Wolf Stories: Sustaining the wellbeing of people, animals, and nature (Part 2)

We know through best available science that nonhuman animals are much more than components of ecological communities. They are individual selves. They forge their own social relationships and their own affective bonds. They empathize, care for one another, and grieve the loss of family and friends.

PAN Works is a new ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. Drs. William Lynn, Kristin Stewart, Liv Baker, and Francisco Santiago-Ávila discuss the place of science and ethics in sustaining the wellbeing of people, animals, and nature. This is the second in a two-part interview

As a global platform for ethicists, scholars, and civil society, PAN Works cultivates compassion, respect and justice for animals, a reverence for the community of life, and a desire for people, animals, and nature to thrive together. Bill specializes in animal and sustainability ethics, exploring why and how we ought to care for people, animals, and nature. Kris explores boundaries and bridges at the intersection of people, animals, and nature, particularly through teaching and writing about animals and spirituality, animal ethics, and animal law and policy. Liv is a conservation behaviourist and an expert in wild animal wellbeing. Her research focuses on how individuals engage with their environments, and the roles individual, wild animals have in the health of their social groups, cultures, and populations. Fran researches and practices the application of nature ethics to our mixed-community of people, animals, and nature, with a focus on the promotion of worldviews rooted in non-anthropocentrism, an ethic of care, and justice. 

Read part one of this article

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In Michael Soulé’s seminal article “What is conservation biology?” he argues that conservation has both scientific and ethical dimensions, but then promotes a detachment from animals as individuals. What influence has this had on conservation as a concept and in practice? 

LB: It’s had a really big impact. It is a seminal article and a very defining article. From my point of view and how it’s impacted me is just that it completely dismissed animals as individuals. It conflated animal rights and animal welfare science. At the time, animal welfare science as a discipline had been around for a few decades. If you look at the pie chart speaking to the interdisciplinary nature of conservation biology, Soulé includes veterinary medicine, population genetics, etc., but animal welfare science has no place in it. So it politicalizes it, and says animal welfare is essentially animal rights and thus has no place in conservation. When you listen to people today, and whether they realize it or not, they are just regurgitating Michael Soulé in their beliefs and in their approach to conservation. It has had a very deep and very negative impact that all of us in this room right now have been challenging and trying to correct and redress. 

Later in life, before his death, he regretted much of that. But the damage to conservation practice and policy had been done. Maybe he should have written his own piece, like a retraction of sorts, that hopefully could have gotten as much airtime as this article. For students and even practitioners to see the change in point of view, the change in perspective, the correction that an individual might make in their lifetime is so valuable. But we don’t see it. It’s like if something gets published, like this paper, it’s like it is carved in stone, it becomes bright and it becomes completely static.

FSA: I wish Soulé had written his own “Thinking like a mountain” and articulated his change in thinking and feeling the same as Aldo Leopold did, being a huge proponent of predator management and then changing his views. I think something similar happened here with Soulé. In his last interview with Tonino, there was a very good quote. He says, “we only protect what we love.” The interview also recounts how he had just seen a turtle that had been run over by a car on the road and he picks the turtle up knowing that she is not going to live through it, but nevertheless takes her up from the road and sets her down by the side of the road to keep her from more harm, and how he fights back tears when doing that. The amount of emotion that’s there, again, you see that it’s not limited to these native ecological wholes, but that’s what his seminal article does. 

In fact, to take it back to the article, he establishes some normative postulates and ethical concerns that conservation biology should have. I would argue that those concerns structure the ethical thinking of a lot of conservationists, taking into account also that many conservationists do not take any ethical training at all. You may have environmental ethics that have developed more robust arguments for some of the statements that Soulé poses, but he doesn’t in his article. So folks go back to that article, and reference his statements that species diversity is good, complexity is good, and species diversity has intrinsic value and it’s the most fundamental value. At a time where species diversity didn’t have intrinsic value, Soulé is making a case for the inherent value of non-human life to some extent, which is super valuable. But the fact that he limits these ethical concerns to native species diversity subordinates individual animals to these instrumental and ecological values that are also purely human. Soulé suggests, even explicitly in that article, that these ethical concerns for individuals should be ethically and politically separate from conservation concerns. 

