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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.