Human Dimensions of Avian Conservation
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2011
LoraKim Joyner, DVM, MPVM, MDiv
Lafeber Conservation and Wildlife, One Earth Conservation, Gainesville, FL, USA


Conservation teams are increasingly focusing on the human dimensions of avian conservation. Research in and application of human dimensions include conservation psychology, ethnoornithology, and social and emotional intelligence. Conservation psychology takes into account the science of human behavior and then coaches people to care by integration cognition, emotions, and behavior. Ethnoornithology studies the relationships between humans and birds and uses this information to form more inclusive and effective conservation teams. Social and emotional intelligence emphasizes communication skills, empathy, and cognitive integration. Examples are given of all three fields used in the author’s avian conservation practices. Though it is not possible for everyone involved in wildlife to become proficient with the sociologic aspects of human and wildlife relationships, there is much merit in forming multidisciplinary teams that include social scientists or facilitators to help us navigate the complexity of human thinking and behavior.


Fully instantiated, care includes cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. In order to care people must be informed, people must feel, and people should act in ways that will express both their knowledge and their emotions.1

Up to 30–50% of conservation projects in Mexico fail not due to funding restrictions or characteristics of the species or habitat, but due to interpersonal conflict and lack of social capital.6 Furthermore, socioeconomic issues impacting the quality of life of humans correlates with the ability of individuals and communities to partner in conservation plans. Since science and conservation does not exist in a vacuum without human agents or human culture, increasingly conservation teams incorporate social scientists in their multidisciplinary teams. Three fields of study employed by such professionals, conservation psychology, ethno-ornithology, and social and emotional intelligence offer tools for avian conservation.

Conservation Psychology

The field of conservation psychology takes what we know about the science of human behavior and the interdependence between humans and nature and then seeks to promote a healthy and sustainable relationship between them.1 Conservation psychology persistently and deeply asks what is the human place in nature, and what is nature’s place in the human being? These questions are asked so that we can sustain care. Conservation psychology coaches people to care by integrating cognition, emotions, and behavior. Given that 60% of the earth’s ecosystems being used unsustainably, led Clayton and Myers to urgently ask, “Where are the psychologists on conservation research teams?”1

If they were present they would guide others in understanding the intersection between behavior and values, attitudes, value orientation, ideologies, and a plethora of cognitive constructs. Although cognition is an important aspect of their work, how people think may not be the key influence on any specific behavior impacting the environment or animals. Instead, emotion drives moral behavior, and reason comes in afterwards in what we would call “rationalization.” Research suggests that emotion is an important indicator of sustainable behaviors. For example, by encouraging students to “try to imagine how a bird feels” researchers were able to increase emotions associated with empathy, and this empathic response in turn correlated to a greater willingness and obligation to help nature.1 Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the place of conspecifics or hetrospecifics.

Human structures of values also impact our behavior, often subconsciously, and “understanding every human group’s structure of values is a prerequisite for conservation work.”1 Findings suggest that “values related to conformity, tradition, security, and self enhancement support utilitarian views toward wildlife, while values related to openness to change and self-transcendence support more protectionist, aesthetic, and mutualistic views toward wildlife.”3

These values then orient in different combinations, of which two are prominent in North America: domination, and mutualism or egalitarianism.4 “The stronger one’s domination orientation, the more likely he or she will be to prioritize human wellbeing over wildlife, accept actions that result in death or other intrusive control of wildlife, and evaluate treatment of wildlife in utilitarian terms. A mutualism wildlife value orientation, in contrast, views wildlife as capable of living in relationships of trust with humans, as life-forms having rights like those of humans, as part of an extended family, and as deserving caring and compassion.” Differences in these orientations result in conflict and difficulty in developing conservation strategies that address different needs and desires.

Conservation psychology helps us understand and normalize why we are different and then helps us engage in individual and social processes that enable us to work together. These processes help people communicate and hence gain knowledge, feel, and integrate cognitive and emotive functions with behavior. One process of behavioral change is applied behavioral analysis (ABA), popular with companion birds as well as with humans. If people can be given frequent positive feedback in discrete small steps, their behavior can change.1

Other processes include environmental education (including offering practical and doable actions to care for animals and ecosystems), practice in ethical and moral course, such as socioscience6 and wildlife ethics, learning and applying emotional and social intelligence, promoting autonomy supportive environments,1 promoting opportunities for meaning making and hope, and studying societal structures such as group identity, power differences in wealth, politics, privilege, biophilic and spiritual tendencies, and knowing and using local knowledge of birds (ethnoornithology).

Ethnoornithology of Conservationists in Central America

Ethnoornithology “explores how peoples of various times and places seek to understand the lives of the birds round them.”4 It studies the relationships between humans and birds. Research methods include collecting copious notes of events, as well as conducting interviews and surveys while being immersed in the culture. To understand how the people working in the complex and often discouraging situation of conservation in Central America thought of birds, I conducted ethnoornithologic research targeting conservationists working in Central America in 2009–2011. My goal was to see what motivated them to do this work, how they made meaning of their work, and how we could use this understanding to support and improve our efforts.

