Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Monday, May 21, 2007

Individually and Collectively

Last week, I wrote a bit about the ethics of insect collecting. I got some great responses, both in the blog comments and elsewhere. Robin Andrea (seconded by Thingfish23) had some really interesting observations that I wanted to follow up on. From Robin:
It is an important perspective about the tension between species and individual. Because I am not a scientist, I tend to respond to animals emotionally, as individual creatures worthy of my attention and protection. You convey the importance of understanding the success of species, and the individual that is collected for assistance in that endeavor.
In part, I find this observation interesting because it speaks directly to a significant division between the environmental movement and the animal welfare movement. True, many people count themselves to be a part of both- but not everyone is, and the two groups sometimes vigorously clash. To the best of my recollection, the all examples of conflict between these two arise out of conflicts between the interest of species (or sometimes ecosystems) and the interests of individual animals.

For example, one of the greatest sources of species extinction today is the havoc wreaked by non-native animals on isolated islands where they decimate endemic native fauna, typically birds (though plants and insects have suffered badly as well). Rats, mice, pigs, goats, and cats are all responsible for a large proportion of these extinctions. Recent advances have allowed many of these predators to be cleared from increasingly large islands. New Zealand, in particular, has developed technologies to eliminate rats (a creature particularly destructive to endemic island bird fauna) by saturation bombing with rat poison. The technique has proven highly effective. The largest island treated to date, Campbell Island south of the main New Zealand archipelago, was declared rat-free in 2003. Critically endangered species like the flightless Campbell Island teal are already showing signs of recovery.

Campbell Island, NZ

Campbell Island Teal

The removal of damaging animal species from islands has been the frequent target of criticism from animal welfare activists. Goat removal projects on San Clemente Island in California and on Australia’s Lord Howe Island were fought vigorously by animal rights groups. Conflict between the welfare of individual animals and the survival of species and ecosystems was the crux of the disagreements. Even here on the mainland of North America, this debate plays itself out over issues like the control of overpopulated herbivores such as deer.

I have no idea how to resolve this particular conflict. People who articulate the issue especially well, as Robin did, are an important part of the path to resolution. For myself, I have spent thousands of hours of my life attempting to restore both ecosystems and individual species, so it’s pretty clear which position I will usually adopt. I can make lots of statements about the effects of particular non-native species on the ecosystems that they have invaded. There’s lots of information and data out there, and people who want to make the hard choices to control deer or goats or cats (an animal that I am especially fond of) make extensive use of those data.

Unfortunately, some of these same people can at times be overly dismissive of those whose concern is for individuals. I have been guilty at times myself. An important factor motivating concern for the individual- empathy- is in unfortunate short supply in the world today. I can’t bring myself to speak against this particular motivation. Remembering this may not solve instances of conflict, but it can at least keep people of differing viewpoints engaged in constructive conversation.

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At 22:22, Blogger Ur-spo said...

i wasn't aware that there would be a series of animals such that 'nonnative'animals would have advocates. what a concept.


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