Considering the individual animal in compassionate conservation research

Welcome to my second blog on compassionate conservation!

Compassionate Conservation believes individual animals matter in their own right. Compassionate Conservation (CC) also recognises that the health of populations and of species themselves are dependent upon the health of individuals. So, for reasons, moral and material CC holds the belief that the well-being of individual, free-living wild animals should be respected in conservation decisions.

In a world far from peaceful cohabitation, where few wild animals are empowered to live a life free from human disturbance and conflict – how do we as practitioners, accurately assess and then assure the well-being of wild animals? How do we do this when we deem conservation intervention necessary, and in the face of the interventions themselves? Moreover, how do we do this when we are at the mercy of our knowledge, our imagination, and our charity.

Not too long ago, a community of scientists from animal welfare science and conservation biology finally wised up to the harm being done to wildlife and their environments as a consequence of the neglect of the individual wild animal. This neglect spans our care for, our management, how we think about free-living, wild animals, and certainly the questions we have asked and examined in our welfare and conservation related research.

While the field of compassionate conservation has broad disciplinary scope, its emergence at the interface of animal welfare science (AWS) and conservation biology remains formative. Consequently, what we see as most obvious is to bring the methodological focus that AWS has on individuals and social groups to that of conservation. As for bringing over the methodologies themselves to research on free-living wild animals, this is quite another thing.

One of the hallmarks and great achievements of AWS is the refinement of behavioural assessment to evaluate the psychological state of an animal. But, because AWS developed from our concern for animals under our direct care and management, its scientific approaches exploit having extended, first-hand access to the animals of interest. Applying these methods to captive wild animals is one thing; for free-living, wild animals these methodologies are more difficult to implement. In the interest of achieving a minimally- to non-invasive, non-manipulative approach to assessment, we are confronted in CC with the key challenges that come from not having the animals “in hand” –  animals are often at a distance, and observed for fleeting periods of time.

Evaluating the welfare of individual wild animals

So, what do we do? How do we evaluate the welfare of an individual given these challenges? In all honesty, methodologies and approaches haven’t thus far been effectively updated, developed, but even more so, they haven’t been creatively applied. This is in part because conservation biologists and animal welfare scientists aren’t thoroughly collaborating. Instances of true collaboration are sadly few and far between. We face the practical constraints of time, money, personnel, equipment, and training. For that last bit, it is not enough for traditionally-trained conservation practitioners to think that they can simply implement welfare-based behavioural protocols. Nor can animal welfare scientists adapt methods ­– for a community, a population, a species – of which they are not intimately familiar.

But before we even get to the “how” of assessing wild animal well-being, we must figure out “what” we need to be assessing. For one, we, as a community, have to move beyond what are our perceptions of good welfare to really understand what is of value to given individuals in a given situation.

Here is a good time to remind ourselves that the bar for assessing well-being should be so much higher than what it is usually for non-human animals. Like we humans, all animals want appropriate shelter, safety, and nutrition; they want to learn about and hold sway over their lives. For all animals - just like us - their physical health is intertwined with their psychological health; and their social environment matters. Moreover, reasonable challenges and positive emotions are not mere privileges an animal is fortunate enough to experience, but are essential to them being alive. Like us, animals have an interest in the outcomes of their lives. Of those that should know better in our scientific community, it is the fool, the reductionist, the staunch devil’s advocate, or the absurd Popperian who would argue otherwise.

Now, scientific inquiry by necessity relies on evidence that resides along a continuum of indirectness. While some observations of events, processes, phenomena are more direct than others, all data are proxies for something else. So, with the bar held high for evaluating the well-being of free-living, wild animals what proxies are most important and effective given the ethical and practical constraints before us? For free-living animals, it may be that we are not always – and perhaps rarely – able to identify specific individuals, but it is paramount we look at behaviours and other parameters that are important to individuals.

Study from the centre for compassionate conservation

By way of example, I want to mention an on-going, collaborative study through the Centre for Compassionate Conservation in which I am involved. We’re looking into the psychological health of human-disturbed wild Eastern grey kangaroos across a range of populations in New South Wales, Australia. In preparation for this study, we convened a workshop of macropod ecologists, animal welfare scientists, kangaroo rehabilitators, and veterinarians to discuss what aspects of behaviour might be most sensitive to accurately evaluate the psychological health of these kangaroos. Our known constraints were that we wouldn’t be able to get near the kangaroos – and we specifically did not want to disturb them further. As discussed at our workshop, the behaviour of joeys and their interaction with their surroundings emerged as probative. Across varyingly-disturbed populations, joeys were infrequently observed outside of the mum’s pouches. And if they did appear, their time spent at play, in discovery, or otherwise engaging in social behaviour was limited.

We’ve since been able to compare such social and environmental engagement to opportunities afforded joeys in a protected, minimally-disturbed population. What we are seeing here is wonderful - in this population, mums are establishing joey nurseries. Joeys are readily observed out of the pouch playing with one another, interacting with their mums, other group members, and in discovery of their environment. What is happening here, reflects on the more relaxed state of mind of these mums as they make the decision to allow the joeys to leave their pouches.

In addition to the psychological health of the mums, the health implications for the joeys are far-reaching. The opportunity to be out and about affects their physical condition and cognitive development. And, the well-being of joeys has consequences for the family groups as these young kangaroos mature and “enter society” more fully. So, what are the health, cognitive, and societal implications of limited environmental and social interaction?

As we begin to address such a question, another question looms. When we “know” only disturbed or otherwise compromised populations, what is it that we are using as our benchmark to understand what is of true value to other free-living animals? This refers back to the bar we set for well-being. For the kangaroos, one might conclude that joeys don’t “normally” spend much time out of the pouches ­– a claim that has been made by other researchers ­­­– if we observed only the more compromised groups. If so, our interpretations of such behaviours and the conclusions we draw from them are immediately hampered. What we deem as “normal”, what we imagine as possible, and even desired by wild animals shouldn’t be circumscribed by the constraints humans – unintentional or not – place on wildlife. Our understanding should come from an effort to effectively assess how these individuals feel about themselves and their lives. It is only when we do this that we can sincerely begin to consider the individual, free-living animal, and its place in its community.

Call for abstracts for the 3rd international Compassionate Conservation conference is now underway. It will be held in Sydney, Australia, Nov. 20-24, 2017.