In responding to Suzie’s post defending wildlife rehabilitation I began to think again about the areas in which animal rights and animal welfare overlap with the field of conservation, and the ways in which they don’t. It’s a subject I’ve thought a lot about over the years, pretty much since I first started studying biology at undergraduate level. People would often express surprise that I, someone that cared about wildlife conservation, would eat meat. Not from an environmental perspective but from a “don’t you like animals?” one. It’s an understandable confusion in a way, as both conservation of animals and looking out for the welfare of animals are fairly natural impulses for the people that care about animals. If you like animals you will generally not want them to suffer and you won’t want them to go extinct. And people that work in either conservation or animal welfare tend to like animals.

But it is important to remember that animal rights and wildlife conservation are two separate concepts (and arguably animal rights is a different concept to animal welfare, but for the sake of this discussion I’m going to treat them as more closely related ideas than they perhaps are). Animal rights is concerned with preventing the suffering or even use of animals by humans. Wildlife conservation is concerned with protecting wildlife at the level of species or perhaps population. With the exception of species that number in the hundreds, conservation biologists are not as concerned with the fates of individual animals, it is only when such fates of many individuals are added up do they begin to worry.

Before people start thinking biologists are somehow cruel in this regard, I should note that they are worried about species as a conservationist. Many will still worry about the fate of individuals as ordinary people. It’s only natural. But it actually is not a bad thing to take the more dispassionate and unsentimental route, because they are in the field of nature and nature is astonishingly dispassionate and unsentimental. By way of an example take the Western Gulls that I studied on the Farallon Islands in California. Each year tens of thousands of these gulls go to the islands and each pair will lay three eggs. Most of these clutches of eggs will hatch to produce three fluffy and adorable chicks. And most of these chicks, on average two point five per clutch of three, will die before they can fledge. Either beaten to death by another gull or starved to death, life is very short and very cruel for most of this new life. And as a biologist you really have two choices, shrug it off, or let it break you.

You cannot care about the individual, not at that level of suffering. Not when every day you’re daily stepping over bloody and beaten chicks in their last desperately awful hours of life. But you can take solace in the results at the end of the breeding year, when loafing around the intertidal are a shiny new cohort of finely plumage grey youngsters, all ready to carry on Western Gull line into the future.

Western Gull chick. If you are easily upset it is best not to dwell on its likely fate. (Image by unknown PRBO intern).

This is not to say biologists are indifferent to suffering animals. More than once on the island I would snap, throw a stone or otherwise scare away a marauding adult gull, and scoop up a chick it was beating to shove somewhere safer, like under a bush. But it does mean that biologists tend to take a realistic view on suffering than the public at large. It’s a fact of life, indeed high infant mortality is pretty much the rule for all life. It’s the crucible that drives evolution, if you’ll forgive me for mixing metaphors. Life is nasty, brutish and short. But life endures.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Where one view tends to favour the bigger picture and one is concerned with each individual, or the rights of the individual, there will naturally be some divergence in priorities, and in what are considered optimal results. Worse still, there will be situations where the two forces come into direct opposition, where the goals of animal rights clash outright with those of wildlife conservation. One of the first examples I ever encountered was in the books of Gerald Durrell, the famous conservationist who was an early pioneer of the roles of zoos in conservation. He often defended that role in his books from animal rights activists who opposed “imprisoning” animals in zoos even if it saved them from extinction. It’s a fairly fringe position even among animal rights and welfare people, but it is an example of how the two movements don’t always agree.

A more problematic conflict is that fought over what to do with damaging introduced species. This is a very serious business here in New Zealand. New Zealand has been the recipient of a higher than average number of introduced species, in particular a range of mammals from elk to mice. This is quite a big deal for an island group that had no mammals save bats for millions of years. I’ve written at length about the specific vulnerability of insular faunas and the catastrophic extinctions caused by the arrival of rats, mice, ferrets, cats and possums (amongst others), here in New Zealand fully half the pre-human bird species were lost. The essential point is that the ecosystems of New Zealand were unable to cope with mammals, the organisms lacked the ability to defend themselves from the very different problems posed by mammal predation.

The initial solution in New Zealand was to move species to islands where mammals hadn’t reached. This technique achieved a temporary respite for some critically endangered species, but there is a real shortage of islands around New Zealand with no mammals whatsoever. So New Zealand began the process of clearing islands of mammals, using poison, trapping and shooting. Starting with smaller islands but moving onto bigger islands, the programme has ben a resounding success in creating places for the more vulnerable species to survive. On the mainland, however, the declines of species have continued, with species that were common on the mainland thirty years ago now almost lost. In some areas, particularly national parks, the regime of poisoning and trapping has been expanded to the mainland. In these areas there are no natural barriers to prevent re-invasion and so the poisoning and trapping are not one off treatments but require ongoing applications.

