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The Nature Deficit Disorder and How it is Impacting our Natural World—An Interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins

Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews Dr. Michael Hutchins concerning some societal trends that have dire consequences for our natural world. This is the second in a series of interviews Jordan has conducted with his friend and distinguished colleague. Michael is a wildlife biologist, professor and conservationist currently living in Silver Spring, Maryland. Here is...

Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul interviews Dr. Michael Hutchins concerning some societal trends that have dire consequences for our natural world. This is the second in a series of interviews Jordan has conducted with his friend and distinguished colleague. Michael is a wildlife biologist, professor and conservationist currently living in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Here is a link to the first interview, which includes a full introduction to Michael Hutchins.

Jordan Schaul: Can you explain why the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has proven to be so successful compared to other “systems” of wildlife management that have been developed elsewhere around the globe?  Is the current model sustainable?

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Michael Hutchins:  The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is unique to Canada and the United States, and is among the most successful in the world. It essentially has seven pillars: (1) wildlife is a public trust resource, (2) the elimination of commercial markets for wildlife, (3) allocation of wildlife by law, (4) kill only for legitimate purposes, (5) wildlife as an international resource (i.e., wildlife does not recognize international borders, so cooperation in management and conservation is necessary), (6) wildlife policy should be based on science, not on tradition, and (7) democracy of hunting (Organ, J.F., Mahoney, S.P. and Geist, V. 2010. Born in the hands of hunters: The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The Wildlife Professional (3): 22-27). The Model was a response to the rampant and unsustainable harvest of wildlife that was occurring at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century (Bechtel, S. 2012. Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World. Boston: Beacon Press).  This was the time that we nearly lost the American bison (buffalo) and did lose the passenger pigeon and heath hen.   It was also the opposite of the European model, which historically had restricted the hunting of game to royalty and wealthy landowners. The Model has been quite successful in bringing many species back from the brink, including waterfowl, turkey, deer, elk, and others. Of course, the model was not imposed at one time; rather, it developed organically through trial and error.

This has essentially evolved into a user pay system, where money from hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on equipment has helped to manage wildlife sustainably and to purchase millions of acres of wildlife habitat.  Hunting and fishing organizations, such as the Boone and Crockett Club (, Ducks Unlimited (, and Trout Unlimited (, have donated millions of dollars for wildlife research and conservation. In fact, support for North American wildlife conservation has largely been driven by hunters and fishers over many decades.  While not a hunter myself, I have come to see the value in it to regulate wildlife populations and to produce needed revenue for conservation.

That being said, there are weaknesses and uncertainties in the model and it will be interesting to see how it evolves in the coming years (Mahoney, S.P. and Cobb, David. 2010. Future challenges to the model. The Wildlife Professional  4 (3): 83-85; Abhat, D. and Unger, K. 2010. Managing wildlife in shades of grey: Threats to the pillars of the North American Model. The Wildlife Professional 4(3): 58-6; Decker, D. 2011. Critiquing the North American Model: Debate and open minds keep the model dynamic. The Wildlife Professional 5(2): 58-60)).  The North American Model is not as easily applied to other critical challenges, such as climate change or endangered species recovery, although certainly the user pay system has resulted in the conservation of wildlife habitat.  In addition, introduced or exotic species are a huge problem for our native wildlife, and many species listed as threated or endangered are at risk due to the presence of these ecological interlopers (Cox, G.W. 1999. Alien Species in North America and Hawaii: Impacts on Natural Ecosystems. Washington, DC: Island Press). Predator control is another controversial topic (Peek, J.M. 2010. A model dilemma: When game management goals and carnivores collide. The Wildlife Professional 4(3): 64-65; Dratch, P. and Kahn, R. 2011. Moving beyond the model: Our ethical responsibility as the top trophic predators. The Wildlife Professional 5(2) 61-63). Furthermore, the number of hunters and fishers has declined over the past few decades as a result of changing attitudes and urbanization (  This is reducing revenue for wildlife management and conservation, particularly at the state level.

