This post was written by guest blogger Persis Eskander, Executive Director of Wild-Animal Suffering Research.
If we hope to help the approximately trillions of vertebrates and quintillions of invertebrates in the wild, we need to be prepared for a long, uphill path to success. Wild animal suffering (WAS) is not just contentious; it’s also extremely complex. This post will (1) briefly discuss the case for reducing WAS, (2) give an overview of the current discussion regarding the tractability of the cause area, and (3) explain how the Wild-Animal Suffering Research (WASR) project plans to determine the extent to which reducing WAS is tractable.
The Case for Reducing WAS
The case for addressing WAS has been made by prominent economists, philosophers and effective altruists. While we tend to believe that nature is synonymous with good—and that the lives of animals in the wild are idyllic—this is not true. In fact, when we consider life in the wild we rarely consider that intense competition for scarce resources—along with prevailing population dynamics—means that starvation is the norm for many types of animals. Richard Dawkins points out that “If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.” In addition to these events and other plights, wild animals may suffer from disease, parasitism, predation, injuries, and exposure to severe weather.
We should also consider that the most numerous wild animals in the world have extremely short lifespans. Life history theory suggests that all organisms must make trade-offs. For animals, this trade-off at reproduction means a large share of the most numerous species tend to have large numbers of offspring and invest little to no resources in rearing them. As a result, many offspring will die at very early stages in their lives. For example, one study found bullfrogs can lay 6,000–20,000 eggs per clutch and many of these may be eaten before hatching. Another study1 calculated that only 6.4% of eggs survive and metamorphose—and only 0.1% of eggs survive to adulthood. Given that their premature death (caused by events such as starvation, disease, parasitism or predation) is likely to be painful, the vast majority of bullfrog offspring seem unlikely to have had enough positive experiences to outweigh the plausibly negative experience of death.
Suffering doesn’t have to dominate for WAS to concern us
Contrary to short-lived species, a plausible argument can be made that longer-lived species may have net positive lives—or that they may live largely happy lives and experience only extreme suffering in brief moments or at the point of death. However, if we aggregate suffering across all types of wild animals—particularly that experienced by short-lived animals—many people believe that there is more suffering in the wild than happiness.
Two common objections to the claim that most short-lived animals have net negative lives are that (1) their sentience is uncertain, and (2) animals with small brains or simple neural networks should not be considered as comparably morally important to animals with larger, more complex brains and central nervous systems. In response to objection (1), if we’re uncertain about the sentience of many of these animals (such as invertebrates) we might find it prudent to apply the precautionary principle and ensure we take action that is likely to be net positive for these animals. This includes conducting further research if we believe it is likely to produce useful results. As long as we remain uncertain as to their ability to suffer, it would be unsatisfactory to discount their moral relevance. In response to objection (2), if we’re uncertain about the degree of suffering many animals experience, we can attempt to weigh the cost-effectiveness of interventions according to a numerical value—indicating the “relative moral importance” of various species.
If these or other objections lead us to conclude that suffering doesn’t dominate the aggregated experiences of wild animals, this does not mean we shouldn’t continue to work on this problem. Negative events—such as starvation, dehydration, injury, stress, and parasitism—may be severe; they may be the causes of an unnecessary amount of suffering. If we care about maximizing the welfare of sentient beings, we should act to alleviate or prevent these events from occurring.
A Brief Look: Discussions Regarding the Tractability of WAS
The argument for addressing WAS is clear. What is less clear is how we should address it. There are two distinct discussions about acting to reduce WAS. The first focuses on whether we should intervene at all. The second focuses on the uncertainty about whether there is any way we can positively intervene—and if so, which interventions are best (on the grounds of long-run cost-effectiveness) at reducing the most WAS.
Should we intervene?
For those persuaded by the magnitude of suffering in the wild, it seems clear that we should do what we can to alleviate it. The claim that we can or should disregard the suffering of wild animals on the grounds that it is “natural” is not credible. Humans often intervene in nature to our own benefit. Oscar Horta notes:
“The most clear case in which this happens is when humans radically change some landscape for purposes such as agriculture, mining, construction, etc., though there are many other ways in which humans alter the environment. Besides, human beings often intervene in nature for environmental purposes. They do so, for instance, in order to conserve some species or landscapes. In some cases, they even work to transform an existing ecosystem in order to restore some biocenoses that existed previously.”
Additionally, we don’t accept suffering in our own lives on the grounds that it is “natural.” For example, we developed vaccines for diseases such as polio, smallpox, and tuberculosis. Where human suffering was caused by animals—such as the transmission of rabies from foxes to humans—we similarly intervened (by vaccinating foxes, in this example). To intervene in nature for our own benefit but not for the benefit of other animals is speciesist.
A more practical objection to intervening in nature is that ecosystems are so complex that we very likely can’t do this without producing unintended negative consequences. Peter Singer states that “for practical purposes I am fairly sure, judging from man’s past record of attempts to mold nature to his own aims, that we would be more likely to increase the net amount of animal suffering if we interfered with wildlife, than to decrease it.” It is true that it is extremely difficult to predict the long-run effects of our actions. However, this is not an argument against intervention; this is an argument against intervention now. We don’t currently know enough about the problem of WAS (nor about what viable solutions might look like) to conclusively claim that we should never intervene. Because the problem is opaque, research we do on it now might have extremely high expected value. So rather than walk away from the problem, we can instead learn more about it.