The principal poison used in New Zealand its sodium flouroacetate, commonly known as 1080. It is pf particular benefit as it targets mammals more effectively than birds, and New Zealand is the world’s largest user of the poison, accounting for 80% of the world’s market. But there is a drawback to using this poison, for all the good it does to both the wildlife and agriculture of New Zealand. To quote Wikipedia the effects it has on the body:

In humans, the symptoms of poisoning normally appear between 30 minutes and three hours after exposure. Initial symptoms typically include nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain; sweating, confusion and agitation follow. In significant poisoning, cardiac abnormalities including tachycardia or bradycardia, hypotension and ECG changes develop. Neurological effects include muscle twitching and seizures; consciousness becomes progressively impaired after a few hours leading to coma. Death is normally due to ventricular arrhythmias, progressive hypotension unresponsive to treatment, and secondary lung infections. Symptoms in domestic animals vary: dogs tend to show nervous system signs such as convulsions and uncontrollable running, whilst large herbivores such as cattle and sheep more predominantly show cardiac signs.

It is without question an unpleasant way to die for any animal. But the poison is still pretty much the best solution New Zealand has to dealing with introduced pests. It is biodegradable, meaning that it doesn’t build up in the wild (like say DDT), and without it a government report concluded that many species, including the iconic kiwi, would be extinct in New Zealand within a generation. Unsurprisingly while the use of 1080 is strongly supported by the conservation movement here, it does face opposition from animal rights groups which consider the cruelty of the deaths to not be worth the benefits, and instead advocate using other methods, such as fertility control. How fertility control might be applied to millions of possums, especially in the face of evidence that trap neuter and release campaigns for cats achieve nothing useful in denting the numbers of cats, is not answered by these groups in any way I can see.

In New Zealand at least public opinion is generally behind 1080. The nation is generally very aware of the unique and imperiled status of the wildlife here, and is proud of the work to save species like the Kokako, Takahe and kiwi. The conservation movement also has an ally in this in the farming industry, which relies on possum poisoning to reduce the potential reservoir of bovine TB (if that seems like an interesting alliance, in this fight the animals rights movement is allied to hunters, which oppose the control of larger introduced species which they like to hunt!). In addition the use of 1080 has the support of most of the major parties, from the very conservative ACT Party to the liberal Green Party, and perhaps more importantly the dominant National and Labour parties.

Nobody that supports the use of 1080 is blind to its faults or thinks it is the ideal situation, it’s a desperate response to desperate situation. But opposition to its use can be understood if you oppose cruelty. There are, however, situations where opposition to conservation efforts make less sense. Take a project to remove rats from the Californian island of Anacapa (in the Channel Islands). The island was home to an important population of Xantus’ Murrelet, but the population was suffering as a result of introduced rats. It’s actually a problem for many seabird species these days, since seabirds have long chosen to breed away from mammals in dense colonies, and mammals have been good at reaching these islands in the era of man. From a conservation perspective the poisoning of rats was a no-brainer, a single application of poison over a relatively small area would protect the future of a species. But animal rights groups (albeit not all of them) not only opposed the move, but sued to prevent the poisoning. Two activists where even caught spreading antidote to the poison on the island!

The efforts of the animal rights groups failed, and thanks to the rat free status of Anacapa numbers of the endangered Xantus’ Murrelet were up 80% in three years. But time and again around the world efforts to protect endangered species are opposed by animal rights groups if the problem requires some control of introduced species. Gerald Durrell relates one story in trying to save the endemic herpetofauna of Round Island in Mauritius. The island was being ravaged by rabbits that were destroying every last tree, threatening the future of three lizards and two snakes. Animal rights groups sued to prevent poison being used to kill the rabbits, and even told a mediator that they would rather every reptile on the island die than a single rabbit be killed. Eventually the courts ruled in favour of the conservationists, but the animal rights group at least got one of their wishes, the efforts were too late to save the Round Island burrowing boa.

It should be noted that what many of these people objecting to the control of introduced species are upset about is not cruelty so much, it is the fact that we are violating the “right” of the introduced species to live. But from the perspective of conservationists allowing introduced species to endure is to essentially sign the death warrant to dozens if not hundreds of species, something anti-ethical to what conservation tries to do. Not all those concerned with animal rights and welfare are so extreme in their positions, but there is always a tension between the conservation and animal rights, perhaps an unavoidable one. That tension can exist not only as a conflict between different organisations, but also as an internal conflict in the mind of someone that cares about wildlife. The tension may be unavoidable, but it is worth being aware of.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.