The user pay system and model has worked for certain species in North America and other species that share their habitats, but could it be successful elsewhere? Probably not; the Model is highly dependent on an effective system of law enforcement to be successful and the infrastructure simply is not in place in much of Africa or Southeast Asia. In many developing countries, there is also the additional challenge of corruption, which also makes it difficult to enforce wildlife laws. Some countries, such as Botswana and Costa Rica, have recently banned sport hunting altogether (;

While there are some people who view hunting and fishing as inappropriate, unethical, or cruel, it is often necessary in order to control rampant population growth. Others believe that we should simply let nature take its course, rather than manage it. However, due to humans’ pervasive influence on wildlife and their habitats, management is often necessary. A good example is white-tailed deer.  Our society has artificially created ideal conditions for deer through the fragmentation of forests and agriculture. There are more white-tailed deer on the east coast of the U.S. now than when Europeans first came to the continent.  By consuming every edible plant in sight, vast numbers of deer can clear out the forest understory. Over browsing by deer is a serious conservation problem—it prevents regeneration of native plant communities, removes important food and nesting resources for native animals, and consequently reduces ecosystem diversity and the abundance of many other native species. A recent study found that when deer reach population densities of more than 20 per square mile, many species of woodland birds disappear from the area entirely (Allombert, S., A.J. Gaston, and J.L. Martin. 2005. A natural experiment on the impact of overabundant deer on songbird populations. Biol. Conserv. 126(1): 1-13).  Too many deer take their toll on humans as well. Not considering the ravages of Lyme disease, which is carried by deer ticks (, there are 1.1 million deer-vehicle collisions in this country each year, causing injury, loss of life and higher insurance rates (

While the North American Model still has some relevance, I would rather see our future wildlife management and conservation actions based on the more holistic Land Ethic, as described by Aldo Leopold in his classic, A Sand County Almanac (1966, Oxford University Press).  Many early conservationists, including Teddy Roosevelt, George Grinnell, William Hornaday, and Aldo Leopold were hunters; but, they also saw the bigger picture of the interrelationship of all life in functioning ecosystems (also see Nelson, M.P. et al. 2011. An inadequate construct?” North American Model: What’s flawed, what’s missing, what’s needed? The Wildlife Professional 5(2) 58-60).  As Leopold famously wrote, “A thing is right if it tends to preserve the integrity, beauty and stability of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” Thus, the biological richness of an ecosystem, as characterized by the number and variety of native species it supports, is seen as intrinsically good.  Conversely, the loss of naturally occurring biological diversity, especially as the result of human activity, is seen as intrinsically wrong.

Last, but not least, the non-hunting and fishing public must begin to invest more in wildlife conservation. The public certainly contributes to conservation through their tax dollars and through membership in and donations to conservation organizations, such as Conservation International, Nature Conservancy World Wildlife Fund, Audubon, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.  However, much more could be done through excise taxes on bird watching and camping equipment (e.g. binoculars or spotting scopes, tents) or photographic equipment or fees to obtain permits to enter wildlife refuges and other natural areas for non-consumptive use (Regan, R.J. 2010. Priceless, but not free: Why all nature lovers should contribute to conservation. The Wildlife Professional 4(3): 39-41). Unfortunately, some recent attempts to do this have failed (Jadin, J. 2010. It was worth a shot: Idaho’s near miss for conservation funding. The Wildlife Professional 4(3): 88).

Jordan Schaul: In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe a growing phenomenon as a result of urbanization. Kids and adults are spending less time outdoors to the detriment of their own health and the environment.  They have less appreciation and respect for nature than previous generations and there seems to be a general disconnect to wildlife and other natural resources. Can you elaborate on this growing trend and its impact on the conservation of flora and fauna, and young people themselves?

Michael Hutchins:  As a child in the 1950s, I lived in a small town in northern Iowa. Like many kids of that post-war generation but unlike many of today’s children, I spent most of my time playing outdoors, except during the most severe weather. Winters were cold then, but we still played outside, building snow forts and having snowball fights.  During spring and summer, I was outside almost constantly—my parents had to call me inside for dinner. My father and I used to spend weekends seining creeks, looking for rocks in the local gravel pit, and hunting butterflies. When we traveled, we visited national parks and other natural areas.  I was fascinated with animals and brought some of the common local fauna home, which I kept and maintained in small enclosures and aquariums, many of them built by my father.  Among my charges were snakes, lizards, turtles, tropical fish, and frogs. My crowning achievements during this time were the raising of two tiger salamanders and the hatching of a Luna moth from a cocoon.  Of course, things did not always go well; at one point, I held a painted turtle too close to my face and he bit me on the nose, refusing to let go. That was a painful lesson, which taught me respect for the defensive behavior of wildlife. There is no doubt that these early experiences had a major impact on me.

