Conservationists Vs. Animal Welfare Groups – Are They That Different?
Most wildlife conservation and animal welfare concerns have at least one thing in common: the goal of preventing harm. Yet they are often perceived as two entirely different areas of concern and treated as such in practice and politically – despite the obvious potential for actively collaborating on preventing and reducing harm to wild animals.
The main difference between the two boils down to species versus individuals. Wildlife conservation science focuses on protecting “the integrity and continuity of natural processes, populations and ecological systems.” It devotes special attention and efforts into select species who are essential for biodiversity. In contrast, animal welfare science emphasizes the quality of life of individuals – rather than species – and places importance on all sentient animals rather than a select few.
In this paper, people of conservation versus animal welfare orientations are compared to examine how much they differ in their perception of harm done to wild animals. The conservation-oriented group was defined as individuals who took part in hunting or trapping or supported hunting, conservation or conservation organisations. These people mostly expressed concerns for effects on ecosystems and populations rather than individual animals in their responses. In contrast, the welfare-oriented group was defined as individuals who did not hunt or trap, supported animal welfare organisations and voiced concern for individual animals.
The authors conducted a wildlife values survey, with the main research question asking participants to score the level of perceived harm to wildlife caused by 12 human activities. The participants ranked the level of perceived harm on a 7-point scale and “in terms of overall number of animals impacted globally.” The selected harmful human activities were all known to have substantial, yet different, direct or indirect effects on wild animals and animal populations.
The rankings of the 12 activities were highly consistent across all groups, including between the conservation-oriented and welfare-oriented respondents and between male vs. female, urban vs. rural and high vs. low wildlife engagement level.
Across all groups, human activities that destroy or alter habitat, such as urban and resource development, were rated as the most harmful to animals. Similarly, activities such as poaching, sport hunting and pet trade, that directly and intentionally harm animals, were consistently given a moderate score. Activities that cause unintentional harm, such as cat predation and roadkill, received the lowest scores:
The participants’ ranking of the perceived harm to wildlife caused by 12 human activities:
(No. 1 being perceived as the most harmful and 12 the least harmful)
- Urban development
- Resource development
- Pest control
- Pet trade
- Road/railroad kill
- Window strikes
- Sport hunting
- Cat predation
Despite the similar ranking in perceived harm, the results did demonstrate a few differences across the different groups:
- Women consistently perceived the 12 activities to be more harmful than men did – especially when it came to sport hunting
- Urban residents rated most activities to be slightly more harmful than did rural residents – except for cat predation and road/railroad kill, which rural residents consistently rated to be more harmful than did the urban residents
- Low engagement individuals rated all activities as more harmful than did high engagement individuals – except for cat predation
- Welfare-oriented individuals consistently rated all activities as more harmful than did conservation-oriented individuals – notably in poaching, pet trade and sport hunting.
Nevertheless, the widespread agreement between conservation-oriented and animal welfare-oriented individuals on which activities that harm wildlife should not be overlooked. The results speak in favour of wildlife policy decision-makers giving more consideration to animal welfare concerns and animal welfare advocates if they want to ensure that decisions are supported by widely held public values. The paper also underlines that females, low engagement individuals and welfare-oriented groups should be consulted to a much larger degree in matters of human activities causing direct killing of wild animals.
And lastly, there is a lesson for all of us. Despite philosophical and professional differences between conservation and animal welfare values and advocates, we appear to perceive the consequences of humans’ harmful activities for animals similarly. And in the end, we are all interested in reducing animal suffering, even if that goal is secondary for some people.