Categories
Opinion Editorial

Canada needs to take the threat of disease from wildlife seriously

Article originally published in The Province.

Despite calls from experts to take action against the global wildlife trade, which scientists believe is a likely source of COVID-19, the response from national governments has been muted and mixed, with virtual silence from Canada. That’s a shame, as there is plenty Canada could do to improve our own safeguards against diseases from imported wildlife.

Whatever the precise source of COVID-19 might be, the science has been clear for years that zoonotic disease (disease transmitted from animals to humans) from wildlife is a serious threat, accounting for at least 70 per cent of all emerging diseases. And that threat is not just from the much-discussed wet markets in Asia. It’s from a legal global trade worth US$300 billion and an illegal trade worth US$23 billion, both of which involve and affect Canada. Yet there are questions about the coherence and effectiveness of Canada’s defences against disease from imported wildlife.

Currently, responsibility for keeping Canadians safe from foreign zoonotic diseases is spread across several government agencies, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which are in turn networked with a myriad of other bodies, such as the Canadian Animal Health Surveillance System and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

A 2016 study criticized this system, stating: “Canada lacks a coherent and effective regulatory framework to address emerging zoonotic diseases,” arguing that “there are gaps in disease surveillance, wildlife health concerns are not given due priority, risk assessment processes do not explicitly consider the impact of human action on wildlife health, and there is insufficient collaboration between government sectors.”

There also appear to be loopholes in the CFIA’s system for controlling which animals are allowed into the country. For example, the agency does not inspect reptiles (except turtles and tortoises) imported into Canada. As its website states, “there is no Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requirement to obtain an import permit, nor a health certificate. Under normal circumstances, there are no border inspections. Imports are permitted from any country, for any use, to any destination in Canada.”

Yet, reptiles are known to carry zoonotic diseases. Snakes were an early suspect in the research into the source of COVID-19, although they’ve since been ruled out.

The CFIA also says rodents (with some exceptions) can be imported into Canada without an import permit, health certificate, or inspection. So, for example, someone could import capybaras, the world’s largest rodents, into Canada, despite the fact they are known to carry dangerous ticks and have been known to shed coronaviruses. They are also sold online as pets.

The CFIA’s surveillance system is reactive rather than preventative, relying on prior intelligence indicating that a specific animal is a disease carrier. The system’s weakness was demonstrated when Canada prohibited pet Gambian rats from entering the country four months after they caused an outbreak of Monkeypox in the United States in 2003. Before the outbreak became manifest, the CFIA would have allowed the rats into Canada. Use of the precautionary principle, in the form of a ban on exotic pet imports, would be a far better safeguard.

Another concern is the lack of resources Canada devotes to fighting the illegal wildlife trade, one of a number of tasks given to the federal Wildlife Enforcement Directorate. According to a 2017 article in Canadian Geographic, the directorate had only 75 field officers nationwide. The article quotes the head of the directorate on the continued rise in wildlife crime: “And when you couple that with downward trends in government spending, that means more work for us and fewer resources to do it.” A 2017 survey of the directorate’s employees found that 65 per cent felt the quality of their work suffered because of “having to do the same or more work, but with fewer resources.”

Clearly, Canada must take the threat of disease from the wildlife trade more seriously. It needs a coherent regulatory framework to address the threat from zoonotic diseases. It needs to ban the import of wild and exotic animals and it needs to devote more resources to stop wildlife smuggling.

In July 2003, the medical journal The Lancet described the wild animal trade as “a disaster ignored” and called for its end. The warning went unheeded and that disaster is now upon us. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Categories
Media Release

Invite elephants and gorillas into your living room

Vancouver – Finding things to do for kids can be a challenge for parents in these days of social distancing. The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) is offering help with a new wildlife resource guide that allows families to visit gorillas in the jungle and whales at the bottom of the sea with just a click of a mouse.

The guide, available on the society’s website, offers kids a chance to see and learn about wild animals in their natural habitats through live webcams, phone apps, quizzes and lesson plans – all without going to a zoo or aquarium.

“We’ve put the best wildlife viewing and learning resources we could find in one easy-to-use guide,” says VHS executive director Amy Morris. “Kids can learn much more about animals by seeing them in the wild instead of in cages or tanks, where their ability to engage in natural behaviours is severely limited.”

