The zoologist Jordi Casamitjana presents a case for supporting rewilding — which aims to return habitats to Nature — despite some vegans thinking doing so may go against some of the fundamental principles of veganism
Last summer, I befriended a family of foxes in my local park.
Being urban foxes, they are quite used to humans, but they quickly move away when they see people and they keep a very healthy social distance from anyone. I discovered where their den is, and I learnt that around sunset — when they wake up as they are mainly nocturnal — some people bring them breakfast. Waiting for these generous humans, the foxes often hang outside the den for a while before beginning to explore the park for more food. As the curious zoologist I am, I tried to hang out with them while they were waiting. Luckily for me, they gradually tolerated my presence. They learnt that I am neither a feeding human nor a scary human-dog tandem, but just the harmless guy who stays there watching and sometimes flashes a mysterious red light on the black object he always holds (my camera).
There are five of them, the two adults and the three young kids. Naturally, I posted many of their close-up photos on Facebook, boasting about my new vulpine mates. On one occasion, after posting a few, I got this comment from a vegan colleague with whom I have done vegan outreach in London (some people know me as Jaysee rather than Jordi, by the way): “Hmmm I’m conflicted Jaysee, my man… on the one hand, I think foxes are beautiful and intelligent creatures and I’m appalled at what we humans have done to them for centuries. On the other hand, I recognise that they are ruthless killers, and that if I was a chicken or a mouse, I would probably want the world to be rid of them. What are your thoughts?”
As you can imagine, this was followed by a very long conversation, which carried on through several Zoom meetings lasting hours. I realised that my vegan friend, and many others who consider themselves part of the Wild Animal Suffering movement, may genuinely think that, in the future, humanity should intervene to stop all natural predation and the pain it causes. And that, in the present, supporting rewilding projects may be “un-vegan”, as there is a considerable amount of animal suffering in the “wild”. Well, I am an ethical vegan and I am part of the wild animal suffering movement seeking equal consideration for wild animals, but, in general, I am in favour of rewilding and against systematic anti-predation interventions. In this article, I will explain why.
First of all, when I use the term “anti-predation intervention” in this context I do not mean saving a wild animal we may have encountered in the wild from being predated by a natural predator. I mean systematically intervening in Nature to prevent all predators kill other animals, either by making such predators extinct or by changing their feeding behaviour (for example, by feeding them enough food so they don’t want to hunt anymore). It sounds crazy, but this has been seriously considered. “Predation eliminationists” do exist, and many of them are likely to define themselves as vegans. Some members — not all — of the recently labelled “Wild Animal Suffering Movement” (in which organisations such as Animal Ethics and Wild Animal Initiative play an important role) have been advocating this view.
This is not a joke. The issue has been debated in depth. Philosophers such as Joel MacClellan, David Pearce, Oscar Horta, and Peter Vallentyne have made serious contributions to this topic. In fact, thinking about this issue is the logical conclusion of taking seriously the philosophy of veganism. On its FAQ page, Wild Animals Initiative writes: “We believe equal experiences deserve equal consideration. In other words, we shouldn’t care less about a fish just because it is a fish, but we should take into account what the fish is capable of or actually experiencing. In some cases, we don’t know whether an animal is capable of having good or bad experiences, or to what degree a given experience causes them distress. These questions deserve more research, but in the absence of that research, we make our best guesses about how to proceed.”
I couldn’t agree more. If you are an ethical vegan, you should be anti-speciesist — which means that you should not discriminate against individuals for the species they belong to. You should not treat a wild animal worse than you treat a domesticated animal. You should not treat a beetle worse than you treat a dog. You should not disregard the suffering of wild animals and you should do as much as you can to avoid harming any. Taking all this seriously would naturally lead to wondering whether we should intervene in Nature to prevent an individual animal suffer. And if we accept such intervention, why not consider it globally and systematically? If one wild animal suffering matters, surely the suffering of all animals who are the prey of others matters too. Therefore, if you are an ethical vegan who has been vegan for a while, it would be normal — and probably ethically healthier — for you to begin considering these things and wondering what you can do to help. So, tempting as it may be, we should not dismiss “predation eliminationists” as if they lost the plot. They haven’t. They are being logical and consistent. But if they have arrived at the wrong conclusion, we should look into why, and logically argue for a better alternative.