I found that the major meaning activity was the work itself (collecting data and applying knowledge to improve the lives of birds) and the times when teamwork was most manifest. Meaning making also happened frequently around meals when stories were told of the work and experiences. Also, meaning evolved during the collection and review of media, such as photographs and videos. While watching media, the gathered partake in both silent storytelling as well as spoken meaning making as they talk about what they are seeing. Meanings that frequently surfaced regarding their efforts included: love, conversion, calling, insiders/outsiders, interconnection, death, hope, end times (eschatology, apocalypse), sacrifice, service, suffering, compassion, worth and dignity, awe, wonder, social justice, prophetic voice, resistance, solidarity. Having time for meaning making activities allowed the team to work together more affectively across differences of class, ethnicity, language, gender, religion, age, values, and behavior patterns.

Social and Emotional Intelligence

Each conservation area requires particular strategies that fit the species, people, cultures, ecosystem, and limiting factors in the environment and human communities. Conducting location specific research in the fields of ethnoornithology and psychology adds to our understanding of limiting factors as well as potential resources to guide behavior. Behavior that we often elect to change includes use and misuse of environmental resources, trapping and hunting of birds and other wildlife, and social relationship skills.

Improving relational skills and the way we communicate aids conservation teams to work with greater satisfaction and effectiveness. For instance, human physicians experience high rates of burn out and the number of malpractice suits is correlated to impaired communication and shorter patient visits. Spending time with staff and patients decreases the chance for compassion fatigue. Superb leaders in human services are not those with greater knowledge or technical skill, but those with highly developed interpersonal skills like empathy and conflict resolution.7 Medical staffs perform better when they feel they have a secure base to work from, such as an organization that operates with a high level of social intelligence. Social intelligence is the ability to act from understanding our interior lives (intrapersonal skills) and our lives in relationship to others (interpersonal skills). The more attentive we can be to the emotions and status of another person or animal, the more likely we are able to respond with greater care, in more ambiguous situations, and more quickly. To be more attentive to another person, we strive to understand them, as well as ourselves.

Social intelligence also contributes to organizational management of conservation teams. Cutting edge business leadership models focus on empathy and deep listening within the organization to improve success. The shift is from producing results to producing the growth of people who produce great results.3 Success depends on both intrapersonal and interpersonal skill development, which grows businesses and relationships. Life giving relationships are the powerful engine of successful organizations, and compassion and empathy are great tools for increasing power in organizations. Positive emotions make a difference in a workplace as do expectations and clarity of how we are to “treat one another” on a day-to-day basis. Practices that produce positive emotional encounters result in individuals with higher commitments to the organization.


In the avian conservation projects with which I work, I recruit several human dimension aspects to the conservation plan. For instance, I offer training in social and emotional intelligence focusing mostly on a communication system known as nonviolent communication.5 This training happens for all members of the team to improve relationships, commitment, and synergistic creativity, as well as give them tools to work with the multitude of human communities with which we interact. We do this so we can improve communication, bring all constituents fully engaged to the planning table, and positively impact behavioral patterns that are ultimately harmful to individuals, communities, birds, and the ecosystems. I also plan time for meaning making activities, including discussion, so that we can grow our empathy towards one another, construct shared meanings, engage in ethical discourse, and normalize and constructively utilize any overt or hidden conflict. Finally, I stress the importance of social science research in our conservation plans, often conducting this work myself.


To escape ecological destruction we must overcome our fear of authentic psychologic development and attend to the human dimensions of our work. Using social intelligence to communicate and become increasingly self-reflective can also lower the high risk of addiction, suicide, and stress persistent in veterinary medicine. For our own sakes and for the planet’s, I invite us as a profession and organization to learn and utilize human behavior, or collaborate with those that do, so that we can train ourselves to take better care of one another and the human communities and birds whom we serve.

Literature Cited

1.  Clayton S., and G. Myers. 2009. Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.

2.  Hunn E.S. 2010. Forward. In: Tidemann S, and A. Gosler (eds). Ethno-Ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Cultures, and Society. Earthscan, London, UK. xi–xii.

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

4.  Manfredo, M.J. 2008. Who Cares About Wildlife? Social Science Concepts for Understanding Human-Wildlife Relationships and Other Conservation Issues. Springer Press, New York, NY.

5.  Rosenberg, M. 2003. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddle Dancer Press, Encinitas, CA.

6.  Rubio-Espinosa, M. 2010. El capital social como herramienta de conservación communitarian de los recurosos naturales in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mesoamericana. 2:114.

7.  Senge P., Scharmer C.O., Jaworski J., and B.S. Flowers. 2004. Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society. Doubleday, NY, NY.


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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