December 01, 2002


 Acknowledging differences, HSUS sees room for more cooperation among groups

Posted Nov. 15, 2002


Andrew Rowan, PhD
Andrew Rowan, PhD

Closing out the Oct. 11 AVMA Animal Welfare Forum lectures was Andrew N. Rowan, PhD, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, with an animal advocacy perspective on conservation and zoo animal welfare.

Instead of focusing on differences in perspective among the HSUS, organized veterinary medicine, and the zoo community, Dr. Rowan chose to highlight areas of agreement while also examining the broad range of values characterizing those involved.

"Our level of agreement and common interests are far, far greater than differences and conflict, though I wonder if we'd ever know it by the current rhetoric," he said.

The HSUS opposes the capture of wild animals simply for display, Dr. Rowan explained. The organization is against keeping some species in captivity, such as orcas, and advocates that the zoo community take an active role in reforming or eliminating substandard facilities for other species.

Dr. Rowan indicated that he was pleased that, on the basis of some of the day's presentations, the zoo community appears to be headed in that direction.

Having recently held a strategic planning meeting, the HSUS has set a goal of working more cooperatively with groups having differing viewpoints than it has in the past. "We want to throw out a big tent; we want to be more inclusive," Dr. Rowan announced.

He recalled a workshop on captivity he organized a decade ago, comprising representatives from the animal protection, conservation, and academic communities. Dr. Rowan discovered that what distinguishes the animal protection camp from the conservation camp is their level of trust in human agency.

"The conservation group tended to believe that humans had to get their hands dirty; they had to get down and dirty to try and do something for the problems of the world," he recalled. "And the animal protection group was very suspicious that humans had screwed up in the past—which was admitted, by the way, by the conservation groups—and would continue to screw up in the future; just leave it to nature."

Trust is what divides animal protection groups from organized veterinary medicine and the zoo community, Dr. Rowan continued. "We need to trust one another more and see whether or not we can develop structures, coalitions, and activities," he said.

Consensus within the animal protection community about captive animals is hard to come by, too. Dr. Rowan discussed the debate about Keiko, the killer whale whose return to the wild is complicated by its acclimation to humans.

The HSUS has received numerous e-mails supporting Keiko's return to captivity, as well as letting the whale remain in the wild. "These are value issues," Dr. Rowan said, "ones that are difficult to decide and difficult to come to grips with."

Zoos should assess their teaching methods and their effectiveness, according to Dr. Rowan. Conservation isn't as popular with the public as many believe. "We say that zoos are educating people in conservation. Well, are they?" he asked.

Wildlife rehabilitation centers are an example of positive educational opportunities. Initially a skeptic of their value, Dr. Rowan has come to believe that the centers affirm people's nurturing instincts while also teaching them why they should care about wildlife and domestic animals.

Animal welfare is typically evaluated by looking at an animal's reproductive success, behavior, morbidity, and longevity. No single factor is a conclusive measure, however, and ranking these categories according to importance is not purely a matter of science.

"Welfare is not strictly a scientific game," Dr. Rowan said. "It's a game that involves our values and our ethics as much, if not more, than strict science."

Dr. Rowan took issue with the term "negative reinforcement" as a means of preventing unwanted behavior in animals. Negative reinforcement, he said, is really punishment, although people don't want to say it. "If we're going to use these terms," he said, "and going to get into the (issue of) behavioral reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and punishment, I believe it's important that we recognize a spade for a spade in these situations."