And it’s not only academics and specialised organisations, by the way. Known vegan Youtubers, like Humane Handcock or the Cosmic Skeptic, have been talking about this subject extensively and questioning if supporting rewilding is speciesist. Therefore, this controversy is already circulating in mainstream vegan social media. I feel that is important to address it.
The Objections to Predator-Interventions
I do believe that the elimination of predators is the wrong solution to the problem of prey animal suffering, and those who, like me, share the same opinion, have used three main objections to such types of interventions: the agency, the sovereignty and the fallibility objections.
The “agency objection” was primarily developed by the great philosopher — and father of the modern animal rights movement — Tom Regan. In his 1983 best-selling book The Case for Animal Rights, he said that predatory animals cannot violate rights, as they are moral patients, rather than moral agents. Those without moral agency are incapable of violating the rights of others, so natural predation does not violate the rights of prey, which is the only justification for intervention to “punish” the predators. We should therefore equally consider both the interests of prey and predator, not just those of the former.
The “sovereignty objection” was championed by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka in their 2011 book Zoopolis: a political theory of animal rights. They postulated that wild animals form sovereign kingdoms/queendoms that humans must respect, in contrast to domesticated animals created by humans in their human domains. Therefore, intervening to stop predation would violate the sovereignty of these wild-animal kingdoms/queendoms and therefore be immoral. There are three criteria for sovereignty: non-human animals must be able to maintain a degree of social organisation, they must be vulnerable to being subjected to alien rule, and sovereignty must be the appropriate means of allowing their flourishing.
The “fallibility objection” was postulated by Aaron Simmons (2009) and supported by Andrée-Anne Cormier and Mauro Rossi (2018). It is based on our current lack of understanding of the complexity of ecosystems, so we should have a default general policy of non-intervention until this improves considerably, as otherwise, we are more likely to do more harm than good (as history has taught us every time we tried to intervene in Nature).
I agree with these three objections, and when my friend tried to dismantle them, I believe I was able to successfully defend them. Following are some of the arguments I put forward.
The Agency Objection
Regarding the agency objection, my friend stated that, in a fox predating a rabbit scenario, if we feed the fox to prevent it, this would be advantageous to the rabbit without harming the fox, who doesn’t really have an intrinsic right to hunt or eat its traditional food source.
For me — and those agreeing with Regan — the rights of the fox and the rabbit are the same, so you cannot treat one better than the other without violating some of their rights. What are the rights of the rabbit? Has the rabbit the right not to die? Not quite, as any animal, including us, dies in the end. Has the rabbit the right not to die from natural predation? We would have to ask the rabbit. If the rabbit could choose between dying from being predated by a natural predator or from a long and painful disease (or starvation), which death would he or she choose? By preventing the fox from quickly killing the rabbit, are we not interfering with the right of the rabbit to have a quick death, rather than a long and more painful one? If we stopped all foxes from killing rabbits, would the number of rabbits dying from long disease or starvation increase or decrease (as we know they all will die in the end)? Would the amount of suffering in the ecosystem increase or decrease?
Predation is a “solution” from nature to many problems: overpopulation, depletion of resources, suffering from debilitating diseases, dilution of genetic fitness, etc. Problems that “prey” suffer. So, by attempting to remove natural solutions to problems, not only we may cause more suffering to other members of the ecosystem, but we may increase the suffering of those we specifically tried to help.
If we replace the fox with a human hunter, this argument changes because the moral baseline in veganism is ahimsa (doing no harm to others), so you cannot justify hunting as a prevention of a worse death. But neither the foxes nor the rabbits, for not being moral agents, are unlikely to have subscribed to this philosophy, so we don’t really know if our interference, no matter how well-intended, will lead to a greater good for the actual interests of everyone involved. At least we know that, in a natural predator-prey relationship, natural selection, after aeons of evolution, would not have selected for excessive (and biologically costly) suffering from either.
