Who Comes First, People Or Wildlife? Researcher Tracks Shifting Attitudes

by Emma Blankenship
A coyote with its prey in South Orleans. FILE PHOTO A coyote with its prey in South Orleans. FILE PHOTO

BREWSTER – Dr. Jennifer Jackman spoke on the human dimensions of conservation efforts in New England at the Brewster Ladies’ Library April 9. Jackman’s presentation “Coyotes and Seals and Sharks, Oh My!” gave new insight into the discussion surrounding the controversial species.

A professor of political science at Salem State University, Jackman utilizes social science technology to understand public views of wildlife. Tracing the history of environmental legislation, studying shifting social trends, and compiling data through a series of surveys, Jackman and her peers have been able to gain an understanding of the general population’s perception of certain wildlife and the way it influences people’s relationship with nature.

Asking her audience questions regarding wildlife management, animal rights, hunting, and the value of animal companionship, Jackman was able to pull listeners into the discussion, shedding light on the nuance of such issues while simultaneously underlining each audience member’s unique connection to the topic of her research.

Jackman followed this with an introduction to the two major “wildlife value orientations,” domination and mutualism, with the former placing human benefit far above the wellbeing of wildlife and the latter limiting the freedoms of humans in the name of conservation.

The ways people perceive wildlife tend to fall along a spectrum between these two extremes, she said, and that over the past five decades, there has been an observed shift towards a more mutualistic overall stance in the United States. While very few studies regarding these orientations have been conducted in New England, Jackman reported that a national study found New England to be the most mutualistic region observed in the United States.

Jackman also highlighted the issue of rewilding. As species such as coyotes and sharks return to a region such as the Cape that has no social memory of them, there is a natural fear response among the human population, especially when these animals are predators. Nobody living remembers the last time the Cape had a healthy shark population, meaning their reintroduction in recent years came as a shock and demanded some social adjustment. However, people have done just that: adjusted. Public opinion regarding marine predators has improved in recent years, as the general population has gained a greater understanding of sharks and their important role in the Cape’s oceanic ecosystem.

Another influential factor highly emphasized in Jackman’s research is the “stakeholder group” to which an individual belongs. In the surveys conducted on Nantucket and the Cape by Jackman and her team, participants were divided into three categories: voters, tourists, and fishermen.

While voters and tourists were found to have fairly similar stances on issues brought up in the survey and were generally opposed to the lethal management of marine predators and recognized the value of marine predators to local ecosystems, fishermen, both recreational and professional, seemed to take a slightly different stance. They were more in favor of lethal management and placing a lower value on the ecological role of certain animals, specifically seals. The extremity of these views has decreased in recent years as the population assimilates to the current state of our ecosystem and its inhabitants.

“I hope that the research can be used to promote coexistence with wildlife,” she said, adding that she has been able to “emphasize the importance of these animals to the ecosystem.” The research is being used to construct and improve educational programs regarding conservation and wildlife appreciation throughout the Cape and beyond.