What are 60 warblers worth? Killing in the name of conservation


  • John A. Vucetich,

  • Michael P. Nelson

J. A. Vucetich (javuceti@mtu.edu), School of Forest Resources & Environmental Science, Michigan Technological Univ., Houghton, MI 49931, USA. – M. P. Nelson, Lyman Briggs School of Science and Dept of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.


Ecological research sometimes entails animal suffering and even animal killing. The ethical appropriateness of animal suffering and killing in conservation research may entail considerations that differ from many other kinds of research. This is true, insomuch as conservation research is specifically motivated by an ethical premise: an appreciation for non-human life. In striking contrast with other academic fields (e.g. medicine), however, the ethical dimension of conservation research is only rarely discussed. When it is discussed, it tends to be characterized by logical errors. These errors are important because they are general (i.e. both common and with far-reaching implications), and they are easily made by intelligent people; especially those with no formal training in ethics or logic. Failure to recognize these errors could stymie efforts to increase the ethical quality of ecological research conducted in the name of conservation.

We take advantage of a recently published dialogue concerning the ethical appropriateness of a specific field experiment that entailed killing black-throated blue warblers, Dendroica caerulescens. Both sides of this debate exemplify the kinds of errors to which we refer. In this paper we briefly review the arguments presented on each side of this debate, highlight their mistakes, and indicate necessary corrections. We argue that: (1) compliance with animal research regulations, while important, inadequately accommodates the ethical aspects of animal research, and (2) individual ecologists ought to understand themselves what does and does not represent sound and valid arguments for ethical decisions. Finally, we discuss how any ecological researcher might begin to apply our analysis to his or her own research.