Unfortunately, many of today’s children and young adults spend much of their time indoors watching TV or playing video games, at the shopping mall or at movie theatres. They often live in a virtual as opposed to the real world, obtaining their sketchy knowledge about nature though television, movies or the Internet rather than through direct experience.  Visitation to national parks is declining, as is participation in outdoor sports such as hiking, hunting and fishing. This has led to the Nature Deficit Disorder—a term that, as you note, refers to the growing disconnect between people and nature and their subsequent lack of knowledge about wildlife and ecology.

There are many reasons for the current state of affairs, including urbanization and over-protective parents who believe that dangers exist behind every tree. There is also much misinformation out there in the media about nature and wildlife, which is often taken for fact.  For example, cartoons and animated movies give children the impression that non-human animals have internal lives and complex thoughts similar to humans, and that they can readily speak and understand language.  This is not to say that some animals, such as parrots, dogs, dolphins and great apes, can’t learn to associate certain words with objects or actions. However, they do not do this in nature, and we should appreciate animals for what they are, not for what we would like them to be.

Human-pet interactions are also fascinating, as many people treat their domesticated dogs and cats as family members (Szasz, K. 1968. Petishism: Pets and Their People in the Western World. New York, NY: Holt, Reinhardt and Winston), when, in fact, if they knew more about animal behavior, they would discover that their furry companions are treating them as they would any other member of their own species. In addition, the responsiveness to human attention in and appeal of our pets has been developed through many generations of selective breeding. While wild species, such as tigers and African wild dogs are nearing extinction, the American public spends tens of billions of dollars on clothing, toys and gourmet food for domestic dogs and cats (  In addition, the production of cat and dog food is ecologically questionable and sometimes takes food out of the mouths of humans (De Silva, S.S., and Turchini, G.M. 2008. Towards understanding the impacts of the pet food industry on world fish and seafood supplies. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 21: 459-467.)

There are real consequences to this growing lack of knowledge about nature and wildlife. For one thing, how will people develop a sense of responsibility for nature and wildlife if they know little or nothing about it? In fact, many urban and suburban dwellers see pigeons, starlings, European sparrows, ring-necked pheasants, feral domestic horses and cats, and they think “wildlife’, when, in fact, these animals are non-native, introduced species that are negatively impacting our native species and their habitats.

This lack of knowledge of what it is going to take to manage and conserve wildlife and their habitats in a world dominated by human influences is also seriously undermining conservation efforts (Hutchins, M. 2008. Why we must control wildlife populations. INformation Spring: 29-33).  A good example is the rise of animal rights groups.  These groups market the radical idea that individual sentient animals should have similar rights as humans. With public support, some of these non-science-based organizations’ annual operating budgets have grown to $50-100 million.  The “non-profit” animal rights organization, The Humane Society of the United States, pays its CEO over $1 million a year. Few scientific societies or conservation organizations have these kinds of resources at their disposal.

There is a strong connection between the rise of animal rights and the Nature Deficit Disorder. While at first glance animal rights may seem a reasonable and compassionate perspective, it has many problems, not the least of which is its incompatibility with the conservation ethic (Hutchins, M. 2008. Animal rights and conservation (letter). Conservation Biology 22 (8): 815-816). Animal rights philosophy focuses on the rights of individual sentient animals to life, liberty and bodily integrity, whereas the conservation ethic is more holistic and focused on the survival of entire species and ecosystems. In short, the animal rights perspective is a reductionist view that does not account for the complex interrelationships among species in functioning ecosystems. If one were to take, animal rights philosophy to its logical conclusion, for example, then we should intervene to stop all predation in nature. Of course proponents of animal rights try to explain this inconsistency away by noting that predators are just doing what they do, and are therefore “innocent killers.” But from the point of view of the prey, this is certainly not the case.  In nature, there is no right to life, and conservationists see beauty in all of nature, even in the most deadly of predators, many of which are now highly endangered.  Large carnivores, such tigers, lions and wolves are among the most popular of animals; however, some in our society seem to hate the fact that they kill.