LB: It sets up that central dogma of conservation.

FSA: Much about animals in that article is dismissive. The consequence today is not only that some folks, potentially many conservationists, might be as relativistic about their views on animals as the general population. It might be a little bit worse because they might also think, ‘if I need to harm these beings to preserve some component of native ecological holes, I should do it.’

LB: The other thing that he sets up is conservation biology being the crisis discipline. It is about triage, essentially. It became a reactive discipline. So yes, there are immediate and more urgent matters and yet, it kind of pushed out a way to proactively care for nature, its inhabitants, and so forth. 

“[What a discipline does] shouldn’t tell you what your ethical limits or constraints are.”

– Francisco Santiago-Ávila

FSA: For me, one of the most shocking statements in that article was – and Pablo Castello and I use it in our article ‘Conservation after Sovereignty’ – where he states that the relationship to conservation biology to ecology is “analogous to that of surgery to physiology and war to political science.” He’s stating that conservation biology is basically the war of ecology.

So you implement ecology through conservation biology. But through war? What else do you interpret from that other than we have to harm nature in some way to save it. This is what we should remain concerned about first and foremost at all times. It’s hard to see how folks are going to get any other impression than we have to kill animals; it has to be done. We’ve got to trap animals. We’ve got to sterilize coyotes to save red wolves. We’ve got to cull wolves to save caribou. What about the coyotes? What about the wolves? Do they have a place in the landscape? No, because why? Because they’ll interbreed or because they’re predators? All these different issues pop up, and in all of them, you see that conservationists are generally saying, well, we have to do this because that’s what matters most in our discipline. What a discipline does shouldn’t tell you what should matter ethically for that discipline. It shouldn’t tell you what your ethical limits or constraints are. 

“What we’re seeing right now is a particularly strong interest in questions of caring for animals and nature, resonant with concerns about how much damage, harm, oppression we’ve done to human beings.”

– William Lynn

WL: To put it in the broad perspective, when we talk about this history, there’s always been this concern about animals and nature from the very beginning of human history, of human consciousness. You see that in the anthropological literature. There are times when it comes to the fore in different thinkers, whether it be Pythagoras or Saint Francis of Assisi, Voltaire or Montaigne, and others through history. Of course, they’re always informed by certain paradigms of their time. What we’re seeing right now is a particularly strong interest in questions of caring for animals and nature, resonant with concerns about how much damage, harm, oppression we’ve done to human beings. There are connections there.

Another thing is there’s always been a dual emphasis in the field of ecology, between the science and the ethics. Always. The person to read on this is [the environmental historian] Donald Worster. His book, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1994) is probably the most important book on the history and practice of both the ethics and science of ecology. Yet while there’s always been this dual track, scientists have been uncomfortable with it. For example, the very concept of an ecosystem was designed by author Arthur Tansley in 1935 to minimize and peripheralize moral concerns about animals and nature by redefining ecology as a mechanistic discipline founded on energetics. His metaphor was the steam engine. So the whole thing about the cycling of nutrients and energy passing through the trophic pyramid comes out of this 1935 article that’s designed to peripheralize ethical concerns. 

Back in the sixties, this really comes to the fore – a recovery of the moral concerns of ecology. This births a societal engagement within ecology itself, but more importantly, the infusion of ecology as an interdisciplinary perspective into the social sciences. Out of this comes environmental studies, which tries to offer an interdisciplinary perspective. Early environmental studies was deeply influenced by Arne Naess’ ideas about ecocentrism and deep ecology, as well as by John Rodman’s concerns about individual animals. [Rodman was] the author of “The Dolphin Papers”, which explored concerns about animal rights and animal well-being in the context of larger environmental concerns. There was not a bifurcation, a dualistic idea that there’s environmental ethics over here and there’s animal ethics over there, and those being very distinct and separate things. 

