Justice for All
An interview with Dr. Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila on multispecies justice, moral imperatives, and the idea of mixed communities in conservation ethics
Dr. Francisco Santiago-Ávila is a Fellow and founding board member of PAN Works, as well as a staff member at both Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute, two organizations working for a more wild and caring world. Fran is a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico — Río Piedras (BA, Political Science and Economics), Duke University (MPP/MEM), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (PhD, Environment & Resources). Following the completion of his doctorate, Fran was an Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Carnivore Coexistence Lab. Now, he is the Heartland Rewilding Science and Conservation Manager for Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute, where he promotes the claims and protection of wild carnivores against killing and harm. Fran researches and practices the application of nature ethics to our mixed-community of people, animals and nature, with a focus on the promotion of worldviews rooted in non-anthropocentrism, an ethic of care, and justice.
This is Part I of a three-part series. Part II will follow next week. This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
Kim Hightower: What were your interests growing up?
Dr. Francisco Santiago-Ávila: This is a really good question because it’s hard for me to remember what I did as a kid. I have two siblings, I’m the middle child, and we’re all three pretty close in age. It was fun as kids because we spent a lot of time together. We would buy the same toys and all that stuff so we could play together. But as we grew up, everyone sort of just evolved separate interests. I did a little bit of basketball… I would exercise because I was bored and didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t someone that would play a lot of video games or watch a lot of TV.
I remember reading a lot of science fiction. My dad was a huge Star Wars fan and that was a great outlet for me to sort of get out of reality. So I just picked up his books and followed that series throughout my high school years. I also got into music pretty early on… I really took to my dad’s salsa music from the 70s and 80s. I would just sit in my room with these cassettes and CDs and just listen to it, and sort of get caught up in it. I didn’t know how to play anything, so I started learning how to play bongos as well. So, a lot of that; nothing very academic or literary besides that interest in fiction and very specific fiction, which was this particular Star Wars storyline. I find that kind of funny.
I grew up within a Catholic family. My mom is a really devout Catholic and she did good work instilling those values. I kept up within the Catholic faith until my late teens and got involved with different religious youth groups that were trying to do community work, etc. and just grew out of that eventually. Other interests came up as I grew up during senior year and college.
KH: That sounds like a fascinating and wonderful up-bringing. As a follow-up, was there any exposure to or interest in animals when you were a child — or did that develop later?
FS: Well, we always had one or two, or sometimes three, dogs. And I can’t say that I had a very intimate or close relationship with them. Maybe with one, though… I wanted to adopt a golden retriever at some point, and my parents complied with that wish. Her name was Nina. But as she grew older, I understood the level of responsibility and care that it would take — and the fact that I wasn’t up to the task. My parents were pretty adamant that I should be up to the task if I was going to take care of this animal. And so, I decided that I wasn’t… and we ended up giving her up for adoption. They had plenty of space for her to run around and be fulfilled in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to give to her. Other than that, I can’t say that animals were a big part of my life… until I started checking out wolves.
KH: That makes sense. A lot of folks in this area had that experience of growing up with animals, but maybe the real interest in them as individuals and in the context of this work came a little later. So, it’s neat to hear that background. In terms of your trajectory, what was your path to this work in general?
FS: This sort of links me to growing up in the Catholic faith — and my mom foregrounding those values of respect, care and compassion for others, especially those who are less fortunate. So, I wanted to be a doctor when I got to college. My idea was: go into the natural sciences, go into biology, and become a doctor, a pediatrician. I have pediatricians in my family, so that was a good model for something that I could do that would promote those values at the same time that it would provide me with a stable and somewhat high quality of life.
And then, when I did try that academic track, it didn’t last very long. My first semester in college, I took chemistry and I took calculus and I sort of checked out biology. At the same time, I was taking social science courses and political theory electives. I was so interested in the latter and not very interested in the natural sciences, so I ended up switching my second semester to a major in political theory. I thought: my mom’s a lawyer, so maybe becoming a lawyer was what I wanted to do… or maybe becoming a politician was something else that I toyed with.
