Animal Rescue In A Vegan World
As a society, we engage in a tremendous amount of wild-animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release. While our moral obligations to animals are negative in the sense that, in order to do right by them we simply have to refrain from using them as resources, it would be ludicrous to maintain that we have positive moral obligations where we are required to go out of our way to ensure that every single wild animal on the planet remains free from harm. That would be impossible in the human context, as well as the animal context. Incidental and accidental harm is an inevitable consequence of existence. The history of human kind is not only a history of violence, it’s a history of domination over the natural world, and it is high time that we left wild animals to their own devices. Recognising the inherent value of sentient beings (human and non) simply means that we do not deny that value by violating their rights and using them as replaceable resources, or property. We are vegan in recognition of their moral value, and we practice that recognition in all areas of our daily lives by treating similar interests similarly. In other words, we do not treat animals in ways that we would deem inappropriate to treat humans.
That being said, there is something innately just in altruism and the desire to help another sentient being in need. While we may not be morally obligated to intervene in all situations where a wild animal is in a state of natural distress, it would feel wrong not to. Indeed, our compulsion to help other sentient beings in need certainly feels like a moral obligation in those moments, and there is nothing wrong with that. This is where we can begin to make sense of words such as “compassion.” These words have no relevance when discussing our obligations to animals, in the same way they have no relevance when discussing our obligations to humans. Something is either right or wrong, regardless of whether a person is “compassionate.” Treating sentient beings as property and thereby denying their moral value is wrong. Invoking “compassion” where these negative moral obligations are involved is to inappropriately take the emphasis off the issue as a matter concerning fundamental rights – what is owed to others – and unnecessarily anthropomorphise a black and white moral issue. It falsely implies that there is some level of personal choice. One chooses to be compassionate; one cannot simply choose whether to violate another’s rights with moral impunity. That’s the difference.
Where wild animals are concerned – who are not the subject of rights violations – we can be compassionate and choose to go out of our way to help those who are in need. In doing so we are not downplaying the importance of respecting another’s rights. But as far as morality is concerned, “compassion” is irrelevant. People don’t have to be “compassionate” to respect fundamental rights.
There are, however, certain moral dilemmas we will need to face down the line. For example, a lot of the wild animals people help are carnivores. In a vegan world, helping such animals (by feeding them) would involve killing another animal in order to feed the one you’re helping. This would not be morally justifiable as it would involve valuing the life of one animal over another based on nothing but your own choice. You would be treating one animal exclusively as a resource in order to help another animal morally indistinguishable from the one you’re using. This is where we start seeing signs of where humans went off track in the first place. This constant interference with nature is what led us to where we are today. Making decisions that we have no right to make.
That being said, it isn’t all doom and gloom. We would still (and should) endeavour to help all animals in need the best we can without assuming others to be our resources. Herbivorous and omnivorous animals would not cause any issues, and indeed, so long as we’re not feeding carnivorous animals animal products, we would be able to help them in other ways or perhaps find another method of providing them vegan nourishment. It is important to remember, however, that our intervention in nature should be limited. These are situations that should only occur as a result of living in the world and coming across others in need by happenstance. Whether there is a worm who needs moving to safety, or a starving deer in the nearby forest desperate for food; perhaps a pigeon who has a broken wing, or a poorly mouse lost in the dewy grass. The moment we start interfering large scale in nature, we inevitably begin creating conflicts again that will involve the violations of rights.
For those engaging in wild animal rescue work now, I am aware that many feed carnivorous animals dog and cat food. Given that dog and cat food is a byproduct and not directly linked to increasing the demand for animals to be exploited – and while it isn’t morally justifiable to use another animal as a resource – it may be morally excusable to take care of that animal with a small amount of pet food if the alternative is to let that animal die.
It is important to bear in mind, however, that in a vegan world we will not have access to the byproducts of suffering and death (and rightly so). The onus is on us to think of creative ways in which we can live harmoniously with wild animals in nature with the least possible conflicts.