Exploring Compassionate Conservation: A Conversation with Internationally Known Ethologist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

A single adult emperor penguin surrounded by several juveniles

The basic idea behind Compassionate Conservation is that the life of every individual matters. Susan Eirich sits down with Marc Bekoff to discuss how each life has intrinsic value.

Conservationists are concerned with saving species. But an important new movement in conservation circles says it is also essential to recognize the inherent worth of each individual animal. This is the beginning of a major shift in our thinking about wild animals.

One current in this growing movement is called Compassionate Conservation. The traditional species-focus is based on biology—if you lose a member, it is okay because the species can renew itself. Biologists are trained to give animals numbers instead of names, and aren’t allowed to get emotionally attached. The animals are reduced to statistics for population dynamics rather than considering how management decisions affect individual animals and family systems.

Both of these approaches have their value. Emotions can get in the way of objective scientific findings (not that they don’t anyway, but at least the scientific method tries to control that human tendency). Emotions without reason can be self-indulgent, and non-productive in terms of helping the animals involved. We easily get lost in the depths of our own feelings. We are wired that way, and in addition, our reactions may be colored by our own past painful experiences. This led to the baby bison being killed in Yellowstone last spring.

It leads to animals being “set free,” only to die miserable deaths because they don’t know how to cope in the wild.

On the other hand, keeping scientific distance can numb us to individual suffering. A few years ago, someone with official power put to death a red tail hawk when it had a chance to be rehabilitated. When I complained (emotionally), the reply was, “It’s just a red tailed hawk – there are plenty of them.” What is that for an argument? This was a basically good man, who had been educated into “science” and numbness.

The good news is that the concept of Compassionate Conservation is the beginning of a third way, where we consider the species and the individual, and redesign our methods and thinking to take both into account. It can be done with imaginative thinking that is driven by the value that all life counts.

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