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Wild animals are starving, and it’s our fault, so should we feed them?

As polar bears begin to die of starvation in a warming Arctic, should we be feeding them? What are the ethical implications of feeding wild animals brought to this point by human actions? A polar bear…

Feeding starving wild animals could lead to domestication: is that adding insult to the injury of taking their habitat? EPA/Jenny E. Ross

As polar bears begin to die of starvation in a warming Arctic, should we be feeding them? What are the ethical implications of feeding wild animals brought to this point by human actions?

A polar bear found starved to death on an Arctic archipelago last week has prompted renewed calls for food drops and even feeding pens for polar bears.

Polar bears hunt on sea ice. The ice is now retreating for longer periods each summer, and in many areas the annual fast of the bears is becoming too prolonged. Conservationists are suggesting supplemental feeding programs – which would amount to no mean exercise given an adult polar bear requires up to five seals per week!

Generally speaking, the artificial feeding of wildlife goes against the grain for conservation biologists. It’s not without risks: animals used to such feeding might become dependent on food sources provided by humans, and could lose the ability to feed themselves.

They might lose their reluctance to approach human settlement, and come into conflict with humans. And they might succumb to diseases transmitted by humans or by other species which live with humans.

What does it mean to be wild?

But there is a deeper reason for the repugnance that many conservationists feel towards practises that habituate wild animals to human contact and push them towards domestication.

Given the options, some wild animals have already adapted to benefit from humans. Tony Rodd

This is a reason tied up with the ethical significance of wildness itself: members of native wild species are sovereign beings. Their ends are completely independent of ours. They have their own unique patterns and rhythms of existence. They do not belong to us; they are not our property. We have no claim on them: they belong to themselves. We did not invent them, design them, breed them or create them. Their destiny is not ours to co-opt.

To acknowledge the moral sovereignty of wildlife is to concede that wild animals are entitled to their own ecological estates. It is to concede that the biosphere was shaped for wildlife and by wildlife as much as it was shaped for us and by us. The biosphere belongs to wildlife as much as it belongs to us. It follows that we have no right to degrade their environment to the point that it can no longer sustain them.

The dilemma for conservationists arises when society has already over-ridden the moral rights of wildlife and either appropriated their estates or rendered those estates uninhabitable. By what right do humans dispossess the legions of wild things that have been pushed aside and obliterated in this manner? Of course, by no right: Earth belongs to its wild inhabitants at least as much as it belongs to us.

Morally speaking then, such dispossession demands moral recompense. Conservationists’ preferred form is habitat restoration – restoring wildlife estates to ecological functionality so that their rightful inhabitants can survive in ways consistent with their moral sovereignty.

But increasingly, even in those unusual situations where, politically speaking, the will to restore habitat exists, there is no biological way to do so. Climate change irreversibly compromises the habitat of innumerable species.

And so the dilemma arises: should we morally compensate wildlife for dispossession by taking individual animals into our care - by hand feeding them, for instance? When a species’ survival is at stake, is it better to opt for a morally questionable paternalism, with its risky side effects, than simply to abandon the species to extinction?

Animals have adopted us before

It is important to remember that past instances of animal habituation to humans were not necessarily a one-way affair. Some evolutionary biologists have argued that certain species became commensal with humans - sharing space and resources with human communities - at least partly on their own initiative. They saw in human communities a well-stocked niche ripe for colonisation.

If we feed animals, we must enter into a perpetual convenant to keep feeding them. Are we ready for that? Alyson Hurt

From an evolutionary perspective, it may be worthwhile for a species to adapt its temperament to tolerate human contact, even to become a means to human ends, if this ensures survival. As humans increasingly monopolise the biological resources of the planet, the global human empire will increasingly be treated by other species as the biological context for future evolution. Adaptation to humanity will become a widespread evolutionary strategy. Think of the staggering evolutionary success of the dog in today’s world, in contrast to the plight of the wolf, which refused to colonise the human niche.

This is by no means an argument for wholesale domestication of wild species. But it does suggest that where there is no way to restore habitat, we should give wild animals the opportunity to adapt to a human-mediated environment and let them choose for themselves. Perhaps such a choice should be seen as the ultimate exercise of wild sovereignty.

