Ethics in Wildlife Medicine
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2011
LoraKim Joyner, DVM, MPVM, MDiv

Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife, One Earth Conservation, Gainesville, FL, USA


Component wildlife ethics includes two aspects: an understanding of ethical principles, and skills in ethical deliberation. Ethical principles reviewed here include utilitarianism, deontological ethics, environmentalism or respect for nature, virtue ethics, relational ethics, care ethics, and reverence for life ethics. Other processes and tools that take into account human sociology, behavior, and subconscious functioning in moral decision making include narrative ethics, socioscience, listening and communication skills, and needs-based ethics. By instituting ethical practices and programs within our wildlife and conservation management plans and organizations we improve our ability to care for ourselves, other humans, wildlife, and ecosystems.


Wildlife veterinarians encounter a plethora of moral and ethical dilemmas, which can lead to social conflict as well as burnout and stress. Daily choices are made to proportion care to patients, staff, themselves, species, ecosystems, and to the people who live in the communities around them. This choosing process between interests of self and others is what we know as ethical deliberation. As one ethics professor once said, “Life is full of tragic choices. There is no correct ethical stance over another, only the presence of one another to support us as we engage to make difficult decisions in our life.”

Getting support for component ethical deliberation is no easy task. Veterinary students often get only brief exposure to ethics, and some none at all. This presentation is meant to support the wildlife veterinarian by first giving and overview of ethical principles, and then suggesting tools that support the process of ethical deliberation.

Principal Ethical Approaches

Learning ethics happens best when situated in real-life situations in which the participant is enmeshed. The following situation exemplifies various ethical principles, which the reader can use as they deliberate upon their own situation involving wildlife that caused some confusion, conflict, or emotional reaction. Ethics is best practiced when we choose real life circumstances that engage our moral sensibility. The example I portray is that of avian conservation where we captive breed birds for reintroduction into the wild.


Utilitarianism bases decisions in terms of better or worse. You are basically approaching a case as a cost versus benefit analysis. You are also looking to maximize good, which means considering the needs of humans. Whatever decision you make can be justified because the final outcome causes less harm than if you had not acted. The end result justifies the means.

In this case of threatened populations of parrots, the stress and possible negative welfare of caging birds is mitigated by the greater good of keeping a species from going extinct. Some individuals will suffer in captivity, while others experience stress and death after release, but it is all for the greater good.

Deontological Ethics

This approach on the other hand lifts up the worth and dignity of every individual as the ultimate good. This is known as Kantian ethics, named for Immanuel Kant. He said that humans have an intrinsic worth that is dignity and should therefore be treated always as an end and never merely as a means. The same applies for nonhumans. Basically, this is a rule based on that one can say, “We never treat another in this way under any circumstances.” Animals are not a means to an end.

In the case of having wild birds in captivity, and then releasing their young into the wild, one could say that under no circumstances is it worth keeping a nondomestic bird in a cage, or to release a relatively naïve bird into a situation with a fair likelihood of predation, or even starvation. It is never okay to harm an individual, even for the greater good.

Environmentalist/Respect for Nature

Sometimes at odds with both deontological and utilitarian ethics is environmentalism or “Respect for Nature.” In this approach, humans have duties to species, not just to individual animals. Our moral concern is not whether a wild animal can live according to its evolved set of behaviors (deontological ethics says the individual animal has absolute integrity which cannot be violated) or what might cause the greatest harm to individuals or a group of individuals (utilitarianism). What we hold up as ultimate value is the preservation of a species.

Virtue Ethics

In virtue ethics we relate to animals in ways that makes us a virtuous person, or the best person we can be. For instance, we say that a virtuous veterinarian cares for all animals. In the case of the parrots, we might elect to release only intensively trained and physically robust birds into the wild because a virtuous veterinarian protects species and also is caring for individuals so as to minimize harm.

Relational, Care, and Reverence for Life Ethics

These are three approaches that are similar in some ways to virtue ethics because how an animal is cared for depends on how humans relate to the animal. In relational ethics, if we see our relationship to animals as stewards or as veterinarians, then we are inclined to take care of the individual birds as well as possible. However, relational ethics does not tell us how to care for the bird and does not take into account the individual bird. It is our relationship to the bird that matters most. With care ethics, we draw on our empathy and say if an animal suffers, then we are obligated to do all we can do to care for them.

The term “Reverence for Life” comes from Albert Schweitzer, who said, “In this sense, reverence for life is an absolute ethic. It does not lay down specific rules for each possible situation. It simply tells us that we are responsible for the lives about us. It does not set either maximum or minimum limits to what we must do.”

Similar to reverence, Tomas Regan writes of inherent worth. For him, every species has a distinctive kind of value that is inherent in their existence. They are a cup that is precious in its own right, no matter what we might fill the cup with our definitions of “animal” or “species”. No matter how we see the species, or imagine their thinking, feeling, behavior, and capacity to suffer, all species are valuable and have inherent worth.3 It is not what our thinking, current philosophy, or cultural constructs that determine our care, but the existence of the animal her or himself.

