Cecil the lion and compassionate conservation

The senseless killing of Cecil the lion has catalyzed a worldwide discussion about the gratuitous trophy hunting of large carnivores.

The senseless killing of Cecil the lion has catalyzed a worldwide discussion about the gratuitous trophy hunting of large carnivores.

In Western Canada, countless Cecils are killed in an equally senseless manner each year for the amusement, pleasure, and excitement of recreational hunters.

From the unrestrained killing of wolves in British Columbia and Alberta to the persistence of the insupportable B.C. grizzly bear hunt, large carnivores are persecuted in Western Canada by way of an anachronistic approach to wildlife management that relies on suffering and death as its primary tool. The chief purveyors and ideological proponents of this faulty and antiquated model are government ministries responsible for wildlife management and trophy hunting special interest groups. Moreover, they are rapidly falling out of favour with much of society as their excesses and biases steadily become more widely known. Clearly, the time has come for a different way of managing wildlife.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, one of the foremost proponents and thinkers in the evolving field of compassionate conservation, writes that “Compassionate conservation — in which the guiding principle ‘First do no harm’ stresses the importance of individual nonhuman animals — is gaining increasing global attention because most animals need considerably more protection than they are currently receiving and many people can no longer justify or stomach harming and killing animals in the name of conservation.”

Too often conservation and wildlife management primarily focus on the maintenance of population numbers. We forget wild populations are formed by of individuals that can suffer stress and pain, which we deem unacceptable for companion animals that share our homes and those we farm to eat. Although suffering is a feature of a wild life, the human-induced suffering caused by sport hunting and lethal predator control, such as the B.C. and Alberta wolf culls, is not.

In Western Canada, thousands of large carnivores are killed annually under the guise of conservation and wildlife management. The recreational hunting of wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, and cougars is done for the most trivial of motivations such as “bagging a trophy.” In addition, hundreds more of these animals are tyrannized every year in the name of predator control, as large carnivores become scapegoats for the decline of other animals from marmots to mountain caribou.

Humans intrude, degrade, and destroy large carnivore habitat, including restricting access to or depleting their food, in our relentless pursuit of resource development, economic gain, and even recreational activity. In doing so, top predators are deprived of the requisites they need to survive, and then are slain when they become “problem” animals as a result of their search for sustenance.

Large carnivores are demonized in books, films, and television programs, as our society clings to malevolent myths that have no basis in reality, but are instead phantasmagoric products of our own deep-seated fears and paranoia about the “other.”

We diminish the lives of large carnivores by relegating them to the status of unthinking and unfeeling beasts, fostering our bloated sense of entitlement and misguided belief in human exceptionalism. We hold the balance of power in our relationship with wildlife and typically wield that power with downright ruthlessness, motivated by a parsimonious self-interest that continues to be informed by superstition, hubris, and indulgence.

Bekoff summarizes the goals of compassionate conservation and the challenges we face in fundamentally changing our current relationship with wildlife thusly: “Striving to live peacefully with other animals with whom we share space, and into whose homes we’ve moved, is part of the process of re-wilding our hearts, and coming to appreciate other animals for whom they are and for what they want and need in our troubled world, to live in peace and safety.”

Ultimately, how we relate to wolves, bears, lions, and other carnivores is determined by the social values and mores of the culture we inhabit. Increasingly, we are realizing our treatment of large predators is a test of how likely we are to achieve co-existence with the natural elements that sustain us.

It is encouraging that growing public sensitivity to the trophy hunting of large predators is exposing blood-sport adherents to intense scrutiny. Much of society is beginning to identify the wanton killing of wildlife for fun and entertainment as an unacceptable deviancy by which so-called trophy animals are sacrificed for the perverse gratification of trophy hunters.

Perhaps there will come a day when the stubborn allegiance of many trophy hunters, government biologists, and opportunistic politicians to lethal exploitation and management is understood to tell us less about the exigencies of wildlife conservation and more about the psychological pathology of people.

A version of this article was first published in the Vancouver Sun on August 9, 2015.1

  1. Archival URL no longer available: http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/Opinion+Cecil+lion+compassionate+conservation/11279680/story.html

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.