A new ecological culture

If we do offer polar bears a choice of this kind, we will have to minimise dangerous side effects to the bears: whatever arrangements we put in place must be maintained in perpetuity. The covenant established between polar bears and their human communities must be permanent if habits of dependency and habituation are not to doom the bears to eventual unfitness. By such a covenant, human communities will undertake to become a positive long-term fixture of the bears’ environment.

The cost of such a covenant to human communities will be high. But it won’t end there: the terms of such an undertaking will eventually extend to innumerable species as anthropogenic climate change and the mass extinctions it triggers tighten their grip on the biosphere.

We cannot ensure that future human generations will continue to honour such a covenant unless it is locked in by culture. It won’t just involve high-end scenarios where government agencies administer five seals a week per bear to a population of thousands scattered across vast and remote landscapes.

Ecological citizenship will also mean instituting all kinds of small-scale, local and backyard practises - from bird baths to bee-walls to new ecological funerary rites - that will help wildlife in their struggle to withstand the environmental challenges we’ve created.

Such a response would reconfigure our entire cultural relationship with the larger community of life. While a new culture could ease the plight of wildlife, its economic costs - when factored into our development budgets - might also make us think twice about schemes that rob other species of their rightful place on Earth.

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    A thought-provoking article. But, without getting into the argument of anthropic influences, climates and environments have been changing since day 1, and evolution is all about survival of the fittest (see: Darwin, C.). From my reading, it seems that polar bears are far from being threatened with extinction right now, even though many individuals live in borderline habitats where they might be running into difficulties. They are extremely versatile creatures. Also, many which are found sick…

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    1. Tiffany Meek

      Graphic designer, psychology student

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      'Survival of the fittest' as an evolutionary concept that only applies if timeframes are huge enough to allow for natural selection to take place. The human species is making environmental changes to the planet so quickly that timeframes of change have gone from thousands of years, to hundreds of years, to decades. Evolution (natural selection) cannot happen at a pace that can save these animals. The issue is not about whether or not change takes place - we all know this is a given. The issue is…

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    2. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      and those human refugees are extremely versatile as well and the sick ones ... well that's tough Darwinistic luck hey Paul ... a simpleton's perspective or rational anthropogenic thought?

  2. David Roe

    Owner / Manager at Silent Reef

    Thanks Freya for a beautifully written and thought provoking article. The question is how to make the non-beleivers, the deniers, read and accept the message here.

  3. Tony Thomas

    Writer for Quadrant Online and Quadrant print monthly

    Global sea ice extent is currently normal. Cryosphere Today – University of Illinois – Polar Research Group.
    Global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001 (
    And of course, you'd know that there's been no statistically significant global warming for 17 years.
    Arctic ice comes and goes, like it always has.
    Can this article really be premised on the fact that ONE polar bear has starved? This does happen to the odd animal, some bloke Charles Darwin understood that.

    1. Account Deleted

      logged in via email

      In reply to Tony Thomas

      "Global" sea ice extent includes sea ice in Antarctica which has expanded in extent due to heavier snow falls. That's scant comfort for Arctic polar bears. The source you refer to for your population increase claims is quite clear that arctic sea ice extent is declining (s/he just doesn't think it's bad for bears - here is the graph from Polar Bear Science: Can't you keep your contrarian memes straight?

      Furthermore, here is what the temperature trend for the last 17 years looks like: Looks like a pretty significant warming trend to me. It sounds like you are trying to reuse a misquote of Phil Jones from 2010 - unfortunately for you, as the time period increases, statistical significance increases also.

    2. Grant Burfield


      In reply to Account Deleted

      "Looks like a pretty significant warming trend to me". It isn't. Skeptical Science have an excellent time series trend calculator that includes AR(1) autocorrelation -
      Select UAH as you have done above. Use default autocorrelation period. Put in 2013 as end date and select various start dates. Check Show advanced options and appearance options. For an explanation of whether a trend is significant or not see -

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    3. Account Deleted

      logged in via email

      In reply to Grant Burfield

      Thanks Grant - hoist on my own petard! What I suppose I should have made my objection about is the way that "no statistically significant warming (in a short period)" gets misused as "no warming" or "no significant warming" in the layman's sense of significant.

    4. Tiffany Meek

      Graphic designer, psychology student

      In reply to Account Deleted

      Whether climate change is happening, or not happening, human-induced, or part of the natural scheme of things, seems beside the point. Animals are suffering across the planet as a result of changes to their environment. Whether human-induced or not, we need to decide if we are going to watch these species pass from existence, or take some action.

