Online Q&A – April 2018

In mid-April, we ran our first online Q&A. The goal was to give our audience an opportunity to ask questions they had about our work, strategy, plans and mission. Thanks to everyone who participated. We received many interesting and incisive questions! Our responses are below.

What’s the most interesting stuff you’ve worked on this year, or the most interesting material “in the pipeline”?

Ozy has a very interesting paper about wildlife contraception coming out soon, and has recently finished a paper on the effects of supplemental feeding on wild animal welfare (to be published in the next few weeks). Encouraging more research into and use of wildlife contraception is plausibly one of the most cost-effective ways to help wild mammals and birds, although for the full argument you’ll have to wait for the paper.

Persis is currently working on a research paper on the mortality of wild vertebrates due to crop cultivation practices. This is a really interesting piece for wild animal welfare advocates and vegan advocates because it explores not just the causes of mortality but how our individual choices can help reduce wild-animal suffering and canvasses options to lobby for systemic change in the agricultural industry.

In terms of pieces in the pipeline, Georgia is looking into the most common causes of mortality in the wild. Persis has recently been awarded a grant from the Animal Advocacy Research Fund to begin a project on establishing a field of research of wild-animal suffering. This project is based on a proposal Ozy wrote last year.

Your outreach plan includes reaching out to researchers and domain experts. What is the typical reaction from ecologists/biologists to the idea that WAS matters? Have you encountered domain experts who are interested in or sympathetic towards wild animal suffering research?

We’ve met sympathetic domain experts, although only in small numbers. The few domain experts we’ve met were cautious at first but become more sympathetic once you emphasize that we’re approaching wild-animal suffering with appropriate concern about unintended side effects and the benefits of well-functioning ecosystems. However, it also seems to be the case that many domain experts seem to believe that non-interventionism and environmentalism are actually the best ways for humans to improve conditions for wild-animals.

In terms of large scale outreach to researchers and domain experts, we’ve just finished a comprehensive database of academics working on research topics relevant to wild-animal suffering. There are lots of existing projects that we think could be very promising. We will begin reaching out them in May and hopefully we can provide a more detailed update on how receptive they are in the second half of 2018.

It may be a while before this is relevant, but what is your strategy for how to decide when to promote or recommend an intervention? Should we try to start a WAS charity once we identify an intervention that is reasonably cost-effective and reasonably likely to be net-positive, or do should we hold off on the grounds that WAS is a very big field and there will likely be better interventions out there?

Having concrete interventions is very important in convincing people to be concerned about wild-animal suffering. In general, people have a lot of objections to the philosophical idea that we should be concerned about wild-animal suffering, but they almost never have objections to the existence of wildlife rescues or bird feeders. It may also be the case that doing research for years is bad for a movement: at some point we should get on the ground and test ourselves against reality. In terms of how long we hold off on intervening, it’s hard to determine this in the abstract. However, a guiding principle might be that we decide to act when we have reasonable confidence (based on empirical evidence) rather than waiting on complete confidence (which might be impossible to attain).

For those reasons, we’d be inclined to support interventions as soon as we have a reasonably cost effective, net-positive intervention. What that looks like i.e. as a WAS charity; an advocacy/lobby arm of WASR; or by integrating intervention ideas within existing animal advocacy organisations, depends on the intervention and what we consider to be the most effective approach. Another important consideration is that as we raise funds for these interventions we aren’t taking funding away from more effective charities. That is to say, we want to increase the total pool of fundings rather than re-allocate funding between effective charities.

It would also be important to keep doing research and ensure we have the flexibility to pivot to new, more effective interventions should they be discovered. This might mean we focus on building broad organizations that deal with many related issues, like the Humane Society, rather than a narrower organization that concentrates on a single intervention, like the Against Malaria Foundation. (Of course, if we find a charity that is cost-competitive with GiveWell and ACE top charities, at that point it might be appropriate to start a single-intervention charity).

What metric would you be measuring to determine when a significant intervention in the lives of many wild animals is the most effective thing to be doing? How will we know we are getting close to that threshold? What do you expect to be the biggest hurdle before we get there – will it be getting a good enough understanding of the ecosystem we are interfering with, the public’s perception of this sort of policy, pushback from conservation or some other ‘opposing’ group?

This is a really complex, but important question. One metric that stands out is a cost-per-quality-adjusted-life-year (although of course for shorter-lived animals you might want to substitute “month” or “day”). Of course, it’s hard enough to figure out QALYs for humans, so we’d have to approximate it with a range of different metrics. Ozy’s paper Fit and Happy goes into these metrics in more detail. Synthesizing them is also difficult and will involve a lot of potentially questionable judgment calls– of course, that’s true outside WASR, too.

