Section Menu

Where Compassionate Conservation Meets Rewilding, with Marc Bekoff

Man with long gray hair and ponytail sits smiling next to a large black and gray dog with brown eyes and a red flowered collar
Marc Bekoff and his friend, Minnie. Photo: Tom Gordon

Marc Bekoff is the rare breed of scientist who doesn’t shy away from probing the thorny realm of animal ethics and human behavior—in fact, he is renowned for his boldness in doing so.

As a Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado and a former Guggenheim Fellow, Marc’s credentials as an ethologist and behavioral ecologist continue to shine. In 2000, he was awarded the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for his long-term contributions to the field, and he serves as a scientific advisor to numerous institutions and non-profit organizations across the globe.

Marc has also published an astounding 31 books and over 1,000 articles on a wilderness of topics—among them, the behavior of captive and free-ranging dogs, the emotional lives of animals, how we grieve our pets, social play in canids, the behavioral ecology of wild coyotes and wild Adelie penguins, his ongoing service with prisoners, and a touching celebration of his friend and colleague, Jane Goodall—with whom he co-founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Marc’s skills as an observer enabled him to excel in his career as a biologist, but perhaps most impressive to me is his commitment to being a good and compassionate listener in a very noisy world.

I first met Marc in 1991, when he allowed me to attend (for free) his graduate seminar in animal behavior at University of Colorado, Boulder. I told him I was planning to apply to graduate school myself and wanted to broaden my background in science. In hindsight, though, I think I was mostly seeking intellectual community around my deep concern for animals. I’ll never forget Marc’s curiosity and energy when he walked into that classroom, and his passion for dynamic conversation with students he clearly considered peers. He was there to teach, and he was there to learn.

Today, compassion lies at the heart of Marc’s writing and advocacy work. He is a tireless promoter of “compassionate conservation,” a new paradigm launched in 2010 at an international symposium hosted by the Born Free Foundation in Oxford, UK. In an article in the journal BioScience, Marc and co-author Daniel Ramp (Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation) define compassionate conservation as “a rapidly growing international and cross-disciplinary movement that stipulates that we need a conservation ethic that incorporates the protection of other animals as individuals, not just as members of populations or species [often called ‘collectives’] but valued in their own right.”

Marc contends that conservation is ethically challenged when it comes to the treatment of nonhuman animals, but also maintains that compassion for animals isn’t incompatible with preserving biodiversity and doing the best science possible. He describes the 4 principles of compassionate conservation as:

  1. Do no harm
  2. Individual animals matter
  3. All wildlife has intrinsic value
  4. Promote peaceful coexistence

During our recent phone interview for Trusting Wildness, Marc and I discussed the complicated ethics surrounding wildlife reintroductions, and his views on how rewilding can and must incorporate compassionate conservation in order to be successful.

Where Compassionate Conservation Meets Rewilding

PM: In Rewilding Our Hearts, you took the word “rewilding” to the personal level, encouraging people to deeply imagine the world from the perspective of wild beings. How do you feel about the movement to rewild entire landscapes by protecting core areas, reconnecting them via wildlife corridors, and restoring apex predators?

MB: I think it’s great! I’m all for it. But I’m not happy about rewilding landscapes in ways that cause the deaths of animals. I need to be clear here. I really liked the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and I think it’s a successful program, but let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that some wolves weren’t killed or injured when they were wolf-napped up in Canada. And you’re introducing predators who are going to kill prey—many of whom have never experienced wolves in their lives. You need to take that into account; I honestly go back and forth on the ethics of projects like this. But I have to say that the more I think about how they’re done, the more concerned I become.

Gray wolf at Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Paula MacKay

What I don’t go back and forth about are the ethical concerns that arise when you consider, say, wolves, and you break up a pack in Location A to move some individuals to Location B, because no one really understands the effects of the removal on the wolves in Location A. This is an important question, and we need solid answers for all studies in which animals are translocated.

