Why Wild Animal Rescue and Climate Action Are Inseparable

Habitat loss and other dangerous threats to biodiversity are a given in a world of climate disruption.

Baby Sea Turtle walking in the sand
Daynjer-In-Focus / Getty Images

While checking the news the other day, I noticed The Guardian had two climate-related stories about emergency animal rescues. There were turtle rescues due to drops in sea temperatures and emergency feeding of manatees down in Florida. Here’s more from Jessica Glenza’s story on the dire situation facing manatees, and their human friends, who are resorting to hand-feeding the iconic mammals with heads of romaine lettuce: 

“Normally slow-moving and plump, manatees along Florida’s east coast have shown signs of starvation, and appeared emaciated with protruding ribs. Manatee deaths have overwhelmed local rescue groups and even the ecosystem. Hundreds of manatee carcasses have had to be towed to remote islands, where they have been left to rot, the Palm Beach Post reported.
“They are starving, and I see it in person,” Paul Fafeita, president of the Clean Water Coalition of Indian River county, told local television station CBS12 in Palm Beach. “I’m out there all the time. I’m witnessing it. It’s heart wrenching.”

I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more demand for this type of work. And many of us are hungry for stories reporting on it. After all, in a world of climate disruption, habitat loss, and other dangerous threats to biodiversity, it feels good to read about heroic efforts to help nature recover. Whether it’s a climate-conscious arborist collecting seeds and giving away native species for free, or a drone pilot who rescues animals after natural disasters, Treehugger also publishes more than our fair share of heroic efforts to offer a helping hand. 

We need to be careful, however, to remember that these are last-ditch efforts to minimize the damage—not a viable alternative to preventing that damage in the first place. After all, while humans can intervene in the short term to help animals or plants survive as they learn to adapt, there comes a point where ecosystem disruption and/or habitat loss is so severe that no level of band-aid solution is going to help stricken populations pull through. Not only that, but if we rely too heavily on end-of-the-line rescue efforts, then there is a danger that only the "sexy" or noteworthy species—and/or those that exist in close proximity to humans and are therefore spotted—are going to get the help they need.

As with most things, though, this is not an either/or type situation. Animal rescue and emergency conservation efforts are going to be a critically important component of our response to the climate crisis. But they will need to be scaled up alongside efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground, reform agricultural practices, and reimagine human settlements and technologies to better accommodate nature and address the root causes of biodiversity loss.  

The good news is that rescue efforts can and should serve as a gateway to help folks understand the real nature of the crisis. When I visited the incredible Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, North Carolina, this summer, it drew a diverse crowd of tourists. Given the polarized and politicized nature of how the environment is discussed, I suspect there will have been some visitors who were skeptical of, and perhaps even hostile to, discussion of climate change, or the environmental impacts of consumerism. And yet our tour guides made it clear there are root causes for the dangers that sea turtles face. From plastics to warming oceans to the smuggling of endangered species, they discussed those threats in detail—and their audience listened in the presence of majestic, 300-pound loggerheads that look like gigantic dinosaurs.

Like many climate-conscious folks, I can get pretty discouraged and angry when I hear others dismiss or belittle the threat we are facing. And I confess there are times when I’ve worried that cute or photogenic animal rescue efforts might be stealing the limelight from the important work of shutting down pipelines, reconstructing energy infrastructure, and rebuilding our economy without the emissions.

Then I hear about boaters who will voluntarily reroute their sailing schedule to help transport an injured sea turtle to where it can get help. And I start to wonder about how we can harness that altruism toward a broader cultural shift.