Understanding the ecosystems we’re interfering with is likely to be our biggest issue. We expect a lot of people can be persuaded to care about wild-animal suffering if it’s presented in the right way, and that conservationists and wild-animal advocates may have more common ground than we might initially think. We also (perhaps optimistically) think that many interventions can gain public support with smart, strategic advocacy. However, ecosystems are extremely complicated, and it’s very hard to know what all the second-order effects of an intervention might be.

Rights based views seem to have a particular affiliation to WAS. If the ask is to end domestication then what remains are essentially wild animals and what, if any, responsibilities / duties are owed to them? This seems to sometimes manifest in negative rights, so the right to be left alone, but equally we could consider responsibilities. In turn utilitarians seem to be undecided on matters of positive welfare approaches (‘goods’ from within a system of exploitation and domestication or domesecration (Nibert)) and others such as ProVeg or reducetarian approaches which leave the door open for animal consumption, it is often said ‘strategically’. My question really is whether a rights approach could have a stronger pull toward WAS, and whether aligned direct utilitarian approaches in the animal movement distort priorities, particularly as a general matter.

Great question! It’s not possible to give a comprehensive answer in this one response. In fact, we’re planning a series of blog posts on how different ethical views affect how one should think about wild-animal suffering. A short introduction to some of these can be found in Ozy’s recent blog post on crucial considerations for WAS.

In brief, caring about wild animals can be justified from both a rights-based and a utilitarian perspective. From a utilitarian perspective, of course, wild animals are suffering and we should try to help them. From a rights-based perspective, as you point out, we might have certain duties to animals as moral patients. We hope to engage more with these open questions in the next few months.

Animals likely experience different levels of consciousness depending on the complexity of their brains. How do you think consciousness scales with brain size (or the size of certain brain regions responsible for cognitive processes)? And if you think that the answer to that question is very uncertain; what research, if any, could help reduce that uncertainty?

You certainly know how to ask the important questions! In my opinion, this is one of the most crucial considerations for wild-animal suffering.

We should have a balanced approach which takes into account many potential features that may indicate consciousness: relatedness to humans; neurological traits such as neuron count and the presence or absence of a central nervous system; pain-related traits such as whether the animal can learn from experiences of pain or will pay a cost to access painkillers; and behavioral traits such as play, grief, goal-directedness, and intentional deception. This helps us avoid falling into the trap of placing too much emphasis on the wrong proxies. If an animal has a brain the size of a walnut but has complex behavior and acts like they experience pain and pleasure, it seems anthropocentric to conclude that they’re definitely not conscious.

We need a lot more work on philosophy of mind to try to pin down what, exactly, consciousness is. We need information on consciousness-relevant traits in more species: for example, little is known about species of insects and fish, among other taxa, that are not used in research. We need to learn more about the correlations between neurological, pain-related, and other behavioral traits, so that we have a better idea of what we can infer from an observation of one trait.

We also need to be more accurate in our classification of animals. One mistake many people make is grouping animals as “mammals” and “birds” instead of narrower groups. In relatively well-studied classes, we see lots of variance in intelligence between species: for example, parrots and crows are extraordinarily bright, while some other bird species are less intelligent.

How likely do you think it is that we will export (large amounts of) wildlife to other planets? And how beneficial would it actually be for humans to do this? (The second question to see whether it’d be easy or hard to prevent WAS becoming multi-planetary)

Making predictions about the far future is always difficult, so you should take our speculations with a handful of salt.

Whether we export wildlife to other planets depends largely on whether future humans are biological (rather than digital) beings. If we are and we want to move to other planets, then there are incentives to terraform the other planets to closely resemble Earth so we don’t have to put on a spacesuit to leave our houses. Even a minimal ecosystem that just manages to sustain human life requires insects and many other small animals; we might also expect synanthropic wild animals like rats to travel with us into space the same way they traveled with us to islands around the world.

On the other hand, if humans are uploaded (such that we retain our consciousness but not our biological bodies), we’d probably be more incentivised to convert other planets into server farms instead of terraforming, so we won’t spread wildlife that way. However, we might still retain our attachment to nature, and end up uploading some animals for a more accurate simulation of nature. Whether a simulated nature has more or less suffering than real nature is an open question. On one hand, simulated nature could have far less suffering than real nature because many sources of suffering– famine, disease, parasitism– are not very aesthetically pleasing. Therefore we might prefer to simulate only healthy, large, charismatic animals like deer or pandas (although this is also likely to include carnivores like wolves and lions). It might also mean that future humans don’t simulate insects because they don’t add aesthetic value to the experience. On the other hand, it seems equally plausible that we simulate environments to proceed exactly as they would on Earth without interference from humans for the sake of scientific accuracy, for educational purposes, or simply as a preference. We’re assuming in this analysis that our psychology stays fundamentally similar to its current form. It’s difficult to predict what advanced posthumans will want to do, since their thought processes are likely so different from ours.

Regardless of what happens in the future, spreading concern about wild-animal suffering is important to make sure that, as humans gain more technological prowess, we use our abilities responsibly to make a better world for human and nonhuman animals.