I remember when I was at a meeting some years ago and I asked, “What ever happened to the groups of wolves from which individuals were taken to be moved south?” The room got quiet, a few people looked at one another as if to see if someone else could answer my question, and I felt like I’d stepped into unwelcome terrain. It turned out that no one really knew. I was somewhat surprised but I let it go. This is not a criticism, but rather a question we need to be able to answer. We shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So my take is that I’d like to rewild landscapes if it can be done without animals getting harmed or killed. And if it’s a matter of reintroducing predators—if the reasons for putting these animals back in a habitat are good enough (it goes without saying that there are predators and prey out there, and I always feel sorry for the prey)—then, of course, I want the animals who are reintroduced to have total protection. If that’s not the case, it’s a triple whammy. You may injure or kill some wolves (or whichever predators we’re talking about) in the process of moving them to an area; they will then kill prey; and they themselves are not protected and some will get killed for simply being who they are. I’m sure some philosophers might try to convince me that this is all okay, but I’m just not for it.

Book jacket with photo of a mother lion and cub

PM: In the “Born to Be Wild” chapter of The Animals’ Agenda, you and your co-author, Jessica Pierce, draw a distinction between the “management” and the “conservation” of wildlife, with the former focused on the control of animals to meet human needs, and the latter, on balancing the needs of some animals against the needs of other animals or ecosystems for the sake of protecting endangered species or ecosystems. It sounds like you think there are cases in which the conservation-driven reintroduction of a native species is ethical and appropriate, but that it needs to come with proper protections. Is this accurate?

MB: Right. That’s where compassionate conservation comes in. First do no harm, and the lives of every individual count. So, I’m potentially supportive if individuals aren’t harmed or killed for the sake of other individuals of their own or other species. Killing is off the table.

PM: In situations where native animals are missing from an area because we killed them or otherwise caused their regional extinction, do you think we have an obligation to explore reintroduction?

MB: Yes. And the key word is explore. But once again, there are a lot of layers. We should never do a reintroduction without taking ethics into account. There might be good biological reasons for doing something—I can understand why people want to have native animals protected or returned to an area—but not at the expense of other animals. It doesn’t work for me. The basis of compassionate conservation is basically that conservation is an ethical as well as a biological practice, and that compassion is a factor that must play a critical role in conservation decisions.

PM: You live in Colorado. Do you support the reintroduction of gray wolves to your state?

We need to consider the biology and the ethics in tandem; they go hand in hand.

MB: I do. I’m actually on the scientific advisory committee. However, I’m only for it if wolves have total protection on the ground. No BS. We need to consider the biology and the ethics in tandem; they go hand in hand.

PM: In Washington, the state has killed 18 wolves due to conflicts with ranchers since wolves first returned to the region in 2008—15 of these on behalf of the same cattle operation. Here as in the Rockies, the wildlife officials involved argue that such killings are necessary to advance wolf recovery. Do you support this approach to wolf management?

MB: No. I don’t see how one can be “for wolves” and allow them to be killed. Some people and organizations call such killings the “authorized removal” of wolves. Does anyone really think wolves who are removed with authority suffer less? Of course they don’t. But, the phrase “authorized removal” sort of sanitizes the blood bath, and I’m surprised that some people buy into this cover-up.

PM: Can you envision a scenario in which the lethal removal of a wild predator is, in the long run, necessary to advance the conservation of those animals? You could use a black bear, a wolf, a cougar, or a coyote as an example. How do you feel about situations where there’s an obvious predator-human conflict and people are calling for the death of the predator or predators because of this conflict?

MB: Again, it doesn’t work for me. For example, here in Colorado, wildlife officers kill coyotes around Boulder and Broomfield. They often say they think they got the right “problem” animal, but then they have the same problem over and over again because either they didn’t really kill the right individual, or new coyotes come in when others are removed.

An adorable brown and gray pup with pointy ears stands in a grassy field, looking at the camera
Roughly half a million coyotes are killed in the U.S. each year. Marc Bekoff believes that all wildlife has intrinsic value, and that every individual matters. Photo: William C. Gladish

Generically, the way I interpreted your question is, can you imagine a situation where you would kill a member or members of one species to save members of that same species, or kill members of one species to save members of another? I’m against it. Simple. People need to be educated and, if necessary, change their behavior to accommodate nonhumans who have no place else to go.

PM: Many people would agree that wild nature does best when we leave it alone. But given our pervasive ecological footprint, nonnative and invasive species threaten plants and animals inhabiting native habitat. What should we do in the difficult situations where nonnative animals threaten the existence of native species?

MB: If we need to stop that from happening, we need to come up with nonlethal, humane ways of doing it from an ethical point of view. An animal who is nonnative doesn’t suffer less than a native—it doesn’t matter where they live. That sounds trite to some people, but it’s a very important point.

