Comment Writer Elliott Haywood argues that in some cases, animal rights activism is incompatible with science and conservation, causing a halting of progress in these fields

Written by Elliott Haywood
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Images by Patrick Beznoska

Animal abuse is a sure way to evoke emotional reactions, with, I believe, only the most heartless of people being able to inflict such pain. Yet there is a rising tide of animal rights activism which has become so absorbed by its aim to end any suffering that it now stands in the way of many conservation and scientific aims. Whilst there are certainly issues where animal rights and conservation go hand in hand, veganism being the most obvious, the apparently blind outrage towards issues such as zoos, lab animals, and invasive species culling, is halting our progress in these vital fields.

To the animal rights activists, zoos are seemingly cruel prisons, which use claims of education and conservation to shroud their poor conditions where animals are not behaving naturally, and exist solely for the entertainment of onlookers. Yet with high standards of care and contributions to conservation a legal requirement, zoos are less of a prison block, and more of a vital lifeline for our endangered species.

Zoos are less of a prison block, and more of a vital lifeline for our endangered species

Organisations such as PETA claim that the educational benefit of zoos is not real education because the animals are not in their natural habitat, using the all-or-nothing fallacy to argue that if the education is not perfect, it is not worth it. They advise that if ‘you want to learn about animals, watch a nature documentary,’ yet from my own experience, the ability to see a living animal is far more engaging and exciting than watching the TV.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) states that over 700 million visits are made to zoos and aquariums every year, a huge global outreach, saying that ‘zoological facilities are uniquely positioned to use a social-science, evidence-based approach to influence pro-environmental behaviour.’ Zoos may not be the optimal teaching method, but we get considerably more benefit than being without them.

The educational benefit, however, is not just reserved for the general public: zoos are responsible for large amounts of scientific research into animal behaviour; evolutionary theory and animal diseases. Removing zoos would, therefore, prevent huge amounts of scientific research from being undertaken.

The only flimsy straw which animal rights activists have any loose grasp on is the fact that reintroduction programmes from zoos are rare due to there being a limited amount of suitable habitat for many species. Instead, zoos focus on breeding programmes to preserve a healthy captive population with enough genetic diversity to be released in the future.

PETA states that these breeding programmes ’divert money from genuine conservation projects,’ describing the whole affair as the ‘conservation con.’ This appears to be a purely ideological claim lacking rational basis, with the over 300 members of WAZA contributing over $350 million every year to conservation, as well as employing ‘more wildlife-husbandry experts, veterinarians and scientists than any other conservation organisation.

As an example, Yorkshire Wildlife Park is a part of a breeding programme of Amur Leopards, with the hopes of reintroducing them in future. There are believed to be only 70 individuals left in the wild, critically endangered, with not much hope of a natural recovery. If animal rights activists had their way, zoos, with vital captive populations of these big cats, would be gone, effectively sealing the fate of the 70 remaining individuals.

Another area that comes under fire from animal rights activists is the use of lab animals. This is where animals are used in clinical trials; for scientific research; or for teaching purposes in courses such as biology. PETA claims that dissections in schoolrooms can be a ‘traumatising experience’ and may cause some to ‘be permanently put off pursuing a career in science’. I would argue that if you are so uncomfortable with the idea of dissection, you probably were never suited to a career in Biology or Medicine in the first place.

If you are so uncomfortable with the idea of dissection, you probably were never suited to a career in Biology or Medicine in the first place

Dissections of organs or whole animals is a vital part of understanding the body, and speaking personally as a Biology student, the ability to open up a heart or fish provides a far deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the body. Diagrams in textbooks are often simplified, or drawn in a stylised fashion to make it easier to depict, and whilst this is a practical and convenient method of teaching, it simply does not compare to the experience of being able to see the inner workings of an organ or animal.

As for scientific research and clinical trials, activists dismiss these as cruel, whilst apparently offering no viable alternative. Life-like simulators may be acceptable for training, but cannot be used for research into the effects of new treatments, and testing drugs on tissue samples rather than lab animals does not show the effect on whole body systems. Making the leap straight from tissue trials to human trials would result in huge increases in potentially lethal side effects in human volunteers, yet that is the price we must pay if lab animals could not be used. PETA seems more interested in portraying scientists as sadistic mutilators who secretly enjoy the suffering of lab animals than understanding that science is always looking for the best and most effective methods.

Whilst there are numerous small issues where animal rights conflicts with conservation, the final main issue is that of invasive species control. Invasive species are organisms which are not native to the UK, but have been released into our countryside either by accident or on purpose, and then go on to cause serious damage to other species and the ecosystem. Because of the threat they pose to native wildlife, they must be controlled, usually by lethal means.

Our countryside is rife with introduced species. For example, the Grey Squirrel, native to North America, is commonplace, whilst when it comes to England’s native Red Squirrel, only six per cent of Britons report having seen one in the past year. Similarly, the American Signal Crayfish has almost wiped out the UK’s native White-clawed Crayfish, due to its larger size, heightened aggression, and spread of a fungal disease. Mink are another serious invasive species, outcompeting otters, and killing many nesting birds.

Successful eradication programmes of rats on various UK islands have prevented the devastating collapse of globally significant seabird populations. Introduced Ruddy Ducks across Europe are being culled to prevent them hybridising with the native and endangered White-headed Ducks. Invasive species represent a huge threat to ecosystems globally, and controlling populations is vital to ensuring the safety of our native species. Surely no one would argue against the importance of controlling invasive species?

Enter the animal rights activists. A paper published by the journal Conservation Biology explains that ‘animal rights groups typically categorically oppose killing animals, and their opposition has brought eradication attempts of gray squirrels in northern Italy (Europe) and mute swans in Vermont to a halt.’ Another paper, from the journal Animals believes that ‘the classification of any species as ‘invasive’ constitutes wrongful discrimination’ and is ‘demeaning’ to animals.’

In my opinion, this argument against the devastating consequences of invasive species is truly myopic and damaging. Luckily, some activists do reluctantly accept that lethal control of species is necessary, but fostering a culture of extreme animal rights activism will only lead to more obstacles for effective conservation.

From my perspective, activist organisations such as PETA typically focus on using emotive language and embellishing claims: their website is littered with examples of this dishonest practice. For example, they state that fishing causes ‘such severe physiological stress that they often die of shock.’ However, surely if these fish died ‘often,’ fishing lakes would be littered with dead fish and would go out of business quite quickly?

The utopian ideal that activists believe is possible simply is not tenable with our need for conservation and science

The utopian ideal that activists believe is possible simply is not tenable with our need for conservation and science. Should we minimise animal suffering? Of course. Would I prefer to live in a world where no animal suffers? Absolutely, but the reality is that this is a balancing act, we should not be able to do whatever we want in the name of science, and we should not halt our progress so that no more animals suffer. Yet, activists seem to want to put a blanket ban on any suffering, despite the huge benefits that we get from zoos, scientific research, or removing of invasive species.

I believe that animal rights should be supported where it is possible, but when there is a conflict of interest between animal rights and conservation or science, it is time to stop with sentimentality and see the bigger picture. The preservation of species and the expansion of scientific understanding are two of the biggest aims we have as a society and if PETA and other activist organisations had their way, our progress in these fields would collapse.

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