And so, in a way, I went into public policy with that mindset of: what can I do there? It was always with this idea in mind that I wanted to help, in some way, alleviate suffering and promote care toward others. I don’t think animals were being featured in my mind at that point, but that was sort of the path that took me to political theory, and political theory took me to economics. I did a double BA in political theory and economics and, through those, I was introduced to environmental degradation and environmental destruction. I especially learned how capitalism is bringing all this stuff on, especially to those that are more historically oppressed and, in some ways, the least responsible communities for this. So that led me to want to pursue a career in public policy, and that’s what took me eventually to Duke University to do my master’s in public policy and environmental management. And through environmental management, I focused on economic valuation. Because of my background in economics, I thought: this is a good way to make an argument for people caring about what they’re doing to nature, to other communities, and animals were creeping in at that point but weren’t really foregrounded in my mind.
Eventually, I would say that it was the research that I did during that master’s in public policy — which was very analytic public policy research on the coalitions behind the wolf issue in the US, a political analysis of who’s pro-wolf, who’s against wolves, and their arguments, etc. — that kind of led me to conservation ethics in a lot of ways.
KH: That’s a really interesting way of framing it, especially in the context of your interests leading up to it and within this “care for others” ethos that you were embodying. You’ve answered a lot of the “why,” but if you have anything else to add, please share: How and why did you develop an expertise in conservation ethics?
FS: With the master’s that I had and this focus on economic valuation, I wanted to work on the wolf issue, and this one paper that I did for this master’s class sort of took over my thinking. Even though I worked in economic valuation for two years in DC, I was not content anymore with making this argument of: you have to protect something because it’s worth “x” amount of money. I saw that case being made for wolves a lot of the time and I didn’t agree that should be a main argument — but I didn’t have the tools to understand or clarify my thinking and didn’t want to foreground that [monetary] argument relative to others in that controversy.
So, I thought I needed to become a scientist for that to happen, for people to listen to me and for people to want to hire me to work on this. I remember submitting job applications to most of the NGOs working on the issue that I work side-by-side with now or adjacent to on a lot of issues, and not even getting responses back. I didn’t have the expertise; my work experience wasn’t in advocacy or anything related to conservation that goes beyond the economics of it. So I thought I needed to become a scientist; I needed to dive into the natural sciences a little bit more. That’s when I started applying for PhD positions that would allow me to merge my expertise in public policy with new knowledge that I wanted to acquire directly in conservation of wildlife. I needed that instruction and that expertise — and I got a PhD position with Adrian Treves at the Carnivore Coexistence Lab. The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, where the lab is based and where Adrian is a professor, allows you to do an interdisciplinary PhD on environment and resources. You need some natural sciences, you need some social sciences, you need some humanities, although the way you play with those is up to you. Adrian has published a lot of papers and done a lot of research bridging ecology and policy, and this was exactly what I wanted to do.
But I was still looking at this issue as a wildlife resource issue, a controversy over this ‘resource’… and over ‘wildlife management’ — all that vocabulary that I basically argue against now in my work. So, I moved to the Midwest, to UW-Madison. Through the exploration of that controversy, I realized I need to know about wolves — wolves themselves and who they are — and ethics, or how you ought to behave towards others. I thought, well, let me check out: who are these beings as individuals?
I remember picking up my first two wolf books. In The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim and Jamie Dutcher with the Sawtooth Pack in Idaho, they set up camp in the area of the pack and got to know each individual and their family bonds, in a very intimate way, relating to them without intervening much in their lives. It’s an incredible account of what these individuals value and how they deal with each other in their lives. And Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men is a more historical account of what’s happened with wolves throughout the history of the US, that history of persecution and extermination.
There was a shift of just realizing that the differences here are important for how to behave towards others — but also that deep down, we all want life, we all want happiness, we all care for ourselves and the other individuals that we relate ourselves to and the bonds that we build. And I ended up asking myself the question: who’s speaking for these individuals, and why aren’t more people taking up this approach?
