Conservation pets: connecting with nature

An Ode to Jessie

Earlier in the year, I had made a comment that, as part of the natural evolution of this blog, I would try to change up the writing format every now and then to something a little more personal, emotional and potentially derivative from science. I must confess that this is one of those weeks, as it’s been an emotional rollercoaster for me. So, sorry in advance for the potentially self-oriented, reflective nature of this piece.

To anyone who knows me even remotely well, they will inevitably know of my cat, Jessie. I love her very dearly, and she has been an integral part of my life since she was adopted in 2007 (when I was 12). And while I love her for all of the rudimentary reasons any human being loves their pet – for their emotional connection, the support they provide, and the profound impact on our lives they have – she also represents something much greater to me. You see, while I’ve always felt an intrinsic connection to nature (and indeed, felt much closer to animals than I have with other people) Jessie wholly embodied this interactivity.

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As evidence of how long she’s been a part of my life, here’s a photo of me at age 17 (2011). Normally, a relative is the one who has to bring out the embarrassing old photos, but I thought I’d do it myself.

Through growing up with her, and her sometimes somewhat abstract behaviour, I gained a true appreciation of the complexities of animal behaviour. Understanding where we relate – and where we don’t – drove my curiosity and desire to study and learn more about animals. Some have said that I have ‘animal magnetism’: I’m not so arrogant as to necessarily agree with this, but I understand where that belief comes from. Figuring out how animals work has always been one of the greatest intellectual drives for me, and truly I have Jessie to thank for much of that.

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Our pets mean the world to us, and Jessie was no exception.

You might wonder what has spurred on this somewhat emotional rant. Over the course of the last week, Jessie has been chronically affected by what was assumed to be pancreatitis. However, after days of different various tests, IV drips and medication, it was determined that Jessie was suffering from late stage pancreatic cancer. She passed away yesterday, on the 21st of May, peacefully. In essence, this blog post is a eulogy, and my heart breaks at that thought.

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Vale, Jessie. You will be dearly missed.

The impact of pets

Undoubtedly, you are probably wondering what this has to do with anything or anyone else. Truthfully, Jessie herself probably has negligible impact on you as a reader. Naturally, however, she has been on my mind inescapably the last week, and how important she has been to me and my drive for science.

And perhaps that concept is more relatable to others than her story alone. Often, we think of pets as fulfilling some kind of service to people – to provide comfort and support, or to act in some kind of working role. But I would argue that pets provide the ultimate bond of Man and Beast as symbols of our everlasting connectivity to the nature that sustains us. For many, their experiences and bonds with pets allows us to feel the tangible connection to another non-human being and I find (anecdotally) that almost all animal-based scientists can recall of an experience with a pet from a young age.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the potential negative impacts on native fauna. This is especially the case for feral cats in Australia, which are reported to kill around 377 million birds each year and are one of the greatest threats to native biodiversity. Similar impacts can be attributed to feral dogs. From this end, finding effective ways to manage both the pets we love and the native fauna we must conserve is critical to the ongoing happiness of people and stability of environment.

Pets for conservation?

Interestingly, the connection between pets and conservation need not be as airy-fairy and spiritual as symbolism. There has been some debate around the premise of using an established pet trade as a conservation tool: by allowing the everyman to connect and care for native species, we may be able to best convince them to conserve the species. The economic resources that come from a pet trade might also be used to fund conservation efforts at the grass-roots level and contribute to a system which best supports their recovery. A related example of this is the vicuña of South America, which was once considered a pest species to local farmers due to competition with livestock. The development of a fibre trade presented a solid economic case for their conservation and their numbers have increased as a direct result. Another interesting application is the use of forensic dogs for discovering and tracking rare and endangered species.

Unsurprisingly, of course, there are severe negative impacts of the pet trade on endangered species that have been recorded. Particularly for many exotic species, live trade and wild capture is one of the greatest threats to their natural survivability, and spans from taxa as small as tropical fish to as big as the cheetah. These illegal pet trade industries do not consider, nor contribute, to the conservation of these species and concerns about this pattern following other species has hindered the possibility of conservation pets from development. This has become such a profound issue for some species that scientific papers have even removed their GPS locality data to prevent the information from being used in poaching.

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The illegal pet trade is devastating for many endangered species such as cheetah. Image source: Foreign & Commonwealth Office, UK.

Balancing the positive and negative outcomes of conservation pets is a tricky prospect, but one that merits discussion and research. In some niche examples, this already exists. For example, Saving Nemo is a program operating out of my university (Flinders) which aims to start a sustainable captive breeding program for clownfish to ease demand on wild-caught fish and provide an industry to support their conservation efforts.

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Captive breeding for pet trade might contribute to the conservation of clownfish. Photo taken by me at the Sydney SeaLife Aquarium.

Science is emotional

Regardless of the direct application of pets to conservation science, it’s important to remember that much of science originates from a place of emotion, of passion, of curiosity. To pretend that all of science is purely objective, statistical and emotionless undermines the value of scientific researchers and isolates science from the rest of society.

To this end, cherish your pets. Love them unconditionally, and from that experience empathise and care for the rest of the native wildlife that makes your place a home.

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