My training in philosophy had taught me to be distrustful of claims of human exceptionalism, yet these claims are implicit everywhere in wildlife management and conservation.” ~ Francisco Santiago-Avila, Ph.D. candidate, UW-Madison Nelson Institute
I attended the Nelson Institute Earth Day primarily to hear Fran Santiago-Avila’s talk. His biography caught my attention:
“As part of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab, Fran’s research has revolved around the integration and application of environmental and animal ethics to coexistence with wildlife, and the evaluation of the effectiveness of lethal and non-lethal methods to prevent conflicts with large carnivores (the gray wolf, in particular). His main objective is to reform human-wildlife interactions by embedding in them the acknowledgment of moral standing for individual nonhuman animals.
I met with Francisco at Café Zuma on Atwood Avenue to understand more of his background and efforts.
He told me, “I see the urgency of getting the acknowledgement of the social, psychological and biological entitlements of non-human animals into policy.
He noted that hidden values, not science or ethics, is guiding wildlife, wolf and natural carnivore management. There is a “crass lack of concern for individuals.” He stressed expanding moral community beyond white men as an ongoing challenge, with backlash. He added, pertaining to hunting, “The only thing they have going for them is nobody is looking.”
His Earth Day topic was “Killing wolves to prevent predation on livestock may protect one farm but harm neighbors.” Carnivore Coexistence Lab research established that killing wolves is no more effective than non-lethal methods in minimizing the risk of future predation on domestic animals: “Ethical wildlife management guided by the ‘best scientific and commercial data available’ would suggest suspending the standard method of trapping wolves in favor of non-lethal methods (livestock guarding dogs or fladry) that have been proven effective in preventing livestock losses in Michigan and elsewhere.”
State agencies traffic in massive random assaults, killing quotas, and hunting and trapping “seasons” on entire species, ignoring the familial bonds and friendships, grief suffered in death, packs and responsibilities of individuals within animal communities, which are now increasingly understood as similar to our own values.
In follow-up emails, I asked Francisco, “How did you evolve to your mission of acknowledging moral rights for individual animals — unlike so many of your colleagues?”
“I believe this determination was partly a result of the path I took to arrive at the field of conservation. I have always been interested in making the world more ethical and just. Prior to beginning graduate studies in the field, this drive directed me to political theory and public policy (focusing on environmental management). During this time, I was able to familiarize myself with political and ethical philosophy, including theories of human nature, moral consideration and other moral and political theories, such as theories of equality and justice. My focus at the time was in improving environmental management through sustainable use as a way (to) tackle human inequality and injustice and nature conservation simultaneously.
“In the meantime, through my studies in environmental policy, I started getting interested in the conflict surrounding wolf policy in the western U.S. and how polarizing it has been. I think every animal advocate has a particular species or individual that leads them down that path. For me, it was the gray wolf. Through my research on wolf policy, I started reading up on their ethology (such a wonderful science!) and was amazed at how much overlap there is between wolf and human way of life, capabilities and interests. They are not qualitatively different. Individuals of both species want autonomy, resources, a family, freedom from unnecessary harm and to live their lives as they see fit.
“This shook my ethical sensibilities in a way that nothing else had. If we share these capabilities (which later I would realize are pervasive throughout the animal kingdom), why are their interests dismissed wolf policy? Why do we consider others as worthy of moral standing and entitlements? Is it their human shape (do mannequins have moral standing?) or is it their internal capabilities? Why do humans feel entitled to harm these nonhuman animals regardless of the triviality of their interests? Why does the ‘Golden Rule’ (treat others as you would like to be treated in a similar situation) not apply to wolves? My training in philosophy had taught me to be distrustful of claims of human exceptionalism, yet these claims are implicit everywhere in wildlife management and conservation. Nonhuman animals’ legitimate entitlements are being either relatively or absolutely dismissed. These are some of the most vulnerable beings in the world (to top it off, they are voiceless as well), so it seemed to me like a massive social justice (not ‘environmental’, albeit intimately tied) issue that needs to be dealt with explicitly. The type of harmful and deadly practices wildlife, and especially large social species, is subjected to seem ethically inappropriate when we become aware of the brittleness of the scientific and ethical arguments backing them up.”
He summed it up: “Wildlife management should be about protecting animals from unnecessary harm. That’s where ethics come in.
Petition to keep snowmobiles and motorized vehicles out of Tahoe National Forest, to protect imperiled wolverines and Pacific martens.
Petition to ban live animal exports long distances from the European Union to other countries. These exports result in extreme exhaustion, dehydration, trampling, cruelty and ultimate slaughter.
Gaza, the Broken-Hearted, a talk by Chris Hedges on YouTube.
We must end all genocides, including the genocide of other species. Only your voice can force change.
This column was originally published in the Madison CapTimes on May 20, 2018.