Animal rights groups often purposely portray themselves as conservation organizations, thus confusing the public. However, the value set they espouse is harmful to wildlife management, science and conservation  (Hutchins, M. The limits of compassion. The Wildlife Professional 1(2): 42-46).  The eradication of destructive exotic species is an excellent example.  The incompatibility of animal rights and conservation is highlighted by an example from Europe.  In this case, Italian wildlife managers were concerned about the grey squirrel, a species native to North America that has spread throughout the continent (Bertolino, S. and Genovesi, P. 2003. Spread and attempted eradication of the grey squirrel in Italy, and consequences for the red squirrel in Eurasia. Biol. Conserv. 109: 351-358). Competition from this non-native rodent in the United Kingdom has threatened the survival of the native red squirrel.  Furthermore, grey squirrels are also responsible for significant damage to European forests, potentially altering entire ecosystems. Their bark-stripping activities inflict severe damage to trees that can result in the penetration of insect pests and fungi that can affect the quality of timber.  Attempts by Italian wildlife authorities in the late 1990s to prevent the spread of the grey squirrel by eliminating small, localized populations through live capture and euthanasia—a method endorsed by a variety of veterinary and animal welfare organizations–ceased when radical animal rights organizations took the National Wildlife Institute to court and obtained an injunction.  By the time the court ultimately declared, three years later, that the management action was legal and justified, grey squirrel populations had spread throughout the landscape and complete elimination was no longer feasible. Because of the animal rights groups’ opposition to the management action, the Italian government—and likely the governments of other European nations—now face an ongoing and expensive campaign to control this species. In the end, the long-term costs to European taxpayers, to the threatened red squirrel, and to its forest habitat are likely to be considerable.  There are many other examples. In our own country, animal rights organizations have opposed the eradication or regulation of destructive exotic species, such as feral cattle and sheep in Hawaii, feral cats and rats on oceanic islands, nutria in the Southeast and Burmese pythons in Florida.

People need to realize that there is also a vast difference between animal rights and welfare, concepts which the public also confuses to a great extent. Welfare can be defined as a good or satisfactory condition of existence; thus animal welfare refers to the quality of an animal’s life, whether in nature or in human care.  Like animal rights proponents, animal welfare advocates abhor human cruelty towards animals and they also detest unnecessary suffering or loss of life. However, many animal welfare advocates tend to be more flexible in their beliefs, arguing that non-humans can be utilized by humans, even for food, as long as pain, suffering and loss of life are minimized.  This is an ethic that is shared by conscientious wildlife managers, conservationists, and hunters and fishers alike. No one wants to cause animals to suffer needlessly and most would agree that animals used for food or other purposes should be dispatched as quickly and painlessly as possible. Conservationists would also argue for the sustainable use of wildlife, that is, that the number of animals harvested should not exceed the capacity of the population to recover and sustain itself into the future.

Jordan Schaul: The increasing prevalence of the Nature Deficit Disorder in our young people is already beginning to impact the wildlife profession, as fewer people are applying for positions, and among those that do apply, few are equipped with the skill set needed to perform the duties of a wildlife biologist. With a whole generation of wildlife biologists retiring from agencies that conserve and manage wildlife populations in North America, what does the future hold for the restoration and protection of our natural resources?

Michael Hutchins:  Many contemporary wildlife professionals were hired in the 1980s or earlier and are now nearing retirement.  A recent study found that 70% of the leadership of state wildlife agencies would retire in the next decade (McMullin, S. L. 2006. Baby boomers and leadership in state fish and wildlife agencies: a changing of the guard approaches. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 70:27-37). Similar data are available for the federal workforce.  This has been described as a coming retirement “tsunami”, which has the potential to result in an unprecedented loss of institutional knowledge (Unger, K. 2007. The graying of the green generation. The Wildlife Professional 1(1): 18-22). So how can we continue to attract quality students into the field and help to replace those who are being lost through retirement?

There are multiple reasons why creating the next generation of wildlife professionals may pose a challenge. Students may be less likely to pursue a career in wildlife and habitat conservation or other areas of the conservation field if they have had little or no exposure to them.  Interest in particular careers seems to begin early, probably peaking around middle school.  Unfortunately, middle and high school counselors have little information available to them in order to educate children about these opportunities.  Another challenge is that many careers in wildlife and nature do not pay high salaries, and this may not appeal to a materialistic generation of students who expect to be making more than their parents, are exposed to programs that stress celebrity hyper-consumption, and told through advertising that they cannot be happy unless they accumulate many expensive things. There are others who believe that having a meaningful profession—one that is making a difference—and an opportunity to get out from behind a desk and spend time in nature is actually very appealing.  However, some students, who wish to pursue a wildlife career, are shocked when they discover that the coursework is complicated and heavily weighted toward the biological sciences and statistics. Many entry-level jobs require a Master’s of Science Degree. Unprepared for such a rigorous academic challenge, they drop out. Parents too can have an impact. In the case of minority students, some of whom may be the first in their family to attend college, the economic pressures to become a lawyer, medical doctor or other highly paid professional are great. If they are talented at biology, they are often routed toward the medical profession. This is a problem because the wildlife profession currently lacks the diversity that it so desperately needs (Lopez, R. and Brown, C.H. 2011. Why diversity matters: Broadening our reach will sustain natural resources. The Wildlife Professional 5(2):  20-27).