The guide has links to Canadian and international wildlife resources, allowing kids to see baby eagles hatch, orcas rub along the bottom of the sea or elephants being cared for in a sanctuary.

“We hope families using the guide will see that it’s a better and more ethical way to learn about wildlife than visiting zoos and aquariums where wild animals are bred into captivity and never released,” says Morris. “The best part of these resources is that the animals get all the enrichment they need – social time, foraging for food and so much more.”

-ends-

Categories
Opinion Editorial

We can’t afford to ignore the deadly wildlife trade

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

While the world is understandably preoccupied with the disastrous consequences of COVID-19, the global wildlife trade – the likely cause of the pandemic – is getting less attention. Scientists have raised concerns about the issue for years, but they were ignored. It’s an inescapable fact: we were warned.

Back in 2004, the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) published a report titled A Disaster Ignored? The report, a review of scientific studies concerning the risks of disease from the wildlife trade, concluded: “There is a strong consensus of scientific opinion that the international movement of animals through the global trade in wild and exotic species poses a significant threat of spreading infectious disease to humans and other animals, both domestic and wild.”

Sixteen years later that scientific consensus is even stronger. It is estimated that at least 70% of emerging infectious diseases originate in wildlife. Yet, as COVID-19 has tragically proven, the opportunities to prevent a disaster have indeed been ignored.

While the precise source of COVID-19 has yet to be established, scientists who study zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans) believe it originated from wildlife sold at a wet market in Wuhan, where the pandemic began.

Unregulated wet markets, where wild and domestic animals are slaughtered and sold on the spot in unsanitary conditions, are common in Asia and much of the developing world. They are supplied by the global wildlife trade (both legal and illegal), which also involves the sale of exotic pets and animal parts for use in so-called traditional medicines or in-fashion items (skins, ivory).

Scientists, conservationists and animal welfare groups have long called for the wildlife trade to be banned or at least restricted and for stronger enforcement of legislation against the trade. Their reasons are clear: the trade spreads zoonotic disease, drives species toward extinction, and is extremely cruel.

VHS, which has long campaigned against the sale and keeping of exotic pets, recently launched a petition calling on the BC government to strengthen regulation of the trade and ownership of wild animals in the province. The petition urges the government to review its regulations to ensure species that could pose a risk of spreading zoonotic disease be prohibited. VHS has also joined with more than 200 conservation and animal welfare organizations in signing an open letter to the World Health Organization, urging action against the wildlife trade.

Action to curtail the wildlife trade is needed at every level – globally, locally, and nationally. There have been calls for Canada to do more on the issue, including a suggestion by former federal minister James Moore that “Canada should table a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for the immediate closure of the deadly and irresponsible wild animal and wet markets in China; enforced by international inspections and economic sanctions for non-compliance.”

The federal government can take this critical opportunity to work with the international community to curtail the wildlife trade, devote more enforcement resources to stopping the illegal import of wildlife into Canada, and develop a coordinated plan among relevant federal agencies and the provinces to eliminate or restrict the sale and ownership of exotic and wild animals. The Vancouver Humane Society is working alongside World Animal Protection Canada and other groups to press the government to do just that.

The scientific evidence is clear: unless we end the wildlife trade, we will see species disappear, millions of animals will suffer, and there will be more pandemics in the future. These are all disasters we cannot afford to ignore.

Categories
animal welfare Captivity compassion cruelty ethics News/Blog Promoted wildlife

Ask the BC government to do more to combat the cruel and dangerous wildlife trade

VHS is shifting the focus of our campaigns and communications to include the wildlife and exotic pet trade, which has been implicated in the emergence of COVID-19.

The emergence of new zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread from animals to humans) has been ignored for far too long, especially its connection to the international wildlife trade (explained in our recent op-ed). It’s time the international community and all levels of government in Canada took action to put and end to the illegal wildlife trade, which is not only inhumane but also is a threat to biodiversity and public health.

Here in B.C., the provincial government’s Controlled Alien Species Regulation governs “the possession, breeding, shipping, and releasing of alien animals that pose a risk to the health or safety of people, property, wildlife, or wildlife habitat.”

