When it comes to wildlife we can be pretty hypocritical. On the one hand, most people would agree that protecting wildlife is a good thing; we are encouraged to nurture them, to see them thrive. We place great care and attention on 'endangered species', who may have been cruelly and relentlessly persecuted and had their vital habitat destroyed, and we rightly champion heightened protections for these animals.
But if we decide that wild animals are a nuisance, are thriving too well or even posing a perceived threat to people, property or other animals, we label those animals 'pests' or 'vermin'. We then devote an enormous amount of time and resources to attempting to exterminate them in a wide range of exceptionally cruel ways.
Mice and rats are perhaps the most vilified of all 'pests'. We routinely poison them with toxins that cause them to die from internal bleeding over many days; we allow the sale (for as little as 99p) of glue traps, sticky boards which clog the animals' eyes and noses and cause fur and limbs to be torn off as they try in vain to escape; we set spring traps that malfunction and break legs and backs instead of killing instantly - we even have laws in the UK that exempt spring traps for 'small ground vermin' from government testing for humaneness.
This is a human-animal conflict that can affect us all - most of us will encounter mice or even rats in our living or work environments at one time or another, and businesses can spend millions of pounds every year trying to exterminate these tiny creatures. Sometimes, having unwanted wildlife setting up home nearby is little more than a nuisance and greater tolerance should be encouraged. Other times they can pose a risk to human health, other animals, or property, and in these cases it's clearly not an option to accept co-habitation. Action is needed, but should action mean automatically reaching for lethal traps and poisons? On what grounds is it believed that mass killing will be a permanent fix? Might there be a less cruel and more effective way to remedy the situation?
International wildlife and animal welfare experts have been asking exactly these questions, and their conclusions could turn traditional 'pest control' on its head. In a paper published this year in the Journal of Conservation Biology, twenty authors, including HSI's own John Griffin, challenge the assumptions that underpin much lethal 'pest control' and champion a shift towards ethical and evidence-based approaches to managing conflict with wildlife. They propose seven key questions to be posed in order to guide decisions on the need for, and type of, wildlife control. This is clearly important for the untold millions of 'pests' who are killed in a myriad of inhumane ways, but it's also of vital relevance for the people hoping to achieve sustainable solutions to problems with wild animals.
For example, the homeowner overrun with mice must ask him or herself: what human behaviours have contributed to the rodents moving in in the first place? A readily available food source, combined with easy access and warmth are the likely temptations; remove or change those things and the problem will likely resolve itself. Conversely, the homeowner can lay poison or glue traps for mice and will be doing so indefinitely as long as he or she keeps a tempting cardboard box of bird food under the kitchen sink and small holes around pipework through which the little animals can squeeze.
By taking a step back and understanding the nature and cause of the conflict, lethal control can be minimised or even eliminated, and animal welfare can be improved, whilst advancing a more effective and permanent solution. Identifying the human behaviour that is almost always the source of the conflict, and then changing it, is key to changing the way wildlife interact with us.
The 'pest' control industry needs to keep evolving, both because of consumer demand for ethical and humane control, and because overuse of poisons and some types of traps is resulting in rodenticide resistance and learned avoidance behaviours. We congratulate the companies that are leading the curve on this 'ethical wildlife management' revolution, such as Superproof, Humane Wildlife Deterrence and Humane Wildlife Solutions, as well as umbrella bodies such as the British Pest Control Association, whose Wildlife Management Code of Conduct advocates a more progressive and holistic approach.
Our research suggests that there is considerable room for improvement in the services and advice offered by many local authorities, plus we see a need for a major clamp down on ubiquitous DIY pest control products, many of which are not only cruel but also often a waste of money.
Our campaign to ban glue traps and take the cruelty out of wildlife management has already enjoyed support from wildlife champions such as Chris Packham, Nick Baker and Iolo Williams. Now, along with the RSPCA, Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, and other partners, HSI UK will be working with industry and government stakeholders to provide evidence and insights that will help reconceive traditional 'pest control' into 'Ethical Wildlife Management', based on those seven key questions. And we will continue to champion a philosophical shift: the re-branding of 'pest' species as simply successful wildlife, who are equally deserving of protection from suffering as all other animals.