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Compassionate Conservation

As our awareness of animal sentience grows, it becomes harder to justify the pain and suffering we inflict on individual animals, even in the race to save the planet.

Journal Reference:

Wallach, A. D., Batavia, C., Bekoff, M., Alexander, S., Baker, L., Ben‐Ami, D., … & Ramp, D. (2020). Recognizing animal personhood in compassionate conservation. Conservation Biology, 34(5), 1097-1106.

Wallach, A. D., Bekoff, M., Batavia, C., Nelson, M. P., & Ramp, D. (2018). Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation. Conservation Biology, 32(6), 1255-1265.


Dr. Arian Wallach, a wildlife biologist, teamed up with an international group of animal researchers and ethicists, to argue for a compassionate approach to conservation. This philosophy holds that wildlife individuals have an intrinsic value regardless of their usefulness to humans or their nativeness to the ecosystem. 

The four main tenets of Compassionate Conservation:

  • Do no harm
  • Individuals matter
  • Inclusivity
  • Peaceful coexistence

If we extend Wallach’s concepts to the question of wild horses and burros, the WH&B management practices are alienating if you are empathic with the suffering of horses as individuals. This may be the root of the moral outrage of wild horse advocates witnessing institutional gathering and handling of animals.  Compassionate Conservation might be a valuable addition to the way the issues are framed by respecting a more empathetic view.  This kind of framing  suggests that wild horses and burros might be stakeholders in conservation efforts, and solutions that minimize their suffering as individuals should be sought.


Do you think of animals as persons? Some animals, such as chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins, have been shown to be capable of self-awareness and empathy. These abilities suggest that animals are sentient beings who are capable of experiencing the world in a way that is similar to humans. Wallach’s papers suggest that if animals are sentient beings, then they have a moral status that is independent of their usefulness to humans. This means that we have a moral obligation to treat them with respect and avoid causing them unnecessary suffering.

Compassionate Conservation

An international collaboration of environmental ethicists and animal welfare scholars lay out an argument for a new basis of wildlife conservation, recognition of the locus of suffering at the individual animal. They refer to this basis as Compassionate because compassion is the emotional response to the suffering of others.

These two articles, one advocating sentient animals be recognized as persons, and the other “charting a more ethically defensible, socially acceptable, and scientifically robust path for the future of conservation”, represent new and exciting thinking about the always controversial and typically depressing topic of conservation. Wallach et al. argues that over the course of history, our ability to inflict suffering on our sapient but non-human co-inhabitants of the planet has grown, and our ethics must expand to match.

These ideas have been met with great resistance, and part of each article is spent addressing some of the criticisms of the approach. To me, as an animal advocate, these concepts provide a solution to the sterile and generally inhumane practices of wildlife conservation. They might not solve a lot of problems, but they should have a place in our values.

“In this way, compassion may serve as a moral compass, charting a more ethically defensible, socially acceptable, and scientifically robust path for the future of conservation.” Wallach et al, 2018

In both articles, three typical orientations to animals are compared and contrasted to Compassionate Conservation.

ORIENTATION Individual animals are: What is Important
COLLECTIVISM instances Groups, not individuals
INSTRUMENTALISM to be used Utility to humans
NATIVISM may not belong Ecological purity
COMPASSIONATE capable of suffering Minimizing suffering

The elephant in the room is human overpopulation. Climate change, overconsumption, land‐use intensification, widespread pollution, and other environmentally damaging factors are threatening Earth’s biodiversity and its ability to provide ecosystem services essential for human survival. Yet, conservation ignores human population to focus on animal population. 

Environmental protection in the United States of America refers technically only to the human environment. American law protects natural resources, which means elements of the environment that can be used or harvested. There is no law to protect an ecosystem or habitat. Biodiversity is a value, but not intrinsically protected. Conservation is stretched and contorted around the values of collectivism, instrumentalism, and nativism. It’s not easy to change this, but it might be more palatable if we align our ethics with our understanding of social sentient animals with compassion.

For wild horses and burros, birth control, temporary feeding/watering, and emergency roundups might alleviate animal suffering. The BLM has made a step towards compassionate conservation by having an animal welfare position to oversee operations. But the lack of transparency of the agency does little to dampen the frustration and distrust the advocates have for the agency.

I personally think that the problems arise when you start seeing animals as individuals. You can’t unsee it. You notice animals suffering. You know their names. A world with Compassionate Conservation would be a better place to be.

Keywords: ecology, wildlife, free-living animals, compassionate conservation, conservation, personhood

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