We’re calling on the government to review the regulation to ensure it addresses the threat of zoonotic disease from the trade in wild and exotic animals.

Please send a message to the provincial government’s Wildlife and Habitat Branch, asking them to take action to address this important issue.

Categories
animal welfare News/Blog Promoted Uncategorized wildlife

B.C.’s Hunting & Trapping Regulations – Have Your Say!

The provincial government is currently seeking public feedback on a long list of proposed hunting and trapping regulations. This is an opportunity to weigh in on wildlife conservation and welfare issues in your area and throughout the province.

Weapons for Big Game Hunting

There are currently no regulations in place preventing big game hunters from using alternative or primitive weapons such as slingshots, spears and airguns. Citing concerns surrounding a higher likelihood of unnecessary suffering, a proposed regulation seeks to prohibit the use of any weapon other than a firearm or bow.

No Hunting/Shooting Zone along Sea to Sky Highway

Another regulation proposes a new no hunting and no shooting zone along the Sea to Sky highway. Unlike many other highways in the province, the stretch of highway 99 between Squamish and Pemberton or the Callaghan Road near Whistler currently has no restrictions on hunting or shooting within 400m of the highway. The area is a popular spot for locals, hikers and tourists. Tragically, in 2017 a hunter in the area fatally shot a dog that he mistook for a wolf (despite the area being closed to wolf hunting), prompting calls by the dog’s owner and the public for a no shooting and no hunting zone along the route.

Use of Technology to Locate Wildlife 

Several proposals also seek to prohibit the use of technology to assist hunters, including banning infrared optics (or thermal imaging) which enable hunters to see the heat signature of animal that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye; wireless trail cameras that when triggered send images of wildlife to a remote device and provide a hunter with the location of wildlife; and the sharing of location of wildlife from an aircraft to a hunter on the ground. The rationale behind banning this type of equipment for hunting purposes is that the use of it fails to meet the principles of fair chase, giving hunters an unfair advantage over wildlife. VHS is concerned that the use of such technology for hunting is turning B.C.’s backcountry into a canned hunt scenario, where the ability for wildlife to avoid human detection is increasingly diminished.

Pursuit-only Season for Cougars

Another proposed regulation aims to ban the pursuit-only season for cougars in the Kootenay region, where existing regulations allow hunters who have killed their allotment of cougars to continue chasing and treeing the animals with their hounds. The rationale behind permitting a pursuit-only season was to allow houndsmen to train and exercise their dogs, but the cruel practice not only causes unnecessary stress to the animals, but can lead to injury for the cougar and the hounds, as well as the separation of mothers and kittens.

Numerous other regulations focused on motorized vehicle and firearm restrictions and changes to specific hunting seasons are also being proposed. For example, a proposal to end wolverine trapping in the Kootenays; implement a mule deer bow only season on Gulf, Denman and Hornby Islands; prohibit the use of precision-guided firearms and scopes on bows during bow-only seasons; and changes to black bear hunting seasons within the traditional territory of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation in the Great Bear Rainforest in order to support bear viewing tourism efforts by the Nation.

How to Submit Comments

For the full list of proposed regulations, click here. The public comment period ends January 19, 2020 at midnight. To participate through the government’s engagement website, you’ll need to register for a “Basic BCeID” account. Once you’ve created a BCeID, return to the main hunting/trapping regulation page and click login. Once you’ve logged in, it will return you to the main page and you can scroll through the list of proposals. On each proposal page, you’ll be able to scroll to the bottom and select “support”, “neutral” or “oppose”. You’ll also be able to leave a comment, if you’d like to elaborate on your position.

Categories
animal welfare Captivity News/Blog Promoted wildlife zoo

Vancouver Zoo Incident Raises Captivity Issues

Black bear in zoo – Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

Last week, media reported that a two-year-old girl was hospitalized following an incident at the Greater Vancouver Zoo (GVZoo). Reports indicated the toddler was able to access an area not open to the public and was bitten through a fence by a black bear, leaving her with a broken arm and injuries to her hand. The B.C. Conservation Officer Service has since opened an investigation into the incident.

