Dogs, Geese, Speciesism, and Compassionate Conservation
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Dogs, Geese, Speciesism, and Compassionate Conservation

FROM Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today / Animal Emotions
July 7, 2019

When dogs become a "local problem," they're killed less frequently than geese.

Why geese matter

The mass killing of geese in Denver, Colorado, has attracted a lot of attention from around the world, much to the surprise of many people who saw the slaughter as more of a form of "a local problem and local execution," as one person put it in an email to me. (See "Killing Denver's Sentient Geese is Flawed in Many Ways" and "The Healing Power of Geese and Other Animals.") I've had a good number of discussions with different people about the goose problem in Denver and elsewhere, and some form of the following question has come up a number of times: "Why do they kill 'problem' geese and not 'problem' dogs?" Basically, geese are killed because: (1) they're accused of destroying various habitats, including parks, to which they're attracted; (2) they like the food that's available there; (3) they used to feel safe in these locations and choose to remain there; and (4) they poop too much.

The loss of geese has irritated a lot of local people who loved seeing the geese and feeling like they were "out in nature" when they came to know them as individuals. Some also found them to be emotional support animals. (Also see "How Nature Awakens Our Creativity, Compassion, and Joy.") This morning I received the following email: "It was with tremendous relief that I read your article in psychology today regarding the latest goose killing tragedy in Denver. It is wonderful to have such an educated and well spoken, well respected individual who cares about this problem step out with information and knowledge as to why this was so absolutely wrong. I have not necessarily been an animal activist, but my heart is always with the animals, and I donate to animal and wildlife organizations every year. However, something about this goose killing hit me to the core. I felt naive and in shock, literally I did not realize that something like this could happen in our civilized society. I have experienced true grief and mourning over this past week over the incident, and have had a difficult time concentrating. It is getting better, but the depth of how this hit me was intense, and unexpected...I am finding connections with some really amazing people through this tragedy, so that is the light that I can grab on to."

I've been thinking a lot about why dogs, for example, are spared when they become "neighborhood problem animals," and why other nonhuman animals (animals) are routinely killed when they're perceived to be problem animals. I know it has a lot to do with the special relationship that mainly homed dogs have with many, but not all, people. (See "Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?") I've also been thinking a lot about how the basic principles of compassionate conservation can be used to save geese and other animals who typically are killed when some people don't want them around. I'm very pleased to be a member of the governor-appointed Colorado People for Animal Welfare panel (PAW), and I want to stress that I'm writing as an individual and do not speak for the panel as a whole. (See "Colorado Takes the Lead on Helping Animals and People" and "Colorado Proclaims Statewide Annual Animal Welfare Day.")

Speciesism doesn't work

Killing geese, but not dogs, is a form of speciesism. Speciesism "is a form of discrimination based on species membership. It involves treating members of one species as morally more important than members of other species, even when their interests are equivalent. More precisely, speciesism is the failure to consider interests of equal strength to an equal extent because of the species of which the individuals are a member." So, using dogs and geese as examples, dogs are usually seen as being smart and emotional, and most people get very upset when they hear about the abuse of dogs. (See Canine Confidential, Unleashing Your Dog, and many essays here.) Geese, on the other hand, all too often are mistakenly taken to be dumb and unemotional, so their loss by whatever means doesn't cause many people to lose much sleep. The same can be said for numerous other nonhumans who people write off as being "not so smart" or having no emotional lives, including the capacities to feel pain and to suffer physically or psychologically. (See The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age and numerous essays here.)

Speciesism also ignores individual differences among members of the same species, and it's well known that there are large within-species differences among dogs, geese, and many other animals. Viewing all members of the same species as being the same is fraught with error. (See "Individual Animals Count: Speciesism Doesn't Work.") It's wrong to think that just because you've seen one dog or goose, you've seen them all. There's no "universal dog" or "universal goose." Each individual is unique, each has a unique personality, and all individuals want to live in peace and safety.

These "dumbing-down" stereotypes also misrepresent who geese and many other animals truly are. Geese, in fact, are rather intelligent and highly emotional. When they're rounded up and killed, families and friendships are broken up, and there's no doubt that they miss their relatives and friends. (See "Papa Goose: A Real Life "Fly Away Home" With Feisty Goslings.") In a previous essay, I wrote about grieving geese who show all the symptoms that have been described in grieving young human children by renowned developmental psychologist, John Bowlby.

Wildlife writer Mary Lou Simms, who also studies geese and has written about their emotional lives, sent me two stories that also show the richness and depth of their psychological states (email, July 6, 2019). She wrote:

"I finally got a chance to read your essay and thought there were some good points, especially the part about how people don't think about how such roundups affect those who enjoy geese. Many people have told me they couldn't go back to a park where geese had been rounded up, it was so painful. I remember when my mother died, Zoey was the only one who could console me. She would bring the goslings to me and force them to sit with me for long stretches; her mate too. She couldn't know what was wrong but she knew something was wrong. I used to laugh, she would swim over to where I was onshore and make the goslings sit in the water. After a while, I could tell they were getting antsy (why can't we swim, why can't we swim) but she would make them stay anyway."

"Another time, I was attacked by a teenager from a small forest. I screamed, hoping someone nearby would hear. I needn't have worried. My study group was sunning itself on a sandbar, and when they heard me scream, they flew over en masse, all 20 of them. They didn't even stop to think; they just reacted. Would they have attacked him? I don't know. He vanished as soon as he saw them about to land. I was stunned by their efforts, and extremely humbled. They were also quite pleased with themselves, cooing to one another, over their effort. I thanked them profusely."

Ms. Simms' stories remind me of many others I've heard about geese, other birds, and other nonhumans who are casually written off as being non-feeling objects. Clearly, they're not. All in all, rounding up geese and sending them to slaughter is reprehensible and should never be done.

