Wild Animals As Individuals, Not Numbers

//Wild Animals As Individuals, Not Numbers

Wild Animals As Individuals, Not Numbers

“…the monkey may be a better tree climber than a human being. If we humans value mathematics more than tree climbing, that is because our conception of civilized life makes the development of mathematical ability more desirable than the ability to climb trees. But is it not unreasonable to judge nonhumans by the values of human civilization, rather than by the values connected with what it is for a member of that species to live a good life?”

~ Paul Taylor, The Ethics of Respect for Nature

Mama ground squirrel sharing food with her baby 

I’m encouraged by the emerging science on animal consciousness. It’s catching up with the intuitive understanding many of us who’ve lived and worked with animals have long held. But wildlife “management” systems lag behind in addressing these most recent studies and revelations. I believe, along with a growing chorus of wildlife and animal advocates, that it’s time to close the gap between some of those archaic ideas, and consider more fully the individual wild animal and his or her needs in our larger paradigm.

That concept formed the thesis of a college paper I wrote many years ago, and I’m struck by how, decades later, this idea still doesn’t adequately inform our policies and practices toward other species. Although we are inching toward a more compassionate model, our legal framework is still largely anthropocentric and self-serving when it comes to animals other than ourselves.

There was scholarship on this subject years ago, including the first books I ever read on animal rights by Peter Singer and Tom Regan.


Pocket gopher excavating a burro

Later, I was exposed to works in ecofeminism and the intersecting ideas between women’s rights and animal rights. Among the authors I read were Andree Collard (Rape of the Wild) and Carol J. Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat), both of whom wrote persuasively on the links between systemic oppression of women and nonhuman animals — the “cycle of objectification and fragmentation” which led to “entitlement and abuse.” [Adams]

In the intervening years, there’s been more written about our relationship to other animals, especially on species intelligence and how it relates to our designed hierarchies. Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows is one such exploration. This interview with Balcombe by Terry Gross is powerful and engaging and, depending on how you feel about fish right now, might be life changing.
In 2012, the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness — produced by an international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists — issued a critical statement:

“We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

To that point, the late Marti Kheel, author of Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective, argued that our allegiance to abstract constructs like “species” and “ecosystem,” while important, also devalues our concern for the individual animals within those systems. She described her work this way:

Racoon kits/siblings playing in a tree

“Dissatisfied with the moral philosophies of the animal advocacy movement, I turned to the holist theories in the field of nature ethics in the hope of encountering more inclusive ideas. Once again, I encountered a tendency to neglect the role of empathy and care for individual beings. Individual animals appear to be swallowed up or ‘sacrificed’ for the larger ‘whole.'”
“I was beginning to suspect that the neglect of other–than–humans was not an incidental aspect of the Western nature philosophies, but rather central to it.”

Injured owl at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital







In human policy decisions, consider the repercussions when we lose sight of the individual: people become collateral damage to objectified ends. I would argue that absent concern for the individual in wildlife management, wild animals become collateral damage in the same way.

This is a perspective that sometimes puts me at odds with others, even those who share almost all of my other wildlife ethics. It’s not always popular to challenge normalized practices such as recreational hunting and population management. In the abstract and on paper, many of these methods fit in with our current model and can seem reasonable. But when viewed from an individual perspective — i.e. how those practices affect the animals themselves, their mates, their families and their social systems — a much murkier picture emerges of what is “right” or just.

A more peaceful and ethical stance toward other animals requires the risk of embracing viewpoints and language that identify individual and moral experience. It requires that we put more, if not equal, value on the skills we tend to consider lesser in other animals.

To argue that morality and individuality have no place in wildlife policy is to ignore centuries of morality’s critical role in almost every human revolution of thought. It also flies in the face of current laws for companion animals which do assign value to individual suffering and quality of life.

Coots in a Tussle

The obvious conundrum, beyond the philosophical, is one of quantifying. What measures do we use to revise this understanding? It’s a broad question getting some deserved attention of late, and way too broad for this short discussion. But, a rudimentary framework might look like this — a set of guiding principles from the Compassionate Conservation movement:

Mama Sea Otter teaching and feeding her pup

RECOGNISING that wild animals, whether free-ranging or in captivity, may be affected by the intentional or unintentional actions of humans as well as the natural processes within ecosystems and the wider environment;

CONCERNED that many human activities, including those undertaken for a conservation purpose, may directly or indirectly cause harm to individual wild animals, populations, species, or ecosystems;

RECOGNISING that both conservation and wild animal welfare should implicitly respect the inherent value of wild animals and the natural world, and that both disciplines should try to mitigate harms caused by humans to other species;

BELIEVING that all harms to wild animals should be minimised wherever and to the extent possible, regardless of the human intention and purpose behind them;

PROPOSING that the principles and actions that underpin Compassionate Conservation, by combining consideration of animal welfare and conservation, will lead to a reduction in harm and in the suffering of individual wild animals, and will improve conservation outcomes.

Gull playing in someone’s sand castle at the beach

I’ll wrap this up with a quote from Jonathan Balcombe, from the same Fresh Air interview cited above:

“Sentience is like pregnancy. You’re either pregnant or you’re not; you’re either sentient or you’re not. And if an animal is sentient, which means some kind of conscious awareness, but particularly the capacity to feel pain and, I would say, by extension, to feel pleasure, then, to me, that means that animal has moral traction, or it should have moral traction — that the animal is deserving of consideration of others. Because that animal can have a good day and a bad day and can have good or bad things happen to them. And that, as I say, is the bedrock of ethics.”

By | 2017-09-22T00:22:39+00:00 November 15th, 2016|Blog, Ethics, Workspace|Comments Off on Wild Animals As Individuals, Not Numbers