Hybrid Ethical Views

“The opportunity to combine elements...does not, however, make it easier to formulate a plausible, logically consistent account of human duties to animal.”5

No matter which ethical principles we eschew, in a very real, pragmatic, and tragic sense we compromise our values consistently. In fact, the only consistent approach to ethics is that we all are inconsistent. Because of this it behooves us to emphasize the process of ethical deliberation which gives us skills to challenge our assumptions, take into account the “subconscious decision process,” and bring people together for sustained ethical deliberations. The following are ethical processes and tools which can aid the wildlife veterinarian.

Ethical Processes and Other Tools

Narrative Ethics

In narrative ethics, stories are told about ethical choices. While speaking the teller is able to clarify their own needs and values, as are the listeners. These stories take the form of case examples that highlight moral guides to living the good life, not just in practice of medicine but in all aspects of one’s life. These narratives of witness with their experiential truth and passion, compel re-examination of accepted medical practices and ethical precepts, which in turns allows us as a community to develop our ethical abilities. Using narrative ethics which emphasizes communication does not preclude the use of principle ethics. Indeed, both contribute to understanding moral life and the process of ethical decision making in healthcare situations.2


Mark Twain once said, “The physician who knows only medicine, knows not even medicine.” Socioscience guides the veterinary team member in knowing more than medicine.1 It is similar to narrative ethics in that those in science and medicine take time out to examine the ethical implications of their work through intentional periods of presenting and discussing ethical case reports. During these case reports, socioscience stresses morality and ethics as well as the interdependence between science, medicine, and society. It focuses on growing the individual through relational challenges that focus on complex ethical situations, and that involve science and human communities. Relational skills and growth are paramount because habits of mind may suffice for decisions and actions initiated by an individual, but do not suffice for real-life complex situations in today’s world where the veterinarian strives for flourishing of self, family, staff, nonhuman animal, broader communities, global society, and earth habitats full of other species.

Listening and Communication as an Ethical Art in Empathetic Discourse

Full listening helps us attune to others and their internal states. When another person feels heard and receives empathy, they in turn are in a better place to listen to you, as well as to recognize their own emotional state without it being overridden by concerns of threat from without. We can use communication and empathy in a process known as transformational reasoning. This occurs when one can clearly internalize and articulate the thoughts, arguments, or position of another. One’s reasoning becomes integrated with that of another.6 In socioscience processes, we begin with the presentation of controversial science or medical case studies and then participants take turns arguing various viewpoints. It is important to repeat back what one has heard and to argue the case you don’t agree with. In this process of “pretending” to take the other side, one actually gains in empathy for other positions, and grows in sophistication with one’s newly acquired and more integrated ethical approaches. Participants can also be urged to build consensus regarding the issue to further expand their abilities in discourse.

Needs Based Ethics and Compassionate Communication

In needs-based ethics we integrate our mind’s conscious and subconscious functions by discussing the needs of all individuals and species. It is an ethic of compassion in that we bring our feelings to the situation of ourselves and others so that we can empathize with others’ needs.

By equally considering the needs of all involved we can come up with creative, synergetic solutions that deliver the best care possible to the broadest constituency. This happens because keeping “all needs on the table” allows us to break free from ideologic stances or cultural constructs that might normally restrain us, such as animal rights versus animal welfare, or domination versus mutualism.

Where Do We Go From Here—Next Steps

Competent ethical discourse cannot be achieved by just one period of focus, or by one individual. The following action steps support individuals and organizations by setting up research, study, and practice together.

1.  Organize a study group which reads and discusses relevant texts.

2.  Organize an ethical practice group to develop skills and confidence in ethical deliberation (and to challenge your unchecked assumptions).

3.  If you belong to an organization, do #1 and #2 within your group.

4.  If you are individual, seek companions who will join you, or alternatively find a partner with whom to learn and confide.

5.  Present and discuss ethical case reports within your medical team.

6.  As AAZV, we can present ethical and human dimension lectures at meetings and provide opportunities to practice ethical deliberation at conferences and symposiums.

7.  As AAZV we can form an ethical guidance committee to support these processes within the organization and to support members.

Literature Cited

1.  Joyner, L. 2009. The socioscientific arts of avian medicine. Proc Annu Conf Assoc Avian Vet. 239–250.

2.  McCarthy, J. 2003. Principlism or narrative ethics: must we choose between them? Med Humanities. 29:65–71.

3.  Regan, T. 2004. The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, Berkley, CA.

4.  Rosenberg M. 2003. Nonviolent Communication: The Language of Life. Puddledancer Press, Encinitas, CA.

5.  Sandhoe, P, and S.B. Christiansen. 2008. Ethics of Animal Use. Blackwell Publishing, West Sussex, UK.

6.  Zeidler D.L. et al. 2004. Beyond STS: A research-based framework for socioscientific issues education. Science Education. 89(3):357–377.


Speaker Information
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LoraKim Joyner, DVM, MPVM, MDiv
Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife
One Earth Conservation
Gainesville, FL, USA

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