Animal rights activists and hunters may have more in common when it comes to nature conservation than they think, according to a recently published study by a researcher at Texas A&M AgriLife.
The research focused on whether an individual’s level of empathy towards wildlife predicted their support for conservation efforts. The researchers believe the study can be used to identify individuals and how they perceive nature’s intrinsic value so that it can be used to promote wildlife conservation.
Measuring and understanding people’s commitment to nature conservation on the basis of personal morals will be key to tackling wildlife loss and ecosystem disruption in the short and long term, said Gerard Kyle, professor. and Associate Department Head for University Programs at Texas A&M University College of Agriculture. and Department of Range, Wildlife and Fisheries Management Life Sciences.
“For some people, protecting wildlife, and animals more broadly, is a moral issue. Their empathy evokes emotions similar to their empathy for humans, ”said Kyle, lead author of the recent study. “It is important that we study both the psychological attachment and the detachment from nature that people express. Understanding how humans perceive wildlife and nature will be an essential part of short- and long-term sustainable conservation efforts. “
Kyle and his doctoral student, Benjamin Ghasemi, examined the range of moral commitment individuals have expressed to the conservation of wildlife and nature based on basic principles of moral psychology. This research was recently published in Biological conservation.
Dynamics between hunters, animal rights defenders
Using survey data collected from 1,278 students at Texas A&M University in Bryan-College Station, Kyle and Ghasemi found that participants who saw the protection of natural resources as a moral issue and sympathized with wildlife. showed a higher level of conservation support.
At the same time, the data also showed that groups within the study, such as animal activists and hunters, shared similar psychological mechanisms underlying individual moral motivations for nature conservation.
The study identified specific groups, including “animal rights activists,” “hunters” and “disengaged,” and then measured within those groups where wildlife was seen as a personal concern.
Scientists measured levels of empathy using a morality diagram made up of concentric circles that ranks what the individual sees as moral concern beyond themselves, Kyle said. A typical respondent’s diagram would have the person in the middle and probably their immediate family and pets as the first circle, with friends or neighbors as the next circle, followed by animals, trees, and so on.
When it comes to animals, pets are always an individual’s closest concern and are seen as children in some circles. But wild animals have been classified based on the perception of individuals of specific species. For example, deer would likely be ranked higher than bats, and bats might be of greater moral concern than wild pigs or cockroaches.
This approach helped researchers categorize individuals and measure their empathy and moral concern for wildlife and their subsequent predilection for nature conservation, Kyle said.
Animal rights activists made up 50% of those surveyed and scored the highest on all indicators of empathy, moral concern, and support for wildlife conservation. Hunters made up 30% of respondents, with 14% of these hunters falling into the “caring hunters” sub-group. The remaining 20% of survey respondents were identified as “disengaged”.
Some animal rights activists saw the hunt 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 use nature.
The “benevolent” hunters have aligned their moral concern, empathy and support for wildlife more closely with animal rights advocates than with “utilitarian” hunters, Kyle said. They were concerned with the humane and ethical treatment of animals, even during harvest, and with protecting and improving habitat and ecological balance, respectively.
“There were predictable responses from animal advocates and hunters, but there were also some interesting dynamics that showed there was some alignment between caring advocates and hunters,” he said. he declares. “It was surprising, but the biggest concern is the percentage of people identified as disengaged. They scored the lowest on all of our measurements and showed little interest in wildlife conservation, empathy for wildlife, or considering their protection as a moral issue.
Detachment is bad for wildlife and nature conservation
The study found that respondents in urban areas tended to be more empathetic towards wildlife. Kyle said this attitude is common because urban residents tend to express mutualistic value orientations towards wildlife, which means they believe humans and animals are meant to coexist 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 nature and / or humans, Kyle said. The responses also sparked conflicting thoughts when asked with specific wildlife scenarios that have negative impacts on humans or when a lack of human intervention can impact the balance of nature. , such as the pest problem with feral pigs in Texas and many other states.
“Urban respondents are somewhat detached from nature and the potential negative causes and effects of imbalances between species,” he said. “Although they are sincere in their appreciation of nature and their protective views on wildlife, many are unaware of how wildlife can negatively impact native ecology as well as human activities. . “
For example, discussions are underway in Arizona and New Mexico regarding the reintroduction of jaguars that were effectively wiped out decades ago. Kyle said that mutualist views would view this action only as a restoration of nature, “a return to what it was and should be,” but without too much regard for how the presence of the predatory animal can. have an impact on the number of prey, the inhabitants of the suburbs or the producers of cattle, sheep and goats.
Much like how urban respondents appeared detached in some results, detachment was evident throughout the study. For example, hunters may see themselves as conservation-conscious, but studies show that an individual’s perspective can be distorted and result in very little conservation-conscious effort or financial support for conservation programs and organizations. conservation. Hunters may also not understand how balanced ecology works and that ecological conservation requires a nuanced, science-based approach that goes beyond the species of concern to them for primarily sporting reasons.
But Kyle said studies show hunters play an important role in managing wildlife numbers and help reduce overpopulation of species like white-tailed deer by filling the void left by natural predators. Hunting and fishing licenses as well as various user fees also generate funds for wildlife management in Texas.
As part of the study, Kyle randomly recruited 20 respondents for an eight-hour hunter safety and education course from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which also included wildlife and fishing specialists from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Two-thirds of the participants were not hunters.
Kyle said non-hunters were curious about the process and surprised that the course, which is mandatory for new hunters, emphasizes 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 on how conservation and ecological balance can enhance their experience in the field.
“Filling knowledge gaps and blind spots between animal advocates and hunters could be as simple as developing messages and educational opportunities that reinforce their natural attitudes towards nature and wildlife,” he said. -he declares.
Reach the disengaged, find common ground
The group labeled “disengaged” bothers Kyle the most. This group was detached and indifferent to animal welfare or ecological concerns. He said they scored the lowest on all measures tested and showed little interest in wildlife conservation, empathy for wildlife or considering wildlife protection as a moral issue.
For example, Kyle said disengaged individuals may not consider the origin of the various animal proteins they buy in grocery stores or restaurants, and therefore feel no moral concern about the animal or the process by which the meat has arrived in their basket. Their perspective on wildlife can be positive or negative depending on the impact the animals have on their daily lives.
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 activists suggests that there may be ways to reach out to individuals in these groups about the need for increased conservation support.
Kyle said reaching individuals within these groups through education and messaging will be a critical part of any sustainable effort to preserve and enhance ecological resources for future generations.
“This research shows that we have room for communication about the intrinsic value of nature and wildlife among animal rights activists and hunters,” he said. “Despite the different perspectives within these groups, it shows that there is an opportunity for dialogue and, more importantly, for further action that could benefit wildlife and nature.”