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Individual of endangered leatherback sea turtle

In 2007, Minnesota’s Habitat Conservation Partnership announced it reserved “100,000 acres and counting” of wildlife habitat.  What makes this project innovative is that these 100,000 acres are connected land, not isolated, checkered patches that often do more harm to wildlife than good.  Organizations allied in this partnership line the website’s sidebar and share their excitement for this “milestone” event.  These organizations include hunter advocacy groups like National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, and MN Deer Hunters Association.  I had to wonder, where are the animal rights groups in all of this?  Why weren’t they involved? 

Where are the animal rights organizations that rally to promote habitat preservation, corridor ecology, and ecological restoration?  Certainly they care as much about wildlife having space and food to live as hunters do.  I looked up two active animal rights groups in Minnesota, Animal Rights Coalition and Compassionate Action for Animals, and it turns out, when it comes to habitat conservation, they don’t have a stance.  They focus their efforts primarily on farmed animal advocacy and vegan outreach.  While farmed animals need all the help they can get, just because wildlife aren’t “visible” in society, they live and dwell among humans nonetheless and are thus impacted by social, economic, and political forces.

You would think that habitat destruction is a topic animal rights activists would talk about regularly.  But the concern is highly selective.  It’s not just the palm oil industry that destroys habitat.  It’s soy too, a common staple among vegans.  It’s cane sugar, it’s chocolate, it’s bananas, it’s conventional coffee, it’s anything made from fossil fuels, which includes damn near everything we use in the West.  The point I’m trying to make is that habitat is always an animal rights issue.  We can’t feasibly demand animals’ necessities for life without talking about habitat.

But rather than join the efforts for habitat conservation and bring animal rights concerns to the table (as many human rights activists have done in the last decade with environmental conservation), we simply don’t discuss habitat loss at all, and when we do, it’s isolated and reserved for “charismatic, exotic” animal species like gibbons, elephants, and orcas.  When I was a frustrated, confused student of natural resources and animal rights, I sought comfort from my mentor Allan Strong, an avian conservation ecologist and wildlife biology professor.  To my dismay, he told me I could choose habitat concerns or animal rights, but not both.  In his course “Conservation Biology,” he reminds a classroom majority of wildlife and fisheries biology and forestry students that conservation and animal rights do not mix.  I feverishly disagreed with him at the time.  It was preposterous, I thought, to assume that animal rights activists are not concerned with conservation issues and thus don’t have anything to offer.  It’s conservationists, with their attachment to sport hunting culture, that drive the wedge between an otherwise suitable collaboration.  Later did I learn that it wasn’t just conservationists driving the wedge.

The ongoing conflict between animal rights and animal welfare has left the animal rights movement even more isolated from the grand arena of addressing social and ecological problems.  Programs and conferences, like Compassionate Conservation, are emerging around the world now to explore the common ground of animal welfare and wildlife conservation.  Animal rights continue to be in the periphery of discussions concerning animals’ lives.  And the push for vegan lifestyles across the board may perhaps be sealing the deal for animal rights concerns ever having a stake in ecological issues involving animals.

Can we bridge ecological reality with animal legal protection?  Can animal rights ever become relevant to the ecological needs of animal species worldwide?  People like Marc Bekoff and Gay Bradshaw are certainly out there trying to bridge the divide, but two persons are not enough.  I’m challenging activists and scholars across North America working to secure civil protections for animals to become more ecologically literate.  Hunters cannot be the only group with a voice concerning wildlife habitat.  The need for space, place, and lifeways are necessary for all living beings; they are realities we cannot escape.  What use are rights for sea turtles if they no longer have places to live?