While GVZoo issued a statement over Twitter, including reference to its adherence “to the safety standards put forth by Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) to ensure the safety and well being of all patrons and our animals”, this means little considering that CAZA is a private zoo and aquarium industry association formed to represent its members’ interests. CAZA’s zoo and aquarium accreditation program amounts to the industry certifying and overseeing itself, which raises concerns about animal welfare, public safety and overall accountability and transparency within the industry.

In fact, some especially controversial zoos and aquariums have been given the CAZA stamp of approval, including African Lion Safari, an Ontario zoo that recently made headlines after being ranked in a World Animal Protection report as among the most cruel and outdated in the world. The CAZA-accredited facility offers elephant rides to guests, as well as the opportunity to pet elephants, take posed photos with them and watch them perform tricks. Shows, tricks and elephant rides are often associated with inhumane and traumatic training techniques while the practices themselves compromise the physical and psychological welfare of the animal and can present safety risks for guests. Earlier this summer, African Lion Safari was again in the news after a trainer was seriously injured in an incident with one of the zoo’s elephants.

Vancouver Humane has long-campaigned against the keeping of wild and exotic animals in captivity on the basis that their social, physiological and behavioural needs cannot be met in captivity. Captive animals often suffer due to a lack of space and enrichment, isolation, inappropriate social groupings and unsuitable environmental conditions. Depriving wild and exotic animals of the ability to perform instinctual behaviours in their natural habitat compromises their overall welfare and can lead to premature deaths.

GVZoo has a contentious history that reflects many of these issues, including but not limited to the 2015 death of a 15-month-old red panda, ‘Rakesh’, due to a fungal infection; the 2014 death of a two-year-old Siberian tiger, ‘Hani’, due to a lung infection; the deaths of three giraffes between 2011 and 2012; the 2009 stress-induced deaths of four zebras after two cape buffalos were placed inside their enclosure; the 2006 cruelty charge against GVZoo over the mistreatment of Hazina, a two-year-old hippo who had outgrown her pool and was kept for 15 months in a concrete holding pen with no outdoor access; and finally the high-profile and tragic story of Tina the elephant, who was kept for more than 30 years in a small, barren pen (many years of which she spent alone) and suffered from foot problems worsened by the ground in her enclosure. After a long-fought campaign by VHS and Zoocheck Canada and increased public pressure, Tina was transferred in 2003 to a sanctuary where she lived with other elephants and her foot condition improved, but sadly she died unexpectedly almost one year later of a sudden heart condition.

Vancouver Humane maintains that there are more ethical, effective and safe ways to engage in public education and wildlife conservation – the main claims that zoos and aquariums use to justify the keeping of wild and exotic animals in captivity. Alternatives include sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centres, ethical eco-tours, documentaries and films (e.g. The Great Bear Rainforest IMAX film), and the use of immersive technology to offer interactive animal-free exhibits (e.g. National Geographic’s “Encounter: Ocean Odyssey”) to educate the public about wildlife and conservation issues.

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the welfare and safety issues associated with wild and exotic animal captivity, attitudes surrounding the practice are evolving. Canada’s recent ban on the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity illustrates this. It’s time for zoos and aquariums to embrace this new era and evolve as well.

 

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Orcas may be the first species with individual proper names to go extinct

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

The vaquita, the smallest cetacean (the family of marine mammals that makes up whales and dolphins), is dangerously close to extinction. It is estimated that 10 individuals remain, though the nature of scientists’ best estimate means there could actually be anywhere from six to 22 left. Except that only days after this new population estimate was released (already down 50% over 2017), animal activists discovered what appeared to be the decomposing body of a vaquita trapped in a gillnet. Activists have been calling for a ban of such nets off the coast of Mexico but fear it may already be too late for the vaquita.

I’ve been finding it hard to write about the topic of extinction, as urgent as it feels now more than ever. Others have more insight into the science behind it, but ethicists have been thinking about death and loss for thousands of years, how death occurs and what it means for those who go on living. Socrates gives many beautiful theories around the nature of life and death in Plato’s Phaedo, written over 2,000 years ago. I’m always amazed at the creativity and pure interest in ideas on display as Socrates lies on his deathbed in deep discussion with his closest friends. Few in human history have thought through anything like species extinction though, let alone anything on the scale of mass extinctions.

