The northern spotted owl is in the news again, this time as linked to the death of 1200-1500 barred owls. This summer, the USFWS may release in an environemental impact statement their reccomendation to kill barred owls. This is in response to the increasing range of the native barred owl who pushes out the the endangered spotted owl.
"It's a wrenching decision that splits wildlife biologists and environmentalists. Killing one native animal to benefit another is such a leap that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired an environmental ethicist to guide its discussions."
"There's no winner in that debate," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director with the Portland Audubon Society.
Making difficult decisions is not new in wildlife management and conservation. Federal workers have killed comorants, terns, and seals to protect salmon and in Puerto Rico, Red-tailed Hawks are killed to reduce their predation on the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot.
As a wildlife veterinarian I have been faced with the moral dilemmas present in this work and have been severely challenged as I wade with others through the ethical morass of wildlife care and management.
For this reason I recently finished a chapter, Wandering Through the Wilderness of Ethical Discourse, in the book Topics in Wildlife Medicine: Ethical Considerations in Wildlife Medicine. This book will be published by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA). In it I suggest that our lives are full of tragic decisions and that to care for ourselves and others we must improve our skills in ethical deliberation, and we need to do it together.
For this aim I am traveling to the NWRA 2011 Symposium in Albany, NY next week to give a seminar on Compassionate Rehabilitation. My hope is that we can learn and practice together how to talk to one another so that we use our community resources to arrive at the best decisions to help the most species and individuals.
One way I suggest we do this is to practice Needs Based Ethics. In this approach we do not say that one species or individual is of more worth than another. Instead we bring to the table a deep appreciation of the worth and dignity of all of life. What guides our discussion is discerning and empathizing with the needs of all species and individuals within a given situation. By keeping our hearts and minds open, which I admit is difficult given the loss of life resulting from our daily activities, choices, and conservation management decisions, we can come up with creative solutions.
In the end, not all beauty may be preserved in the way we'd like. We may howl over owls, but not at each other through the tactics of shame and blame. In the end, we will have one another with which to mourn and can claim that at least we did not turn from the splendor that is ever present to us in owl, human, tree, and fish.