The Wildlife Society’s final position statement on Animal Rights Philosophy and Wildlife Conservation pits wildlife conservationists against animal rights advocates, further hampering an already difficult debate about free-roaming cats and TNR.
Last week, The Wildlife Society released its final position statement on Animal Rights Philosophy and Wildlife Conservation (PDF), declaring “that the philosophy of animal rights is largely incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.”
“The Wildlife Society recognizes the intrinsic value of wildlife and its importance to humanity,” says Michael Hutchins, Executive Director/CEO of TWS. “We also view wildlife and people as interrelated parts of an ecological-cultural-economic whole. But we’re concerned that core beliefs underlying the animal rights philosophy contradict the principles of successful wildlife management and conservation in North America and worldwide.” Those beliefs (listed below) “promote false choices regarding potential human-wildlife relationships and false expectations for wildlife population management,” says Hutchins. “They also undermine decades of knowledge gained through scientific research on wildlife and their habitats.”
At its core, the animal rights philosophy hinges on beliefs that: (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 used for any human purpose, and (4) every individual animal has equal status regardless of commonality or rarity, or whether the species is native, exotic, invasive, or feral.
Strict adherence to these beliefs would preclude many of the science-based management techniques that professional wildlife biologists use, such as aversive conditioning, the capture and marking of animals for research, or lethal control of over-abundant, invasive, or diseased animals. For example, a recent TWS position statement advocates for control of non-native feral swine to protect and conserve native plants and animals and their habitats and to protect human and domestic animal health, yet this goal would be jeopardized by animal rights philosophy.
Instead of focusing exclusively on the “rights” of individual animals, TWS supports a more holistic philosophy of animal welfare and conservation that focuses on the quality of life and sustainability of entire populations or species of animals and their habitats. This approach allows for the management of animal populations and the use of animals for food or other cultural purposes, as long as any loss of life is justified, sustainable, and achieved through humane methods.
In sum, TWS’ policy regarding animal rights philosophy is to:
1. Recognize that the philosophy of animal rights is largely incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.
2. Educate organizations and individuals about the need for scientific management of wildlife and habitats for the benefit of conservation and other purposes, and inform people about the problems that animal rights philosophy creates for the conservation of wildlife and habitats and for society as a whole.
3. Support an animal welfare philosophy, which holds that animals can be studied and managed through science-based methods and that human use of wildlife—including regulated, sustainable hunting, trapping, and lethal control for the benefit of populations, threatened or endangered species, habitats, and human society—is acceptable, provided that individual animals are treated ethically and humanely.
“There is a profound conflict between many tenets of animal rights philosophy and the animal welfare philosophy required for effective management and conservation,” says TWS President Tom Ryder. “Established principles and techniques of wildlife population management are deemed unacceptable by the animal rights viewpoint, but are absolutely essential for the management and conservation of healthy wildlife populations and ecosystems in a world dominated by human influences.”
Etienne Benson, a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, provided a remarkably detailed, thoughtful critique of TWS’s statement on his blog, calling TWS’s final position “no surprise,” but “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,” writes Benson, “I had some hope that calmer and better-informed minds might improve what then seemed like an intemperate and ill-thought-out attack.”
(Benson, whose “research focuses on the intersection of science and politics in the practice of conservation,” provides readers with an informative, very readable introduction to the subject.)
While I lack Benson’s familiarity with the topic in general, and TWS’s position in particular, I, too, wasn’t surprised at last week’s news. Indeed, the language of the official TWS statement is nearly identical to what’s found in Hutchins’ own writings. In “The Limits of Compassion,” published in the Summer 2007 issue of TWS’s The Wildlife Professional, Hutchins warned of “serious and legitimate concerns regarding the use of compassion, sentimentalism, and animal rights to generate public concern for wildlife and, more specifically, about the possible implications for wildlife management and conservation policy.” 
In his 2008 letter to Conservation Biology, Hutchins argues, “Animal rights and conservation ethics are, in fact, incompatible, at the most fundamental level.” 