Also, how do you define native and nonnative? There are nonnative animals who have been in certain habitats for a hundred and some odd years. It’s all too easy to say such and such are nonnative, so let’s get rid of them because they don’t belong. But, in fact, nonnatives have become integral parts of numerous ecosystems, and ecosystems are dynamic and evolving entities.

Getting rid of so-called nonnatives isn’t a panacea for returning an ecosystem to what it used to be. And, of course, we can’t really return or restore an ecosystem to what it used to be because it has changed incrementally and synergistically over time depending on who was there and who wasn’t during any given period. We can do our best to try to put back some of the pieces, but we can’t go backwards in time.

Sign warning visitors about poisons distributed throughout the area.
The New Zealand government poisons millions of nonnative predators annually to try to save native birds. Photo: Paula MacKay

Because we can’t go back to what was, I think, frankly, we just need to live with what we have. And if we want to start moving nonnative animals around in favor of natives, then we need to do it in humane and nonlethal ways. There’s no way that most of the techniques used are humane. When people say we’re going to humanely kill these wolves, or we’re going to humanely kill five billion invasive animals in New Zealand with empathy and compassion—we’re going to kill them “softly”—there’s no way this will happen. It’s a scam—a feel-good scam. The phrase “killing softly” is an oxymoron. And the good news is that slowly but surely, more and more people are coming out against these bloodbaths.

Similarly, sometimes people say they’re going to “euthanize” the nonnatives, but of course it’s not euthanasia, or mercy killing. The animals aren’t terminally ill or in interminable pain. Using the word “euthanasia” is just a way to make the killing seem justified and less messy, and some people are fooled by this scam, just as some are fooled by the phrase “authorized removal.”

PM: You also discuss the translocation of animals for mitigation purposes in your book—for example, I’m familiar with the translocation of desert tortoises in areas slated for development. Such translocations can be very risky for the animals involved. In cases like this, is there a tension between animal rights and animal welfare, with the former arguing that animals should not be killed or made to suffer on our account (e.g., because we want to develop an area), and the latter, that as long as we do our best to consider the animal’s well-being, the ends sometimes justify the means?

MB: Yes, that’s why we wrote our book, The Animal’s Agenda! We’re talking about protecting individual animals and not killing or harming them in the name of conservation or in the name of humans. It’s a matter of protecting each and every individual, and that is what the science of animal well-being is all about and why we wrote our book. What it comes down to is that animals have inherent value. Each and every individual is important, and their lives are no less important to them than my life is to me. Decisions about who lives and who dies and why are often terribly difficult to make, but we can’t continue killing individuals as possible solutions to problems at hand.

You sometimes see a tension between animal welfare and compassionate conservation because most conservationists are welfarists. They’ll trade individuals of one species for those of another species or the same species; they play what I call the numbers game. There are a million brown rats, it doesn’t matter if we kill 10,000. Well, there might be a million guys like me, but it would matter very much to me if they said to me, there are a lot of you, so you can’t live.

Gray-haired man with a ponytail, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and a red hat, looks through a spotting scope. Trees and open hilly landscape in background.
Marc Bekoff looks for dingoes in the Barangaroo Reserve west of Sydney, Australia. Photo: Brad Purcell

When I talk to people about this in a rational way, they come to understand what the focus on individuals really means. If you have a Black Lab and there are a lot of Black Labs, are you going to let them kill your dog because there are a lot of Black Labs, so there can be more Yellow Labs? That’s why I ask people, would you do it to your dog? Would you put your dog in a slaughterhouse, would you put your dog in a laboratory where they maim and kill animals, would you allow your dog to be moved into an area where they may not be welcome in order to have more dogs like that in that area? Thankfully, the answer is always “no.”

Bringing dogs into the picture is a way to bridge the empathy gap, a point I make in my new book, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. It’s a way to extend empathy and compassion to other individuals of species with whom people are less familiar. And, I’m pleased to say it works.

PM: You’ve said that, in addition to being concerned about our own survival as a species, we should be concerned about the survival of other species, who deserve “freedom from extinction.” What do you think of the Half-Earth approach that E.O. Wilson is promoting—that is, that we must protect at least half the Earth’s land and water to stave off the mass extinction of species.