But that started to drift, as environmental philosophers, particularly John Callicott and others, defined environmental ethics as having to be about the environment and not about individual animals. And then you had the animal ethicists who started talking about the animals themselves apart from the larger ecological context in which they exist. Environmental studies starts to splinter.  Then Soulé comes in at a time when there’s a huge fight within ecology about whether we should be morally engaged or we should just be focused on the science. He gives [ecologists] a way to frame themselves as a mission oriented discipline at a time of crisis for biodiversity. So in doing the science, we’re morally engaged.

LB: It served to dismiss the ethic at the same time. Because it was like, okay, it’s clear we care. So let’s get to it.

WL: Exactly, along with dismissing the animal piece there was a deep misunderstanding about what Naess meant by ecocentrism. In the later part of his life, Soulé was absolutely clear about how much he loved and cared and respected individual animals. He said his motivation was that he wanted to save nature, the larger context, that those individual animals are partly constitutive of. Ecocentrism wasn’t about simply saying that we could sacrifice other animals for nature per se, at least as he was thinking back on it shortly before his death. And this war analogy, I don’t know whether it was intentional or unintentional, but it certainly is unfortunate because the metaphor itself really goes to an exigent triaging, a point of crisis and violent conflict that justifies anything in service of the war, as war metaphors often do.

So it’s very, very complex – Soulé’s role, his reflections. One more thing. Soulé’s 1985 articulation has become the moral orthodoxy of conservation. As such, it serves to dismiss a concern about animals and dismiss a real engagement with ethics. Ethics is always on the periphery. We use it for a little bit of fluffing and a little bit of justification. We talk about Aldo Leopold and then we stop with the land ethic. 

But this moral orthodoxy has become stale. In some senses, what we [at PAN Works] are doing is directly challenging that orthodoxy. This is another meaning of heterodoxy. It’s not just promoting a pluralism of ideas. It goes back to what Liv is saying – we’re challenging the anthropocentrism, the human exceptionalism, the human supremacy, the speciesism that’s embodied in this moral orthodoxy that in some ways has understandably followed, but also twisted, what Soulé really meant.

LB:  Ultimately it’s asking not just the community of conservation to reflect and reevaluate its anthropocentric history, approach and practice, but also asking individuals to do that. This goes back to Soulé’s article in that what it also served to do was to give a pass to people. This goes off of what we were already saying that, oh, because I am within conservation or conservation adjacent, my ethics are solid. It speaks for itself. It has given a pass to people and they’re not asked to genuinely reflect on and evaluate truly their ethics, their ethical framework, their approach to the protection of nature, and so forth. And so there’s just a lot of unarticulated thinking and practice in conservation. That’s also what we [at PAN Works] attempt to do.

KS: It’s even beyond giving a pass. It’s a license. A literal license to take it into the policy and legal sphere. This is, who’s making those wildlife management decisions?

FSA: Now you’re buying a permit. You can hunt, you can trap. You’re sanctioned. This goes back to that sort of thinking, axiomatic rather than interpretive, that sort of thinking that separates emotion from reason. Whereas other approaches that we generally employ do not promote this separation. Ecofeminism has a really good term – nature ethics – that Marti Kheel coined, where she states that all this division between caring for ‘wholes’ and caring for individuals doesn’t make any sense. There’s space for us to care for everyone without having separate guidelines and ways of thought for each to get to these ethical meanings. The more holistic and the more pluralist your approach, the more you can converge in better, more ethical solutions that further the consideration of others, relative to more axiomatic approaches that are divorced from your holistic being to the extent that they force you to just use reason or certain rules instead of also emotion, direct experience, etc.

A darkly coloured wolf with black highlights walks across the sand in the intertidal zone.
Photo by Colleen Gara.

