COMMENTARY: The Greenie Wars

When Green Groups Clash, It Leaves an Environmental Impact

Animal rights activists push the idea that animals come first.
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The word "greenie" is universally recognized. A quick whiz around the web reveals a variety of definitions, my current favorite being "noun slang term for an environmentalist. Often used to deride such people, eg: "That bloody tree-hugging greenie poofter.""

But in reality, many groups and individuals which fall under this umbrella term have vastly different agendas. Groups commonly termed "greenies" include animal rights supporters, conservation groups and animal welfare advocates, as well as environmentalists. But how exactly do these groups differ in terms of their priorities and goals, and how on earth could they ever come into conflict?

Animal Rights or Animal Wrongs?

For animal rights advocates, the main priority is the rights of individual sentient animals and supporters are essentially in opposition to sacrificing any animal to advance the greater good. All animals, be they endangered or an introduced pest, are given equal rights and consideration.

Confusing animal rights and animal welfare is a common mistake, but their main objectives are actually very different. Animal welfare supporters concede that human use of animals is permitted, but campaign for regulations that minimize pain, suffering and loss of life. The belief that human use of animals is warranted often brings welfarists into conflict with animal rights groups, who argue that animal welfare is inherently biased against animal rights as it recognizes animals as property, with no intrinsic value, only the value that we choose to bestow upon them.

Despite this divergence of goals, Ashley Fruno, a spokesperson for the largest animal rights organization in the world—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says that PETA’s goals encompass both animal rights and welfare by aiming to "stop animal suffering by working to improve the living and dying conditions of the billions of animals who suffer at the hands of uncaring industries."

Conservationists are thinking about protecting the land first.
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Conservation Conundrum

In contrast, the primary aim of conservation groups is to maintain biodiversity, with the focus being on species, populations and ecosystems. Conservationists generally recognize the integral links between wildlife and their habitat and allow that sometimes human intervention may be necessary to prevent loss of biodiversity.

Again, this view can result in conflict between conservationists and animal rights groups, and sometimes welfarists too. The most common clashes occur over plans to eradicate non-native species in order to prevent native species declining or becoming extinct. More extreme animal rights supporters consider the killing of any individual animal in order to conserve a native species to be "environmental fascism".

Feral Future

Such a clash has been brewing recently over the future of feral cats on remote San Nicolas Island, one of the California Channel Islands which is owned by the U.S. Navy. The cats predate native sea birds and also compete with the endangered island fox Urocyon littoralis and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to trap and shoot cats to eradicate them entirely. However, this proposal has incurred the wrath of both animal rights and welfare groups, who have suggested non-lethal alternatives such as neutering or relocation. The USFWS rejects these proposals, arguing "Navy policy prohibits trap-neuter-release on its land and these cats are wild animals and not suitable as pets."

Such conflicts can have serious implications for conservation efforts and endangered species. In the late 1990"s, the National Wildlife Institute announced plans to eradicate the introduced American grey squirrel from Italy. The grey squirrel excludes the native red squirrel through competition and has been blamed for the decline of the red squirrel elsewhere in Europe.

The plan was opposed by animal rights groups who took the National Wildlife Institute to court, causing a suspension of the project for 3 years. The National Wildlife Institute was finally acquitted, but during the suspension the grey squirrel significantly expanded its range and the eradication was no longer feasible—putting the red squirrel population at risk across its range.

Dr. Gad Perry from Texas Tech University, who has researched these conflicts, says "Some of the disagreements have been very destructive. Battles between animal rights and conservation groups have led to much energy being wasted on outcomes that are partially desirable at best, from either perspective. Animal rights people may object to killing invasive species, but have no interest in grey squirrels taking over Europe."

The Call for Compromise

In a letter to the journal Conservation Biology this year, Dr. Michael Hutchins, Executive Director of The Wildlife Society, said that "animal rights and conservation are incompatible at the most fundamental level."

Dr. Perry is more optimistic. "Both groups can easily agree that prevention of species introductions is far more desirable than trying to deal with an invasive population," he says. "While some people will never agree to the killing of non-natives, I would encourage moderate folks to start talking to one another, seeking ways to achieve mutual goals."

He adds "Animal rights people bring a lot of energy and passion. Biologists bring the expertise and scientific credibility. Hopefully, together we can make a real change in how things unfold."

Ashley Fruno, from PETA, has a similar view. "I think the key to having better communication with any given group is to focus on the things we have in common and realize that even though we may not always agree on all points, we can still work together on those we do agree on."

CONTACT San Nicolas cat eradication; PETA; The Wildlife Society

DR. JOANNE ISAAC is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, at James Cook University in Australia.