07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Using Hamsters to Save Ferrets: The Need for Compassionate Conservation

Should human beings feed live golden hamsters to black-footed ferrets? This provocative question leads to many others about how we interact with nonhuman animals (hereafter, animals). As a focal point for dealing with these deliberations, we've chosen reintroduction projects in which an attempt is made to reintroduce individuals of a given species to areas where they once thrived. These projects often involve balancing the interests or right to life of individuals of one species with those of another, and balancing the interests of individuals with concerns for the integrity of entire populations, species, or ecosystems.

A number of ethical questions arise that warrant serious consideration because we, human beings with large brains, self-centered importance, and a tendency to be thoroughly and uniquely invasive, can do anything we want to other animals and their habitats. Ethics must be firmly implanted in conservation biology even if these discussions move us outside of our comfort zones and even if it means some projects must be put on hold either temporarily or forever. Many conservationists are concerned about the widespread loss of critical habitat as we redecorate nature. The wellbeing of animals is often less emphasized. But loss of habitat is not only an environmental matter; it also influences animals and so gains the attention of animal advocates.

The question "Should individuals of a prey species be used to train the hunting skills of predatory animals who are candidates for reintroduction?" raises issues regarding the importance of recognizing that the lives of individual animals matter. Consider the black-footed ferret recovery program. To prepare these endangered captive-bred predators to hunt in the wild, people working in this program provide them with live black-tailed prairie dogs and golden hamsters. The hamsters are bred solely for this purpose. Their fate is sealed, though their deaths aren't easy. Surely these sentient rodents endure pain and suffering when they are sought by the ferrets, especially hamsters who encounter a poorly trained or poorly skilled hunter. And surely their fear is immense, as they are placed in enclosures with predators who are trying to kill them. Just watch their defensive behavior and look into their eyes. You'll sense the same fear as you would in a terrified dog.

In email correspondence the people responsible for managing the ferret-hamster encounters stated,

In 2008 we fed out approximately 3,200 hamsters and in 2009 we fed out approximately 4,100 hamsters. They are fed out either live (70%) or dead (30%) depending on supply. Hamsters are euthanized using CO2 as approved from the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines on Euthanasia. All hamsters are produced at the Ferret Center.

So, in one recent two-year period, 7,300 hamsters were "produced" - bred to be killed - and fed to the ferrets. Of this number, about 5,100 were offered alive to these developing predators. In addition to the hamsters, in 2008 and 2009 a reported 2,466 black-tailed prairie dogs were supplied to the ferret program by various sources. Sixty percent of these animals were fed alive to the ferrets.

Is the use of these helpless hamsters as training bait permissible? Do their lives count less than those of the ferrets? Hamsters are sentient mammals who share with humans the same neural structures that are important in processing emotions. These animals also have keen senses of smell and hearing and therefore it is highly likely they are aware of the suffering of other hamsters being killed by the ferrets. A study published in 2006 in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science showed that mice are empathic rodents who feel the pain of other mice.

We consider the use of hamsters and prairie dogs to be impermissible. We are not anti-black-footed ferrets, but pro-hamsters, speaking on their behalf. The project is unacceptable as long as live animals are used as bait.

We also need to ask why would we want to reintroduce animals such as black-footed ferret in the first place? Are they that important to the ecosystems in which they used to live or are to be reintroduced? Could the enormous amounts of money and time devoted to this project be used in more productive ways? It's been estimated that when only released surviving ferrets are considered, the cost may be as high as one million dollars per animal.

It is in the best traditions of science to ask questions about ethics. Why do people who get upset at the abuse of other animals permit the use of hamsters? If you had a hamster friend would you allow him or her to be used in this project? If you are an ethical vegetarian or vegan how do you defend the intentional breeding and killing of hamsters as meals for ferrets?

The use of hamsters also offers an uninspiring and confusing message for children, future ambassadors for a more compassionate and peaceful planet. There are no ethical principles of which we are aware that could be offered in humane/conservation education that would allow hamsters or other animals to be used to train predators.

Individuals count when we consider how we treat other animals. Animals aren't mere resources or property. We suggest the guiding principles for all of our interactions with animals should be: (1) do no intentional harm, (2) respect all life, (3) treat all individuals with compassion, and (4) tread lightly when stepping into the lives of other animals. These principles form the foundation of a global moral imperative to expand our compassion footprint to which we all should aspire. The harm done to hamsters violates these principles, as it constitutes premeditated and intentional harm.

We must rewild our hearts and build corridors of compassion and coexistence. We do not own the world and when we ignore this fact it is to our peril and loss. We suffer the indignities we impose on other beings. We need more compassionate conservation.

(This essay was written with David Crawford)