    5. Tony Thomas

      Writer for Quadrant Online and Quadrant print monthly

      In reply to Account Deleted

      Hi James, no my 17 year flat temp statement was endorsed by IPCC head Pachauri in The Australian last February, and the British Bureau of Meteorology concurs.
      I see there is a variety of options in terms of plotting the trend line. You can see some at
      Note that the only one there showing a rising trend is after the data has been 'adjusted'. The keepers of climate data have been notorious for their 'adjustments' to the raw data (which strangely always augment trends in a rising direction, never the other way round].
      Why do you say Phil Jones was 'misquoted'? I thought he was 'quoted'.

    6. Doug Hutcheson


      In reply to Tony Thomas

      "The keepers of climate data have been notorious for their 'adjustments' to the raw data (which strangely always augment trends in a rising direction, never the other way round]." Tony, it must be that pesky global conspiracy of scientists at work again.

  4. Gary Fry

    Director at OzGREEN

    An important article, Freya. Projects such as the Great Eastern Ranges initiative are important parts of the solution. These projects which link fragmented habitat, and allow for north south, and sometimes east west movement of species, are vital pieces of work. Of course, the wider the corridor, the more of their nutrient / social needs can species easily obtain. Interestingly too, the notion of habitat connectivity is a concept most of us understand easily, against which almost no one argues, and it is a conversation which doesn't require entering any discussion on climate change.

    1. David M Watson

      Associate Professor in Ecology at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Gary Fry

      I agree Gary, and think maximising large-scale connectivity is a critical response that will safeguard species and, more importantly, ecological processes. The article touches on some really important points regarding perceptions, and the general wariness that both society and science has about meddling with nature. And, rather than needing to go the high arctic, this balancxe is being played out right now in our subruban and agricultural landscapes, various species becoming increasingly dependent…

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  5. Brendan Lee

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thanks for the interesting article Freya.

    Whether Polar Bear numbers are increasing or declining, whether climate change is human induced or not, what is apparent is the concept of wilderness is on the verge of extinction.

    In the 70s my family spent a year in South Africa, during which we explored wild areas where humans appeared to have never been before, or at least had exerted very minimal impact. It strikes me that there are very few parts of the world left like that today and I wonder…

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  6. Clive Hamilton

    Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University

    Excellent piece Freya. Helped me a lot. The same kind of argument can be used to support the culling of kangaroos where rapid increase in their numbers, due to conditions created by humans, threaten other native species. In this case, contra the polar bear, the difference between animal rights people and environmentalists becomes sharp.

    1. Gary Fry

      Director at OzGREEN

      In reply to Clive Hamilton

      It is an interesting position we are in, Clive. Rightly or wrongly, we humans have removed much of the wilderness on the planet, except arguably some of the ocean. As a consequence, some level of management is often required. We can all wish it were not so. But it is. Your example of the need to cull one species because it is threatening another is a good one. There are no easy decisions here.

  7. fret Slider


    Warming Arctic? Not this year

    Temperatures are well below the mean and as for polar bears, virtually all evidence to date indicates that declines in summer sea ice have not harmed polar bears and this means that as far as polar bears are concerned, it does not matter how low the sea ice extent gets in September – whether it’s this September or a future one.

    If you really want to know what's going on with the bears avoid the claptrap published by Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher . Now that the Polar Bear Specialist Group has brought non scientific activists on board, you can forget them too.

    1. fret Slider


      In reply to fret Slider

      The Grauniad? You might just as welll start quoting from AMEG.

      Polar bear populations have risen well beyond expectations - global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001 - so where is this evidence of the contrary?

  8. Doug Hutcheson


    From the linked Guardian article: 'Attributing a single incident to climate change can be controversial, but Douglas Richardson, head of living collections at the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie, said: "It's not just one bear though. There are an increasing number of bears in this condition: they are just not putting down enough fat to survive their summer fast. This particular polar bear is the latest bit of evidence of the impact of climate change."

    Ice loss due to climate change is "absolutely…

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  9. Tracey Dempsey

    logged in via Facebook

    Just a few dollars will make a huge difference!! Please help by donating here:

    The Earth Organization is a non profit (verify on the IRS website for eligibility here: ) that actually purchases the needed food and medicine or supplies for the recipients, instead of randomly sending someone money. Honestly, I'd do it the same way. That way the organization knows where the funds are actually going.