within an ecosystem to self manage.
For example, instead of killing apex species to manage a habitat, compassionate conservation would allow these species to naturally regulate the ecosystems in which they reside–scientists would observe more and interact less. Alley Cat Rescue strongly agrees with this school of thought and therefore advocates Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) as the preferred method of managing feral cat populations because TNR programs–following sterilization–allow natural attrition to reduce local cat colonies.
Embracing humane methods
Killing has a dramatic effect on the environment, often with counterproductive results, TNR provides a practical solution with a more subtle approach to interacting with the environment. TNR stops the breeding cycle without wholly removing animals from the ecosystem, which prevents the creation of open niches and keeps nature in balance. TNR also recognizes the individual by providing care to every cat who is trapped. In fact, surveys show that most individuals would rather see a cat sterilized and returned to his or her outdoor home over having the cat trapped and killed.
More communities and agencies are embracing this humane, nonlethal method of managing community cats, not only because it preserves the sanctity of innocent life–do no harm–but also because it provides an effective, long-term solution. Unlike catch-and-kill, which only provides a temporary fix and often requires repeteated attempts, TNR programs stabilize populations, improve the overall health of outdoor cats, and reduce both shelter intake and euthanasia rates. Additionally, such programs drive community involvement and encourage compassionate actions.
Scientists opposed to this school of thought believe this is a naïve approach in that it’s biased towards non-native (i.e. invasive) species, which when left unmanaged can be detrimental to ecosystems. Feral cats are often placed into the category of non-native, invasive species and labelled a “nuisance,” but ACR believes that this categorizing of species is often arbitrary, especially in today’s world as travel and trade continue to increase. Traditional conservationists still claim that if not removed from the environment, feral cats will in some way “take over,” despite numerous studies that show habitats fair better when cats are TNR’d rather than removed. What’s naïve really is to deny the inevitability of ecological globalization.
A question of values
Compassionate conservation is also challenging the outdated ethos that some species are more worthy of protecting than others. There is a push to move away from protecting just the cute, unique, and not-so scary ones. Traditionalists fear that due to limited resources it will be impossible to protect all species. They believe conservation needs to pick and choose which species to save. The majority of scientists continue to maintain this train of thought despite cases where non-native species are actually providing critical support for endangered, native species. Stripping away this arbitrary worth/value system would ultimately lead to less discriminatory killing.
Just recently a US District Court ruled that federal Wildlife Services, a division of the Agriculture Department that removes and kills millions of animals each year, overstepped its use of authority in order to kill native predators in Idaho. The court ruled that the agency did not provide “an objective analysis of the environmental impacts” and stated that federal officials dismissed legitimate concerns raised by sister agencies (Fears, 2018). This case sets a new precedent, not only calling for more adequate environmental impact studies to be conducted prior to implementing animal management practices, but also showing that blanket killing of animals as part of traditional conservation is now being closely monitored and challenged.
Compassion does not exist in a vacuum and not all suffering is avoidable. However, unnecessary and human-caused harm should and can be avoided. There is now some agreement that lethal methods are too often implemented when not necessary and that lethal precedent often overrides genuine species protection. Hopefully this commonality will propel the conversation field towards more ethical, nonlethal practices. In the meantime, Alley Cat Rescue will continue to advocate for the humane, nonlethal management of feral cats through TNR, while also supporting compassionate conservation for all species.
Alley Cat Rescue is leading in the way in promoting humane and compassionate care for ALL cats.