In the next two to three years, I intend to write a series of papers summarizing the evidence about a handful of broad areas of intervention into wild-animal suffering:
- what are the benefits;
- what are the costs;
- what is the sign of the intervention; and
- what still needs to be explored.
Assumptions Behind This Research Proposal
I think finding a tractable intervention is potentially the most important thing we could be doing as wild-animal suffering researchers. Wild animal suffering is, of course, urgent: each day a cost-effective intervention goes undiscovered, wild animals suffer and die. It’s also important to get people to care about wild animal suffering for both short-term reasons (expanding research into wild-animal suffering) and long-term reasons (avoiding s-risks such as spreading wild animal suffering to other planets).
However, in my experience, most people feel averse to caring about wild animal suffering as long as there’s nothing they can do about it. Many people argue that nature is so complex it is impossible to predict whether any intervention would help or hurt wild animals in the long run. Ecosystems are complex and it’s important to be aware that many interventions have unintended side effects. However, people regularly intervene in nature for human benefit or for ecosystem conservation purposes without having any serious unintended consequences. I think having a clear, concrete example of how we can improve nature will help people realize that anti-wild-animal-suffering interventions can be done responsibly.
In addition, many people believe in the importance of leaving nature undisturbed. However, in my experience, many people are much more likely to object to disturbing nature in theory than they are to disturbing it in practice. People rarely object to wildlife rescues, bird feeders, or euthanasia of severely injured animals, even though all three involve interfering with nature. I suspect that discussing concrete, practical steps we can take to improve wild-animal welfare will cause people to have fewer objections about disturbing nature.
I believe that there is a lot of information available about how various interventions affect wild animals; it has just never been collected and put in one place. For instance, epidemiologists study epizootics that have a high risk of transmission to humans or domestic animals. Conservation biologists study the welfare of endangered species, because animals with poor welfare often reproduce less. Ecologists are interested in whether animal populations are primarily limited by food or predators, and thus perform food addition and predator removal experiments. As long as we’re unaware of the established science, we won’t know what is actually unknown and in need of further research.
I think many potential top interventions are things we wouldn’t even think about without a strong base of knowledge. For example, bird feeders are an important vector for disease in urban bird populations, which suggests one may reduce the rates of disease in urban bird populations by encouraging people to clean their feeders. While it’s unclear if this is cost-effective, it’s certainly not something I would have thought of without doing the research.
The first piece in my series, “Fit and Happy”, has been published. It lays the groundwork for the rest of my agenda by discussing various ways of assessing the welfare of wild animals.
I am currently working on a paper on the effects of supplemental feeding. I intend in future papers to explore wildlife contraception, disease control, and predator control. I may include injury treatment and prevention as a subset of disease control or as its own paper, depending on how much information is available about disease control. My papers will cover whether or not each intervention successfully achieves its goal: for instance, whether disease control reduces mortality and rates of disease. I will also discuss the intervention’s effects on animals’ psychosocial functioning, physical health and population dynamics and its effects on the environment as a whole.