Justice for All

Part II

People•Animals•Nature
13 min readMay 15, 2023

An Interview with Dr. Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila on multispecies justice, moral imperatives, and the idea of mixed communities in conservation ethics

This is Part II of an interview with Dr. Francisco Santiago-Ávila, a researcher and policy analyst with expertise in large carnivore conservation and nature ethics.

This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

Kim Hightower: Can you talk a bit about your current initiatives with Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute?

Dr. Francisco Santiago-Ávila: I’m shared staff of both organizations and my focus is on this new initiative that we’re also partnering on with the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Half-Earth Project. It’s called ‘Heartland Rewilding’ and it’s about placing emphasis on the need to rewild the Midwest and specifically the Mississippi River watershed. That area is basically the most impacted third of the country, because a lot of it is animal agriculture or agriculture in general, and we also have very little protected wild nature there. A lot of conservation organizations focus on the east and west, and neglect that third of the country. We could do so much by reconnecting the whole continent ecologically, biologically, by focusing on connectivity within that area. In the Midwest, there are hardly any wilderness areas. You could make a case for the Boundary Waters being a wilderness area in the Midwest but, other than that, there are hardly even national parks in the area.

We have two programs within that initiative, and one is our Coexistence with Wildlife program. That’s more or less where I move and do most of my work. Within that program, we’re focusing on working with communities to advocate for wild animals, to educate them about wild animals in everything from behavior to ethics and science relating to wild animals. We help communities draft coexistence plans for how to deal with wild animals non-lethally and intervene in conflicts in a triaged manner, where they can select or opt for the least harmful alternative or non-harmful alternative for dealing with any coexistence issues that they might have. It’s bringing a new perspective to what some think is a conflict and, with a bit of education, people understand they shouldn’t be worried about wildlife living near them. A lot of people in the Midwest living near coyotes, for example, may be concerned because they saw a coyote on the street or in their favorite park in the middle of the day and think: how dare that coyote be there. It turns into a complaint and then the community might call a trapper or a sharpshooter to go and kill coyotes just because there’s a concern that that might end up being a conflict. And it’s blown out of proportion, based on misconceptions and misunderstandings. There’s a lot of education to be done there in terms of saying to people: “hey, this is not our [human] space; it is our mixed-community’s space” — and that must be front and center.

If we’re thinking about wildness — and the way I think about wildness plays a role here — I don’t think that wildness is restricted to those large tracts of land out in the east or west or north that are not that impacted by humans. And this is something that I’ve borrowed from others… scholars, like Arne Naess, talk about this. And Gary Snyder talks about this, saying that wildness is allowing beings to be autonomous and live their lives in a way that allows them to flourish. Snyder talks about deer mice; he talks about pigeons in the park; he talks about spiders within your home, etc. as being wild… if you respect them. That’s another change in worldview that is not the same as saying: rewilding is just having wolves out there where humans never go. It’s that wildness is right here when I go out my door and even inside my house — and with coyotes that’s a great example. You know that they’re here… and the fact that you know we have coyotes in our neighborhood should be something to celebrate, and we should allow them to live their lives in that way and be fulfilled, to flourish and self-regulate their lives and relationships.

We try to do a lot of that in Heartland Rewilding and promote that type of worldview, of stating: “hey, you know this is wildlife and you should be in awe and wonder that you’re able to coexist alongside these individuals who, at the same time, provide so much for us just by being themselves, by being autonomous and through their agency of going about their lives.” We somehow still end up with ecosystem benefits from them and yet, when push comes to shove, we allow wildlife killing contests to happen or ignore that they’re even happening. We know that with coyotes it’s a terrible situation, because most states have open seasons year-round. On top of that, they don’t have ‘bag’ (i.e., killing) limits for the number of coyotes that can be killed. So we try to engage with that, engage in the policy processes that are going to lead to higher protections for wildlife — especially with wild carnivores like coyotes, but also bears, cougars, and wolves, among others.

KH: And what is the second program?

FS: Then we have our other Heartland Rewilding program: Reconnecting and Rewilding the Heartland. That program takes care of promoting rewilding at a larger landscape level with the same ideas of promoting respect and wellbeing for self-regulating nature. At the same time, it is about allowing non-human and human nature to thrive by reconnecting, protecting, expanding already protected areas — and also encouraging folks, potentially landowners, to get into donating part of their land for these types of efforts so that we can have some critical mass of self-regulating nature here in the Midwest. That’s the Heartland Rewilding Program… and we have ongoing campaigns in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, which are some of the states most impacted by humans.

I also do work for Project Coyote’s Protect America’s Wolves campaign. Through that, for the better part of a year, we’ve been following developments in a bunch of states that have been releasing wolf management plans lately. Most states with wolf populations have released a new draft management plan… Idaho is working on one; Montana is coming up with one soon that we’re doing scoping comments for… Wisconsin; Michigan; and Minnesota released some draft plans last year. Colorado released theirs earlier this year. All of those we review in a very detailed way and submit public comments. We alert members to these policies and draft talking points for them, alerting them that: “there’s a situation happening; here’s what you need to know about this plan; here’s why this is wrong or unscientific.” Our general stance is that we should focus on non-lethal methods, on protection of these individuals, and of course: no recreational wolf hunting.

