Captive Wildlife: A Predictable Biological and Commercial Failure

Captive Wildlife: A Predictable Biological and Commercial Failure

by Darrel Rowledge (Preventive Safety Research Inc. Calgary)

Wise observers have repeatedly warned of emerging challenges to our species and the biosphere that sustains it. Examples include Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Some view current threats as so overwhelming as to be unsolvable. Yet the issues are no more complex than many of our disciplines; and we face complicated, life-and-death challenges every day. We’ve split atoms and built super computers that will fit in a pocket. Well-trained airline pilots use a rigorous checklist before takeoff to minimize the risk of disaster. Doctors are well educated and employ comprehensive diagnoses and rigorous follow-up…

But if we have the capacity to understand, and the tools avoid pending threats, why are we failing? The simplified answer is that many of the factors causing the challenges (like short term greed) also afflict our electoral and legislative decision processes. Consider the effect: where the career performance of a pilot or doctor can affect tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives, in many instances policy decisions affect tens or hundreds of millions. Yet our legislators often have little training in policy analysis, and their decision processes are increasingly sketchy, seriously lacking in due diligence, and are often conducted behind closed doors.

One example is the policy recently threatening North American wildlife, through initiatives to farm and exploit ‘captive wildlife’ for private profit. Wildlife was long established as a public resource, a vital “public systems asset,” and the core of one of the world’s greatest known examples of sustainable development. Schemes to privatize, domesticate, and commercialize that wildlife were quietly legalized and promoted across the continent since the late 1980s. While no comprehensive analysis of existing agricultural policies had ever been attempted, the extension to exploit wildlife as “specialized livestock” was promoted as vital to save the family farm.

With the exception of a single jurisdiction (Wyoming), these privatization schemes neglected and then ignored the vital roles of the precautionary principle and full cost accounting. This continued even as significant impacts on public wildlife (including horrific diseases), and wildlife-based economies have been realized. These ‘captive wildlife’ schemes, quite incredibly, represent a de facto transfer of phenomenally valuable public assets to private industry, and, simultaneously, of that industry’s associated costs to the public. Facing both biological and economic failure, promoting governments responded with desperate searches for vaccines (utterly useless for wildlife) and further promotion and subsidization of the industry.

Meanwhile, by contrast and illustrative of the advantage of thoughtful analysis, almost all of the concerns and negative outcomes outlined in the state of Wyoming’s 1990 rejection of such privatization policy, have been borne out.

Clearly the time has come to engage in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of this policy on a continental scale. The issue of commercializing wildlife is only representative of our broader challenges, but the impacts are far-reaching, and the lessons profound.

Darrel Rowledge is an Alberta businessman and public policy analyst. He has spent over 25 years researching and writing on public policy and the interdisciplinary issues related to wildlife, economics, domestication and disease.