Nature is not a benevolent conscious entity that “cares” about sentient beings and wants to reduce their suffering, but neither is an evil one that wants them to suffer a lot. Suffering has evolved in Nature to inform animals about the suitability of a situation or environment, as their ability to move allows them to improve their survival and reproductive odds with such vital information. Excessive suffering in the form of unnecessary anxiety would not help and would reduce fitness. Excessive suffering in both players in a predator-prey interaction may make the interaction messier and last longer, which also has a fitness cost. Like everything in Nature that has evolved in natural ecosystems via natural selection, biological traits, including suffering, reach an optimum amount (not too much or too little). It’s when humans intervene and either break the dynamic balance of the ecosystems or add new forms of suffering, that suffering becomes rampant, more harmful and out of control. That is the suffering we should prevent.
The Sovereignty Objection
Regarding the sovereignty objection, my friend argued that non-human animals do not possess the three characteristics that define sovereignty in this context: 1) social organisation, 2) Susceptibility to alien rule, and 3) sovereignty being the appropriate means to allow flourishing. However, this view fails to consider animals in their “true” natural state, which is as part of natural ecosystems. As when people look at nations, ethnic groups, or tribes they look at the system they form, not the sum of the individuals, in this context we should do the same with non-human animals. And if you do, you will find that the three conditions are fulfilled now. Natural ecosystems are self-regulated systems with an inbuilt organisation that operates like any social organisation does (nobody would doubt that a colony of ants, for instance, is a very sophisticated society, even if they do not follow any political “blueprint”). Human interventions into natural ecosystems is a type of alien rule, which often leads to the destruction of the system (or at least to a reduction of biodiversity that weakens the system). And an ecosystem left undisturbed without human intervention is dynamically stable and does flourish.
I would argue that, even if I don’t think this has ever been calculated, a natural ecosystem is likely to have the minimum amount of suffering per sentient being compared with any other man-made system involving animals (for instance, a city, or the rural countryside). Even a desert caused by the destruction of a forest is likely to have a higher amount of suffering per sentient being, as although they are very few animals left, a higher proportion of them would be dying of starvation or thirst. Wild animals are “citizens” of wild ecosystems, so when comparing human nations (or even jurisdictions), we have to compare them with the equivalent, which is the system, not its members.
Also, if we compare it with human rights, in general, the principle of sovereignty is what should prevent governments to interfere with the lives of indigenous tribes living inside their countries. For instance, in Brazil, it is now illegal to contact any of the still isolated tribes in the Amazon. And this is not a policy of the white colonisers. It’s a kind of “treaty” between them and representatives of the indigenous communities (trying to prevent the problems of previous interventions). I would find it very difficult to argue that such tribes should be protected from interference because they live in their stable system in the rainforest, and yet monkeys in the same forest do not deserve the same.
The Fallibility Objection
As far as the fallibility objection is concerned, the argument often put against it is that, in the future, we will have much better knowledge, and therefore our interventions will no longer fail as they did in the past. In this case, I think empirical evidence shows how the weakness of humanity (a combination of genes, experiences and culture) makes us very fallible. And the most complex is the problem or the system we are trying to influence, the more errors we make. It would be difficult to argue against the statement that most human interventions in nature anywhere have increased the suffering of sentient beings. We are progressing in recognising this, and accepting that is wrong, but we haven’t managed to stop increasing harm as a collective yet, even when we try. So, if we are still the same humans, why should we expect that in the future we will no longer fall in the same mistakes that we have been falling since we left Africa?
Until we reach the highly ethical vegan world based on ahimsa politics and economics, human greed, arrogance, and selfishness are likely to ruin our most well-intentioned projects. Unscrupulous opportunistic power-seeking humans are likely to infiltrate them attempting to take control. Look at the presence of trophy hunters and zoo operators in the Conservation world. Look at the presence of advocates of animal exploitation in the animal protection world. Look at the presence of recreational fox hunters in the wildlife management world. The current systems we operate are corruption-friendly, and therefore quite vulnerable and fallible.
