Vet Ethics: Return of the bats

Many years ago I wrote an article for The Veterinarian on the grey-headed flying foxes at Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens. Amid great controversy, the Garden’s management had decided to kill bats in order to remove them all from Fern Gully. Recently, an analysis of the saga by Dan Perry from Texas Tech University was published in a peer-reviewed ethics journal. Ten years on from the debate, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is interesting to revisit the issue. It contains some lessons on how to approach the ethical question of native animals and their effects on human interests and the environment.

Let me first recall the story as it unfolded. Grey-headed flying foxes, which migrate along the east coast of Australia, had established a colony in the middle of the Gardens in about 1981. Their numbers had been falling mainly due to habitat destruction. The Melbourne colony, now successfully breeding, expanded to about 20,000 members by the 1990s. Unfortunately, the bats chose the roosting site of the Garden’s tranquil and historic Fern Gully, which contained some threatened plant species such as the cabbage tree palm. About 54% of its plants were natives, while 46% were introduced species.

Because the excrement and activities of the bats were damaging or destroying some of the plants, and because they were seen as a nuisance in a lovely part of the gardens, the management initially trapped and killed about 100 flying-foxes in May 2000. However, the Humane Society International had previously submitted a claim to list grey-headed flying-foxes as threatened under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988. Also, some bat experts and conservationists, and later the Victorian Government’s own Scientific Advisory Committee, recommended the flying-foxes be listed as threatened. It was further suggested that, instead of culling, serious attempts at relocation be made.

In an unprecedented move, the Victorian Environment minister Sherryl Garbutt rejected her scientific committee’s advice, agreeing instead with the Garden’s scientists and management. The Department of Natural Resources had earlier given the green light to the shooting of unlimited numbers of bats in the Gardens. Killing of flying-foxes by the company Wildpro began in April and May 2001. There followed much media attention and public protest. Parts of the Gardens were vandalised and some staff and visitors harassed.
But a twist in the story was to follow. The federal Environment minister Robert Hill intervened, and the NSW government listed grey-headed flying-foxes as a threatened species. In 2003 the new minister in Victoria, John Thwaites, made a similar move. But by the time Minister Garbutt had been replaced, the Gardens’ management had long since abandoned the killing program in favour of a relocation effort to Horseshoe Bend in Ivanhoe.

As Dan Perry notes, two opposing “coalitions” emerged in this tussle. On one side were the State minister, the Royal Botanic Gardens led by Phillip Moors, and the Department of Sustainability and Environment under Dr Robert Begg. Initially, parts of the media also leaned towards depicting the bats as dirty, alien invaders, and perhaps exaggerated the degree of damage facing the Botanical Gardens. The other temporary coalition was comprised of animal welfare and rights activists, and wildlife scientists and conservationists. Later on, the media became more sympathetic to the plight of the flying-foxes.

What about the arguments and their lessons? Those in favouring of culling pointed to the historic and aesthetic values of Fern Gully. I agree that these values should not be discounted. Nor, in my view, should we downplay the environmental value of the threatened plant species (though we should recall that only about half the plants in the area were natives). On the other hand, it seems that the Gardens and its supporters failed to accord a much weight to the threatened nature of the grey-headed flying fox in Australia. If they had properly acknowledged this status, they would have been more cautious in arguing that the cabbage palm and the like ought to take conservational precedence over the flying-fox.

Furthermore, the pro-culling camp did not appear to take seriously the welfare and lives of the bats. That they did not is made clear by noticing two points. First, while the plant species they rightly sought to protect have no conscious interests, the bats certainly do. Flying-foxes are capable of both suffering and enjoyment. Yet the Gardens readily chose the lethal means of shooting bats, including shooting some at night and on the wing, despite the risks of suffering that this involves.

Second, the pro-culling camp had already received strong scientific advice that culling would probably not work and that the non-lethal means of relocation was both feasible and likely to be more effective. No wonder Perry concludes that the pro-killing coalition was “guided not by any ethical system, but only by a narrow scientific concern for plant preservation, a political interest in a socially significant site, and reluctance to spend money to reduce animal harm”.

It was evident that those in favour of lethal culling did not appreciate a possible approach to problems involving animals – an approach which is perhaps becoming more widely recognised. And that approach is to creatively seek ways of harmonising, as far as possible, the interests of the animals and those of humans and the environment. The interests of the bats might have been injured by the process of relocation, but they were damaged far less than by shooting, and the conservation values of the Botanical Gardens were simultaneously preserved.

What about the bats today? In 2003, a reasonably low cost acoustic program succeeded in dispersing the colony from Fern Gully. Some individuals went to Geelong; many flying-foxes can still be seen flapping like large drunken birds across the night skies of Melbourne (presumably to the chagrin of some fruit-tree owning suburbanites). The majority of the flying-foxes re-established a colony east of the city – not however in the human-chosen site of Ivanhoe, but in the bat-chosen site of Kew’s Yarra Bend.

SIMON COGHLAN

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