“It would be wonderful if we could all get along, but it is time to recognize that some ideas are superior to others because they clearly result in the ‘greatest good.’ As a conservationist, I reject animal rights philosophy. This unrealistic and highly reductionist view, which focuses exclusively on individual sentient animals, is not a good foundation for the future of life on our planet and does not recognize the interrelationships that exist among various species in functioning ecosystems. It is time to face up to the fact that animal rights and conservation are inherently incompatible and that one cannot be an animal rights proponent and a conservationist simultaneously. To suggest otherwise only feeds into the growing public confusion over animal rights, welfare, and conservation and their vastly different implications for wildlife management and conservation policy (Hutchins 2007a, 2007b, 2008a, 2008b).” 
So, where’s TWS’s “superior idea” for feral cat management?
I’ve asked Hutchins directly and gotten nothing but his usual boilerplate response:
“Our position on TNR and feral cat management is based on valid science, established law (the ESA and MBTA), and has high moral ground (both based on animal welfare and conservation principles). We welcome a chance to educate the public about this growing environmental problem.”
And I’m not the only one who’s tried to pin down Hutchins on this point. In July, when Hutchins was (again, to the surprise of no one) singing the praises of a recent Mother Jones article that misrepresented both the threats posed by feral cats and the effectiveness of TNR, he twisted himself into a knot avoiding the real issue. (Instead, Hutchins scolds commenter Walter Lamb, using what’s become a familiar refrain: “I’m afraid that I don’t find you credible to lecture the community of highly trained wildlife professionals about what does or does not have basis in science.”)
More recently, Hutchins’ put an end to any such discourse in the future. Complaining that “the TWS blog site has been recently targeted by feral cat and horse activists,” he announced that TWS would “no longer post comments from non-member individuals who are clearly biased in their thinking, and are arguing in favor of ecologically destructive feral animals based solely on their emotional attachment to these particular animals.”
Hutchins and TWS (and here I’m referring only to the organization’s leadership; I doubt very much whether these few truly speak for, as they would have us believe, “over 10,000 professional wildlife biologists and managers”) like to portray their opposition to TNR as science-based (the term is used no less than four times in their recent release alone), despite their abysmal track record when it comes to gathering and presenting the relevant facts.
If TWS was really interested in science-based discourse and action, they would have done a better job pulling together their “facts” for the Spring Issue of The Wildlife Professional’s special section, “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats.”
TWS’s “fact sheets” are no better. “Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release” (PDF), for example, suggests—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that the trap-and-kill approach adopted by Akron, OH, costs taxpayers about $10 per cat. And in their rabies “fact sheet,” TWS misrepresents CDC rabies data, overstating the cost of post-exposure treatment by a factor of seven.
Yet, TWS members—and the general public, of course—are told that it’s the core beliefs underlying the animal rights philosophy that are “undermin[ing] decades of knowledge gained through scientific research on wildlife and their habitats.”
If Hutchins’—and, by extension, TWS’s—ideas are, indeed, superior, why all the dishonesty?
• • •
I’m convinced that there’s more common ground between wildlife conservationists and animal rights advocates—including, as Benson points out, “those who believe… 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 extermination”—than Hutchins and TWS are willing to admit. And, therefore, more hope that philosophical differences can be overcome or set aside in order to move the TNR discussion forward.
“If The Wildlife Society wants to continue arguing that all we owe individual animals is efficient use and a pain-free death,” argues Benson, “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.”
While I agree, my hunch is that “the rest of us” actually includes a number of TWS members who are fed up with Hutchins’ witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, and the indefensible tactics he employs in its promotion. What if the greatest threat of “philosophical incompatibility” isn’t from outsiders, but from within his own organization?
1. Hutchins, M., “The Limits of Compassion.” Wildlife Professional (Allen Press). 2007. 1(2): p. 42–44. http://joomla.wildlife.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=18
2. Hutchins, M., “Animal Rights and Conservation.” Conservation Biology. 2008. 22(4): p. 815–816. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00988.x