Should we kill some animals to save others?

What squirrels and a runaway train can teach us about the conflict between conservation and animal rights.
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You see a runaway train rush past you towards a fork in the track, and you’re standing right next to a lever that can change its direction. But if you send the train off to the right it’ll hit five innocent squirrels playing on the tracks. And if you send it off to the left there are… another five squirrels. Which direction should you choose? Which five squirrels should you save?

Yes, it’s another ridiculous version of the trolley problem, the internet’s favourite thought experiment. But there is a serious point here.

You might struggle to decide which direction you’d send the train. Or you might think it doesn’t even matter – five squirrels will die either way. But what if you can see that the squirrels on the left track are grey squirrels invasive and all too common in the UK, and the squirrels on the right are native red squirrels, endangered in the UK. Does that make a difference to your decision?

Conservationists deal with this kind of dilemma every day. Their aim is to conserve habitats and species, and sometimes that means getting rid of non-native species that threaten to overturn the balance.

In the UK, the RSPB culls crows to protect the endangered Eurasian curlew. In the Galapagos Islands, sharpshooters in helicopters killed 250,000 non-native goats to stop the decline of giant tortoises. They wouldn’t hesitate let the runaway train squish a few grey squirrels if it meant saving endangered animals.

But this practice is becoming more and more controversial. Some people think it’s just wrong to kill animals at all, no matter whether they’re common or endangered, native or non-native. This raises ethical questions that run through the heart of the conservation movement. Are some animals’ lives more valuable than others? Should we kill some animals to save others?

Let’s take a look.

Animal rights vs. conservation

If you want to look after nature and protect wildlife, what’s the best way to do it?

One way is to try and inspire more respect for animals. You could show people that animals aren’t so different from humans – they can have emotion, feel pain, suffer. You could campaign for animals to be given certain rights, to be treated with care, to be protected from unnecessary harm. You could raise awareness of humans’ terrible treatment of animals to show why we need to change.

Another way is to try and look after nature so humans’ destructive influence doesn’t upset the balance of nature. You could raise awareness of devastating biodiversity loss that we’re causing. You could intervene and manage habitats to give species the chance to thrive. You could campaign against destructive activity like logging and pesticide use that are driving species to extinction.

These two different approaches share many of the same concerns about humans dominating nature. And they target a lot of the same enemies: corporations polluting the air and sea, governments tearing down ancient woodlands to build roads, industrial agriculture crowding the land with livestock and pesticides.

So it might come as a surprise to find these two ways of looking after animals built on two completely incompatible ethical frameworks. They’re actively opposed to each other.

Two ethical frameworks

The first approach sees individual animals as the bearers of value. It takes the rights, feelings and experiences of animals as a guide to how we should act. On this view, it’s always wrong to kill animals – because it’s always wrong to violate these rights.

The second approach focuses not on individuals but on groups – populations, species or ecosystems. The goal here is to make sure these groups continue to exist, not the individual animals within them. The lives of individual animals don’t have as much value as the ‘life’ of the group. On this approach, it’s justified to kill some individual animals to make sure that the collective, the species, survives.

Environmental organisations emphasise this inconsistency. Take this example from US organisation The Wildlife Society:

The animal rights focused emphasis on individual animals fails to recognize the inter-relatedness of wildlife communities within functioning ecosystems and holds that protecting individual animals is more important than conserving populations, species, or ecosystems. The philosophy of animal rights is incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.

This is strange, because this conflict isn’t something that many of us really think about. Lots of people are members of organisations that take opposing sides on this question – plenty of people support both PETA and WWF.

So which is the right answer to this ethical question? Either we kill animals, or we let species die out. What should we do?

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Compassionate conservation

There’s a movement trying to resolve the conflict and bring the two sides together: the compassionate conservation movement. Compassionate conservationists try to protect species without killing or harming any ‘undesirable’ animals in the process. They want to show that you can protect habitats and species without disregarding the moral rights of individual animals.

So what do you do when you’ve got a non-native species about to wipe out a native population? You get creative.

When foxes on Australia’s Middle Island began devouring fairy penguins, the obvious way of protecting the colony would have been to kill the foxes. But there was a better solution. A local farmer suggested using sheepdogs to guard the birds from predators. The dogs kept the foxes at bay without any animals needing to be killed – and provided the opportunity for hundreds of cute photos.

That’s one of the cool solutions – but compassionate conservation mostly involves introducing some predators to kill whatever’s threatening the native or endangered wildlife. In Australia there’s a big movement to reintroduce dingoes so they can kill the smaller non-native predators (including feral cats) that are threatening native wildlife.

Tough questions for compassionate conservationists

This is all well and good, but there isn’t always a win-win solution like this. Sometimes there really is no other choice but for humans to kill one species to save another. Compassionate conservation doesn’t provide an answer to what we should do in this situation. Are compassionate conservationists really so committed to their principles that they’d let a species of rare seabird go extinct to save the lives of a bunch of rats?

Then there’s the other big question facing compassionate conservationists: why is it wrong for humans to kill animals, but right for other animals to kill animals? By introducing predators you’re just taking yourself one step away from the action. You’re getting someone else to do the dirty work for you. Does that really make much of a moral difference? The same animals are still dying, even if you’re not killing them yourself.

Compassionate conservationists are putting humans on a pedestal. When animals kill other animals it’s ‘natural’, but when humans do so, it isn’t. They’re seeing humans as separate from nature, somehow above it and acting on it. By seeing a moral difference between humans killing animals and animals killing animals, they’re viewing human actions as fundamentally different from the actions of every other living being on the planet.

Compassionate conservation isn’t so bad, in practical terms. It forces people to think of other solutions to conservation problems beyond killing, and this leads to better, more sustainable solutions in the long run. Instead of relying on human intervention to rebalance ecosystems, we can introduce animals who’ll do it for us and sustain that balance without us constantly interfering.

But it still hasn’t dealt with that ethical problem: should we be killing some animals to save others?

A practical answer to the dilemma

There’s no easy answer to the question. It comes down to how we should relate to animals – as individuals, or as abstract groups? Many of us relate to animals differently in different areas of our lives. We see our pets as individuals with individual moral status because we come into contact with them in a personal, concrete way. But when it comes to thinking about endangered species, animals we’ve maybe never even seen, we relate to them more abstractly. We worry about the groups rather than the individuals.

But maybe we needn’t worry. In real life, it’s very rare that there’d be a situation where we can actually choose between killing animals to save others, or avoiding killing and taking no responsibility for what happens. That’s because most of the time the battle between non-native species and endangered species is our fault. We’ve unbalanced the ecosystem ourselves, whether by destroying habitats and forcing animals together, or by introducing species like rats or domestic cats to places that have never seen animals like this before.

So, in effect, we’re killing animals either way – even if indirectly. Whether we actively hunt down the non-native species, or let them destroy native populations, the blood is ultimately on our hands. In this situation it seems like we have a responsibility to act.

So maybe if one species is endangered that just gives us a way to make our choice. If animals are going to die because of us anyway, we might as well make sure it’s not the ones that are rare and ecologically important.

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