Wildlife in the Balance – animal rights activists have different agendas than conservationists

Wildlife in the Balance – animal rights activists have different agendas than conservationists – includes related article

Wendy Williams

You might think the objectives of the conservation and animal-protection communities would be compatible, if not identical, when it comes to protecting wildlife. Yet historically this has not always been the case. Today the rift that separates these two movements is growing wider, even in the face of an antienvironmental backlash that threatens the success of both camps. Is there a middle ground? And how should the humane movement, or conservationists, adapt? Part 4 of our Animals 2000 series.

In May 1996, federal employees put poison in seagull nests in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge off Massachusetts’s Cape Cod. About 5,000 herring gulls and black-backed gulls grew thirsty, suffered kidney failure, and died. Many of these deaths were drawn-out affairs, observed publicly as the birds fell out of the sky over Chatham and into the town’s ponds, onto Main Street, even onto the roofs of area homes.

The wildlife managers’ intent was to promote the nesting of roseate terns, which are severely endangered birds, and of piping plovers, listed as threatened. The gulls were crowding out the other species, preying on their nests; and refuge officials believed they were taking a difficult but necessary action. “Usually,” commented one, “we’re the good guys in the white hats.” But not this time.

As the birds died, federal officials, conservation groups, and animal-protection groups found themselves mired in an increasingly bitter battle. The officials and some wildlife researchers accused opponents of “irrational thinking,” of “emotional reactivity,” of “grandstanding to the press.” Several moderate animal-protection groups lost a federal court suit to stop the poisoning. After that, other groups showed up at the refuge’s administrative center–which they dubbed “gullicide headquarters”–to offer a symbolic plates-of-poison lunch to federal officials. Extremists threatened violence, promised vaguely defined “tactical maneuvers,” and predicted an inundation of “boats and planes” that would transport the gulls to safer environs. Warned Peter Souza of Earth First! “If they have to bring in the Marines, it’s going to cost a lot of money.”

Printed in the local papers, the most divisive statements wended their way into the national flow of information, appearing across the continent in newspapers, on television, and on the internet. By then, true communication had become impossible. Federal wildlife officials insisted on continuing with the poisoning. The press reported all the disagreements, but without any depth, so that it looked to the general public as though the whole animal-conservation/protection community had disintegrated into a morass of angry, petty infighting. This was a public-relations disaster for everyone: for those opposed to the poisoning, for those in favor of the action, and for the animals themselves.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story. Feuds about how to approach difficult animal dilemmas are not new, and some would say they are occurring with alarming frequency. In Washington’s Olympic National Park, groups have long dueled over the mountain goats that were introduced (or reintroduced–no one knows for sure) into the area when it was managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Claiming the goats are destroying rare plants, some groups want the animals shot. Others want them left alone. And attempts to airlift and relocate the goats have instigated cost and safety concerns as well. The local press has reduced this issue, too, to the lowest common denominator. “Zap the goats? Hardly. Set sights on goat-shooters,” reads a headline of a Seattle Times outdoors column, as if suggesting that shooting the shooters would help improve the situation.

Then there’s poor Keiko, the orca of Free Willy fame. After Keiko was discovered in poor condition in a Mexican amusement park, some groups shouted, “Free the whale!” Others decried the “waste” of millions of dollars–the amount raised to relocate Keiko to a U.S. aquarium and eventually fly him to Iceland, to rehabituate him to the North Atlantic, and then (hopefully) to watch him thrive as he swims free. In Africa, groups argue over dehorning rhinos (some want the horns sawed off as protection against poaching, while others say the action is an affront to the animal’s dignity). Others argue over the hunting of elephants, with some conservation groups condoning the practice as sustainable use but with many animal groups condemning it as an inhumane cop-out. Different points of view have even led animal advocates and conservationists to debate the ethics of captive breeding for endangered animals. The list goes on and on.