MB: Of course, my first response is that I love it and that we should go to three-quarters or the whole Earth. But what I like about Half-Earth is that it’s gotten a lot of conversations going. People hear about the Anthropocene—which I call “the rage of inhumanity” rather than “the age of humanity”—and all these extinctions and the loss of animals and their homes, but many don’t realize that there’s essentially no place on Earth where we don’t have an effect.

If you present that in a hysterical way, you lose people. But when you start talking to people about what we’re really doing and you have a person like E.O. Wilson who’s got a great reputation—and you also have something tangible to offer as a solution—you get their attention. I like it as an organizing principle for getting the word out. I would like to know that it’s going to happen. I would like to know that there are places where humans can’t go and where nonhumans are allowed to work things out on their own.

All animals depend on us for our goodwill and for being concerned with the life of each and every individual.

Putting ideas out there that some people feel are outlandish, or with which they feel uncomfortable, gets much-needed discussions going so that individuals with different views are included. If we don’t work for nonlethal solutions, they won’t materialize and the killing fields won’t go away. My goal is to help people who are arguing for nonlethal practices get their place at the table, and to make sure we’re having honest and respectful discussions and debates. All animals depend on us for our goodwill and for being concerned with the life of each and every individual.

To learn more about Marc’s work, please visit his website and check out the following links:

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do (Marc’s latest book)

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age

Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation

Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age

Rather Than Kill Animals “Softly,” Don’t Kill Them at All

5 thoughts on “Where Compassionate Conservation Meets Rewilding, with Marc Bekoff

  1. Very thoughtful conversation Marc and Paula! I completely agree individuals matter, and that we should be very careful with rewilding attempts to try to do no harm. And I am conflicted personally when it comes to decisions about killing animals from one species to save another. For example, as a kid herpetologist I always dreamed of one day having a pet python. Now south Florida is full of invasive burmese pythons, and I’ve been tempted to go and enter the python catching contest in order to try to make some small dent in their population. But when it comes down to it, I don’t really want to be responsible for killing a beautiful animal that I’m not going to eat or otherwise use for some purpose. At the same time, I know that reticence means that the pythons that I and other didn’t kill will be busy gobbling up native species in the Everglades, possibly driving a few of them closer to extinction. So often the choice is not an easy “death or life”, “kill or save”. From my perspective, preventing extinction trumps causing the death of individual animals. In the example of the wolves that were captured from Canada and brought to Yellowstone, one could easily conjecture that the area those wolves were captured from was at or near carrying capacity for gray wolves. If those animals hadn’t been captured, then they or some other gray wolves could very well have either starved or been killed by other wolves for lack of territory. Some of those wolves and their descendants have been killed, others lived what must have been near utopian lives for a wolf finding itself in a national park over-stuffed with naive elk. Countless other plants and animals also benefited from the return of the wolves – think of all the magpie and raven chicks that had their bellies warm and full from the new abundance of large carcasses on the landscape. There was great suffering, but there was also intense joy, and that is the true nature of the world, at least as far as I understand it. Wolves and dogs are highly adapted to high levels of mortality, that is why they have so many pups, and that is why our animal shelters are so full of unwanted dogs. As Darwin realized long ago, death is an integral part of the evolution of living things, and we shouldn’t avoid staring that fact in the face now and then. All animals die, and many wild animals suffer violent, gory deaths at the hands of other wild animals, and that is just fine, those are the cards we’ve been dealt with on this planet, whether we like it or not. Sounds like I’m defending killing wolves, but I’m not. But if saving an ecosystem means interrupting the lives of a few wolves and bringing them to what amounts to the proverbial land of milk and honey, I’m all for it. I agree wolves should be protected completely, reintroduced or otherwise. They are far too rare and too crucial and they regulate their own populations pretty well as far as we know, so wolf management should focus on working with people to learn how to better coexist. Do I think white-tailed deer should be protected completely? No, particularly not when their non-human predators are absent from the landscape. Another hard decision comes in the case of the reintroduced red wolf in eastern NC – right now the major challenge for the wolf is being shot faster than it can reproduce. Does that mean we shouldn’t have reintroduced the animals in the first place? No, I don’t think so, especially given the choice for the wolves was a permanent life in a cage or a chance at freedom in a deer-filled landscape with stars and moon shining above and a thousand scents wafting through the air. Red wolves also present the difficult decision about what to do with coyotes – should coyotes be “managed” (which in this case means sterilized and released back onto the landscape) in order to protect the genetic integrity of the wolves? Should hybrid litters be euthanized in order to save pure red wolves from being sullied or from just disappearing altogether? Yes and no would be my answer. Yes, in some areas, to try to protect some relatively pure red wolves on the ground, at least long enough until the wolf population reaches a critical mass where enough red wolf pups are being born to counteract the occasional insubordinate act of hybridization. But no, not always…I personally believe we should also be looking at releasing wolves in an area where coyotes will not be managed (but where all canids would be protected from hunting), to see whether red wolf genes are able to thrive and prosper in eastern forests without our help. There is an excellent case to be made that, were natural selection allowed to run its course, with red wolf and coyote genes at its disposal in a landscape filled with both deer and oppressive human interference, that the resulting wild canid would be a mutt, a proud and successful mutt that can prosper in the world that exists today. Enough for now! But those are just a few of my quick thoughts about this interesting and challenging subject, thank you for presenting it so well!