Also, there is the issue of chaos. Chaotic systems are, by definition, difficult to predict (well, the behaviour of its components is), and Biological Nature is the most chaotic system of all. So, it is the system where we are less likely to predict the consequences of our actions. It is now impossible to guarantee that any intervention we make in Earth’s Nature is not causing more harm than good. So, when we try to tackle more and more complex parts of nature, we are bound to make more mistakes. Our increase in knowledge may not lead to fewer mistakes, as this will also increase the number of variables at play, and the number of interactions between them. As in the butterfly effect (the archetypal example of a chaotic effect), attempting to reduce the suffering of prey in the wild by intervening on the predators would be like attempting to prevent future hurricanes by stopping all butterflies from flapping their wings (or by trying to coordinate all butterflys’ flapping as to neutralise their effect).
In other words, if perhaps there may be a theoretical ideal argument for attempting to stop natural suffering in the wild, for me one thing is clear: humans are the last group of sentient beings I would give such a task. But if not attempting to stop natural predation may be the attitude most vegans would feel comfortable with, what about creating more predation by rewilding areas that had less? Ah, that may be a bit trickier.
What Is Rewilding?
Rewilding Europe is a non-profit organisation which mission is to make Europe a wilder place, with more space for wild nature, wildlife and natural processes. They define “rewilding” as letting Nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. It’s “giving Nature a helping hand by creating the right conditions – by removing dykes and dams to free up rivers, by reducing active management of wildlife populations, by allowing natural forest regeneration, and by reintroducing species that have disappeared as a result of man’s actions.”
Rewilding Britain says this about rewilding; “Nature has the power to heal itself and to heal us if we let it. That’s what rewilding is all about; restoring ecosystems to the point where nature can take care of itself, and restoring our relationship with the natural world. Reconnecting with what matters.” These are some of the examples of rewilding projects they list:
- Protecting, expanding and connecting ancient woodlands to enable a diverse range of wildlife to establish and disperse, and increase carbon storage.
- Reducing high populations of grazing animals to help trees and other vegetation grow.
- Removing fishing pressure and creating proper marine protection to stop dredging and bottom trawling so that sea life can recover and flourish.
- Restoring wetlands and introducing beavers to boost biodiversity, store carbon and help flood prevention.
- Reconnecting rivers with floodplains, restoring their natural course to slow the flow, easing flooding and creating habitats for fish and other aquatic and wetland wildlife.
Therefore, rewilding seems to be another kind of intervention in Nature. Didn’t I agree with the fallibility objection, and therefore was I not again such big interventions because they tend to fail? True, but this is when I make a distinction between rewilding and what I call “wilding”
For me, rewilding is stepping away from natural ecosystems, but before we do, give them a push by either removing previous human interventions (like a river dam, for instance) or by returning some species we previously removed (such as beavers, for instance). We only intervene to correct a previous intervention, and then we move away. We let Nature do the work, so our fallibility no longer matters, as we stepped down.
On the other side, I consider “wilding” an attempt to build a natural ecosystem in a place where it’s no longer there, making assumptions about how we think the system was in the past, and how we can re-build it. Therefore, I consider this a human intervention likely to fail, as we think we have the knowledge to imitate Nature, but we don’t. An epitome of this would be the building of a super aquarium with large tanks, thinking we have managed to reproduce the ocean. Of course, we haven’t, and each of the fish we will put in it will suffer the consequences of our arrogance. A typical “wilding” project would be trying to grow a forest in a desert, trying to resurrect extinct species by genetically engineering existing ones (i.e., making mammoths from elephants), or attempting to rehabilitate captive-born zoo animals in the wild. All these types of projects are likely to fail, likely to mess with Nature more, and likely to create more sentient beings’ suffering.
