The Anguish of Wildlife Ethics

By Mathews, Freya | New Formations, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Anguish of Wildlife Ethics

Mathews, Freya, New Formations

Abstract As an environmental philosopher I had long been aware of dilemmas between animal ethics and ecological ethics, but now, as the manager of my own biodiversity reserve, I was facing these dilemmas in a more gut-wrenching and complex form than I had ever encountered in the classroom. Pressured by environmental authorities to cull kangaroos on my property, in the name of ecological ethics, I started thinking about the very meaning of ethics, its origins in the evolution of society and its material and metaphysical presuppositions. Two different conceptions of the normative root of society emerged, the deontic conception, appropriate within the material and metaphysical framework of hunter-gatherer societies, and the axial conception, appropriate within the framework of 'civilization', viz the agrarian societies that evolved into the urbanindustrial formations of the modern era. The axial conception, based on empathy, aligned with our modern conception of ethics, and underlay our contemporary sense of animal ethics. 'Ecological ethics', on the other hand, seemed to be obscurely underpinned by the deontic conception, and was not ethical at all in the axial sense, and was moreover mismatched, normatively speaking, with the material and metaphysical realities of modern societies. A different set of practices from those currently prescribed by environmental authorities needs to be devised to meet both the ethical and ecological requirements of our contemporary natural environment.

Keywords animal ethics, ecological ethics, origins of ethics, wildlife ethics, kangaroos


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'être. 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. …

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