As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Environmental Policy and Management – my next class starts tomorrow. Recent events in the local news involving an upright-walking bear have given me the opportunity to think about one of my most recent courses, environmental ethics, the learnings from which I attempt to apply to this topic.
Have you heard of the upright-walking bear in New Jersey? The bear has been dubbed “Pedals” by some local residents and sightings of the bear have resulted in the establishment of social media pages, YouTube videos, fundraisers and media coverage. From the information available through these sources, the bear has experienced injuries which resulted in the loss of one front paw and very limited use of the other front paw (accounts vary on the bear’s ability to use either front paw).
I became aware of this bear several week’s ago after receiving requests for information and assistance through a social media page I maintain (for a group of volunteer naturalists). Since then, I have learned that the bear has survived either two or three winters (again, accounts vary) in this condition and is being monitored by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.
There are at least two Facebook groups which devote considerable time to discussing the bear – one which wants to “rescue” the bear and deliver it to a sanctuary in New York and another which wants the bear “left alone”. For me, this is the significant ethical issue associated with this animal – should the bear be rescued, placed (essentially) into protective custody, and tended to by wildlife rehabilitators or should it be left in the wild?
When faced with an injured wild animal, I think most reasonable people would agree that there are three courses of action available to wildlife managers (like the good folks at NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife) – no intervention, treatment, or euthanasia.
Thus far, the folks in Fish and Wildlife have opted for the “no intervention” approach. However, is that the proper choice? In their essay Ethics of Interventions for the Welfare of Free-Living Wild Animals, J.K. Kirkwood and A.W. Sainsbury (1996) of the Zoological Society of London provide one possible framework for considering this question. According to Kirkwood and Sainsbury (1996), the three choices (taken from the text of their essay) could be defined as:
(a) No intervention: If the animal is likely to recover without treatment, and if treatment would be an unjustifiable added stress, then there is no case for intervention.
(b) Euthanasia: If the animal is unlikely to recover, is judged to be in pain or distress and cannot be treated, then euthanasia is justifiable on welfare grounds.
(c) Treatment: There are two situations where treatment is justifiable on welfare grounds. The first is if an animal is likely to recover without treatment but its welfare is better served by treating than by not treating (e.g., by reducing the time to recovery). The second is if the animal is unlikely to recover without treatment and treatment (and subsequent management and release) can be accomplished with relatively little stress.
So, it would appear, Kirkwood and Sainsbury (1996) agree that there are situations where treatment of wild animals is justified on welfare grounds (emphasis added). The factors which could be used to justify treatment of a wild animal include 1) the extent to which humans are responsible for the injury, 2) the extent to which the animal is under management and control (e.g., living in a wildlife management area vs. living in an uncontrolled environment), 3) the degree of “perceived suffering”, and 4) other cultural and economic factors such as the animals conservation status (e.g., endangered vs. common) or popularity (e.g., baby seal vs. common rat) (Kirkwood & Sainsbury, 1996).
From the available public information, I have not been able to determine the cause of the bear’s injuries and, from all accounts, it is free ranging (moving from wooded areas to suburban areas at will). Is the animal suffering? While no one can say with certainty that the animal is (or is not) experiencing pain, it does appear to be flourishing – it has reportedly gained significant weight recently and has survived at least two severe winter seasons under its current condition. Finally, black bear are not considered an endangered species under either the U.S. or New Jersey laws.
So what does this leave us?
As Kirkwood and Sainsbury (1996) observed, popularity is a completely illogical consideration when deciding how best to deal with an injured wild animal, but it is one of the most powerful factors in influencing public opinion. So what should be done? For myself, I am in the “leave the bear alone” camp and agree with the position of NJ Fish and Wildlife that the bear should not be removed from its wild environment as long as it continues to flourish (e.g., gains weight, remains mobile, exhibits no obvious signs of physical suffering).
There are a number of people who disagree with that position. However, I would challenge those folks to really think their reasoning behind wanting this bear removed from the wild. Would there the Facebook pages, media articles, fundraisers, and public debate if “Pedals” was a common Norway rat (like those found sewers and subway systems around the world)? What other animals should be singled out for special treatment? Why? And, perhaps most importantly, who gets to decide?
If you would like to read the Kirkwood and Sainsbury essay, you can find it by following this link or through this reference:
Kirkwood, J. & Sainsbury, A. (1996). Ethics of interventions for the welfare of free-living wild animals. Animal Welfare, 5, 235-243.
What do you think? Should “Pedals” be removed from the wild and placed in an animal sanctuary because of his injured front paws? Should the bear be left alone? These are difficult questions which everyone should decide for themselves.
One note of caution – the comments on social media about this situation have often resulted in name calling and flaming among the participants. While I encourage you to comment, please keep the posts civil and on topic. I reserve the right to delete any post which, in my opinion, does not adhere to my request (without regard to the position taken by the commenter).