The topic feels so distant, like something that’s always in the future but never arrives. It feels like trying to think through something like climate change. How do you think meaningfully about what could or will happen in the future without sounding naïve or alarmist? How do you write meaningfully about a species or individuals who no longer have a place in this world while ensuring you are doing them justice?

Both extinction and climate disaster feel like a threat from a parent who doesn’t really mean it: we know the possibility exists, but we don’t really believe it. At least, we don’t believe it in any meaningful way such that we change our actions in significant or timely ways. When I look out the window and see a beautiful day, I don’t see climate change. But when the city smells like smoke all summer, the fire feels more real.

We’ve been witness to animals washing ashore with stomachs bloated with plastic for years and only recently has anyone shown any concern for the straws and bags and cups we have been filling the planet with, let alone the bottles and the packaging and who knows what else. Of course, while the City of Vancouver declares a climate emergency and seeks advice on how to meaningfully combat imminent disaster, the State of Florida has sought a ban on plastic straw bans until at least 2024, so not everyone is making responsible collective choices in the best interest of all animals.

Historically, human beings have been responsible in some way for the extinction of multiple species. Our pop culture even features these long-gone creatures like the dodo who was easily and quickly hunted to extinction by humans. It didn’t help that we destroyed its habitat, along with basically all native animals on the island of Mauritius. The dodo is now of course mocked as stupid or clumsy based on its quick death and descriptions from the 1600’s, though we now know that it, along with the countless other creatures killed were adapted to their environment. It just happens that we have historically eaten just about anything that moves (or rather doesn’t move too quickly) and then use up ever-expanding swathes of land to raise and grow more animals to eat.

In the 1800’s, colonial settlers in the “New World” were responsible for virtually wiping out the buffalo, a species that numbered over 60 million the previous century and roamed from Alaska to Mexico in the south and as far east as Florida. Through a combination of hunting for food, and simply slaughtering them to eliminate a vital food source for First Nations communities (as well as the introduction of disease from farmed cattle), there were only 541 individuals remaining in 1889. In our history of grievances against other animals we should remember that humans are responsible for wiping out creatures simply as a means of eliminating other human beings, with animals and natural habitats destroyed not only as collateral damage in warfare, but used as pawns and weapons as well. The Buffalo now has a conservation status of Near Threatened.

It’s only relatively recently that human beings have reflected in any significant way on the result such mass deaths and land transformation have on other species or ecosystems. Our world has remained relatively small and fairly anthropocentric for going on 5,000 years now. We are slowly but surely becoming more aware of the needs of other animals, of expanding our concepts of intelligence and communication and community to better grasp the non-human animals we share this Earth with. It brings me hope when individuals truly care for other creatures and our collective decisions and actions reflect our compassion for others. These collective actions can’t come soon enough.

Locally, many have been following the slow decline of the southern resident killer whales, best exemplified by last summer’s tragic tour of grief as J35 (Tahlequah) swam for over two weeks carrying her calf who had died within half an hour after birth. The southern resident killer whales are composed of three pods, lending the individuals the familiar Letter-Number naming convention; J Pod is composed of 22 members, while K and L Pods are composed of 18 and 34 members, respectively. That means the entire population of southern resident killer whales is only 74.

There’s something truly unique about the possible extinction of the southern resident killer whales though, something that separates it from the dodo and the buffalo: If the southern resident killer whales are allowed to go extinct, it will be the first species to be wiped out where every individual had a name.

This means that the death of these whales may be closer in kind to the deaths of the Beothuk or of the countless genocides and wars that make up human history. Or maybe it means that all animal deaths are a matter of degree. I mean, J35 has her own Wikipedia page, while friends from graduate school, now published with teaching positions, have their own pages marked for deletion. Tahlequah the killer whale is more socially and culturally significant than respected educators and published authors.