There is a big difference between trying to connect two patches of wildness by removing the obstacles we created that separated them and trying to build a natural ecosystem from scratch in a place there is no wild left. There is a big difference between trying to reintroduce a recently locally extinct species (because of human activity) by translocating individuals from other similar habitats nearby, and trying to introduce captive-born animals in a wild habitat that either never had this species, or it has now moved on since it lost them and other species have now occupied the vacant niches. One is helping Nature by moving away, the other is messing again with nature by moving in.
Rewilding and Veganism
In general, I am in favour of rewilding but against “wilding”, and I think my interpretation of the philosophy of veganism supports this position. I am an ethical vegan, and for me, the reason I try to avoid all animal exploitation is that I try to apply the concept of ahimsa (an ancient Sanskrit term that means “do no harm”) to anything that can be harmed (myself, other humans, all sentient beings and the environment). I don’t interpret it as humanity’s mission to reduce the amount of suffering in the Universe as if we are a superior species tasked to rule the world. I see it as an imperative to stop harming, not to stop others to harm others. When people become vegan, what changed is that they decided to stop harming other sentient beings, not that they stopped someone else’s behaviour. A vegan is not someone who has managed to stop another person from eating a fish, riding a horse, or wearing a cow. Vegans are those who managed to stop any of such behaviours in themselves, not others.
It’s true we vegans dream about a vegan world where everyone will be vegan, and we often engage in vegan outreach helping others to become vegan. But we cannot force people into veganism as this is a philosophy that is only acquired when a person freely adopts it without coercion. That world will only come when enough vegans have chosen to change their behaviour, not when humanity’s behaviour has been changed by a minority vegan elite. And when we look at the vegan movement as a collective entity, the same applies. Such an entity can change its behaviour and effect on the world, but it’s not its function to change the behaviour of other entities. It’s not humanity’s responsibility to change the behaviour of other species, but ours.
On the other side, as a vegan, if you find yourself in a situation where another sentient being is suffering, and you can help, failing to help may indirectly cause harm to that being, so that seems incompatible with ahimsa. Depending on the circumstances, it may be a breach of vegan principles. This is, therefore, a real conflict within veganism. If we can help them, must we intervene with the suffering of wild animals?
In my book Ethical Vegan, I outline how I resolve this conflict. I created the concept of “ordeal involvement” as a method to decide whether you should intervene or not. I explain it in detail in a blog I wrote for The Ecologist titled The Vegans’ Dilemma. In summary, we should do our best to stop any ordeal (a very unpleasant and prolonged negative experience) we are causing to other animals because of our direct collective intervention (hunting, pollution, habitat destruction, etc.), but for the other cases of wild animal suffering, a judgement should be made on a case-by-case basis to decide if, when and how to intervene. And this judgement must be based on the degree of the ordeal and our personal involvement after we suddenly find ourselves part of “the scene”. And this is why I am in favour of rescuing stranded animals we encounter, healing injured wildlife that can be rehabilitated back into the wild, or putting out of its misery an agonising wild animal who cannot be saved.
For this to work, we should leave the most isolated parts of Nature alone as much as we can and try to rewild the areas close to them, but at the same time, we should never ignore any wild animal’s ordeal providence has placed in our way. We can thus fulfil our moral obligations as vegans of avoiding harming by omission others we encounter, but at the same time, we avoid overstepping our collective duties by interfering with Nature.
And then we have the eco vegan argument of our current human-made climate crisis. Global heating is causing a lot of suffering and harm to many individual animals around the world, so we must stop it and reverse it. Stopping emitting greenhouse gases may be the way to stop it, but to reverse it so the temperature goes back to its natural level, our best bet is rewilding. Natural ecosystems, in particular forests, absorb CO2 and sequester it so it no longer heats the planet. If we want a vegan world, rewilding is one of the key strategies we need to reverse the harm we are causing to the planet. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, but also one of the major water polluters and ecosystem destroyers. The veganism movement’s quest against animal agriculture must include strategies to repair the damage it has caused to the planet and all the animals in it. Rewilding is one of them.
