Bringing the compassion to compassionate conservation

Dr Liv Baker, a research fellow at the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology of Sydney, Australia, asks us: How do we create a culture where compassion is an integral function of our conservation practice?

Welcome to my first blogpost on Compassionate Conservation. There are plenty of issues on this topic I’m keen to explore in future posts, and I hope readers will partake in these explorations with me. It strikes me, however, that the unspoken question writ large is, HOW to bring compassion to conservation? And it is this question – perhaps more than any answers - to which I would like to devote this first post.

As someone who has lived in this world of “Compassionate Conservation” – emotionally, intellectually, professionally – since the inception of the movement and the term itself, I find myself sometimes losing perspective. In these moments I have to pause and remind myself that not everyone finds the same truths – about our responsibility to this world and to those who share it with us – to be self-evident. What is utterly obvious to me about the compassion with which we should consider and treat wild animals is painfully not so to many people the world over. 

Conservation is an inherently political practice. Even more fundamental than that, it’s personal. Our individual values and behaviour are in the sphere of influence of genetics, life experience, society, and culture. There are untold reasons as to why we might care about conservation; how much we actually care about it; and what specifically we care to conserve.

To add to this sticky wicket of value-shaping, Compassionate Conservation imposes self-evident truths about the inherent value of individual wild animals. Compassionate Conservation posits that individuals matter for ethical and practical reasons; that the well-being of individual animals needs to be factored in when making conservation decisions. It prioritises the protection of other animals as individuals, valued in their own right, not just as units of populations and species.

So in a world where we struggle to summon personal, societal, economic, and political will to make the most meagre attempts to protect our environment, how do we create a culture where compassion is an integral function of our conservation practice?

Some people are born compassionate, others have to learn it

Permit me to share a personal event from my childhood. When I was 5 years old I sat in the passenger seat while my father drove along a road near our suburban home. A rabbit jumped in front of the car in his or her attempt to cross the road, and was summarily killed. In that moment I blamed my father. I turned in my seat towards him, and with my puny, 5-year old fists pummelled his belly. I demanded that we not ever drive down that street again (which my father kindly obliged for a few months). I share this story as an example of how some people “come to care” about animals. For me it was pure luck. I didn’t come from a family of animal lovers - I wasn’t raised with dogs or cats, not even glorious fish. I was simply fortunate to be born with a sensitivity to the pain, suffering, and joy of animals. And I do mean “fortunate”, because I believe we should see it as a point of pride to care about others – human and nonhuman alike. 

But, because I may have a more innate sensitivity to animals doesn’t make it any more valuable than someone who learns and develops this compassion. In fact, isn’t it this expectation of an intuitive empathy that stymies our progress toward a more compassionate world? On one side this expectation by we crusaders limits conversation because we too often - and too quickly -  get frustrated with others who “just don’t get it”. And on the flip side, this expectation thwarts progress, because it permits people to deploy a naturalistic fallacy: if we aren’t born caring, it must not be good or right or necessary.

How can society value and practice compassion towards wild animals?

So, how as a society do we come to value and practice compassion towards wild animals – as individual animals –  when some are born with this response, others might learn it, and others still will never care because of the vagaries of life that lead to selfishness, fear, preoccupation? As with anything in this human world, change in the will of society is achieved only through pressure at many levels – from the individual to the body politic.

More and more, people speak of the “empathy gap” we live in and with to explain why we care more about ‘us’ than ‘them’. According to the latest human cognition research, most of us are hard wired to empathise, but we are also compelled to form exclusive social memberships. Some make the cut and some don’t. This gap exists along such lines as race, religion, gender, socio-economic status, to even those of alma mater and sports team allegiance. Certainly then, there is an empathy chasm when we come to our relationship with other species. Arbitrary human notions of rarity, commonness, threat, and beauty often determine an animal’s and even an entire species’ worth.

Nonhuman animals have an interest in the outcomes of their lives

The good news is we have evolved the capacity to care about and understand the feelings and perspectives of others! And while it may seem like bad news that our evolved need to form social alliances creates in-groups and out-groups, it is also true that what defines our identity is flexible. So we have the ability to care and the flexibility to decide who and what we care about! Somehow we must all be given the opportunity to value other animals – to see that nonhuman animals, like we humans, have an interest in the outcomes of their lives.

How do we bridge this empathy chasm between our own interests and our concern for and treatment of wild animals? As a society we must afford ourselves the psychic and practical space to see that across the animal kingdom there are similar patterns of well-being: that individuals of most all animal species want to have appropriate resources, shelter and safety, but also that they want to learn about and have control over their lives; that good psychological health corresponds to good physical health; that social context matters, and that challenges and positive emotions are not simply luxuries, but integral parts of being alive.

So, how do we bring compassion to conservation?

So back to that initial, defining question, “How do we bring compassion to conservation?”

As a global society we hold these truths of Compassionate Conservation to be self-evident:  

That all harms to wild animals should be minimised wherever and to the extent possible, regardless of the human intention and purpose behind them. Both conservation and wild animal welfare should implicitly respect the inherent value of wild animals and the natural world, and both disciplines should try to mitigate harms caused by humans to other animals and species.

That concern for the individual needs to become an indelible element of all conservation practices. Individual animals are repositories of social and practical knowledge for their groups and they provide social and behavioural stability worthy of protection. In addition to the important roles of individual animals, the variation among them is important for the health of their communities.

That the de-categorisation of animals is essential to improve the lives of wild animals. Categorisation shapes and perpetuates our attitudes and relationships with them; affecting our treatment of them. Animals with a designation such as ‘overabundant’, ‘nuisance’ or ‘pest’ are subjected to a wide range of human-disturbance – both unintended and deliberate, and often inhumane. Removing such labels reveals that our actions are a product of our attitudes towards wildlife and not an inherent quality of the animals themselves. 

That we need to provide modern solutions for sharing space with nature and for fostering the possibility for human and nonhuman animals to live in greater coexistence. If we (re)designed our communities – our buildings, our roads, our personal and communal behaviours – to include the needs and wants of the animals that already share in our habitat, we could help resolve contradictory feelings towards wildlife, resulting in more compassionate and non-violent communities.

I’d like to think these are a good place to start!


* This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog belong solely to the blog owner and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.