How would we respond if Shanawdithit came to us today as Tahlequah did, a tragedy across both old and social media, crying out for help? Shanawdithit, born 1800 and the last of the Beothuk People, died as a servant in Newfoundland in 1829. Her mother and sister died of tuberculosis when brought to St. John’s where they were to all serve white immigrants after they were found searching for food in Badger Bay, a present day five-and-a-half-hour drive away, or four and a half days of continuous walking. In 1820 there were only 31 Beothuk remaining. Shanawdithit’s legacy has lasted through her retelling of her people’s story and as a symbol for cultural and racial extinction. If hashtags and Instagram stories asked us to save a dying people today, would we act?

I hope that we would. But when faced presently with a refugee crisis, with war ravaging parts of the world for decades or longer, and with the global divide between the wealthy and the poor expanding evermore, not to mention those in need in our own country facing poverty, illness, or lack of basic community infrastructure, I can’t say we’re really doing much to help those in need.

Like our history with other animals, our history with other human cultures is honestly pretty shameful. Spoiler alert for those without a cursory knowledge of human history: human beings have been pretty awful to just about everyone and everything for about as long as we’ve been around. It doesn’t have to be that way though. There are pockets of hope in human history where people have come together to better themselves, to understand what it means to be just, or to reflect on human action and its effects.

There are different schools when it comes to ethical theory. Some weigh the value of intentions, while some look to the benefit of an action’s outcome as the measure of whether this or that action is “good.” Others maintain that the things we hold valuable change over time, through social and political change, that our ethics reflect the collective aspirations of humanity to always be better, whatever that means according to our best available knowledge and wisdom.

We don’t need to reflect for even a moment on the plight facing whales all over the world, both wild and captive, we already know that we can and need to do better. But we need to ensure we actually do something with our “knowing better” before it’s too late. We owe them more than being a quickly forgotten part of our 24-hour news cycle of rotating tragedies, only to be relegated to the place of memory and fiction.

Categories
animal welfare compassion ethics News/Blog Promoted Uncategorized wildlife

Coalition calls on government to end wildlife-killing contests in British Columbia

The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) has joined a coalition of 54 environmental and animal protection groups, conservationists and scientists in calling on the government of British Columbia to put a stop to wildlife-killing contests, after learning about three such events currently taking place in the province.

In an open letter sent to the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Doug Donaldson, our coalition expressed significant concern about the existence of contests throughout the province that are encouraging the indiscriminate killing of animals including wolves, coyotes, cougars and raccoons.

In some of these events, participants receive points for the type of animal killed and compete for a cash prize. The coalition is currently aware of three separate events, the first is a “wolf-whacking contest” hosted by Chilcotin Guns in Williams Lake; the second is a “predator tournament” hosted by the Creston Valley Rod and Gun Club; and the third is a wolf bounty being offered by the West Kootenay Outdoorsmen Club.

VHS opposes wildlife-killing contests on the grounds that they are unethical, inhumane and are not supported by science. Contest organizers claim they are protecting ungulate populations (deer, caribou, elk, etc.) by killing predators, but research shows that predator killing contests are ineffective and fail to address any root causes of decline. Instead, wildlife professionals suggest efforts should be invested in habitat protection and restoration.

These contests not only teach disrespect for wildlife through the indiscriminate killing of as many predators as possible, but they also disregard the value of individual animals, both intrinsically and as a part of the larger ecosystem.

We’re encouraging our supporters to contact their MLA and the appropriate government officials and respectfully ask that predator-killing contests be banned. Contact information can be found below. Feel free to use our coalition letter as a template for your own, but be sure to personalize your email!

Find contact information for your MLA

Hon. Doug Donaldson – Minster of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development
Email: FLNR.Minister@gov.bc.ca
Telephone: (250) 387-6240

Hon. George Heyman – Minister of Environment & Climate Change Strategy
E-mail: ENV.Minister@gov.bc.ca
Telephone: (250) 387-1187

Fish and Wildlife – Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development
Email: FishandWildlife@gov.bc.ca
Telephone: 1-877-855-3222

Categories
Opinion Editorial

What the internet weeping over death of NASA robot tells us about empathy

Article originally published on Daily Hive.

On February 13th, 2019 NASA confirmed the death of the Opportunity rover. Its last image a dark static greyscape, the last view of the sandstorm that destroyed the rover, and its last message “my battery is low and it is getting dark.”

