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Ethical Considerations in Wildlife and Conservation Medicine

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

In conservation medicine one has to consider the needs of oneself, the wild animal, and the people who interact with the wildlife. It's a complicated ecology of moral concern.

As a wildlife veterinarian specializing in wild bird medicine, and eventually moving to Guatemala to work with parrot conservation in the 1980's, I experienced

daunting challenges. There was a clear lack of resources to adequately and humanely house and treat the wide variety of animals. Guatemala at this time was rife with poverty and guerilla warfare, and decisions made as a veterinarian also impacted the

well-being of community members. For example, I controlled the salary paid to workers, whether people worked in risky locales and situations, and how medical services could be provided. The demands were impossible to meet given the oppressive and violent conditions. As one professor in ethics once said, “Life is full of tragic choices. There is no correct ethical stance over another, only the presence of one another to support us

as we engage to make difficult decisions in our life.”

How do we decide who to take care of? All life seeks nourishing and flourishing.

To help us minimize harm, we all can improve our ethical discourse. You could read about various approaches to growing your ethical competence here in a paper of mine that was recently published, but this cannot be achieved by reading this paper, or even the thousands of tomes dedicated to ethics. Ethical processes also differ between cultures, and this article only begins to touch the surface of how multicultural skills are an important part of moral reasoning. It takes practice, hard work and discomfort for our whole lives. We can always improve. We are neither static beings—nor are others, our communities or our science or medicine. Ethics cannot be achieved then by just one period of focus. One is not alone in this life-long effort because ethical discourse also cannot be done alone. It is a multidisciplinary effort that involves the community, in which our wildlife medicine is embedded. The question of what to do next is not “What will I or you do?” but “What will we do, together?”

For the shared well-being of wildlife and humans, there is much we can do together. We can work together to develop protocols within our institutions or strengthen individual and community processes of support. We do this, so that our care will be dictated by our ultimate values and the inherent value of other species, and not by the vagaries of our cultural influences and daily events (for a list of suggested actions and institutional programs, go here).

One of the best possible of all actions is to engage in life-giving practices that nourish. In nourishing ourselves and others, we can give more to the flourishing of all life. Even if one cannot decide how to take care of the next wild animal one comes across in a clinic, backyard, roadside or preserve, we can strive to do better for the one after that and the many to come.

One of the best approaches to ethical discourse is to listen deeply to the hearts and experiences of others, including other species.

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