  2. I think Marc’s perspective strikes at the heart of the challenges we face in trying to keep a biologically diverse and healthy world for future generations. If one’s perspective on human’s relationship with other species is that humans have dominion over all of the rest of life then it is an easy jump to rationalizing killing anything and everything that we either deem necessary for our welfare or just inconvenient. The common reflection “well that’s progress” comes to mind, once again reflecting our human centric and dominated world view.

    It is a challenge to stay true to an ethical perspective centered on the individual animal and at the same time be a pragmatic conservationist. As Ron reflects, death is part of everything and when we have so thoroughly messed up so many ecosystems it is hard to see anyway to restore things to a better and lasting equilibrium without doing harm to some species, without playing favorites. The balance between keeping a species from blinking out at the cost of some individuals of another species is a good example.

    What is or should be in my opinion a much easier task for any conservationist is opposing the killing of species when the sole purpose of the killing is the personal enjoyment, “sport” if you will, of an individual or a group of individual humans. For instance, I cannot think of any instance where the conservation community should give way and support or acquiesce to the hunting of predators or trophy hunting of any sort. We don’t eat wolves or cougars or bears. And the excuse that some have actually offered up (such as some Washington state legislators/government officials) that you just have to let some residents “kill something” to let steam out of a boiling pot of emotion is utter garbage. There is no biological reason for humans to regulate carnivore populations through hunting and studies are showing more and more the harm that this does to the social structure of carnivores (not to mention the ethical issues discussed by Marc). Some will say we must allow hunting of carnivores like wolves for there to be enough social tolerance for wolves to remain at some level on the landscape and that if we don’t then wolf populations will be at risk due to poaching. I call BS on this – pandering is a poor substitute for appropriate law enforcement.

    Long term, the solution, the only solution, is for humans to fundamentally reorient themselves in the biotic community; not lord god man but rather respectful member of a necessary and beautiful whole.

  3. Thanks for the very interesting and thought provoking interview. I agree with a lot of what Marc proposes, with two possible exceptions. (1) He seems to say that we shouldn’t manage wildlife in a way that results in the occurrence of predation. Since predation is a natural process in a healthy ecosystem, I am having a hard time with that concept. (2) I also know that there are several places in British Columbis where, if wolves aren’t killed, entire populations of boreal caribou will be extirpated. There isn’t enough time to change the behavior (I.e., large scale habitat loss due to oil and gas exploration and road-building) that caused the populations to decline. I have reluctantly concluded that wolf kills are justified in these extreme circumstances.

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful reply, Wendy. During follow-up conversation with Marc, he agreed that wild predators are not to be judged for their acts of predation, and that healthy predator-prey dynamics are critical to keeping ecosystems intact. I think his overarching point is that we need to consider many factors when returning predators to an ecosystem, including the ramifications for naive prey. Your second point is tricky for me, and I’m honestly unclear about what should be done to address this crisis (I won’t speak for Marc here.) In general, I don’t think wolves should have to pay the price for irresponsible human behavior–and nor should caribou, of course. Managers tend to look for shortcuts without addressing the deeper problem, which too often presents itself somewhere else in short order. I only hope that, moving forward, we can prevent such situations from occurring so that we’re not in the position of deciding who lives and who dies.

Tell us what you think!