Expand the conversation around science, ethics and Grizzly Bears

Ami Vitale is a National Geographic photographer who believes that the camera needs to turn around and see that people are part of the picture.  She focuses on the relationship between people and animals.  In her recent Victoria presentation she described the profound relationship between Samburu caregivers and the orphaned elephants at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in N. Kenya.  She also related the story of how local farmers each dig their own wells, having to dig deeper and deeper as droughts become longer in duration (but that is another story).  Every farmer has their own song that they sing at their well.  During the day, the well is used by family and cattle; at night by the wildlife.  When the farmer sings, his cows come to that well and only that well.  The cows never go to the wrong well, i.e. they know their own farmer’s song and distinguish between songs!  

The ability of animals to select between alternatives, to recognize faces, to grieve, suffer, celebrate, invent and play has to be one of the threads of conversation when we talk about the science and ethics of human impact on their lives.  Research in this area has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, some of which is referenced here.  A 2017 external scientific report on animal consciousness finds that:    

Caution is required before excluding consciousness in species not having the same brain structures as the mammalian ones as different neural architectures may mediate comparable processes.  Considering the limited amount of data available and the few animal species studied so far, we conclude that different manifestations of consciousness can be observed in animals but that further refinement is still needed to characterize their level and content in each species.

Your eyes are probably glazing over after that passage.  Heady language, for sure, as scientific reports tend to be.  Nevertheless, when we cultivate relationship with other animals we experience the truth of their feelings and intelligence; for those who need convincing, the science concurs.  As long as the science is non-invasive to the animals, I’m all for it.  Humans simply must consider the ethical implications of what other animals are revealing about their conscious awareness. This is not ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman animals (anthropomorphism); this is ascribing animal characteristics to themselves as individuals.  

With the BC grizzly hunt banned, we finally have a political decision that is favourable. But it is a fragile truce.  We can’t be complacent and leave the fate of grizzlies in the hands of politicians, regardless of how well meaning those politicians may be.  Now is our opportunity to strengthen this outcome and animal consciousness is one area that impacts directly on the science/ethics conversation.  We must point out to our political allies that the 91% of British Columbians who opposed grizzly trophy hunting, and the 78% who called for a complete end to the grizzly hunt, were making informed public decisions!  As well stated by Raincoast Conservation Foundation: “The end of the grizzly hunt was the result of decades of research, public education, media engagement, campaigning, and outreach events.”

The better informed we are, the better we can educate fellow British Columbians and politicians about why the ban on grizzly hunting must be maintained.  Using population-level statistics and economics to rationalize killing may appear to absolve people of responsibility for taking the life of another conscious being.  It does not.  Humans are gifted with the capacity for reflective thought; turning it off in the name of “objective science” does not negate the responsibility for using that gift.  Neither does it give us permission to use age-old principles to guide actions in the face of new knowledge and conditions. We need to “turn the camera around”, as Ami says, and look at ourselves in relation to what we are learning about the feelings and intelligence of other animals.  

What can we do?  April 1 2018 is no longer the first day of the Spring grizzly hunt in British Columbia. We can write, call, visit or email our MLAs. to voice ongoing support for their decision to end the hunt – and tell them why it is a good decision based on science, ethics and common sense.  

Photo credit: Smiling Cub by Jim Lawrence http://kootenayreflections.com

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