28 Jul 2021

The ethics and costs of saving wild animals

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 July 2021
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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

For more than two weeks, the plight of Toa, the baby orca stranded on rocks north of Porirua after he was separated from his pod, gripped the nation.

News bulletins provided hourly updates. Volunteers braved the cold to help feed the orca and keep him company. Conservationists searched desperately from land, sea and air to reunite Toa with his mother, or find another pod to integrate him into.

But in the end, the search was fruitless: last Friday, Toa's condition rapidly worsened, and the orca died, to be laid to rest by members of the local iwi.

Even during his last days, Toa's predicament raised interesting questions: why did we care so much about his fate? To what extent should humans interfere with the cold indifference of nature? How much resource, both financial and otherwise, should we be expending to keep this single killer whale alive?

On today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks with Otago University bioethicists Asher Soryl and Dr Elizabeth Fenton about the ethical conundrums Toa's story raised - and whether, in dying, this saga may indeed have taught us something valuable.

"These tragedies happen all the time in nature", says Dr Elizabeth Fenton.

"We're not involved, we're not aware of them. That doesn't make them any less tragic, but it is part of the way nature works. We can't save everything.

"It can sound very heartless to say, 'well, we let nature take its course'. But there are environmental ethicists who argue that when we interfere, we diminish this creature's wildness. And perhaps that means that not interfering is, in that argument, ethically preferable."

Asher Soryl says he understands that argument.

"I think any effort we can make to help wild animals ... is generally good.

"What are the reasons for wanting to help humans? Some humans suffer needlessly, and if we can do something to prevent their suffering, we think we have good moral reasons to do so.

"That extends to non-humans as well. Many non-humans have the capacity to suffer, they have an interest in living, in nurturing relationships with family members ... so, I think (helping animals) is certainly something worth doing."

The cost of keeping Toa alive ran over $10,000 - a fact pointed out by the Taxpayers' Union, which suggested, perhaps in jest, that Toa could 'pay his own way', floating the idea that people could pay to visit the orca at his paddling pool.

Elizabeth Fenton says it's perfectly reasonable to discuss the amount of resources pumped into an ultimately futile effort to keep Toa alive.

But she says such decisions shouldn't always be made solely on the basis of dollars and cents.

"It's not just about how much money it cost ... did that whole exercise result in something more valuable? Was there something of greater value achieved? Do we learn something, do we enhance our relationship with the natural world through these rescue efforts?

"The numbers don't always add up if you're just toting up the numbers. But there is something to be said for the desire to save an identified life."