Why wild animals?
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.
— Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden
Society has become increasingly aware of the suffering that nonhuman animals experience at the hands of humans. Many are aware of the shocking realities of factory farming, or have seen terrible videos and images of animals being neglected, abused, subjected to violent and traumatic experiments, exploited for entertainment, or killed systematically in slaughterhouse lines. But what is even more neglected, and even greater in scale, is the suffering of animals in the wild.
Many wild animals experience extreme suffering. It is commonplace for animals to be hunted, attacked, and even eaten alive by predators. Intense competition for resources means that starvation is the norm for animals of many species. Illnesses ravage their victims, injuries receive no treatment, wounds are left to fester, extreme weather cripples the exposed, children and families may be separated, and it is likely that only a very narrow minority of the individuals comprising any species are able to lead something like an enjoyable life.
Why wild-animal suffering matters
If someone — whether a human, a dog, a chicken, or a mouse — is starving to death, it makes no difference to them whether their suffering is caused by “natural” processes, or by humans. They suffer either way, and we should help in either situation.
Some may feel inclined to assert that we should have a “hands off” approach to wild animals, thinking that their suffering isn’t our “responsibility” despite our ability to help, or that we can’t do any good intervening. But even neglecting the consideration that their suffering matters whether it’s caused by us or not, we already do impact wild animals’ lives every day, and cannot say that we have a non-interventionist relationship with the natural world. We transform ecosystems with our cities, agriculture, electricity, industries, pollution and anthropogenic climate change, with little concern for — and a very poor understanding of — how these actions affect wild animals’ welfare. Plausibly every purchase we make creates ripples that reach the wild world. Surely it would be corrupt of us to ignore how our actions impact wild animals when those actions benefit us, while refusing to take action that could impact wild animals in ways that benefit them.
If we have a bad track record of intervention in the wild, it’s a record of interventions made for egoistic reasons at worst, and at best for reasons like biodiversity and conservation, which are distinct from (or may even be at odds with) individual wild animals’ welfare. There is no bad track record — in fact, there is hardly a track record at all — for interventions that prioritize the animals’ welfare. So we have little reason to insist that altruistic intervention cannot help, and given our own indifferent daily interference, it would be contradictory for us to claim we should keep our hands off of the natural world.
Importantly, the public is generally in favor of the rescue and rehabilitation of individual animals who are in need of help, regardless of their situation — as particularly well evinced by the popularity of such rescue stories in The Dodo. We are already capable of compassion for individual wild animals, and we must take care to avoid the collapse of our compassion when the number of victims is greater.
We should work to eliminate preventable suffering wherever it is happening, and because nature contains incredibly extensive and severe suffering, pursuing exhaustive research to find scientifically-grounded ways to prevent suffering in the wild is extremely valuable.
The scale and neglectedness of wild-animal suffering
People who accuse us of putting in too much violence, [should see] what we leave on the cutting-room floor.
— Sir David Attenborough, Interview with The Guardian
Calculating the exact number of wild animals on earth is difficult, but estimates suggest that it is several orders of magnitude higher than humans and farmed animals combined. For every human on earth, there are at least 10 animals suffering in farms, and likely 1,000 to 100,000 wild vertebrates and plausibly 100,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 “bugs” (including creatures such as insects, spiders and earthworms). This means that even if these animals are on average experiencing more than 1/100,000,000th to 1/10,000,000th the suffering experienced by the average animal in a farm, the absolute amount of wild-animal suffering is greater.
Considering this possibly enormous scale, wild-animal suffering is extremely neglected: the animal advocacy movement focuses almost exclusively on human-caused animal suffering. Both the scale and neglectedness of the problem suggest that we should also prioritize wild-animal suffering and invest far more resources into finding solutions.
The tractability of the wild-animal suffering cause
There have been no serious attempts to reduce wild-animal suffering, so we are very uncertain about the cause area’s tractability at this time. At first glance, wild-animal suffering appears to have low tractability because it is difficult to conceive of solutions. However, if technology continues to progress as rapidly as it has in the last century, we may develop a much better ability to identify tractable solutions within a few generations. Aided by a much more thorough understanding of ecosystems and with the help of advanced technologies, future generations will be better positioned to tackle this issue than we are today. But to enable future generations to take action — and to prevent them from potentially increasing wild-animals’ suffering by, say, spreading suffering wildlife to other planets — it is imperative that we lay the foundations for this cause now.
While our limited understanding of ecosystems should discourage large-scale intervention for the time being, it is at least possible for us to build a “welfare biology” research movement, with the aim of answering open questions in this space and identifying possible interventions. When enough preliminary research has been done, we can begin conducting small-scale trials. (Note that we have already run small-scale interventions to help wild animals with contraceptives, vaccines, wildlife crossings, and a handful of other approaches.) Further research will prepare future generations to make decisions in the best interests of wild animals.
Even if an intervention involves significant risks, those risks have to be weighed against the certain catastrophe of inaction. In addition to research, we can spread concern for wild animals’ welfare among the next generation of scientists and influencers, to increase the probability that future generations will not just be able to help them, but will also choose to do so.
It can be easy for us to overlook the fact that the overwhelming majority of sentient beings on earth are wild animals, but if we are serious about including all sentient beings in our circle of compassion, we cannot ignore them. Because of the enormous scale and neglectedness of wild-animal suffering, and the tractability of research that could lay the groundwork for future intervention, we consider research on wild-animal suffering a top priority.