The ethics and costs of saving wild animals


Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

For more than two weeks, the fate of Toa, the baby orc stranded on the rocks north of Porirua after being separated from his group, gripped the nation.

The newsletters provided updates every hour. Volunteers braved the cold to help feed the orca and keep it company. Environmentalists desperately searched from land, sea, and air to reunite Toa with his mother, or find another pod to fit him into.

But in the end, the search was unsuccessful: Last Friday, Toa’s condition worsened rapidly, and the orca died, only to be buried by members of the local iwi.

Even in his last days, Toa’s predicament raised interesting questions: Why did we care so much about his fate? How much should humans interfere with nature’s cold indifference? How many resources, both financial and otherwise, should we be spending to keep this killer whale alive?

In today’s episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks with University of Otago bioethicists Asher Soryl and Dr. Elizabeth Fenton about the ethical puzzles raised by Toa’s story – what if , by dying, this saga may indeed have taught us something valuable.

“These tragedies happen all the time in nature,” says Dr. Elizabeth Fenton.

“We’re not involved, we’re not aware of it. That doesn’t make them any less tragic, but it’s part of how nature works. We can’t save everything.

“It might sound very cruel to say, ‘well, we let nature take its course.’ But there are environmental ethicists who argue that when we step in, we lessen the savagery of this creature. be that it means that not to interfere is, in this argument, ethically preferable. “

Asher Soryl says he understands this argument.

“I think any effort we can make to help wildlife … is generally good.

“What are the reasons for wanting to help humans? Some humans suffer needlessly, and if there is anything we can do to prevent their suffering, we think we have good moral reasons to do so.

“This also extends to non-humans. Many non-humans have the capacity to suffer, they have an interest in living, in having relationships with family members… so, I think (helping animals) is definitely something worth doing. “

The cost to keep Toa alive was over $ 10,000 – a fact pointed out by the Taxpayers Union, which suggested, perhaps jokingly, that Toa could ‘pay his own way’, leaving the idea that people could pay to visit the killer whale at its wading pool.

Elizabeth Fenton says it’s perfectly reasonable to discuss the amount of resources injected into an ultimately futile effort to keep Toa alive.

But she says such decisions shouldn’t always be made on the basis of dollars and cents alone.

“It’s not just how much money it cost… has all this exercise resulted in something more valuable? Was there anything more valuable obtained? Are we learning anything, are we improving our relationship with the natural world through these rescue efforts?

“The numbers don’t always add up if you just add the numbers up. But there is something to be said about the desire to save an identified life.”


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