How bad is it? Bernard Rollin, a Colorado State University professor of philosophy and physiology and an animal ethicist, has been trying to find some consensus. It has not been unusual, he says, to hear himself called “Nazi” from one side of the table and then, on the same day, “sell-out” from me other. “It’s fratricidal warfare,” he says. “It’s just like the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland.”

Sadly, many agree. What is this rift? Why does it seem to be growing larger? How can we find common ground?


Change is, by nature, contentious. And a paradigm shift–which is what we’re experiencing–is, by definition, convulsive, passionate, explosive, and even volcanic. In his landmark 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote that Western science is simply an interpretation of the universe, one that, like a snowball rolling downhill, gains size, force, and momentum as it rolls along. Science practiced in any day and age can never lead to the so-called ultimate truth because our interpretation of the world sits on the foundation of our own cultural beliefs–a paradigm. A scientific fact that’s out of synch with the cultural paradigm will likely be discarded, regardless of accuracy. As an example, Kuhn pointed out that when Galileo insisted the earth revolves around the sun, he was placed under lifelong house arrest. The cultural paradigm called for the earth to be the center of the universe. End of story. Poor old Galileo.

The animal-protection and conservation communities have their own startlingly pertinent example. When, in 1872, Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals claimed that humans and animals shared the same biological basis for their emotional response to the world, Western humanity was outraged. Expression sold out on its first day of release, but horrified readers quickly hid their copies on high, dusty shelves for a good five decades or so until ethologists began seeking scientific legitimacy for animal-behavior research. Even then, the book was touched with caution, as though it were a blaze that could engulf the scientists. “Anthropomorphizing” remained heretical.

Only today, facing the new millennium a good 125 years later, are serious thinkers ready to consider Darwin’s paradigm shift. But most of the culture still clings to the safety of a mind-set as old as Genesis: “Man has dominion over nature.” Should you doubt the continuing power of this idea, consider that only a few months ago a judge in San Francisco cited this same biblical concept to justify the grossly cruel mistreatment of turtles in that city’s live markets.

In standoffs such as occurred at Monomoy, we are seeing the kind of explosiveness that comes with a paradigm shift. Some individuals and groups want to remain with the old “dominion over nature” paradigm, while others are searching for a new way to view humanity’s relationship to the natural world. The problem is, no one yet knows exactly what the new paradigm will look like.

The 21st century challenges all of us with this search for a more constructive paradigm. And the hard-fought shift over how we view animals goes much, much deeper than such decisions as what we do with a seagull, a whale, a mountain goat, or an elephant. And if our individual searches have an air of desperation, we shouldn’t be surprised.

The situation is indeed quite desperate. Humanity has never before had to rouse itself, decide on a course of action, and follow through in such agonizingly short order. We are working on deadline. If we don’t act now, there won’t be any endangered roseate terns, any poachable rhinos, any whales who may or may not prefer life in the open sea.


Several decades ago, the giant American auto makers experienced a similarly desperate need to change. Their unresponsive, triangular, hierarchical structure–executives at the top, unions and employees far below, and customers at the bottom–was destroying their corporations. Japan had brought a better idea across the Pacific, selling cars that were cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and much more durable.

American businessmen became enamored with Kuhn and the concept of paradigm shifts. Out of this desperation and a commitment to move forward emerged a new, very successful American business model, called teaming. Carl Harshman, an expert in effecting large-scale organizational change and in bringing together unions and management, says teaming entails a great deal of consultation, openness, a sincere attempt at understanding others, respect, and support of others’ right to differing opinions.

“One of the key elements that get in the way of change,” says Harshman, “is the belief that there’s only one right way.” Instead, he suggests that talks begin by discussing common goals and respective interests. “When you begin to talk about your interests and goals–not your positions and strategies–then you begin to develop ways to resolve conflict that don’t require the adversarial relations that many of us have come to expect in our culture.”

Many of the groups that argued with each other at Monomoy do, in fact, share common goals. And the ideas from even the most extreme groups can be well founded, interesting, and challenging–and therefore worth listening to, whether you agree with them or not.

