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Moral Motivations For Wildlife Conservation

White tailed deer, hind with fawn on the natural trail

Texas A&M research shows that an individual’s level of empathy for wildlife can predict their support for conservation efforts.
By Adam Russell, Texas A&M AgriLife CommunicationsJUNE 21, 2021

Animal rights advocates and hunters may have more in common than they think when it comes to nature conservancy, according to a newly published study by a Texas A&M AgriLife researcher.

The research focused on whether an individual’s empathy level toward wildlife predicted their support for conservation efforts. Researchers believe the study can be used to identify individuals and how they view the intrinsic value of nature in ways that can be leveraged to promote wildlife conservation.

Measuring and understanding people’s commitment to nature conservancy based on personal morals will be key to combatting wildlife losses and ecosystem disruptions in the short- and long-term, said Gerard Kyle professor and associate department head for academic programs in the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management.

“For some people, the protection of wildlife, and animals more broadly, is a moral issue. Their empathy evokes emotions akin to their empathy for humans,” said Kyle, the principal author of the recent study. “It’s important that we study both the psychological attachment and detachment from nature that people express. Understanding how humans view wildlife and nature will be a critical part of sustainable conservation efforts in the short- and long-term.”

Kyle and his doctoral student, Benjamin Ghasemi, examined the range of moral commitment that individuals expressed toward wildlife and nature conservation based on basic moral psychology principles. This research was recently published in Biological Conservation.

Dynamics Between Hunters, Animal Rights Advocates

Using survey data collected from 1,278 students at Texas A&M University in Bryan-College Station, Kyle and Ghasemi found that participants who viewed protection of natural resources a moral issue and empathized with wildlife showed higher level of support for conservation.

At the same time, the data also showed that groups within the study, such as animal activists and hunters, shared similar psychological mechanisms driving individual moral motivations for nature conservancy.

The study identified specific groups, including “animal rights advocates,” “hunters” and “disengaged,” then measured within those groups where wildlife ranked as a personal concern.

Scientists measured empathy levels by using a morality diagram made of concentric circles that ranks what the individual considers a moral concern beyond themselves, Kyle said. A typical respondent’s diagram would have the person in the middle and likely their immediate family and pets as the first circle, with friends or neighbors as the next ring, followed by animals, trees and so on.

As far as animals go, pets are always the closest concern for individuals, and are viewed as children in some circles. But wild animals were ranked according to the individuals’ perception of specific species. For instance, deer would likely be ranked higher than bat, and batsmay be of a greater moral concern than wild pigs or cockroaches.

This approach helped researchers categorize individuals and measure their empathy and moral concern toward wildlife and their subsequent predilection toward nature conservation, Kyle said.

Animal rights advocates made up 50% of respondents and scored highest on all indicators of empathy, moral concern and support for wildlife conservation. Hunters made up 30% of respondents, with 14% of those hunters fitting into the sub-group “caring hunters.” The remaining 20% of survey respondents were identified as “disengaged.”

Some animal rights advocates viewed hunting as morally wrong, and even expressed views against human consumption of meat, Kyle said. On the other end of the respondent spectrum, some hunters expressed a utilitarian concern for nature, and viewed wildlife as an opportunity to enjoy and utilize nature.

“Caring” hunters aligned their moral concern, empathy and support for wildlife more closely with animal rights advocates than with “utilitarian” hunters, Kyle said. They were concerned about humane and ethical treatment of animals, even during harvest, and protecting and improving habitat and ecological balance, respectively.

“There were some predictable responses from animal advocates and hunters, but there was also some interesting dynamics that showed there was some alignment between advocates and caring hunters,” he said. “That was surprising, but the biggest concern is the percentage of people identified as disengaged. They scored lowest on all of our measures and displayed little interest in wildlife conservation, empathy for wildlife, or consideration of their protection as a moral issue.”

Detachment Is Bad For Wildlife, Nature Conservation

The study showed respondents from urban areas tended to be more empathetic toward wildlife. Kyle said this attitude is common because urban residents tend to express mutualistic value orientations toward wildlife – meaning they believe humans and animals are meant to co-exist in harmony.

However, in reality, many urban respondents knew very little about wildlife, ecological balance, or how human-wildlife interfaces can have positive and/or negative ramifications for both nature and/or humans, Kyle said. Responses also elicited contradictory thoughts when posed with specific scenarios about wildlife that have negative impacts on humans or when a lack of human intervention can impact the balance of nature, such as the ongoing pest problem wild pigs represent in Texas and many other states.

“Urban respondents are somewhat detached from nature and the potential negative cause and effect of species imbalances,” he said. “Although they are sincere in their appreciation of nature and protective views on wildlife, many aren’t aware of how wildlife can negatively impact native ecology as well as human activities.”

For instance, there are ongoing discussions in Arizona and New Mexico regarding reintroducing jaguars that were effectively wiped out decades ago. Kyle said mutualistic views would only consider that action as a restoration of nature, “a return to as it was and should be,” but without much consideration of how the predatory animal’s presence may impact prey animal numbers, suburban dwellers or producers of cattle, sheep and goats.

Much like how the urban respondents appeared detached in some results, detachment was evident across the study. For example, hunters may view themselves as conservation-minded, but studies show an individual’s view may be distorted and result in very little conservation-minded effort or financial support for conservation programs and organizations. Hunters may also lack understanding about how balanced ecology works and that ecological conservation requires a nuanced, science-based approach that reaches beyond the species they are concerned about for primarily sporting reasons.

But Kyle said studies show hunters play an important role in managing wildlife numbers and help curb overpopulation in species like white-tailed deer by filling the void left by natural predators. Hunting and fishing licenses along with a variety of user fees also generate funding for wildlife management in Texas.

As part of the study, Kyle randomly recruited 20 respondents for an eight-hour Texas Parks and Wildlife Department hunter safety and education course that also included Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service wildlife and fisheries specialists. Two-thirds of attendees were not hunters.

Kyle said non-hunters were curious about the process and surprised that the course, which is mandated for new hunters, stressed the importance of humane treatment and ethical harvesting of animals.

More importantly, Kyle said, attending the class piqued the curiosity of non-hunters and exposed them to the role hunters play in conservation both directly and indirectly. The program also exposed traditional hunters to concepts about how conservation and ecological balance can enhance their experience afield.

“Bridging the knowledge gaps and blind spots among animal advocates and hunters alike could be as easy as developing messaging and education opportunities that reinforce their natural attitudes toward nature and wildlife,” he said.

Reaching The Disengaged, Finding Common Ground

The group labeled “disengaged” troubles Kyle the most. This group was detached from and indifferent to the welfare of animals or ecological concerns. He said they scored lowest on all tested measures and displayed little interest in wildlife conservation, empathy for wildlife or consideration of wildlife protection as a moral issue.

For instance, Kyle said disengaged individuals may not consider where various animal proteins they purchase at grocery stores or restaurants originate, and therefore feel no moral concern about the animal or the process by which the meat arrived in their shopping basket. Their views of wildlife could be positive or negative based on how the animals impact their daily life.

It will take more time and effort to reach individuals disengaged from nature, Kyle said. But the connection to nature shared by hunters and animal rights advocates suggests there could be ways to reach individuals in these groups regarding the need for increased conservation support.

Kyle said reaching individuals within these groups through education and messaging will be a critical piece of any sustainable effort to preserve and improve ecological resources for future generations.

“This research shows we have room for communication about the intrinsic value of nature and wildlife among animal rights advocates and hunters,” he said. “Despite the differing perspectives within these groups, it shows there is an opportunity for dialogue and more importantly subsequent actions that could benefit wildlife and nature.”

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