KS: We’ve all had these students that come into that environmental science program or that conservation class because they have a heart and a passion for individual animals. And then they are taught that the way to think about this is to separate the two. Many of them do not lose that consideration for the individual, but they push it down so that they can go on and do the work that they’ve been trained to do.

WL: Or it’s beaten out of them. To give you a concrete example of this – I met Karen Warren, who’s one of the early articulators of ecofeminism, back when I was an undergraduate. She’s the one who introduced me to ecofeminism. She appeared in an ecology seminar where women in this ecology department who cared about animals wanted to talk about this in relation to the ethics of ecology. Unsurprisingly, as there’s this deep history of that in ecology itself. While Karen Warren was speaking, you literally had male professors lined up in the front rows, snickering. Then in the question and comment period, [they were] dismissive of these concerns as unscientific, as emotional, as woman-ish. At one point, a senior ecologist at the time, a famous modeler in ecology, told students that if you do this in your career, you’ll never get a job. That if you want to think about these things and speak about them, you remain silent until you’re a full tenured professor. Then you have the license, the permission, the authority to opine. But until then, you just ignore this stuff because it will destroy your career. 

It was shocking. It was absolutely shocking to me as an undergraduate. Yet it was also informative. I was about to go into grad school and I was like, holy shit, this is what it’s going to be like. And it was. It still is. 

Ultimately, however, that experience with seeing ecological and wildlife professionals “disciplined” led to discussions about conservation ethics, wolf recovery, and predator management. This started in the early 2000s at conferences hosted by the International Wolf Center, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Wildlife Federation. We organized panel discussions with Paul Paquet of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Fred Koontz (now a fellow of PAN Works), Camilla Fox of Project Coyote, and David Levine of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. PAN Works, in some way, is a fruition and continuation of that early effort.

There was just this hunger amongst professionals to learn about these ethical considerations and to think through and talk about them. That led to me, in my consulting career, training thousands of students and agency professionals, state and federal, into some ethical awareness about conservation. If I get a period of time with people, it never fails that someone late at night or over dinner breaks into tears and talks about how these moral sensibilities of caring for the world, and wanting to do right in the world and by animals, led them to be conservation biologists or wildlife professionals.

Yet it gets beaten out of them. They’re not allowed to speak about this. It would be a career ender if they do. Nonetheless, they find it freeing and liberating to talk about these matters in a safe harbor where they can be honest about what they think and how they feel. It’s out there. We just have a whole industry, academic and otherwise, that’s structured to keep that stuff contained. And that’s why ethical capacity building is so important, to open up Pandora’s box, let it out, and help build the capacity of individuals and organizations to think ethically and to act on those efforts.

LB: One last thing to make note of is that in Soulé’s article, he distinguishes wildlife management from conservation science; there is a distinction there worthy of exploring. There’s been an almost total conflation of wildlife management and conservation. Wildlife management, I feel, has now almost supplanted conservation. In many people’s personal perspectives, or vision of what conservation is, it is essentially the practice of wildlife management. That is largely the killing, the sanctioning of the deaths of animals – the deaths of wolves, the deaths of coyotes, and on and on and on. And I think this needs to be reckoned with, going back to this article and (re)asking, what is conservation biology? Because, as much as is good in that article and as much that is problematic in that article, what we have now is certainly not what even Soulé envisioned. Based on what I see is that wildlife management and the guiding principles of wildlife management are kind of ruling the day. And conservation (the community of) is almost doing the bidding. Even conservation practitioners, who wouldn’t even label themselves or self-identify as wildlife managers, seem to be doing the bidding of wildlife management.

Video by Chelsea Greer / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

How has this separation affected our treatment and understanding of non-human animals, specifically wolves?

FSA: The first and maybe biggest problem there is that there are so many sources of value that neither Soulé postulates, nor environmental philosophers considered. And it’s not that they were not considered, they weren’t even mentioned; they’re just absolutely dismissed. 