And the Internet wept.

There has been an outpouring of sympathy at “the loss of Opportunity” (the most 2019 phrase thus far), but it’s not hard to see why. Designed for a 90-day mission, the rover explored for 15 years, outliving its sibling rover, Spirit, by years.

It was programmed to know its own birthday and it sang to itself every year to commemorate the occasion. It was basically a real life Wall-E. And it lived its life like many of us, terribly online. On Twitter, Opportunity and Spirit shared the @MarsRovers handle, and have amassed over 475k followers. Opportunity had an identity.

“This is a hard day,” said project manager John Callas. “Even though it’s a machine and we’re saying goodbye, it’s still very hard and very poignant, but we had to do that… It comes time to say goodbye.”

NASA lost communication with the rover after a sandstorm, declaring the mission, which has indicated that Mars once had water capable of sustaining microbial life, complete.

The online response to the “death” of Opportunity shows clearly if nothing else how essential compassion is to the human condition. We know that a robot in outer space isn’t actually celebrating its birthday, or even really dying. But it’s sad. We feel for the robot.

That isn’t to say sympathy for a dying robot is a bad thing. I used to research and teach political and ethical theory (among other things), and as an ethicist, I take compassion to be a moral virtue and one of the best qualities a human being can have. The philosopher in me is excited for the ethical considerations that will have to come about as a result of more and more complex artificial intelligences as machines and AI continue to become more and more a part of our lives. Our capacity to care, for other humans, for non-human animals, even for fictional characters and objects with identities, tells us something incredible about human beings.

The entertainment industry has played on this for years — robots, mutants, animal-human hybrids, and aliens can all be protagonists or love interests and no one bats an eye. You only have to name a pencil in front of a group of students and suddenly if you snap it you’re destroying an individual, not a mere object.

Animals are individuals. Not exactly like us, but they are individuated in similar ways. Depending on the species, some individuals will be more curious, social, food-motivated, dominant, playful, or any number of other “personality” (animality?) traits that mark individuals within that species.

It makes sense that people sympathize more with an individual like Opportunity, just as they did with Tilikum, the orca profiled in the film Blackfish which highlighted the keeping of cetaceans at Sea World and other marine parks. The film brought to light the ethical issue of keeping highly intelligent, social creatures in environments that the best science tells us is inadequate.

I had the fortune of seeing a similarly eye-opening film in Ottawa a few years ago. Sled Dogs examines some of the issues surrounding the Iditarod dog sled race and the use of sled dogs in tourism and entertainment, including a large scale cull of dogs that took place in British Columbia. It is heartbreaking to see the lives of these creatures. In this year’s Yukon Quest, considered by many to be more difficult and dangerous than the more famous Iditarod, a dog named Joker has died. Last year a dog named Boppy died when he asphyxiated on his own vomit which froze in his throat. A dog has died or had to be euthanized every year for the last ten years of the Yukon Quest. Boppy’s owner had a dog die in a previous race, and was once disqualified based on the condition of his dog team.

The environmental conditions these dogs were in at the time of their death, white, grey, getting darker, if we could capture that image, it may not be unlike the last photo from Opportunity.

Dogs are not meant to run 1600km in some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet, and they certainly don’t *want* to. They are not capable of the kinds of complex decision making required for that. Dogs, regardless of breed, want to be happy and like us, that comes in a variety of ways. Exercise is definitely one of them, and all dogs need some level of physical activity to be healthy and happy.

Certainly some dogs enjoy the snow and the cold, I can remember vividly trying to bring a Malamute mix in at the shelter I managed in St. John’s. It was a literal blizzard and he had curled up and gone to sleep outside. I had to pick him up to get him in for the night.

But no dog wants to die, and since they aren’t capable of making complex choices in their own best interests, we owe it to them to advocate on their behalf. If we can empathize with a robot dying alone on Mars, we have to be able to empathize with Joker dying in the cold, in pain and confused.

Non-human animals do not experience time the same way we do since they don’t plan for the future or construct a narrative identity through memories of the past. What they “know” in any meaningful sense of the term is what they are immediately and directly experiencing through their senses. They react based on previous experience as well as individual disposition, something like what we experience as memory and identity. The complexity of this basic experience varies depending on the animal, but remains essentially the same.