Therefore, if we make a distinction between “wilding” and “rewilding”, if we take the “ordeal involvement approach” to help those wild sentient beings we encounter in our path during our lives, and we try to reverse the damage caused by the animal exploitation industries, I think we can be vegan and support rewilding projects without fear of contradiction. This is why we see vegans buying grazing land and giving it back to Nature. This is also why Randal Plunkett, the vegan Baron of Dunsany, started rewilding his family estate.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Rewilding
In theory, we can support rewilding projects without contravening veganism, but what about in practice? It very much depends on the project. Some will be “wilding” projects in disguise, and if they are run by zoos or organisations connected to them that may be quite a tell — I remember watching a TV debate about rewilding in which someone by Bristol Zoo was talking about their new bear, wolves, lynx and wolverine “wilder” enclosures. These would be the “bad” rewilding projects we should not support.
Others may be rewilding projects that involved the killing of animals (euphemistically termed “population control”) which, of course, will not be compatible with veganism. One example would be killing “invasive” species just because they have now taken over the habitat niche another “native” species used to have (i.e., killing the American grey squirrels in England for having displaced the European red squirrels). Another example would be killing herbivores — such as red deer — if their population is so high that is having a detrimental effect on the ecosystem because of the number of young trees they eat. There are vegan-friendly methods that can be used to deal with this, such as physical tree guards, temporarily sterilization or translocation to other areas. The projects that use lethal methods of population control are the “ugly” rewilding projects, which ethical vegans should not support. A warning sign for this may be if they are run by conservation organisations with a reputation of labelling the “wrong” type of wild animal as “pests”, or organisations that justify trophy hunting for conservation reasons.
And then we have the “good” ones. Terms such as “anti-speciesist rewilding” or “eco-vegan rewilding” can be used for them. These are projects far from the wilding idea, which don’t use lethal methods, and which do not discriminate against any species (predators and prey). You can spot these because often are ecosystem focused, rather than species focused, and they are more about creating wild corridors between wild areas, stopping human activities (such as fishing or hunting), eliminating artificial barriers (such as fences or dams), etc.
The best cases are those completely ”run” by Nature, which would decide, with time, which species need to be in which ecological niche (Nature can easily accept an “alien” species to fill a particular niche, and this is why, although we should avoid introducing species into an ecosystem they never evolved in, if they are already there and Nature has “accepted” them, we should not intervene).
There are borderline cases, though. The re-introduction of predators in a wild area is often questionable and problematic (i.e. the reintroduction of lynxes in the UK, or wolves in the Yellowstone National Park). Whether they fall on the good or bad side would very much depend on the circumstances of each project. Many questions need to be answered before even starting. Will the predator displace another natural predator? Is this really a re-introduction as opposed to an introduction of a type of predator that hasn’t been in that ecosystem for far too long (so the system is too different now)? What would be the impact on local human communities? If it is likely to be negative, are there enough effective laws to protect the introduced animals? Are the number of introduced animals sufficient to create a stable population? How specialized are the predators regarding their prey? Is the prey abundant enough to sustain the predator population? Is the ecosystem too unbalanced with many potential prey animals which justifies the introduction of the predator? Would the introduction area be big enough? Would the reintroduced predators be wild individuals born in the wild with the right habitat knowledge?
I think that in many predator re-introduction projects there are, the chances are that the answers to these key questions would not be satisfactory enough to deem the project vegan-friendly. But, theoretically at least, in some cases they could be (for instance, moving one population of wolves to one side of a river they cannot naturally cross, if the wolf population at the other shore became extinct very recently, and because of this there are already noticeable signs of degradation of the ecosystem).
Rewilding is not returning the ecosystem to the state it was in the past, as depending on how far we go in time, you will find completely different states. Rewilding is giving Nature a fair chance to choose which future state will the ecosystem have. Why? Because biodiversity, natural selection and time have always been far more efficient at solving ecological and biological problems than all human intellect combined.
It’s not about saving species from extinction or helping our favourite types of animals to thrive. It’s about all the individual animals that exist and their homes. It’s about our biosphere on Earth, and everyone living in it
Eco-vegan rewilding is about stopping harming sentient beings.
That’s a very vegan thing to do.