In 2011, I organized and moderated a Blue Ribbon Panel on the Future of the Wildlife Profession and Its Implications for Training the Next Generation of Wildlife Professionals on behalf of The Wildlife Society (  A panel of experts outlined many of the trends in recruitment, development and retention of wildlife professionals and suggested a variety of solutions. These included greater cooperation between universities and hiring agencies, more of a focus on improving so-called soft skills, such as team building, communication, law and policy, and improved promotion of career opportunities at the middle school level and before.  The report sets the stage for approaches and programs that can guide us into the 21st century.

Jordan Schaul: There is not only a paucity of people entering training programs in wildlife management, but the didactic programs that once catered to young and aspiring biologists and managers are being replaced by college and university programs that are focused on molecular biology programs and other disciplines outside the realm of organismal biology.  What does this mean for the wildlife profession?

Michael Hutchins: Yes, this is a problem. There has been a progressive loss at many institutions of essential organismal biology courses, such as mammalogy, herpetology, ornithology, ichthyology and entomology (Abhat, D. and Unger, K. 2009. Reinventing wildlife education. The Wildlife Professional 3(4): 24-31).  This has made it more difficult for students to find appropriate programs that offer the necessary training.  In addition, many colleges, looking to reduce time to graduation, have replaced wildlife and fisheries with more general environmental science programs. Others have moved toward more theoretical conservation biology programs that often do not provide the kinds of hands-on experiences in the field important to practicing wildlife managers and conservationists. The upshot of all this has been to produce a generation of students that often graduate without the necessary skills to go into their first jobs. This is not to say that all academic programs have moved in this direction, or that these trends are necessarily bad. There are many land grant universities and other colleges that still offer the appropriate courses. In addition, a contrary view is that traditional wildlife and fisheries programs have aligned themselves too closely with hunting and fishing, which represents only a small proportion of the earth’s biological diversity. Environmental and conservation science, with their broader emphasis on energy consumption, pollution, climate change, and endangered species recovery, are perhaps more immediately relevant to society as a whole.  However, while selecting a program, students need to examine the curriculum carefully in order to ensure that they will be competitive when they leave school.  Practical field-based skills are often missing from the academic experience, but are critical to project and program success.  In the future this also means that hiring agencies, companies and organizations will need to concentrate more attention on life-long continuing education to keep their personnel up to speed in an increasingly complex world. That being said, we have little information on needs versus demand in natural resources careers. Simply put, we don’t know if we are currently producing enough quality students to fill available future positions.  Better communication and coordination between the agencies, companies and organizations that hire wildlife professionals and the universities that train them would go a long way towards finding a solution.

Jordan Schaul: Do you have any suggestions for what can be done to stimulate interest in the wildlife sciences or is too late to remedy the situation?

Michael Hutchins:  It is not too late to remedy the situation. Nature has a remarkable capability to inspire.  Natural resources careers are not just jobs, they are a passion.  There are few opportunities today to work at something you love, but wildlife and other conservation-related positions can provide that kind of experience.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the keys is to build career interest in younger children. This means providing more information on potential careers in the wildlife profession to school career counselors and to parents at K-12 institutions. It also means building a much stronger connection between children and nature. Several organizations are trying to remedy this situation, as they consider it essential for saving some semblance of nature in a world dominated by human influences.   Richard Louv has established a Children and Nature Network ( that is working on connecting kids to nature through play and other activities. Recently, I have been working with the Green Schools Alliance (GSA), a grassroots organization consisting of teachers, students, parents and administrators, that is seeking to reduce schools’ carbon footprints, as well as water and energy use (  The savings to money-strapped schools and local governments could be substantial. GSA is also seeking to connect children to nature through the sharing of curricula, hands-on opportunities to get involved, and after-school clubs. GSA currently represents over 3,000 schools in 17 countries, but the potential is for 15,000 members in the next five years. These organizations, along with zoos and aquariums, 4-H, Boy and Girl scouts, Future Farmers of America and others would be good places to disseminate kid-friendly information on careers in the wildlife profession.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: