Animal Rights and Conservation

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By the time higher vertebrates had evolved, the area now known as New Zealand was situated to the southeast of Australia, separated from the latter, or any other land mass, by extensive water barriers. Although both birds and bats were able to colonise the land, it was the birds that evolved to fill the many niches that in other regions were occupied by mammals. When the first humans arrived, they brought with them rats, which had a devastating impact on the bird fauna.

Later human arrivals saw the potential for a lucrative fur industry and, over the period 1837–1922, introduced the brushtailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) from Australia. The possum thrived, foliage and fruits were abundant and, apart from fur trappers, there was an absence of predators.

Some time after the brush-tailed possum become established, the animal rights movement gained momentum internationally, and the wearing of animal fur became anathema. Humans, the only vector able to restrict an exponential increase in possum numbers, were effectively removed from the ecological equation. Possum numbers responded accordingly and the forest began to die. By the close of the 20th Century, the devastation threatened the future of the remaining native forests.

The government recognised that drastic action would be required to preserve the forest and this was compounded by the knowledge that the brush-tail possum is a vector for bovine tuberculosis. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of solutions offered by the public. Options proposed included:

  • Widespread use of poison, e.g., arsenic and 1080, the latter specifically designed to target possums.
  • Introduction of a predator, such as a lynx.
  • Culling by professional hunters.
  • Trapping.
  • Development of bio-systems, e.g., hormones, to make the possums sterile.

Not surprisingly, there was considerable opposition from sections of the community that would normally be aligned: conservation groups, on one side want to save the vegetation, and animal rights groups on the other opposed culling or poisoning on the basis that these led to suffering and were thus inhumane.

The poisons being considered included cyanide and 1080, both of which had the potential to affect non-target species. The most economical alternative, traps, could also be triggered by humans, domestic animals, such as dogs, and native animals, especially flightless birds like the endangered kiwi.

One of the most well known conservationists of the 20th Century was Rachel Carson who, in 1962, wrote her seminal text, Silent Spring (recently reprinted posthumously: Carson, 2002). In this book, she reasoned that the lack of bird-song in many ecosystems was evidence that something was very amiss in the natural environment. Carson was concerned about the welfare of animals, and placed particular emphasis upon the need to improve natural systems and populations from anthropogenic pollutants such as pesticides. She was one of the first to recognise that in a quest to mould Nature to its own satisfaction, humanity was placing the ecosphere in jeopardy. Perhaps her most prudent observation was ‘…in Nature, nothing exists alone’ (Carson, 2002).

In ight of the above, it is perhaps surprising that Carson was not opposed to the translocation of animals (either as reintroduced taxa – of animals that were once present in an ecosystem, or of the introduction of exotic species), e.g., she supported the introduction of non-native masked shrews to control the sawfly pest in Newfoundland during 1958. In the 21st Century, there is an increasing focus on the importance of animal rights as opposed to animal welfare (Goodall and Bekoff, 2002; Bekoff and Nystrom, 2004). There is also widespread recognition that when humans interact with nature, more often than not nature will be reshaped, irrespective of whether this is intentional. Indeed, the influence of anthropogenic intervention can be anticipated at every level in the biosphere – from individual animals to ecosystems. Importantly, Bekoff and Nystrom (2004) argue that the greatest anthropogenic effect is on the interactions between different levels in the biosphere, and this is the essence of the tragedy in the New Zealand forest, where an entire ecosystem has been put at risk through the introduction of a non-native species.


  1. Evaluate the options listed above for solutions to the problems arising from translocation of the Australian brush-tailed possum to the New Zealand forest, and comment on the likely success of these.
  2. What other option is possible?
  3. Do, or should, animals have rights per se, or should we simply ensure that animals are afforded no unnecessary pain and discomfort?
  4. Is there a moral difference between eating a chicken that has been bred in an open farmyard to one that has been bred alongside 10,000 other chickens in a confined battery?


Carson, R., 2002. Silent Spring. First Mariner Books Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. 378 pp.

Bekoff, M. and Nystrom, J., 2004. ‘The other side of silence: Rachel Carson’s views of animals’, Human Ecology Review 11(2), 186–200.

Goodall, J., and Bekoff, M., 2002. The Ten Trusts. What we must do to care for the animals we love, Harper San Francisco, Harper Collins, New York. 200pp.

Article taken with permission from: Buckeridge, J.St,J.S., 2008. 4 E's: Ethics, Engineering, Economics and Environment. RMIT University Press, Melbourne, Australia, pp 25-28.