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Caring About Wildlife: The Ethical Issues

For Immediate Release: 18 May 2001

Exotic mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects will join cats, dogs and other familiar domestic species as subjects for discussion at this weekend’s Royal New Zealand SPCA Annual Conference in Auckland.

Peripatetic British couple, John and Margaret Cooper are to lead a session on the Welfare of Wildlife, drawing on many years of field and academic experience, including lengthy periods in East Africa.

“We’ll be looking at ethical, legal and other issues concerning wild animals, whether they’re in the field or in captivity,” says Margaret Cooper, a lawyer who has written extensively on animal and conservation law and has been a member of Britain’s Farm Animal Welfare Council and of its Zoo Standards Review team.

“In most of the world, it’s no longer possible to think of wild animals as living more or less in isolation from human beings and subject just to occasional hunting forays. Expanding human populations are encroaching massively on animal habitats, raising not just issues of conservation but ethical issues as well,” she says.

“In Rwanda, for example, returning refugees have put pressure on the habitats of the Mountain Gorillas, making it hard to formulate solutions which meet both the requirements of an endangered species and legitimate human needs.

“But there are also ethical issues which arise whenever wildlife becomes sick or injured. From a strictly conservationist point of view, it could be argued that humans shouldn’t intervene, as sick animals are irrelevant to their species’ survival. Yet, from an animal welfare standpoint, a suffering creature is a suffering creature and needs treatment,” Margaret Cooper adds.

According to celebrated veterinarian, Professor John Cooper, a key principle when dealing with animal ethics is that all living creatures are worthy of consideration.

“Human dominance of the planet has given us responsibility not just for our fellow mammals but for fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and even invertebrates. There’s a tendency to think of the animal kingdom largely in terms of furry, cuddly creatures. But beetles, leeches or mosquitos also have a claim on us,” he says.

“In my view, even if something is a pest and even if it needs to be controlled or killed, there should be some sensitivity over how this is done. In many cases, an ethical review would be appropriate before any decisions are taken. And, of course, even pests deserve to be disposed of in the most humane way possible.

“I’m reminded of our responsibility to other forms of life when examining protozoa down a microscope. They don’t look remotely like the creatures that animal lovers normally care about. But add some fixative, and they convulse, contract and die. They too are living, feeling organisms,” adds Professor Cooper.

John and Margaret Cooper both hold visiting positions at Uganda’s Department of Wild Animal and Resource Management (WARM), Makerere University. John Cooper is a former Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Sokoine University in Tanzania

“We’re delighted to have the input of these two distinguished experts,” says RNZSPCA Chief Executive Officer, Peter Blomkamp.

“Their involvement will help us focus on the responsibility we have to all animals, be they pets, farm animals or wildlife in all its many forms,” he says.


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