Disease in wildlife raises a number of issues that have not been widely
considered in the bioethical literature. However, wildlife disease has major
implications for human welfare. The majority of emerging human infectious
diseases are zoonotic: that is, they occur in humans by cross-species
transmission from animal hosts. Managing these diseases often involves
balancing concerns with human health against animal welfare and
conservation concerns. Many infectious diseases of domestic animals are
shared with wild animals, although it is often unclear whether the infection
spills over from wild animals to domestic animals or vice versa.
Culling is the standard means of managing such diseases, bringing
economic considerations, animal welfare and conservation into conflict.
Infectious diseases are also major threatening processes in conservation
biology and their appropriate management by culling, vaccination or
treatment raises substantial animal ethics issues. One particular issue of
great significance in Australia is an ongoing research program to develop
genetically modified pathogens to control vertebrate pests including rabbits,
foxes and house mice. Release of any self-replicating GMO vertebrate
pathogen gives rise to a whole series of ethical questions. We briefly review
current Australian legal responses to these problems. Finally, we present
two unresolved problems of general importance that are exemplified by
wildlife disease. First, to what extent can or should ‘bioethics’ be broadened
beyond direct concerns with human welfare to animal welfare and environmental
welfare? Second, how should the irreducible uncertainty of
ecological systems be accounted for in ethical decision making?