Wild Animal Agency And Why It’s Important
The field of wild animal conservation and management (WCM) protects and preserves wild animals while also prioritizing the humans who share their environments. Conservationists typically draw from research in population and ecological modeling, statistics, genetics, geospatial science, and the humanities and social sciences. Although an increasing number of researchers recognize that animals are complex individuals with the power to shape human-animal shared spaces, WCM has been slow to acknowledge animals as more than passive beings. This outdated view disregards both wild animals and the humans who live alongside them and value their relationships.
The authors of this paper argue that incorporating notions of “wild animal agency” in WCM can create a more just, effective system for both humans and non-human animals. Within the context of WCM, they describe agency as the ability of wild animals to play an active role in conservation due to their individuality, including their sentience, cognition, sociality, and other complex capabilities. In turn, wild animals can shape the spaces they share with humans. To understand where WCM currently stands on the topic of agency and where the field can improve, the authors examined 190 peer-reviewed WCM studies to reveal the concepts that underpin contemporary wild animal conservation.
The analysis revealed three key assumptions prevalent in WCM research. First, there is an assumption that all wild animal species behave in expected, uniform ways, and that these behaviors stay the same regardless of context. For example, some WCM practitioners use nonlethal deterrents such as frightening sounds and fences to keep elephants from raiding crops in their local communities. The practitioners assume that elephants will automatically stay away from the crops when such barriers are put into place, but these methods often backfire because elephants become accustomed to the sounds or break down fences with their tusks. When elephants are detusked to prevent fence destruction, many elephants simply learn how to break fences in new ways! When failing to account for diversity and adaptability in animal behavior, WCM can harm animals during reintroduction, translocation, and conflict reduction programs.
The second common assumption in WCM is that wild animals will return to acting in an idealized, “wild” manner when placed in the right environment. Following this belief, WCM typically assumes that wild animals always prefer pristine environments with minimal human interference. However, the authors discuss one unsuccessful intervention where leopards were taken from urbanized areas and moved to protected wild habitat to reduce human-leopard conflicts. Although the practitioners assumed the leopards would prefer a rural, protected environment, the strategy backfired when the leopards traveled far to return to their previous urban homes.
Finally, there is a common assumption that the relationships between wild animals and humans should be deprioritized in favor of scientific species preservation. Many WCM practices assume that animals are only valuable insofar as they have economic, ecological, or biological worth. Conservation decisions are based on labels such as “game animals,” “invasive species,” or “endangered species” without considering that animals can also be community members, kin, and deities for the local human communities who live alongside them. An example is when wildlife managers attempted to relocate feral horses in the Ozarks and ended up battling local residents who felt a historical and emotional attachment to the horses.
The problem is that WCM is highly influenced by traditional Western concepts of dominion over animals. Such conservation approaches treat animals as things to be managed by humans and fail to consider that animals can influence their environments, too. Incorporating agency into WCM recognizes the role that animals play in shaping their living spaces. It also gives validity to traditionally marginalized community views that don’t necessarily subscribe to the Western ideals of WCM. An agency-focused approach to conservation takes into account lessons from animal behavior science, animal geography, and animal legal theory. These disciplines explore concepts such as animal individuality, the creation of human-animal spaces, and animal personhood.
Incorporating agency into WCM can also enrich the field by teaching practitioners new ways of relating to the animals they’re working with. The authors describe five concepts of agency that may affect how practitioners go about WCM in the future. These include the fact that animals have the capacity to learn socially, such as elephants who learn how to raid crops from other elephants; animal sentience, which is evident in the way that crows make tools as effectively as primates; human-animal collaboration, which can be seen in rhesus macaques who participate in commodity exchanges in Indian temples; animal adaptivity, such as the species who adapt their foraging behaviors when they live closer to humans; and personality variations within a given species.
Conservationists who want to include an agency perspective in their work should bear in mind that doing so can be challenging. Current WCM practices are well-established, and traditional ideas of dominion over species are entrenched in the system. However, it’s possible to incorporate concepts of agency into existing WCM methods. For example, recognizing the culture and sociability of animals can help improve species survival. While many WCM practitioners prioritize younger animals with reproductive capabilities, they should instead think about how critical survival information is often passed from older to younger species members. Furthermore, considering culture is important to ensure that cultural knowledge is maintained from one generation to the next.
An agency perspective also means prioritizing the voices of communities who have been traditionally marginalized in the conservation space, especially Indigenous and local communities. Many of these communities are directly impacted by WCM outcomes. When their voices are devalued or overlooked, they risk losing connections with the animals they’ve built relationships with over generations. As such, a true agency-focused approach will require ongoing collaboration from WCM experts, scholars, Indigenous community leaders, and animal advocates. Although creating a more just field of conservation will take time and effort, it’s promising that practitioners are starting to recognize animals as co-collaborators and decision-makers in the system.