That’s been a huge part of my work because everyone has come out with their plans one after the other — huge plans with a lot of errors of both ethics and science. It almost takes longer to draft comments than it took them to draft the plan because there’s so much bias within it that maybe you don’t pick up if you lack a background on the relevant science and ethics. And then there’s another component, where I try to promote multispecies justice within wildlife agency reform, which is something that a lot of groups are working on now. It’s more informal within coalition work, trying to advance these conversations that we’ve been having so far on the importance of ethics, and the importance of other nonhuman animals, instead of just species or populations. The real issue is an issue about worldviews and ethics and less about science, even though the current debate mainly focuses on the science — and that focus is not recognizing that science is at the service of these worldviews that are wrong, are dismissive of others based on trivial differences, and are based on very poor metaphysics and science, to begin with. That’s part of my work and that part is a little bit more behind the scenes.

KH: You’ve iterated wonderfully why it must be about the ethics above all — and this idea you raise of self-regulating nature. But, as you say, this should be rooted in worldviews that prioritize justice and compassion. Tell us about multispecies justice. What does it mean?

FS: It’s based on a worldview that acknowledges that there’s dignity in differences, that respect and dignity doesn’t mean that we all have to have a specific quality on which we place the burden of: having it means you’re worthy of respect and you have dignity… Instead, recognizing that there’s dignity in differences leads you to justice. If you think about ‘justice as fairness,’ that’s the common interpretation of justice, generally attributed to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, justice is being fair to other beings, period. And that’s multispecies justice… Folks that I work with might think: “Well, it’s animal justice.” Maybe. But, to me, maybe it’s just ‘justice’.

We don’t have to get into this whole redistributive and comparative stuff… it’s about being fair to other beings, not devaluing them based on “x” difference, based on whatever trivial argument you have for that quality being less valuable than one that you have. That also comes from an egoist stance that needs to be directly challenged. We have no more dignity than other beings, so they deserve as much respect — and respect is having due regard for the claims of other beings. ‘Due regard’ is being fair. So, we’re considering those beings equitably. Essentially, it’s what I consider ‘multispecies justice’ or ‘justice’ to be: recognizing that animals have their own capabilities, their own bonds, their own claims to life and wellbeing… and actually respecting them.

We need to be fair when we’re thinking about their claims and consider them alongside ours, rather than just thinking of absolute or relative dismissal… when we either don’t consider them or we consider them after we’re happy with what we’re going to get out of it, still instrumentalizing them to some extent. Justice adds to values like compassion and care in a lot of ways, because compassion and care might be something that, in a social context, you might not share for some individuals within your community and yet that doesn’t mean that those individuals don’t deserve respect and have their own dignity. Therefore, you should still be fair to them even though you know those affective bonds that you have with beings who are closer to you don’t exist with these individuals. In fact, that might even foreground justice as indispensable in the sense that you need a social safety net against this argument of: “I just don’t have that much care for you.”

So, that’s equitableness, ‘fair dealing’… and that, captured in the phrase ‘what we owe to others,’ is what I think of when I think of multispecies justice. It is indispensable for our moral thinking, but it has to come alongside a constellation of other values like an ethic of care and compassion.

(Image: Our nonhuman family, and my inspiration. Photo credit: Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila)

KH: It seems that if only we could get to a space of shared values, we could move ahead to practicing those collectively. What is the relationship between multispecies justice and compassionate conservation?

FS: Since we talked a little bit about justice, I’ll start with compassion. A good point to start making here is that I don’t think we owe ethical behavior to others because they’re moral beings. Ethical behavior is an unacquired responsibility that we have in the world. We don’t need to get into a contractual situation, or institutional arrangement, for this to be required of us ethically — values like respect and compassion, for example. I think of empathy as a precursor to compassion, empathy being the ‘suffering with’ another, feeling the hurt that another being is experiencing — whereas compassion is empathy plus wanting to do something to alleviate that, putting reason and action behind that empathy. These qualities are fundamental for ethical behavior, so I don’t start from justice per se. I’m fond of a phrase by Deane Curtin, who’s an environmental ethicist and philosopher. He says something along the lines of: justice and compassion are not at odds; the only justice worth having is justice administered with compassion… because empathy and compassion are so ethically fundamental. They’re very relational, these qualities; they emphasize the relationship that you have with an individual, the fact that you’re seeing an individual suffering, and you don’t want that suffering to happen. So, you want to act to alleviate that. And to act, you have to reflect on what to do and how to do it. You blend reason and emotion. Compassion also breaks apart that dichotomy and that devaluation of emotion over reason.

Compassion is a very relational concept that makes what’s good for another being part of your own good. It’s basic, in terms of ethics and in terms of morals, and it stresses interdependency rather than the autonomous self — which is something that we get from the rationalist tradition and ends up being very atomistic, very egoist and competitive. So, this is the flip side of that worldview, starting with empathy and compassion. It’s a lot more inclusive of diversity in organizing the moral experience.