This means that in moments of trauma and stress, dogs, cats, cows, pigs, and a lot of other animals, “know” only that trauma. A dog can’t rationalize its final moments by telling itself it’s a hero. It doesn’t grasp the concept of death in the way we do, it may not “know” it’s dying in the same way we do, but in that moment that’s all it thinks it will ever experience. Every moment is forever.

We care a lot about our pets. Some care passionately about wildlife, and others care tremendously for the animals who suffer as part of our agriculture system. We even care about cartoons and brands and robots on Mars. In a world where we have rules around infrastructure to preserve the dignity and integrity of views and scenery, let’s try to empathize more with those who depend on our care the most, and always strive to do them justice. Like most things, we can always do better.

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Opinion Editorial

Glue traps a cruel way to control rodents

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

Aneurin Bevan, a minister in the Britain’s postwar Labour government, once described his Conservative party opponents as “lower than vermin.”  It was perhaps the ultimate insult, considering that vermin are, as one dictionary puts it, “noxious, objectionable, or disgusting animals collectively, especially those of small size that appear commonly and are difficult to control.”

But vermin is just a label for wildlife, usually rats and mice, whose efforts to survive and thrive conflict with human efforts to do the same. Rodents don’t aim to cause us trouble but sometimes they do. Of course, being humans, we have employed science and our industrialized might to create an array of weapons, including traps, electrocution and various poisons, to keep them at bay.

Even animal lovers see little alternative to using lethal methods to keep their homes free from rodent infestation. Coexisting with rats in your kitchen is a bit of stretch for even the most compassionate among us. Preserving public health and safety and protecting food in homes, restaurants, warehouses, etc. are paramount.

But must our conflict with rodents be the cold, pitiless, all-out war on “vermin” that it seems to be? Should lethal methods always be the first choice and, if they are, shouldn’t they be as humane as possible? Consider one of the main products sold by major Canadian retailers to deal with rodents: glue traps.  These are boards made of wood, plastic or stiff cardboard coated with an adhesive on which rodents become stuck by their feet or fur.  They are anything but humane.

A 2003 Oxford University study found that rodents caught in glue traps “are likely to experience pain and distress” and “forceful hair removal, torn skin and broken limbs.” The study states that when boards are collected, the rodents are often squealing.  A pest control operative interviewed for the study described the animals to the researchers as “screaming their heads off.”

According to the study, the pest control industry recommends glue traps be checked every eight or 12 hours but, when used by the public, the length of time may be several days.

New Zealand and Ireland have banned glue traps and, after a campaign by animal advocates, a number of big wholesalers in the U.K. agreed to stop selling them. The Vancouver Humane Society has asked Walmart Canada, Canadian Tire, Rona and Home Depot to stop carrying the traps, but none of the companies has responded.

There are alternatives to glue traps, but none of the options is ideal.  Rodenticides, for example, are known to poison hawks, owls and other animals that eat rodents. The least inhumane lethal method is the snap trap, which is best purchased from specialty pest control companies.  Live traps can be used, with the rodent released elsewhere, but animals may return if released nearby or may suffer if relocated to areas without adequate food.  There is also the risk of animals being left for long periods in unchecked live traps.

The need for these methods can be greatly reduced through prevention and exclusion measures such as keeping garbage and compost secure, ensuring bird feeders don’t spill and sealing gaps where rodents can enter the home.

The B.C. SPCA has published a wealth of information on such measures on its website and also recently launched AnimalKind, a wildlife and rodent control accreditation program for pest control companies. The program accredits companies committed to using animal welfare-based standards approved by the B.C. SPCA.  To date, two companies, AAA Wildlife Control in the Lower Mainland and Alternative Wildlife Solutions on Vancouver Island, have been accredited. The accreditation standard prohibits the use of glue traps except under certain extreme circumstances and with a list of other conditions that companies must meet.

There are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with human/wildlife conflicts but we can take steps to minimize animal suffering and use the most humane methods possible.  Glue traps are certainly not one of these methods and consumers should avoid them.  In addition, they should urge retailers to stop selling them.