In 1985, biologist Michael Soulé introduced the fledgling field of conservation biology, a scientific response to the planet’s many ecological disruptions. Its goal, he wrote, was to support efforts aimed at “preserving biological diversity.” He also declared several foundational values to guide the emerging discipline; chief among them: Biodiversity has intrinsic value.
Another key point Soulé made was that protecting populations of organisms should rank over the welfare of individuals, though any individual’s suffering may be “regrettable.” At the time, he imagined the stoic biologist resisting the urge to “rescue” an abandoned young bird or injured rabbit, and called for prioritizing a species’ best interests. Survival of the fittest, after all.
Today, human interactions with wild animals have become perhaps exponentially more complex. It’s nearly impossible for nature to avoid our influence—rendering useless the long-misleading definition of “wild” as “untouched by humans.” We are disrupting the global climate, moving around plants and animals, plowing under primeval forests. While humans are trying, on a limited scale, to fix the mistakes of the past, that’s not without its own perils: from taking into captivity every last free-roaming individual of a species to delivering agonizing death to some animals in the hopes of saving others. Moral dilemmas abound, but for conservationists, the ends often justify the means if they preserve biodiversity.
For a long time, environmental writer Emma Marris tended to agree. Her identity, both personally and professionally, has been deeply tied to the idea that biodiversity has value and merits preservation, and as a journalist, she has spent years reporting on efforts serving this aim. She has seen up close the lengths that humans will go, and witnessed the blood-and-fur-lined price tag that can come with purchasing protection for the rare and endangered. Yet these experiences have left her questioning many assumptions about how we deal with wild animals. In her new book, Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World, Marris revisits with a critical eye many of the core values and approaches of modern conservation. To do so, she employs philosophical tools to delicately carve her own path through the ethical boulder field that is our evolving relationship with wildlife. She writes:
“We’ve touched many animal species so deeply with our wholesale reshaping of planet Earth that we have likely altered their evolutionary trajectories. I wanted to know whether the massive human impact on Earth changes our obligations to animals. What about animals, like the polar bear, that have lost their hunting grounds because of melting sea ice? Do we have an obligation to feed them? What about wild wolves who mate with feral dogs? Should we stop them? What about introduced mice preying on rare seabirds? Should we poison them? In a human-altered world, it seems impossible to just keep saying that our only ethical responsibility to “wild” animals is to “let nature take its course.” It was still unclear to me, though, exactly what this enhanced responsibility might include. Should we be, in some sense, caring for all wild animals? But if we do, will we make them even less wild, less free?
If we could better understand our ethical obligations to our non-human kin, it could significantly improve the way we make decisions in conservation and wildlife management and even in fields like urban planning, veterinary science, pest control, or agriculture. At the moment, whether we legally protect an animal or blithely put it to an agonizing death depends more on the context of the action and the rarity of the species than on whether the animal can feel pain or suffer. Our rules and mores for interacting with animals are capricious and self-contradictory. We can do better.”