We know through best available science from multiple fields and recent research that animals are just much more than components of ecological communities. They are individual selves. They participate and form their own social communities. They forge their own social relationships and their own affective bonds. We know they value others and their lives. We know they empathize, that they have their own distinct personalities, that they care for each other. And none of this is there. None of this is considered. 

This separation is just one human perspective. And again, maybe one perspective of particular humans. Because there is a lot of dismissal of marginalized communities, people of colour, and Native American views within conservation. Following philosopher Mathew Calarco’s work, I like to think of anthropocentrism as enshrining an ideal of the human that results in prejudices against animals and other humans that don’t fulfill that ideal of the human, which is a Western ideal that is more often the independent, rational, able, white male of a particular socioeconomic class. To the extent that none of the values of other beings are taken into account, there’s so much that we’re missing there ethically. 

That’s where I think wildlife management and conservation biology should start. You don’t see in any wildlife management plan an exploration of who, as individuals, are these animals that we are trying to intervene in the lives of? For all the talk of best available science within conservation biology, the evidence of these capabilities is much more robust than what we have a lot of the time for ecology and the interventions that we subject these animals to. So again, the fact that this is not being considered is the first issue. 

As I mentioned earlier, Adrian Treves, Bill, and I published a chapter, a few years ago, providing an ethical examination of the laws and regulations governing grey wolf management in Wisconsin. We found that the agencies, both state and federal, their missions, their values, and actions were all explicitly anthropocentric to the extent that it’s not only that they dismiss individual wolves, but they don’t consider anything that may impair their use for humans, even if that concerns the stability, the health of a population. So again, as long as conservation biologists fulfill the requirement of viability, it seems like anything goes with animals. 

We know that wolves are healthier themselves, and the populations are healthier, even self-regulating, when there’s less to no lethal management, when they’re not exploited. And that leads to less conflict and less poaching. I’ve done research on this as well, and it leads to people having higher views of wolves, higher consideration of wolves. And nonetheless, the social stability of wolf packs is not considered when folks want to hunt or trap wolves. 

Additionally, we see this through my recent work with Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute. We had to comment on Michigan and Minnesota’s recent wolf management plans that they just released last summer. Colorado and Montana released draft regulations as well – Colorado for reintroduction, Montana for the slaughter of wolves that’s happening there. And generally the same is true of all these plans. There’s no mention of who wolves are, their capabilities, their values. There’s no recognition of their claims to life, wellbeing, their friends and relatives, the social stability that would allow them to regulate their societies and minimize conflicts with humans. We simply decide we can do whatever we want with them as long as the populations remain ‘sustainable.’ And not only whatever we want, but what a minority of humans, that we’ve given the power to, want. 

We have to note that those humans are only a sliver of the population. And that’s a sliver with very particular characteristics that map with this quintessential human that is being considered over and against all others, both human and animal. The anthropocentrism there is so pervasive that it permeates anyone caught up in that type of ethic in wildlife management. Also the discipline itself is composed mostly, in the science side and in the agency side, of that type of individual, with those views and those qualities.

Coastal wolf walking along the shoreline on a calm day.
Photo by Michelle Valberg.

LB: Just to add, if we put ethics aside for even the moment, the science is so poorly understood and implemented in and of itself. And so there’s such a problem right there. We’ve all written about this. Even if we were just to focus on the scientific knowledge about the roles of individuals and their interplay with their communities and their ecologies and so on, we would have a very different approach to conservation and the protection of nature. So we’re not even valuing what we do know and apprehend. This further highlights the capriciousness of anthropocentrism. It really is what’s convenient in that moment, in that context, and it’s cherry picked. Even the science is cherry picked. So when we bring the ethics back in and interweave it with the science, it’s even more difficult for folks.

