This story occurred a couple of years ago, but the described scenario and underlying problem is as timeless as ever. During my evening shift as marine mammal surveyor on board of a ferry on route to Santander in Spain, I was forced to witness a small group of lost racing pigeons loosing their fight against the strong winds of the Bay of Biscay. I had to watch the drama unfolding, and there was nothing I could do to help. In this respect, spring and autumn surveys are known to be particularly emotionally demanding, as surveyors are regularly forced to helplessly watch the struggle of travelling and migrating birds. This situation is neither unexpected nor unique, but can be emotionally draining. At the very least, it feels very surreal when witnessing tragedies like this one on board of a luxurious ferry, where most people are busy enjoying their lives and holidays. Most of these tragic encounters go unnoticed and are missed even by keen birders and whale and dolphin enthusiasts armed with expensive gear.
Before we look at possible answers, we should try to establish an ethical baseline we all can agree on and work with. Most but not all people will accept that it is wrong to intentionally inflict harm onto others with the exception of acting in self defence. Intentionally harming other people is morally seen not acceptable. Violence is generally not regarded as normal behaviour, as it obviously can cause harm. It seems natural to most of us to help others, who have been harmed or are about to be harmed. But what drives us to help? And where does empathy and compassion come from?
Animals are intelligent, sentient individuals. We should refer to them as “he/she” or “them/they”, or by species. The words “it” or “thing” should not be used to refer to an animal, and “who” is used rather than “that”. If you do not know the gender, choose one: “he” or “she”. Even if your gender choice is wrong, it is more respectful than “it.” This is an important way of demonstrating the respect we ask others to afford to all animals.
Wild animals should not be kept in captivity for the purpose of subjecting them to the stress of a public display for educational or other purposes, even when the display is happening in a classroom. Public releases are in our opinion not acceptable either, because they do not any good to the animal concerned and only serve the ego of the person releasing the animal.
Should A Sentient Animal Being Used For Educational Purposes?
There are a multitude of more efficient educational media available in our days, which can be specifically tailored to suit the audience targeted. The abuse of animals in this manner sends a message to the public that animals can or should be tamed, or kept as “pets” or that they are objects for human diversion, entertainment, recreation or educational tools.
It is often believed that species should be considered and preserved because they have some sort of value in themselves, a value unrelated to what’s in the best interests of the individuals who are members of the species. We don’t share this view. Sentient individuals have morally relevant interests in being alive and in not being harmed.
The interests in being alive and in not being harmed do not vary according to the fact whether a species is rare or common. It is very important to thoroughly establish whether an animal, who might not be releasable straight away, or at all is coping well with being kept in captivity. This is a difficult complex assessment depending on many factors requiring experience and intuition, a process which eventually is also very dependent on the individual animal and her or his adaptability.