Wolves have the same right to be here as people

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Wolves have as much right to be here as we do.

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Ondrej Prosicky / Shutterstock
Nora Ward, University of Galway

Lately, the wolf has become a source of social and political tension in Europe. The relative conservation success across the continent it has generated calls to action from concerned politicians and ranching and hunting groups. For its part, the European Commission has proposed a change in your international status, from “strictly protected” to “protected”, which could allow us to hunt wolves again.

Annotated map of Europe
EU wolf populations: only Baltic, Carpathian and Dinaric-Balkan wolves are of 'least concern'. Conservation Assessment: Council of Europe 2022; map: IUCN (Boitani 2018), CC BY-SA

However, changing the protection status does not seem like the best solution. Especially considering that only three of the nine wolf populations of the EU have reached the favorable conservation status.

Instead, perhaps the time has come to refocus on learning to live – again – with wolves. Prevention strategies tested so far, such as fencing and the use of guard dogs, play a fundamental role in this regard.

The issue could also be addressed from a philosophical perspective, asking how to coexist and cultivate the ethical principles and values that support a satisfactory coexistence.

All beings, human or not, have the same right to exist

In this task, the work of the Norwegian environmental philosopher Arne Næss (1912-2009) could be of help. Næss is known as the father of “deep ecology,” an ethical theory that holds that all life has intrinsic value. Næss maintained that all beings, human or not, have the same right to exist and thrive, a principle he called “biospheric egalitarianism.”

When it came to wolves, Næss was clear: wolves have as much right to be here as we do.

Næss wrote a rehearsal with biologist Ivar Mysterud in which he stated: “The well-being of the wolf species as part of human and non-human life on Earth has value in itself.” Consequently, they argued, “humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity, including wolf habitats and breeds, except to satisfy vital needs!”

Despite this ostensibly radical challenge to human-centered ethical norms, Næss demonstrated a pragmatic approach to how to apply the principle of biospheric egalitarianism in practice. For example, it took into account the important contextual factors of local wolf-human interactions:

“For some shepherds, the need to protect their sheep from wolves or to be compensated in some way is vital today. It means protecting the foundation of their economy and the home where they have lived for generations.”

In addition to human interests, it also takes seriously the moral obligation to reduce the suffering of sheep and other domestic animals. This is especially important because humans have reduced these species' ability to elude wolves.

Mouflons, wild ancestors of domestic sheep, do their best to avoid large predators by fleeing to the mountains. On the other hand, after thousands of years of selective breeding, modern cattle have fewer defenses and are left to fend for themselves in fenced fields.

Increase empathy with non-humans

Næss avoided giving a single answer to the wolf question (a position for which other scholars they criticized him). But his interest in articulating general ethical principles that serve as a backdrop for contextual decisions may have importance in the debate over wilderness recovery.

For example, Næss used the term “mixed community” to define places inhabited by people and those species that play a key role in human affairs. Challenging the tendency to define community solely in human terms, Næss argued that this approach helps “break down some of the barriers commonly erected between humans and any other form of life within our common space.”

In this way, avenues are opened for greater empathy with non-humans. A capacity that, in Næss's opinion, all people have and that derives from an inherent continuity between human and non-human life.

In fact, as the pioneering American conservationist Aldo Leopold, perceiving ourselves in community with others is a prerequisite for moral action. In this case, it helps to concretize the idea of the wolves' right to exist: they are members of the community just like us.

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Næss blamed the Brothers Grimm for the poor public image of wolves. Mariya Stupak/Shutterstock

Applying this “mixed communities” ethical framework to current EU deliberations may have some advantages. Among other things, it can inspire the development of creative and mutually beneficial solutions, such as financial compensation for livestock losses – a measure Næss called for – as well as improved prevention of wolf attacks. It can also help counteract the often unfounded fear and hysteria surrounding wolves (Næss blamed the Brothers Grimm for the poor public image of these animals).

Solidarity with other species

But perhaps most important of all is its potential to connect with our emotional elements. As Næss said: “Man has a heart, not just a brain.”

To move towards sustainable coexistence, it is not enough to appeal to abstractions about scientific benefits or devise perfectly efficient compensation systems. It must also stem from a sense of solidarity with other species; a full recognition that, in the words of Næss: “Humans are not alone on this planet.”

Curiously, as demonstrated by recent study, most people living in rural communities in the EU already believe that wolves have a right to exist, which supports Næss's relative optimism about the possibility of mixed communities. Remembering this is even more important in light of the worrying political divide regarding the so-called “wolf problem” in Europe.The Conversation

Nora Ward, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Galway

This article was originally published in The Conversation. read the original.

Octavio Alonso