I’m studying privately a lot of philosophy of religion, focusing on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. For all these traditions, direct experience is something that is absolutely essential for ethical behaviors; this idea that direct experience can force you into an ethical situation because you identify with others’ suffering and you want to alleviate it. That is translated as loving-kindness. It’s almost like you start with an emotional response. Some ethicists, like continental philosophers, would say you’re thrown into an ethical situation that is initiated by another being, by just experiencing seeing them, and feeling what they’re feeling. And then you feel compelled to respond to it. So, it allows for this moral practice. That’s more or less what I think compassion means, and that’s a very interpretive understanding. I don’t know that that’s the understanding that could be generalized to all compassionate conservationists.

KH: Interesting. Where does multispecies justice come in for compassionate conservationists?

FS: Compassionate conservationists do have this sense that there needs to be some reckoning with the harm that is done to individual animals within conservation, specifically when we’re intervening in their lives in harmful ways and with regard to all the prejudices that conservation has brought into the practice by dismissing individuals. For example, conservation dismisses individuals of a certain classes, like ‘non-natives’, and excludes them from ethical consideration. That is something that I’m trying to work on behind the scenes as well: clearing up all the concepts that feed into these prejudices, which even animal advocates have, and give them power. A reframing of ‘non-natives’ is acknowledging that nature is inherently dynamic, migration is an ecological process, and so these immigrant species should not be morally or ecologically dismissed.

There’s a lot that compassionate conservation has done for foregrounding those issues. We need to think more seriously about what we’re doing to animals, our rationale for doing so, and what animals’ claims are. That has been getting closer to justice, and even includes justice to the extent that some compassionate conservationists consider that animals have personhood. There’s an article penned by a group of compassionate conservationists, led by Arian Wallach, in which I am one of the co-authors that asserts animals are persons. And being a ‘person’ has very strong ties to justice and equitable consideration of claims. That’s where I come in and state: there’s a case that we can build for what I was mentioning earlier of not only criticizing the prejudices that traditional conservation orthodoxy has toward individual animals (and how it’s absolutely or relatively dismissive of them) — but also that sometimes we don’t know who to intervene for when it comes to issues of, for example, immigrant species ‘harming’ other species. Humans generally assert that these species’ impact on other species are inherently negative — but that’s a value judgment, not science.

Some folks might have more care for immigrant species; some folks might have more care and concern for the species that are being impacted. And that influences the prescription of compassion, because: who do we end up intervening for, if anyone? In such situations, compassion may not be enough to arrive at ethical behavior, so my argument would be that you need a constellation of values. You cannot rely on compassion to do all the heavy lifting, ethically. Ethics is not only compassion. You need a variety of values here to triangulate on what the right ethical prescription is. Justice can provide that because it provides a baseline level of consideration, equitable consideration, that you should practice when you’re intervening in the lives of individuals.

The whole point being: compassionate conservation recognizes all these issues within the prejudices of traditional conservation and recognizes that individual animals are persons, have dignity, and therefore should be respected — which should lead you to much more than compassion. And for these issues where we don’t find a way, or a clear way out with compassion, justice can provide a lot of guidelines for how to behave in a particular conflict and how to approach that by considering everyone equitably.

KH: I appreciate how you think about compassionate conservation as it relates to justice because it sheds light on the notion that much is required beyond compassion — especially around the idea of a constellation of values. How, then, do these frameworks inform your worldview?

FS: In a nutshell, I would say that it builds up to a non- and maybe anti-anthropocentric worldview… ‘anti,’ like anti-racism, borrowing that from Black literature, stating that this is something that we need to challenge and stand against rather than not participate in. It gives me a very strong presumption against intervening in the lives of non-human animals as well, for any purposes that we may have. I constantly have these conversations about reintroductions and other interventions, like Trap-Neuter-Return. These are harmful interventions, all of them. You’re decreasing the survival of individuals, breaking bonds that these individuals have, or preventing them from creating new bonds. TNR would be a good example, and other sterilizations that are done — such as sterilizations on coyotes because red wolves have to be ‘pure’ red wolves. It’s almost like species are pure breeds somehow, now. Conservation can be like a ‘Global Kennel Club;’ all species need to be kept as their ideal forms.

So, you have to have really robust, almost flawless ethical and scientific arguments for intervening in the lives of animals in ‘x’ or ‘y’ way, especially when it’s harmful, and of course never intervene for trivial reasons, as in trophy hunting or wildlife killing contests or trapping (for entertainment or to make a few bucks). That’s something that I also try to, behind the scenes, press people on. Always press people… always kindly, but you need a justification if you’re going to engage in this type of harmful behavior. Your justification should be flawless, both scientifically and ethically. Especially ethically. And when we get the metaphysics and the worldview straight, we deal with the science.

Part III of this interview series will be published on our column next week.

Kim Hightower is the communications specialist for PAN Works.

Please visit PAN Works for more about our work on ethics and animal wellbeing.

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People•Animals•Nature

People•Animals•Nature (PAN) is a publication of PAN Works, a centre for ethics and policy dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. https://panworks.io