Conserving What Exactly? Anthropocentrism in College Conservation Programs

Men fishing a river with a net University conservation programs often entail lethal Nonhuman Animal testing


Jonathan Balcombe, director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, has authored a book that explores the “the inner life of fishes”: What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. I have not yet had the chance to read the book, but having listened to him describe the research involved, Balcombe’s work will be, I think, very important.  His research is indicating that fishes do feel pain and do live emotional lives.  The evidence seems to suggest that fishes are persons:  self aware, pleasure-seeking, sentient beings with intrinsic value and a right to moral consideration.

Research in this area is critical for one all important reason: when science fails to acknowledge sentience, systemic violence can be (and often will be) justified in the pursuit of knowledge. In their fish biology graduate program, for instance, my brother and his classmates were taught that fish sentience is a downright questionable concept. They also routinely stalked, harassed, and killed fishes in the process of data collection. When he shared this with me, I was personally horrified. Why isn’t the public aware of this grisly methodology?

Nonhuman Animal rights activists spend a lot of time protesting the exploitation of other animals used in dissection and vivisection in science and veterinary labs on campuses, but few take much issue with university “conservation” programs. As a student, my brother spent hours in the field “shocking” fishes (placing an electric current in the water so that stunned fishes float to the top for easy “sampling”) to determine their health as a species.  Fishes who are unfortunate enough to be included in this sample are killed in order to determine their age.  A dear friend of mine also works with free-living animals (“wildlife”) and informed me that birds of the wrong species are regularly caught in their “sampling” net.  These birds are often mangled and suffer for hours until the technicians come to check the nets.  Students are instructed to crush the chests of these birds to destroy them.

Assignments, final projects, theses, and dissertations in “wildlife,” “fishery,” and “environmental” programs encourage (or require) students to enter natural spaces and trap, stress, and even kill other animals in the name of research.

Man posing with Sturgeon on a fishing boat Sturgeon “sampling” at Virginia Commonwealth University

At my alma mater Virginia Tech, a black bear study has been ongoing for decades.  Bears are kept captive on campus property for students to measure and monitor.  The program has become so famous in the area, it has come to resemble a zoo exhibition. As with many zoo exhibitions masked as conservation projects, the bear program at Virginia Tech is well positioned to attract revenue through new students and donors.  Perhaps most telling, black bears are considered “game” in Virginia, which suggests to me that this program might serve to protect hunting revenue more than bears. I’m not sure how appealing that narrative would appear on the campus tour.

Man measuring a bear cubA bear cub is “measured” at Virginia Tech

Institutional review boards are maintained at all universities that engage research on humans or nonhumans, but the fact is that a considerable amount of violence is enacted on Nonhuman Animals in the name of science and for the benefit of the university and its faculty and degree-seekers. Conservation rhetoric only serves to green-wash anthroparchal violence. Fishes and bears aren’t just data–they’re sentient individuals.  Keep in mind that there are nonlethal methodologies that can be employed to monitor free-living species. Resistance to alternatives speaks to the anthropocentric, domineering attitudes that are legitimated under the rhetoric of environmental protection. Conservation programs may superficially claim a respect for nonhumans and ecosystems, but the violence enacted on vulnerable bodies in the research process demonstrates that the true lesson is one of human supremacy.


The interview with Jonathan Balcombe I have discussed above can be accessed on ARZone.

You can read more about science as an institution of speciesist oppression in A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory(Palgrave 2016).

This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 9, 2013.