Choosing Which Species Go Extinct

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This past weekend I attended the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  This is my first encounter with this organization,  and I was pleased to meet the leaders of this organization as I experienced a warm, welcoming, and passionate atmosphere at the conference.  While there I presented two workshops:  Ethics of Wildlife Medicine and Human Dimensions of Avian Conservation.  Together we explored how we humans can better work together so that we can address the complexity of the ethical and moral dilemmas facing us in our wildlife and conservation efforts.  At one point in the presentation I invited the participants to share with one another their most pressing ethical issues by responding to these questions:

Where do you have to decide to offer more or less care?

Where do you have to decide to cause more or less harm?

Where do you experience thinking that what you or someone else does “is wrong” or that you or someone else “should” do something different?

What these questions revealed was that on a regular basis people who work with wildlife, indeed any animals, must make tough choices.  Even tougher choices may soon be coming.  In a recent article in Conservation Biology, 60% of 583 conservationists agreed that criteria should be established for deciding which species to abandon in order to focus on saving others.   This view has been controversial which I summarize as follows:  Given that we cannot save all the species that are endangered, we must make choices as to which ones go extinct and which ones do not. As one professor once told me in an environmental ethics class, “Life is full of making one tragic choice after another.  What we can do to mitigate this is to work with one another to minimize harm and optimize benefit.”

Having worked on the front lines of conservation for 25 years, much of it in Mesoamerica, I often say to audiences  that I do not know if we can save the Scarlet Macaw or other parrot species in the Americas.  Instead my presence with the people and parrots there may ultimately serve only to witness extinction.

Carolina Parakeet

I and others do not go into that dark night willingly, easily, or without a fight.  We will do all we can do keep the macaws flying free over their homelands, and to keep with us all the 17,000 other species under threat.  Part of all we can do is to accept that conservation is full of difficult decisions and increase our ability to work with others to make reasoned, informed, and compassionate choices.  With perseverance, we can choose wisely instead of blindly allowing the loss of great beauty, such as the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet.

So thank you again IWRC for inviting me to work with you and to witness with me the saving of what we can, and the mourning of what we cannot.

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