For that, I needed to understand ethics, and I had a little bit of background through my undergrad in political theory. There’s a lot of ethics there, and I was familiar with much from the classics, with Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, all the way to contemporary ethics. It was even easier for me to get into the ethics literature than the natural science literature. I was just eating it up. Bill [Lynn] was a huge part of that as well — introducing me to animal studies and critical animal studies and a lot of specific authors there that I would just continue to explore, not being able to put down.
I would say that another thing that struck me about the wolf controversy that really urged me to explore the ethics was the Ojibwe’s take on the wolf issue and their perspective of wolves as persons, as relatives. Traditionally, they see wolves as a relative, so they don’t agree with a lot of this lethal management of wolves for recreational purposes — or even as retaliation for killing domesticated animals — because there’s a value of respect and a value of reciprocity there. And so, it just took over my research, these questions about how we should behave towards individual nonhumans rather than just thinking about how, if the population is sustainable, everything is fine… and you can use those ‘surplus’ individuals in whatever way you want. That seems like an incredibly unethical statement, when you think about it. But it’s an underlying assumption of a lot of this wildlife management ridiculousness.
So, wolves were a huge catalyst for me — especially thinking of wolves as individuals with all these qualities, some that translate across this continuum of life, rationality and respect… but also the idea of valuing them because of their differences. The fact that they’re different doesn’t mean that they’re less valuable, and I became a vegan because of these carnivores helping me realize that. I just thought: if wolves are this way, what about chickens, cows, pigs and all the other animals? It was a huge crisis for me (FYI, traditional Puerto Rican food is riddled with animal products) and I think I became a vegan a few months after that. I just couldn’t do it anymore; so, I was continuing with that attempt to continue to decrease harm and decrease my involvement in all that stuff.
KH: I’m curious if there was a project early on during your PhD — or a specific species — that really sparked momentum for a lot of the work that you are doing now. It’s fascinating to hear about the learning and thought-development that led to your current work, and it sounds like wolves were that species for you — but if there is anything else you would like to add about that, please feel free.
FS: Wolves were that catalyst, but prior to that I had a terrible experience that I just carry with me — and I think about this dusky rattlesnake maybe every week, maybe every other day. When I was doing my master’s, I did a little bit of research during a summer research trip in Mexico — surveying farmers in rural areas about their ecosystem services and how those relate to the crops that they’re producing. So, visiting the mountains of West Central Mexico, we were with this local farmer and he was taking us around his field of crops and a field of pine trees that they planted — and he sees this dusky rattlesnake slither across the ground in front of us. He sort of steps on her and grabs her and says that they don’t like this species… and I frankly don’t even remember the explanation that he gave for not liking it, but he says that he is going to need me to help him kill the snake. Then he just gave me a huge rock and held the head of the snake down, and I crushed the snake’s head with the rock… just absolutely unreflectively.
You know, to this day, I have that image of that snake in my mind, and I just carry her and that image through all my work. It’s something that is a huge regret… huge regret. And I think, even though wolves were sort of catalysts, that prior event broke something in me in a way that… it was just maybe, inevitably, going to lead to this because I’ve never been able to stop thinking about it. I took a life trivially, you know? Without any reflection or justification. And that was horrible… So, in a way, sometimes I wonder if all of this, my work, is just penance. Because that’s sort of the way I feel about the whole thing. It’s one of the hardest experiences that I carry.
KH: Thank you so much for sharing this. As we’re talking about your journey and your path, there are so many parts to it — heavy parts and parts that you cultivated yourself that have led you to where you are now. I’d love to talk about some of the major players that have influenced you, in your thinking and in shaping your lens. We know that Mary Midgley and others have been touchstones for you in your work as it relates to the paradigm of multispecies justice. Can you take us through your early career and into how such influences have shaped your thinking?