But in many polarized atmospheres pitting conservationists against animal protectionists, the “listening to” component of teaming simply has not happened. Joshua Dein, animal-welfare officer at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, believes that many biologists do not understand the ethical issues involved, while many animal-protection groups refuse to validate the scientific style of thinking. “The most important job,” he says, “is that each group recognize that each viewpoint is valid. If you take diametrically opposed positions, there is no room for discussion…. If you start from the perspective that we are all working toward the same goal, and trust that the people themselves aren’t evil or that they’re not emotional wackos, there may be differences of opinion, but you’re both getting to the same goal.”

Originally from South Africa, Andrew Rowan, a vice president for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), has spent his life considering how to resolve this very human problem of us-against-them simplification. “The primary issue is trust,” he says. “If you can get these groups to actually talk with each other, if the wildlife biologists can say, `Look, we don’t want to kill gulls, but we do want to promote terns. Are you against that?’ then they’ll start to talk about what they can do. The environmental community does not deal easily with this animal-protection crowd. They are uneasy with the warm, fuzzy stuff. They see themselves as more rational, more grounded in science.”

About five years ago, while at Tufts University, Rowan organized a conference that brought the leaders of many groups together to talk, not about specific issues but about common goals and interests. Although Rowan didn’t use the word, the conference was similar to the beginning stages of teaming.

“It wasn’t an overwhelming success in terms of its long-term results,” he admits, “but if you expect an immediate outpouring of support, that’s not necessarily going to materialize. The steady drip of communication between the two sides has led to an understanding: there’s more understanding than disagreement.”

To say that most people who get caught up in these front-page nightmares would prefer Rowan’s “steady drip” is an understatement. But much, much more needs to be done if we are to avoid incidents like that at Monomoy, where attempts to have all parties gather came too late. When this kind of standoff occurs, five different groups play a part: the radically conservative, the radically change-oriented, moderate protection and conservation groups, the press, and the public at large. For constructive change, all five groups need to be informed and involved.

Mark Pokras, wildlife veterinarian and professor at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, once attended a conference held before a deer control incident took place. “It helped people understand,” he says, “in less of a pressure-cooker kind of an atmosphere, who the players were and what their opinions were. It brought the level of tension and hate down significantly.”

Asked if he really meant to use the word “hate,” with all that it implies, Pokras answers that he thought about it before using it–and that he meant it. “I would be especially critical of newspapers. They’re supposed to have an editorial policy. It’s not supposed to be like a Web page, where anyone can put up anything.” During the Monomoy incident, he says, “a number of people sent me articles from the local papers. I think that most of the ones that I saw were fairly inflammatory.”

Since the media is the primary filter of information, educating journalists in the field about the complexities of animal and conservation issues is paramount. Then sanely crafted information feeds public debate, which often directs public action.

Seriously lacking in any of the initial public discussion at Monomoy were alternatives to the poisoning. By the time the issue filtered down to the public, it had devolved into an either-or horror show. Either we poison the gulls, or the terns disappear. “What I find interesting,” says Carter Luke, vice president of humane services for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals/American Humane Education Society; “is that the Endangered Species Act does create a tiered situation, where one animal (the endangered animal) becomes more important than another. This means one has to find ways of dealing with animals, such as gulls or coyotes, that may be preying.” Luke says something good did come out of Monomoy, though. After the initial disaster, the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service moved to include public participation, inviting the public to forums on future wildlife management plans for the area. “They listened,” says Luke, “and they devised a new plan based on that participation. But we need forums before disasters.”

After all, many middle-of-the-road options might be taken. In fact, the HSUS, an organization opposed to the hunting and killing of animals, has spent a considerable amount of time trying to develop more humane ways to control wildlife. Says John Grandy, HSUS’s vice president for wildlife: “The first alternative is to really look at what the gulls are doing and see if that warrants removing them either directly or indirectly from a situation. We would look at a nonlethal approach and try to find what we think of as benign management alternatives, as opposed to destruction.”

Grandy says that HSUS is now providing officials at Monomoy with equipment that helps protect nesting terns and plovers from predators. With electronic fencing outside the nesting enclosures, he says, foxes and coyotes can be deterred from stealing eggs and young chicks.

