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Death by dingo: outsourcing pest control raises uncomfortable questions

Female dingo in Oxley Wild Rivers NP, New South Wales. Guy Ballard, CC BY-NC

Death by dingo: outsourcing pest control raises uncomfortable questions

From cats and foxes to goats and cane toads, invasive animals are one of Australia’s biggest environmental problems. Over the past few weeks, one Queensland council has been trying a new approach to controlling goats on an offshore island: introducing dingoes from the mainland.

But since dingoes were moved to Pelorus Island to kill goats, passions have overflowed for and against.

Queensland RSPCA chief executive Mark Townend was notable among the opposition. He stressed that his organisation is not against feral animal control, but opposes the “very cruel method” of using dingoes to achieve it.

Some people have also strongly objected to the implantation of poison capsules, containing sodium fluroacetate, into the Pelorus Island dingoes. This is intended to kill them after they have killed the goats.

In a rapidly changing world, people are trying new ways to save wildlife and help the environment. These strategies are forcing us to ask new, and sometimes difficult, ethical questions.

Changing world

Humans have created a global patchwork of degraded environments. Australia has the world’s worst mammal extinction record, as well as booming populations of invasive herbivores and ongoing problems with native habitat loss.

When it comes to managing invasive animals, Australians have often been quick to use lethal “pest” control. Methods include poisoning, trapping and shooting for livestock and wildlife protection, in attempts to reduce populations until impacts reach acceptable levels.

This approach does not sit well with many Australians and it has become common to see vocal opposition to wildlife culling programs that are perceived as indiscriminate, unnecessary or unacceptably cruel.

At the same time, there is increasing support for reintroducing native predators to help fix environmental problems.

Some experts in Australia have suggested that Australia should use dingoes to control invasive herbivores, red foxes and feral cats, following the example of our North American counterparts.

Some call it “rewilding”. Others simply see it as biological control. Regardless, a range of private and public land managers believe that dingoes should be Australia’s primary agents of ecosystem restoration.

Putting aside the debate about the likely success of such schemes, the issue of public acceptance remains. Proponents claim that using dingoes for environmental benefit is both “virtuous” and “free”. But the objections to the use of dingoes for feral goat control shows that there is still widespread dissatisfaction with getting dingoes to do our dirty work.

The ethics of killing

Every control technique has a welfare impact on wildlife, causing some pain and suffering.

We can measure objectively how well a technique works, but assessments of humaneness are always subjective. When people choose lethal control, we condemn animals to death.

Although it has been marketed as “compassionate conservation”, using dingoes for pest control means that other animals will be hunted, maimed and killed. This applies to the animals we want removed, such as goats, as well as to other wildlife that shares the habitat.

The future of using dingoes and other predators as pest controllers hinges on whether or not the public finds it acceptable. Do people draw a line between “natural” ways of killing invasive animals (with dingoes), and more artificial means (such as poison)?

We know, for instance, that dingo attacks can be extremely distressing for livestock producers.

Queensland RSPCA’s opposition to the Pelorus Island trial doesn’t mean an end to rewilding, but it is significant. It reminds us that welfare is an important issue for invasive animal control, regardless of whether humans or animals are doing the killing.

Some people find the notion of dingo-based pest control acceptable, even appealing, but others do not. Just as society expects that we carefully assess the use of poisons, traps or bullets, so too we should consider the welfare impacts of outsourcing death to dingoes and making them our tools for ecosystem management.