Compassionate conservation — yes even for rats and raccoons
by Anne Drummond
In mid-June, the Saanich municipality voted to discontinue the use of anticoagulant rodenticides in all of their facilities. The motivation for discontinuing the use of these highly toxic rodenticides was evidence that owls, raccoons, and other wildlife were also being killed by ingesting poisoned rodents. Mayor Haynes is hoping that Saanich will be setting an example to inspire other municipalities to follow suit.
While the Saanich Council is to be applauded for this humane decision, nonetheless the alternatives to rat poison still remain lethal and in the long term do nothing to change the rat/human conflict.
Rats, and mice, are intelligent, devoted parents and loyal spouses, do they really deserve the death penalty for simply trying to get on in a challenging world? It seems that it is easier to use lethal methods to control animals than for humans to change their behaviour; because in the end, all human-animal conflict is about habitat destruction—we humans are taking way more than our fair share of available resources.
A United Nations report released in 2019 reveals that at least a million plant and animal species will be extinct within decades, this, the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event can be squarely laid in the hands of mankind. The major factors responsible for the decline of species are habitat destruction and climate change.
Traditional conservation focusses on selected species and populations without considering the well being of individual animals or the ethics involved. The North American model of conservation in particular has a rather egregious track record of the mass killing of one species to preserve another species which is considered to be of greater value to humans. For example, the BC wolf cull, the killing of seals and birds accused of diminishing fish stocks, and the controversial goose cull in Denver CO, to name but a few. These strategies have not only ignored the wider effects on communities and ecosystems but paid no attention to the suffering of individuals involved in the cull. As we move deeper into the Anthropocene and an increasing rate of extinction we need another way to manage human-wildlife conflict.
Compassionate conservation recognizes that all animals are sentient beings and aims to protect Earth’s biodiversity while treating individual animals with respect and concern for their welfare. Following the guiding principles of: do no harm, individuals matter, inclusivity, and peaceful coexistence. No matter whether a species is rare or not, of value to humans or not, native or not, all animals have intrinsic value. Compassionate conservation offers a different approach to how we deal with animals in the light of what we know and continue to learn about the cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals. Furthermore, it is increasingly acknowledged that the health and welfare of humans are closely connected to the welfare of animals and the environment we all need in order to survive.
The daily activities of humans—in our homes, agriculture, parks, and cities—cause considerable harm to wildlife. Less well known is the harm to wildlife in the name of conservation via culling, trapping, relocation, or captivity. Culling/killing wildlife is not a scientifically proven way to manage wildlife populations. In many instances and in particular among urban wildlife, as you kill individuals others will move into the vacated opportunity—this is what keeps pest control companies in business!
Killing animals causes suffering and pain and young pups/nestlings/fawns may die when their parents do not return to feed them. Furthermore killing individuals destabilizes groups and communities. This is an important point because a stable family group or community is more amenable to behaviour modification thus making coexistence more feasible.
Yes, that rat/raccoon in your garden may be a nuisance, but before you consider lethal control ask yourself the following questions. Is it:
- Justified: in other words are you sure there is a problem (the simple presence of an animal does not equate with it being a problem), is it the right thing to do or might there be other less harmful solutions, is it really reasonable to kill an animal simply for being in your garden?
- Humane: can you kill this animal without causing excessive pain and suffering, or could you find a non-lethal solution, do you feel sympathy for the animal, can you generate kindness and attempt peaceful coexistence?
- Effective: will killing this animal have the desired effect?
So after considering those questions perhaps now you’re not ready to kill the rat in your garden, having decided that it is innocent until proven guilty—but nonetheless you are wary about this idea of peaceful coexistence.
Yes rodents and raccoons can cause structural damage, yes they are capable of carrying bacteria and viruses but the simple presence of these animals does not necessarily mean harm and disease are guaranteed. In principle, any animal can carry a disease that humans could catch but in reality, 99.999% of pathogens carried by animals will not infect people. By comparison, 60% of all human pathogens can infect animals. If your interactions with animals involve little more than feeding the dog, putting seeds out for birds, and shooing away the squirrels you are unlikely to contract a zoonotic infection—walking into a hospital or a doctor’s office is far riskier.
Peaceful coexistence involves tolerance and understanding and both parties’ needs being met. Accepting that we play a role in human-wildlife conflicts is a big start, so keep your home secure—check for gaps where animals may enter your roof/walls, and keep branches off your roof to limit access to attics, windows, and vents. Look for greasy, smudgy rub marks which indicate routes used by rodents—disrupt these routes by cleaning with bleach, but also use them as indicators to the ways they may be getting into your house or shed. Rats and raccoons respond to hazing, so bang pots to make loud noises, squirt them with water, be a crazy banshee. Don’t leave piles of junk around as these are prime real estate for rats and raccoons, and don’t leave dog food or cat food outside—that is literally a gilt-edged dinner invitation. Basically, if you limit the food and shelter opportunities in your garden rodents are less likely to make a home there. That said, rodents are everywhere and if you can accept their presence at a distance, then just leave them be.
These are difficult times and animal populations are as stressed as we are; COVID-19, climate change, the state of the economy, political upheaval- it takes its toll on all the Earth’s inhabitants. We as individuals here in Victoria may not be able to bring about global change but we can start with our own hearts and practice more compassion and respect for all the sentient beings that we share the planet with.