Compassionate conservation

Compassionate conservation is a rapidly growing global and interdisciplinary branch of conservation science. (See "Compassionate Conservation Meets Conservation Psychology," "Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age," and references therein.) Compassionate conservation centers on four guiding principles, namely: First Do No harm, Individuals Matter, Valuing All Wildlife, and Peaceful Coexistence.

Killing geese and other animals clearly violates these principles. Simply put, conservation is a moral pursuit and demands clear ethical guidelines. All individuals count and compassionate conservation doesn't allow for people to play what I call the "numbers game." Claims that go something like, "There are so many members of a given species, for example, geese, it's okay to kill other members of the same species." With its focus on the value of the life of each and every individual, no single animal is disposable, because there are many more like them. Their lives matter, because they are alive; each individual has inherent or intrinsic value. They're valued for who they are, not for what they can do for us. They matter because they exist. Along these lines, in a conversation I overheard at a coffee house a few months ago, a young girl said, "I love my dog, because she is." This is spot on. (See "Why Dogs Matter.") I can't imagine that any human or nonhuman would agree to be harmed and killed because there are many others just like them.

Where to from here? Compassionate conservation at work

Clearly, geese and other animals would benefit from being treated with a healthy dose of compassionate conservation. Conservation projects in which compassionate conservation is put to work can produce wonderful results without killing other animals. (See "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation" for a detailed review of this field.) There are many humane and non-lethal ways to deal with animal-human conflicts when they arise. And, considering dogs and geese, for example, Denver, along with many other locales, has a "dog poop problem," however, killing the dogs isn't on the menu of options, and of course, it shouldn't be. (See "Careless pet owners costing Colorado parks, volunteers money and time to clean up waste.") There's a lot of dog poop globally--indeed, it's been called an "Environmental Tragedy"--especially when one considers that it's been estimated that approximately 80-85% of dogs in the world are pretty much on their own or totally on their own. (See "As Dogs Go Wild in a World Without Us, How Might They Cope?") That's around 800 million dogs. Those figures usually come as a shock to many people whose only exposure is to "homed" dogs.

Focusing on geese for the moment, there are humane and non-lethal ways to handle the conflicts about which some, but surely not all people, are concerned. Just today I received this email: "I was a member of 'Save the Geese' in Scotia, NY, starting 2006 to around 2011. We used yelling, kayaks, trained border collies (leased in the beginning) and a motorboat along with oiling eggs to keep geese from Collins Park in Scotia, Central NYS. It worked, and the village supported us when they saw we were successful. An agreement to keep numbers at 30 or below was made with the village. It was done, and as far as I know (our group disbanded), the village has hired a professional "hazer" that keeps geese in the fields and Mohawk River area. As it turned out, the 'contamination' in the water was human-caused, not a wildlife strain of bacteria." (My emphasis)

I also learned about another viable option. In response to a previous essay, someone wrote me about some new innovative non-lethal technology that can be used to keep geese away. (See "Babylon Village geese-removal tool puts fake bird of prey in the air.") I've also been told that the USDA knows about it and hasn't tried to use it. Someone pointed out to me that the geese from one location might simply fly to another and become someone else's problem. I recognize that this could happen, but when people communicate with one another, as many have with me, non-lethal solutions can spread among different communities. As someone wrote to me, "At least this will stop the killing in one location, and others can also adopt them."

All in all, Denver's program of wantonly killing geese has many flaws in biological and ethical arenas, as do numerous other similar projects. Some of those who are responsible for the killing spree have conveniently washed their hands of thinking about what happens to the geese after they're rounded up and killed, deception and obfuscation, rather than transparency, has been all too prevalent, and the killing will result in annual bloodbaths because killing the geese is merely a short-term "feel good" solution for many of those who favor it. All in all, the round-up and slaughter of geese are biologically and ethically unsound and must be carefully scrutinized and openly discussed. It's high time to stop them before more lives are taken.

Stay tuned for more discussions about animal-human conflicts, the errors associated with thinking just because you've seen one dog or goose, you've seen them all, and how we can come to peacefully coexist with other animals who also need to find safe places in which to live and thrive on a human-dominated planet. We're here, there, and everywhere, and all animals, nonhuman and human, suffer and die because of our omnipresence. It's banal to say that in many cases, and some might say in all situations, we're really the problem. However, it's the nonhumans who have to work incredibly hard to try to adapt to our presence. Unfortunately, each year billions of nonhumans can't make it in a human world in which they're subjected to all sorts of violence.

It's not easy to digest what's going on. However, that's really what's happening and we need to change our ways right now, because so many of the losses that are occurring globally are irreversible, and there is incalculable pain, suffering, and death for which we're responsible. The Anthropocene, often called "The Age of Humanity," is really "The Rage of Inhumanity." (See "New Chimpanzee Culture Discovered, Others Lost Due to Humans" and "Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-existence in the Anthropocene.")

We must do better for future generations who will inherit the messes we leave them. Surely we can do much better for them, for us, and for all other animals. They depend on us for our goodwill, and it'll be a win-win for all.

Note: The people running the program also claim that the meat from the geese who are killed will be fed to needy people. There's a lot of skepticism about this claim, and as I was completing this essay, I was told that the permit to kill the geese says the meat is designated only for wildlife, and there is no mention of it being used for human consumption. This is consistent with the image to the left, other news reports, and also has been confirmed by other people who have communicated with city officials. There are major concerns with what the geese have eaten, including pesticides and other poisonous matter that might be contained in their meat. Of course, nonhumans could also suffer from ingesting the meat of the slaughtered geese, and it's not clear that the meat is okay to give to them. 

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