wildlife conservation and animal rights

For anyone who’s been following the recent anti-animal-rights crusade of Michael Hutchins, the executive director/CEO of the Wildlife Society, the fact that the society has come out with an official position statement against “animal rights philosophy” should come as no surprise. But it’s a shame nonetheless. The statement caricatures the animal rights movement and will make it harder for wildlife conservationists and animal protectionists, even many of those who are skeptical of rights-based reasoning, to find common ground.

When the leadership of the Wildlife Society asked its members to comment on a draft position statement on animal rights early this year, I had some hope that calmer and better-informed minds might improve what then seemed like an intemperate and ill-thought-out attack. No such luck. The final statement fleshes out the draft without correcting its basic flaws, which include a number of serious misrepresentations and obfuscations.1 And the most significant change is not, from the perspective of full disclosure, a positive one: the final draft drops any mention of the profound financial and professional interest that wildlife managers have in promoting hunting and fishing.

The final statement admits that there is diversity among advocates of animal rights, but it claims that all varieties of animal rights philosophy hew to the following basic tenets:

(1) each individual animal should be afforded the same basic rights as humans, (2) every animal should live free from human-induced pain and suffering, (3) animals should not be exploited for any human purposes, and (4) every individual animal has equal status regardless of commonality or rarity, or whether or not the species is native, exotic, invasive, or feral.

One of the things that’s missing here is any attempt to think through what terms like “the same basic rights” or “equal status” might actually mean. Are the rights enumerated in the U.S. Consitution–to bear arms, for instance–“basic rights” in this sense? Well, no; that would be ridiculous. So what kinds of rights do the many non-insane advocates of animal rights really believe in? If they’re utilitarians like Peter Singer, then, strictly speaking, none, except perhaps for the right to have one’s interests taken into account in the calculus of cost and benefit (or pain and pleasure) through which utilitarians think moral decisions should be made. If they follow Tom Regan’s deontological path, then they probably believe in something not too different: the right of nonhuman animals to pursue their own lives and interests without being treated as nothing but a means to a human end.2

That nothing but is important. We use each other–we human beings, that is–as means all the time, and no reasonable animal rights activist I know would argue that that should stop. When I go shopping at the grocery store down the street, I use the person at the checkout as a means of transferring possession of whatever comestibles I’ve gathered there into my own hands. What I don’t do is treat the person only as a means–to be used, bought, sold, and discarded solely with regard to my own ends. The person working in the store has rights that go beyond the services they provide. I think most animal rights activists feel the same way about nonhuman animals. Believing in animal rights doesn’t mean believing that all contact between humans and other animals should come to an end–a horrible fate to imagine, even if it were possible. It means believing that nonhuman animals are more than the services we can extract from them and should be treated as such. Starting from there, there are lots of arguments to be had about what kinds of practical human-animal relationships are right and good.

There’s more to say along these lines, particularly with regard to the possibility of simultaneously taking seriously ethics on the level of the individual and of populations or species, and some wildlife biologists and philosophers (such as John Vucetich and Michael Nelson) have already said it better than I can here. But to keep this post from getting too long I want to bracket that issue for the moment. Suffice it to say that I even though I think Roderick Nash’s 1989 Rights of Nature has its faults, I find its argument that the concept of rights has operated on multiple ontological levels–individual, community, species, landscape, ecosystem, etc.–over the course of the history of the conservation/environmental and animal welfare/rights movements convincing. To reject a priori the application of the concept of rights at one of these levels, as the Wildlife Society would have us do, is certainly an option, but it would take a lot to convince me that it’s a good one.

Since its founding in the 1930s, the Wildlife Society has been an advocate of what was then the very new field of “game management” or “wildlife management,” which adapted techniques and assumptions from scientific forestry to the management of populations of wild animals.3 At the core of this nascent field was a set of assumptions about the cultural value of hunting and fishing and the desirability of having scientists, or scientifically informed experts, in charge of decisions about how wild animals should be treated. As I recently wrote here, the concepts of “wildlife management” and “manageable wildlife” have been joined at the hip ever since, and critics of the wildlife management ideology often have been dismissed out of hand as “unscientific,” regardless of the actual merits of the case.  For revisionists who share the assumptions of this field, the history of wildlife conservation looks–on sunny days–like a steady progression of scientists taking the scales off of the eyes, and the power out of the hands, of an ignorant and sentimental public.

For the rest of us, the history is much more interesting, complicated, and vital. As Lisa Mighetto, Roderick Nash, Jennifer Price, Mark Barrow, Vicki Daitch, Jennifer Mason, and others have argued, concern about the welfare and even rights of individual animals has been intertwined with concern about species and landscapes since the beginning of the modern conservation movement in the late nineteenth century. The relationship between the two has never been easy, even before the emergence of the radical animal rights movement in the 1970s. Often those concerned about individual animals have had to drag wildlife managers, kicking and screaming, into a grudging acceptance that the interests of individual animals deserve to be considered alongside population or ecological concerns. And the wildlife managers have engaged in some constructive coercion in return, forcing animal protection activists to recognize systemic and indirect factors that in some cases have much more significant impacts on animal welfare than even the most egregious forms of direct harm.

By establishing an official position against (a caricatured version of) animal rights, the Wildlife Society is making dialog with the wide range of animal rights advocates out there–including those who believe, for example, both that endangered species deserve special protection and that being a member of a so-called “invasive” species does not automatically make one eligible for carefree extermination4–even harder than it already is. It’s an unfortunate step backwards at a time when so many people are thinking creatively and positively about ways to move beyond both resourcism and rights. If the Wildlife Society wants to continue arguing that all we owe individual animals is efficient use and a pain-free death, it’s free to do so. But the rest of us will move on to a version of conservation that is more positive, more open, more humble–more about strengthening connections than building walls.

  1. E.g., the claim that the “animal rights viewpoint is silent on the massive land use alterations that would be necessary to feed the human population in the absence of consumptive use of animals and the dramatic and continued loss of wildlife that would entail as habitats are converted to and maintained in intensive agriculture,” when animal rights activists have, in fact, been eager to point out the environmental and conservation benefits of decreasing the amount of cropland devoted to growing feed for industrial animal agriculture. []
  2. The classic works are Singer, Animal Liberation, and Regan, The Case for Animal Rights. []
  3. Two great places to start for anyone curious about this history are Julianne Lutz Newton’s Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey and Louis Warren’s Hunter’s Game. []
  4. On “making killable,” see Donna Haraway, When Species Meet; for a recent critique of anti-invasive-species rhetoric from a group of scientists and conservationists, see Davis et al. in Nature []

Author: Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.