I read Marc Bekoff's book, Rewilding Our Hearts, a couple of years back. It is a very interesting read which starts at the premise that scientific research has now firmly established that birds and animals are sentient, feeling beings. In light of this, he maintains that it is necessary for ecologists and people involved in wildlife conservation to approach their work through the lense of compassion. None of us would have great argument with this point I imagine. After all, people involved in wildlife conservation and rehabilitation tend to be care about wildlife. In a subsequent research paper, Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation, he along with colleagues argue that using this lense of compassion means conservation approaches must avoid "practices that intentionally and unnecessarily harm wildlife individuals, while aligning with critical conservation goals".
This worthy aspiration is far easier stated than achieved. When they refer to 'wildlife individuals' this includes both native and non-native species. This sets up an uneasy dynamic. Sometimes we have to make hard choices.
What may compassionate conservation mean in our day to day work?
I have thought about and struggled with these hard choices for a long time. I think these ideas promoting compassionate conservation are great, but in the daily work of wildlife conservation here it abuts some harsh realities.
I will elaborate this using the example of the Cane Toad. It is well documented that the migration of these toads to an area results in the population crash of native species such as Quolls and Red-belly Black Snakes. Our valley is no exception. Cane toads arrived here some years back with consequent declines in various native species. This, in turn, has impacted the overall ecology and certainly the biodiversity here at Heron Hill. One of our goals is to see this place become increasingly wildlife abundant. So where do Cane Toads fit in? Their impacts run counter to our goals.
As I go about my work here I often encounter them. My approach is to collect them and put them in the freezer in an effort to reduce their population to give vulnerable native species a break. But I struggle with this as, let's face it, the toads are here to stay and is exterminating individuals I encounter really doing any good in the longer term?
I really like the premise of compassionate wildlife conservation. It makes me feel good. I really do not like killing things. But there are some on the ground realities in my work here that make implementing such a noble approach problematic. It is likely, then, that I will be thinking about these issues for years to come. In the meantime, I will likely continue to deal with the toads as I have, but always on the premise that maybe there is a better way to approach the dilemna.