A few nights ago I watched an episode of the Australian program Outback Wildlife Rescue, in which one of the events centred on an operation to remedy the deformed tail of a young eastern grey kangaroo. The program pointed out that Australia has about 50 million kangaroos and I recalled how in some areas they're considered pests and professional shooters make a living killing them. The cost of fixing the tail of this young animal must have been enormous, even if the vet and his staff donated their time (I don't know how the centre's funded — probably from donations and grants?), and I found myself asking the inevitable question: "Why spend so much effort rescuing one kangaroo?" Surely the most sensible and practical option would have been to euthanase the kangaroo?
Then I started thinking harder, and some benefits of this huge effort became apparent.
First, the operation wasn't standard: not only had the vet never attempted it before, it's unlikely anyone had, and he had to work out much of what he had to do as he went along. The benefits are that the vet developed his skills and also added to the fund of knowledge about these kinds of operations — not just fixing kangaroos' tails, but operations on the tails of other animals, operations to correct the shape and position of vertebrae and other bones, operations to correct muscular imbalances and so on. Once we've repeated a procedure of any sort more than a few times, we learn better not by repeating the same procedure over and over, but by carrying out similar but not identical procedures. It's like rock climbing — once you know the sequence of moves, repeated ascents of the same climb don't improve your skills as much as working out the sequence of moves on other, different but similar climbs.
Another argument is that if we simply euthanased all injured kangaroos we wouldn't develop the same degree of knowledge about how to treat injured kangaroos when an important need arises — say, for example, when the marsupial star of a wildlife park falls lame. Moreover, as I've already pointed out, much of that knowledge will be transferable to other animals and, I suppose, in theory to humans, although I don't know the extent to which that kind of cross-over occurs (that knowledge comes far more from deliberate experiments on animals — and that, in the context of this discussion, is both acutely ironic and an entirely different, ethical issue).
But these arguments are practical, and although they're persuasive, the most compelling argument for me is simply that those seemingly extraordinary efforts to save the lives of common wild animals remind us that it's not just human lives that have value — and by "lives", I mean individual lives, not just species. This might be difficult to justify logically — the argument is not about instrumental value (how useful that life is to us) but about intrinsic value (the life is valuable simply because it's a life), which is inordinately difficult to "prove" — but logic is beside the point. We understand the true value of other lives not by being convinced through logical argument, but through that slightly choked-up feeling we get when we see a hawksbill turtle, successfully treated for pneumonia after swallowing a plastic bag, released into the ocean and swimming out to sea; when we see a kite, brought back to health after being rescued from a snare, finally flying off into the Australian outback; or when we see a young eastern grey kangaroo beginning to use its tail normally after ground-breaking surgery. We know these lives are vital not because we've been convinced by argument: we know it because our empathy leaves no doubt.
1.Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), Nyika Plateau, Malawi.