FSA: That’s a great point. Part of the effect is that the questions that science asks that are relevant to conservation biology but that consider the wellbeing of animals have been very, very limited. Liv’s work is an example, with elephants in Thailand, in her project of compassionate conservation. But for more specific questions, I think there is only one study that has taken on the question of what are the stress levels in wolves in populations that are exploited versus those that are not exploited? Only one study.

LB: And such a study is what led to changes in deer hunts in England, including the ban of certain practices, by looking at what hunting – by horse, with dogs, etc. – was doing to those animals. Such studies looked at behaviour and physiological correlates (such as stress hormones) to assess welfare implications. Such studies can have a lot of power, but not in a vacuum. Of course, there was political will at the time and a history of concern, so it was tied in with the advocacy and the ethics. But then there was that scientific component and a study looking at what this is doing to these animals. And it told us that this is cruel.

“When you liberalize the killing of [wolves], you’re actually promoting that they are less valuable.”

– Francisco Santiago-Ávila

FSA: Similarly, the studies that I’ve done on asking the question of how do wolves experience periods of liberalized killing? How do they experience these periods of killing relative to periods of full protection? It seems like a question that anyone could have asked in the past 20 years of wolf recovery here in the US because it’s relevant not only to the experience of individual wolves, but to the health of a population through individuals that we know are social. And to my knowledge, we were the first ones to even ask that question, with all the management implications that it has. It is not palatable to say, hey, when you liberalize the killing of these individuals, you’re actually promoting that they are less valuable. And therefore, you’re not only increasing their legal killing, but poaching also increases because people are getting a policy signal from the government that either these individuals are not as valuable anymore, or there are just too many on the landscape, so it doesn’t matter anymore.

There’s an issue here that Freya Mathews identifies in some of her recent work that says that this scientific epistemology that has taken over conservation biology ends up with a solipsist attitude towards the rest of the world to the extent that you have to separate yourself from nature to be objective and neutral towards what you’re studying. But the flip side of that is that you become detached from those beings and those communities that you’re studying. And so you deny their subjectivity and don’t perceive those values. You miss all the value that is not human that should be considered because you’re taking a stance of separation and detachment that’s contrary to a lot of what we [at PAN Works] promote, which is effective relationships to both individuals and wholes.

WL: We’re talking here very much about the interrelationship between science and certain norms of science and beliefs about science. Interpretive ethics is not just a term that’s used in ethics. It’s part of a much larger interpretive movement in the sciences, both the social sciences and the natural sciences. And the entire movement of interpretation has an emphasis, an importance laid on the role that values play, values of all sorts – ethical values, economic values, social values. It has an enormous impact in terms of looking at how society influences our ethics and our science for good or ill. So, there’s a connection here. It’s very natural for us to be thinking in these dual tracks about both the critique of science and a critique of ethics from an interpretivist perspective because it is designed to do both things at once.

LB: Thinking about more conventional ecological studies that are essentially longitudinal studies of these populations, of these communities of wolves and other animals. Here’s this opportunity to tap into who these animals are. And yet, that’s not done. Instead, it’s looking at those more conventional variables within population management and so forth. And yet we know that there’s intergenerational trauma and that that trauma gets passed on. We scientifically know that, not just for our species, but for other animals as well. 

Think about all of the things that Fran was mentioning about the social dynamics and interplay of wolves, in their social stability and their instability, and the ways in which they interact with their group members and such. So we have an ecological understanding of the social dynamics and the social hierarchy in wolves. But it’s so divorced, it’s so separated from who these wolves are. They’re just sort of representatives of wolves, rather than actual wolves. So again, we have these longitudinal opportunities and we don’t use them to understand what is the intergenerational impact of what’s happening in their environment. What is the impact of trauma across generations? Because, in part, the values that are infused in conservation haven’t allowed us to even ask those questions. They’re not considered valid. They’re not considered part of conservation and the protection of nature and animals. Sadly, this just flies in the face of common sense, of what we know, and of what we understand.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.