Photo by Fabian Keller on Unsplash

Exploring the Mutability of the Welfare-Conservation Divide Through the Eyes of ACRES

[Note: All names have been changed to maintain the anonymity of interviewees.]

As I arrive at the Animal Concerns, Research and Education Society’s (ACRES) wildlife rescue centre, I am first greeted by a cacophony of bird calls — an eclectic mix of crow, mynah, parrot and chicken — and the sight of three dogs, who I later learn are domesticated mongrels rescued by ACRES. I am then greeted by my human host Angeline, one of the staff at ACRES, who shows me around the centre, introducing me to the animals housed in the sanctuaries and the sick and vulnerable in the quarantine facility.

Figure 1. ACRES’ Instagram page featuring a variety of wild animals (ACRES, n.d.-a)

As their wildlife rescue efforts are front and centre on their social media pages (see Figure 1), it is no wonder that ACRES is often (mistakenly) thought of as an animal conservation organization by the public despite their best efforts to convey that they are actually an animal welfare organization, much to Angeline’s chagrin. Still, to the layman, the ideas of animal welfare and animal conservation have typically been thought of as interchangeable, with both seemingly achieving the same goal of animal care. Angeline, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of distinguishing between the two. To her, conservation has a specific focus on wildlife that encompasses discourses of interspecies relationships and the prioritization of conservation species over others, with the goal to protect only conservation species, and by extension, biodiversity. Conversely, welfare emphasises that every being’s life is of equal importance and should be cared for, focusing on human-animal relationships between individuals.

In this essay, I posit that the differences between the definitions of welfare and conservation are mutable, with our ideas of welfare and conservation evolving over time as we interact with other humans or animals. This welfare-conservation divide will be explored through a series of interviews with staff at ACRES, which constantly have to negotiate that same divide between public (and perhaps, their own) perception of ACRES as an animal conservation organization, and ACRES’ animal welfare-based practices and mission to “create a caring and socially responsible society where animals are treated as sentient beings” (ACRES, n.d.-b). Nevertheless, after an afternoon of interviews, it was apparent to me that not all of the interviewed staff could articulate a distinction or held the same view. This difference in opinion seemed to lie in direct correlation with the length of their tenure at ACRES. Angeline, having worked at ACRES for the past 18 years, was able to confidently articulate her opinion, while Benjamin, with his experience of 5.5 years at ACRES (1.5 years as staff, 4 years as a volunteer), seemed to understand there was a difference, but could not articulate it until Angeline “explained it to [him]”. The less experienced staff, Carmen and David, both saw the two ideas to be fundamentally the same.

This development in an individual’s ideas about welfare and conservation could be a result of their interaction with other humans or non-humans. At an organisational level, Angeline informs me that ACRES provides extensive training for their staff over a year, not solely to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge for their job, but also to align their values with that of the organisation. Not only is this expressed explicitly in staff training, but it is also instituted in their standard operating procedures. While many would not bother with the welfare of insects, ACRES has detailed measures put in place to ensure the welfare of the mealworms that are fed to the birds in their care, such as being fed a proper diet and the use of soft rubber tweezers to pick to them up to ease their pain. All meals at the animal rescue centre must also be vegetarian, to emphasise ACRES’ belief in “cruelty-free living” and “the ability to relate to other living things with compassion” (ACRES, n.d.-c). These guidelines inculcate habits that, hopefully over time, influence staff to adopt ACRES’ belief that the welfare of all animals matter, even those that are not usually considered.

Gradual shifts in one’s beliefs could also be shaped by more personal interactions with other humans. While starting off without an interest in animals, Benjamin grew to become an “animal lover” only after witnessing how passionate other staff were about animal welfare. Their strong desire to make a difference in the lives of animals and the impact they made changed his view on animals, he remarked. This could be due to the ‘majority effect’, a phenomenon whereby one’s opinions tend to sway to the majority in a group (Moussaïd, Kämmer, Analytis, & Neth, 2013), or ‘goal contagion’, when people instinctively seek goals discerned in the behaviour of others (Aarts, Gollwitzer, & Hassin, 2004).

It is not only other humans that influence one’s views on the welfare-conservation divide, but animals too. All animals at ACRES are given names, both to help caretakers to tell them apart, but also to allow them to be seen as unique individuals. By allowing this, the naming of the animals promotes the formation of human-animal bonds through the attribution of ‘personhood’ (Borkfelt, 2011; Fox, 2006). All interviewees noted that the accordance of human names facilitated the differentiation of individual and species behaviour, such as individual personalities, likes and dislikes, and the capacity for emotion. As Sanders (as cited in Fox, 2006) notes, pet-owners have acknowledged their pets’ “individuality and subjectivity” (Fox, 2006, p. 526) and are continuously establishing them as “‘minded’ social actors” (p. 527). The staff at ACRES extend this process to the non-domestic and bring themselves into “inter-subjective” (p. 527) relationships with individual animals at ACRES, in which both animal and human have agency. In our interview, Carmen explained that her belief that animals were highly similar to humans was born out of extended interaction with a pair of macaws that “displayed affection” and “grief”. This is an example of how that relationship between staff and animal — and consequently, the staff’s views of the individuality of the animals — are influenced by the extent of their human-animal interactions — the more time they spend with the animals, the more human-animal similarities they observe in behaviour and the display of emotion. Perhaps it is this extended interaction that further delineates their opinion of the difference between welfare and conservation — when a human is given the opportunity to witness the individuality of the animal, they are able to value each animal as its self.

In the end, perhaps the conclusion we can draw about the line between welfare and conservation is that the ideas of welfare and conservation are continually evolving in tandem with each other, both coming together and drifting apart. In the case of ACRES, as the organisation continues to emphasise the distinctiveness of the two concepts, we see the staff’s views on this divide shift together with their notions of non-human individuality through their interactions with both human and non-human beings. As we continue to seek a definition for both concepts that ultimately seek to protect animals from ourselves in the time of the Anthropocene, it is the mutability of the welfare-conservation divide that should bring hope for both proponents of animal welfare and animal conservationists. It means that it is possible to influence people’s ideas of welfare and conservation, and there is still time left for us to do so.


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