How can groups begin to work together like this? In the Monomoy conflict, groups had reached an impasse. No one was willing to back down. Eventually the voice of authority stepped in–in this case, Senator Ted Kennedy–and told federal officials they had to compromise. But what happens when there is no power structure available to resolve the problem?

Without an innate sense of shared mission, of teaming, things are likely to remain at an impasse. A certain level of protest can be constructive. It serves to bring a hidden issue out into the open, where the public can listen and learn and make decisions. But the kind of protest that Monomoy degenerated into–at one point, a caller told the secretary at the refuge office he hoped her children ate DRC-1339, poison used on gulls in 1996–causes deep personal wounds that won’t heal for years, if at all. Such tactics are very effective for ending a situation, but not for building a new vision.

“It takes leadership,” says Luke. “The Monomoy gull situation began with exactly the wrong tone. There needs to be true dialogue. There needs to be new technology. New wildlife management techniques have to be developed, tried, tinkered with, fixed, tried again, and measured for effectiveness.”

If our job is to go further, to build a new paradigm, we might consider the corporate world’s technique of teaming, which has successfully brought together blood enemies such as union leaders and corporate executives. And from biology itself we might draw upon the concept of “mutualism,” defined as “an intimate living arrangement between two different species; where the relationship is beneficial to both species.” The world is full of unusual, unexpected, and very profitable mutualisms. A particularly pretty sight is the partnership of tiny tick-eating oxpeckers riding on the face and forehead of the mighty greater kudu of Africa. The small birds get a free roost and ride. The kudu gets rid of its ticks. In the end, both parties are better off for sharing the burden.

RELATED ARTICLE: International Rifts

As conservationists eye sustainable-use policies for wildlife in developing nations, many animal groups attack these policies as inhumane. Especially in Africa, debates are polarizing–with flare-ups over the proposed resumption of trade in elephant ivory and rhino born, and over programs that promote trophy hunts alongside milder ecotourism programs to derive income from wildlife. There is common ground: the desire to see elephants, rhinos, and other creatures survive the globe’s human-population boom. But for true progress on these fronts, both camps will have to offer a bevy of solutions; and these solutions must include developing viable alternative economics that treat rural Africans, animals, and the environment well.

RELATED ARTICLE: Species vs. Species …

At times conservationists and animal enthusiasts square off over issues that pit one species against another. Last year saw heated debate over whether dolphin-safe tuna-fishing methods should take a back seat to the protection of other fish that were becoming tangled more often in the dolphin-friendly gear. But the classic species vs. species battle has played out in Washington’s Olympic National Park. Mountain goats, introduced there long ago, were munching native vegetation and competing with native wildlife. Some said they should stay, most said they should go. The issue then became how to remove them, with animal protectionists battling for more humane–and inherently more costly–methods while others called for an all-out sport hunt.

RELATED ARTICLE: … And Individuals vs. Species

When Americans discovered that Keiko (left), the orca that starred in Free Willy, was living in a Mexican amusement park, they sent millions of dollars to remove, rehabilitate, and ready him for release into his former oceanic home. Could the money have been better spent protecting habitat for many whales? Or did Keiko’s plight put a real face on whale-protection issues that otherwise might not have engaged the public? Now, as Keiko prepares for release, some cheer while others worry that he might spread health problems to wild whales.

RELATED ARTICLE: Comebacks on the Edge

In the United States, too, issues that pit the needs of people against the needs of wildlife are on the rise. Swelling populations of moose and deer in some parts of the country are leading to arguments over how best to manage them; with bullets, experimental contraception, or other methods. In other parts of the country, urban sprawl is pushing animals into closer contact with people. And when cougars and coyotes end up in or near backyards, community factions square off. Learning to live well with wildlife–not just admiring them from the comfort of a TV screen–remains a goal in the years ahead.

Wendy Williams is a frequent contributor to Animals on wildlife conservation issues.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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