FS: Yes, Midgley’s Animals and Why They Matter was the first animal studies book that I picked up, following Bill’s recommendation for how I could get into this. I had read a few journal articles here and there, but I wasn’t picking up books other than wolf books. I needed to get some theory behind all this stuff and that book, that framework of absolute and relative dismissal of animals, was huge for me… absolute dismissal being: you’ve sort of dismissed that these individuals have any claims, have any values, and that they basically don’t matter. The idea was that they’re automatons, very Cartesian from that lens. And relative dismissal is: I’m going to consider the claims of these beings, but only some claims and only to the extent that they don’t conflict with my claims… with my claims for using them or for utilizing them for any purposes that I’d like to.
That was huge for me. There, again, was the idea that there are differences here that need to be foregrounded on how people think about these things. Midgley’s take on the rationalist tradition in Western philosophy and this enshrinement of a certain misconception of rationality as this quality that not only dismisses animals but other humans as well, was important. And not all humans carry this ‘rationality.’ In fact, babies wouldn’t have this rationality that’s based on objectivism and logical positivism, and empirical evidence and mathematical thinking and all that. Also, many adult humans would be considered as having less or none of that ‘rationality’ as well, simply because their minds work differently. In a way, she starts making the case for this being an enshrinement of certain qualities, and you really don’t see that they keep to only one side of the species barrier that well.
You get humans that fall outside that. Sometimes there are claims that whole groups: women, people of color, differently abled folks fall outside those categories. You also get these claims of objectivism that a lot of the time, like right now, turn into scientism… the idea that you can’t know ethics, that ethics maybe is relative because it’s not empirical, that reason is the proper quality for approaching ethics. And this is something that you also see in people like Singer and Regan: as in, “Let’s not make this about emotion.” In Midgley’s Beast and Man, her seminal work, she says that we can’t separate reason and emotion. That’s a starting mistake that we’re making here. Emotion has a place in ethical thinking and behavior. That’s a point that’s foregrounded by many ecofeminists as well.
Midgley’s idea was that of the ‘mixed community,’ that we’ve never been a human community. All human communities have been embedded, and live their lives alongside and in relationship with other non-human individuals — and we see this more in a lot of work in critical animal studies and zooethography that you see today. It’s making that same case, but fleshing it out in different case studies. So, the fact that, being part of that mixed community, our obligations to animals are as social as they are ecological… that’s a metaphysical worldview that she almost helped me begin to develop for myself.
Beast and Man caused an even greater shift. I’ve read it like 12 times, way more than I’ve read Animals and Why They Matter, because Beast and Man is about her work on exploring human nature, human values and human motives. And through that, she explores our relationships to animals from a scientific, psychological, and metaphysical perspective — placing everything on a continuum. Human dignity doesn’t come apart from our animal nature; it’s part of our animal nature. Therefore, animals have their own dignity as well, which is something that I use in multispecies justice — that ‘equality’ in considering others doesn’t mean that they have to be the same as you in any way. It values differences as well.
Midgley takes on everyone in B&M… She takes on E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and this biological genetic determinism that’s there. She takes on Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, as well. These ‘scientific’ theories have a lot of values behind them that are not really supported by the data and end up giving folks a worldview that’s selfish, and then aggressive, dominant and competitive… rather than cooperative, caring and respectful.
I go back to B&M every once in a while, and every time I’m just floored. I’m floored by how much is still not understood despite it being written between the late 70s and early 80s. It’s crazy. Those are aspects that I always try to integrate into my work with multispecies justice when I’m arguing for animals, that animals deserve equitable consideration of their claims despite that — and even because — they are different. They are more vulnerable, and we shouldn’t just stop at: well, you’re not as ‘rational’ as I am, or you don’t fit this specific quality that I think should be valued — because that’s very, very, very poor metaphysics and ethics. I get from Midgley my insistence on metaphysics explaining worldviews, and that addressing them is not a luxury. This is something that she also says in her other book, Can’t We Make Moral Judgments? That book has been huge for me as well.
Part II 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.