In my last post I have concluded that conservation in Australia is overall anthropocentric in the sense that it serves to legitimise human life activity rather than preserve nature for nature´s sake.

However, I believe that there are altruistic motives to conservation, as well.

I have been involved in wildlife rehabilitation efforts in Australia for four years now, and have met some wonderful individuals who care for wildlife simply because they love them. Scientifically speaking, this phenomenon could be explained by the concept of compassion-induced altruism. E.g., according to Matha Nussbaum´s moral philosophy, concern for another being´s wellbeing may be “motivated or supported by the imaginative exercise of putting oneself in that person´s place”[1]. Those compassionate individuals thus devote a great deal of their time and money to the rescue, care and rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wildlife. Volunteers restlessly attend emergency phone lines and provide first aid on reported cases before they are being distributed to nearby shelters for treatment and care. Carers set up their entire daily routine around the wellbeing of their fosterlings. Especially raising young requires frequent feeds and constant care; animals in care require different husbandry conditions according to species, development stage and kind of injury/treatment; hygiene is of utmost importance. Many individuals who take on this task are pensioners who are ready to adapt their daily life entirely to the care of the animals, but rely on a small income to fund this.

While many carers do a wonderful job at rearing and rehabilitating these animals, it is quite a difficult undertaking, as we cannot ask them how they feel, what they need and what they want. We always face the possibility of captivitiy-induced stress, in the worst case leading to fatal myopathy. In order to ensure the wellbeing of the animals we care for, we need to try and evaluate what is best for them. Intuitively, we do this by interpreting their behaviour according to our own standards – we anthropomorphise [2] them. Often, that can be helpful and in many cases the things we observe seem very obvious, e.g. a kangaroo standing in a hunched position may imply it is feeling unwell. Other notions are much more difficult to observe and misinterpretation can lead to long-term disadvantages for the animal.

For instance, how much love does an animal need in order to thrive? Experience has shown that orphaned kangaroos, like most marsupials, require a quality of care sufficient to substitute the close bond between the in-pouch baby, called joey, and its mother. That covers a great deal of both physical and emotional closeness between carer and joey. However, that closeness has to be slowly withdrawn later on, in order for the joey to be able to survive on its own once released back into the wild and not suffer from further shock from losing its substitute mother, as well. Also, being familial animals kangaroos thrive better being raised and released in groups. Therefore, it is established practice to buddy up joeys of similar age and developmental stages and rear them alongside each other.

Kangaroo Joeys in their surrogate pouches at a local Wildlife Shelter.
Kangaroo Joeys in their surrogate pouches at a local Wildlife Shelter. They are raised in a group to ensure their wellbeing both during rehabilitation and after release back in the wild.

Observation and interpretation can help us determine what´s best for the animals we care for, but being limited to our human experiences, misperceptions are frequent and even the best intentions can prove quite harmful.

For instance, people try to rear joeys unauthorised in their home. They feed them cow´s milk and humanize them, ignorant of the negative effects this can have on the joey. For one, kangaroos cannot tolerate lactose and are likely to suffer severe disabilities from exposure to the wrong diet, the most frequent being cataracts, blindness or even brain damage. A high degree of humanisation will make any wildlife unfit to survive in the wild, not recognising domestic pets and humans as dangerous.

Thus, when making decisions on behalf of the voiceless, we always have to ask ourselves whether our decisions are truly in the interest of the creature in question. The practice of anthropomorphising can help us uncover the needs of those we care for, but it is to be used with caution and self-reflection, if it is to serve those who cannot speak for themselves.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Nussbaum 2001: 342.
[2] About Anthropomorphism, cf. Sezgin 2014: 23-29.

 

References:

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2001): Upheavals of Thought. The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh, Madrid, Cape Town.

Sezgin, Hilal (2014): Artgerecht ist nur die Freiheit. Eine Ethik für Tiere oder Warum wir umdenken müssen. Verlag C.H.Beck: München.

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