Academic journal article New Formations

The Anguish of Wildlife Ethics

Academic journal article New Formations

The Anguish of Wildlife Ethics

Article excerpt

I ANIMALS ETHICS VERSUS ECOLOGICAL ETHICS?

When I took up residence at my new 350-acre property on the shoulder of a little stone mountain in Central Victoria last year, I thought I was fairly well prepared to manage it for conservation. I had taught environmental ethics for twenty years and was looking forward excitedly to putting theory into practice. It was straightforward. I truly revered all life. I had devoted an entire academic career to this cause. My environmental ethic was my raison d'etre. Now at last I had a place where I could regenerate the bush and offer sanctuary for wildlife. However, things were not to be so simple. As soon as I walked through the gate of my new haven, I found myself slapped in the face ?with one ethical dilemma after another, till I felt punch-drunk and bewildered. It was as though the tough old no-nonsense mountain thought to itself, let's put this little whitefella upstart through her paces and see how her classroom ethics stacks up against the life-and-death, anything-but-merry-go-round of the real 'environment'.

First it was the rabbits. The mountain, being a granite outcrop, is a headquarters for rabbits. There is quite good remnant vegetation on the property but no further progress could be made towards restoration until the rabbits were brought under control. I had seen the results of uncontrolled rabbit infestation in the past: a kind of earth leprosy, with vegetation stripped off and land collapsed in on itself, rotting and eroding. Rabbits are of course themselves innocent and totally adorable little creatures, but I could not manage the property for biodiversity unless they were controlled. 'Controlled' meant killed, since no other methods for controlling rabbit populations are currently available.

But what method of killing was appropriate in the circumstances? I was lucky enough to obtain a grant for rabbit management almost as soon as I took up residence on the property. An environmental services contractor was recommended to me. His preferred method was to bait with the poison, 1080, via treated grain scattered broad-scale across the entire property. He assured me that this method was safe for non-target species--well, apart from (swamp) wallabies, who were 'greedy', he said, and foolishly stuffed themselves on the grain. There might therefore be one or two wallaby casualties, but this was a minor ecological deficit--it was just the price you paid for bringing the land back into environmental production. I trusted the contractor's information--I knew he was himself a dedicated environmentalist. Nor was I, at this stage, asking too many questions--about the physiological effects of 1080 on rabbits themselves, for instance. I accepted that, though the job was a dirty one, it had to be done. Nevertheless, I was appalled at the prospect of causing wallaby deaths. Wallabies, and other native wildlife, were for me the whole point of the exercise. I was there for the wallabies! Was my first act to be to kill wallabies? I asked around. There were evidently less potent poisons than 1080--pindone, for instance--and it was possible to lay pindone in bait stations that were wallaby-proof. I insisted on this, probably to the annoyance of the contractor, to whom such scruples would have appeared 'sentimental' and worse, obstructive: the method I was proposing was more labour-intensive and therefore more expensive than broad-scale baiting, and the funding I was receiving for the project was premised on efficiency, not ethics. He grudgingly complied, but it turned out that the make-shift baiting stations he supplied were not wallaby proof in any case, and pindone was significantly toxic to all granivorous native animals and birds, as well as to the predators who preyed on them. My first foray into wildlife management thus proved an abject failure. I have no idea what damage to wildlife resulted from the baiting. One very rarely witnesses the effects of such interventions. …

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