University Scholars Exploration Series – Animal Conservation

Each semester, the University Scholars enroll in small-group, discussion-based seminars. Barbara Tsao ’17, a biomedical sciences major and Undergraduate Research Scholar, participated in the Animal Conservation seminar this spring. Here, she explores the philosophical implications of the course topics.

By Barbara Tsao ’17

See, Brothers; Spring is here.
The earth has taken the embrace
of the Sun, and soon we shall see
The children of all that love.
All seeds are awake, and all animals.
From this great power we too have our lives.
And therefore we concede
to our fellow creatures
even our animal fellows,
The same rights as ourselves
To live on this earth.

                                                   -Sitting Bull, Plains Indians Chief

(Fuchs and Havighurst 1972, p. xv)

University Scholar Barbara Tsao '17
University Scholar Barbara Tsao ’17

At first glance, the issue of animal conservation is not decidedly controversial if approached from an entirely scientific mindset. Indeed, there is an undeniable consensus in the scientific community that animal conservation is essential for reasons such as preserving genetic biodiversity, maintaining the biological balance of ecosystems, and promoting the overall health of the planet. But beyond prospects ultimately connected to human survival, the argument for animal conservation becomes increasingly complex, and subsequently, interesting. In truth, the heart of the debate surrounding animal conservation involves elements of religion, culture, economics, and morality – all topics that leave a great deal of room for subjectivity. One may even claim that the controversy surrounding animal conservation is not even about whether it should be pursued; it is about how it must be pursued. For example, is it strictly a human survival concern or is it also an ethical matter? This spring semester, the University Scholars Animal Conservation Seminar undertook this extensive topic in order to acquire a greater understanding for the roots of the controversy and the holistic solutions we can provide in exchange.

In the beginning of the semester, we delved into the philosophical origins that affect our modern worldviews of animal conservation. We discussed how Native American and Hindu cultures are intrinsically respectful to the spiritual and societal status of wildlife. We then compared this ideology to the Judaeo-Christian theology of the Western world that believed that animals existed solely for the use of man. This latter attitude still lives on in the aggressive practices of American capitalism today, while the former attitude dwindles along with the exploitation of the indigenous people that sustain it.

Nevertheless, our seminar encountered a variety of modern attempts to foster a more conscious position on animal conservation. These efforts have primarily taken ethical manifestations in the animal rights and animal welfare movements. The animal rights movement in particular has made massive strides by combating entertainment groups (ex. Ringling Bros and SeaWorld) through litigation and slander, and perhaps indicates a cultural shift toward anthropomorphism. However, data still suggests these efforts are not effective in the absence of sensationalist animal injustice stories. Furthermore, the animal rights movement inherently contradicts the modern practices of animal and habitat exploitation. Progress in the ethical motivations behind animal conservation is indeed especially without the incorporation of Mother Nature into the daily philosophy of the modern citizen.

Beyond philosophical considerations, our seminar engaged in extensive conversations with professors and researchers about their efforts in animal conservation and the number of real-world challenges that directly affect the human quality of life. The national bee shortage, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, chronic marine pollution, zoo conservation efforts, and feline genetic diversity are just a few of the many topics we covered. In our seminar about elephant conservation, we looked over reports of increasingly frequent and aggressive elephant attacks in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia as a result of psychological trauma from poaching and habitat reduction. Another challenge we reviewed was the collapse of large-fish populations in our oceans as a result of our overfishing for specific seafood. Throughout the course of the semester, it had become evident to my fellow honors colleagues and myself that if true progress is not made in animal conservation efforts, irreparable consequences will continue to occur.

As a final note, I firmly believe that our efforts in animal conservation cannot simply be reactive in nature. Consider this, if technological advances one day develop to where we can sustain our species without a need for the biodiversity our planet currently supports, should we still believe there is a need for animal conservation? The answer to this question can only be yes if we as species learn to see animals beyond a self-serving lens. True and long-lasting animal conservation is the act of recognizing value in life simply because it is life. Past civilizations developed intimate, trusting relationships with animals as a result of the demands of survival. There is no reason for our modernized generation to be detached from the natural world that is, if anything, more integrated with our lives than we may ever imagine.

University Scholars Gabby Lessen ’18 and Barbara meet the Winnie Carter Wildlife Center’s resident cat.
University Scholars Gabby Lessen ’18 and Barbara meet the Winnie Carter Wildlife Center’s resident cat.

 Freshmen are recruited each spring to join the University Scholars program. To learn more, please see:


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