How do we intervene?
If we agree that we should intervene (at some point) to reduce WAS, the next question we have to answer is how do we intervene? A lot of wild animal advocates have written on this topic, and so it isn’t possible for me to cover the whole discussion in this post. However, the following are a few examples.
Some advocates highlight small-scale interventions (such as rescuing trapped animals or providing veterinary care to sick or injured animals). Others have focused on ambitious, large-scale interventions (such as reprogramming predators and CRISPR-based gene-drives). Still others have looked at existing actions that can be improved to create net positive outcomes, such as humane insecticides. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to find objections to such ideas. Small-scale interventions do not address the main sources or scale of suffering, nor can they be implemented on a large scale without assessing the long-term implications on the environment. For example, treating sick or injured animals on a large scale is likely to reduce mortality rates, which increases population density and leads to increased resource competition (which means greater incidences of starvation and dehydration). Similarly, large-scale interventions are ambitious, involving epistemic difficulties associated with unanticipated and/or undesirable flow-through effects. In other words, we don’t currently know to what extent reducing WAS is tractable. We can’t properly advocate on behalf of intervention ideas until we answer that question.
Determining the Tractability of WAS
Those of us interested in focusing on the most impactful cause areas apply a three-factor framework (“importance, tractability, neglectedness“)2 to determine which cause areas we should work on. Once we have assessed the importance, tractability, and neglectedness of WAS, we can compare its cost effectiveness to other cause areas in order to determine its priority. With regard to importance, the number of wild animals plausibly suffering in the wild (whether or not we believe suffering dominates in nature) is enormous. With regard to neglectedness, the number of people working on this issue is minute (15 is a generous estimation), and the resources given to this issue amount to less than $250,000 per year. With regard to tractability, we are uncertain.
We plan to determine the tractability of WAS by considering three core components:
- Can we identify large-scale, net-positive interventions?
- How much do the interventions cost relative to the amount of WAS they reduce?
- What is the likelihood that the interventions will be accepted and adopted?
Can we identify large-scale, net-positive interventions?
Generally speaking, we will break down interventions into two classes: broad and narrow. Broad interventions take an untargeted approach to tackling a problem. They include activities such as establishing welfare biology as an academic discipline and conducting multidisciplinary basic research in ecology, biology, and economics to better understand the cause area. These interventions are broadly useful because the problem is currently very opaque and we expect the value of information from further research to be high. Narrow interventions focus on solutions to specific aspects of the problem. These include proposals such as regulating population growth through immunocontraception or genetic modification and reducing incidences of parasitism through broad-spectrum treatment. These interventions are useful because they present actionable ideas. Their specificity also allows us to more concretely assess their cost effectiveness.
Broad interventions are most useful to our work when they help us identify cost-effective, narrow interventions. Conversely, without a sufficiently comprehensive understanding of the problem, narrow interventions are impossible to properly evaluate. To better understand this, let’s look at an example in anti-factory farming interventions. Corporate outreach is a popular and widely accepted welfarist intervention primarily because of its success in influencing large-scale shifts from battery cages to cage-free systems. Interestingly, the expected benefit from this outreach—that it significantly improves the lives of egg-laying hens—was subject to recent discussions when an investigation discovered existing evidence was less concrete than previously believed. In this example, the broad intervention—research into the welfare of production systems for egg-laying hens—improved our understanding of the problem, which helped identify and evaluate the impact of narrow interventions.
Given how little we currently know about the problem of WAS, WASR’s current focus is on broad interventions that allow us to identify narrow interventions. In order to know whether we can effectively intervene on behalf of wild animals, we need to understand the quality of their lives, which experiences cause suffering, how that suffering is experienced, and the magnitude of harm.
How much do the interventions cost relative to the amount of WAS they reduce?
This component asks us to assess the cost effectiveness of interventions within the cause area (not to be confused with the cost effectiveness of cause areas). Our goal is to determine how much an intervention costs relative to others and to the amount of the problem it solves. With this information we can rank interventions within WAS from most to least cost-effective. To better understand this, let’s look at an example in meat reduction advocacy. Based on data from 2013, there are approximately 7.3 billion land animals3 slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.4 Of these animals, approximately 6.9 billion are broiler chickens and approximately 34 million are cows. For the purpose of this example, let’s set aside questions on the long-term efficacy of meat reduction advocacy, whether the sentience of chickens is equal to that of cows, and the differences in the lifespans of farmed cows and chickens. Let’s also assume that an equal amount of resources go into persuading people to stop eating chicken as go into persuading people to stop eating beef. The number of chickens slaughtered for food in the U.S. is more than 200 times that of cows. It would therefore be significantly more cost-effective (in terms of the amount of the problem solved relative to the cost of the intervention) to focus on encouraging people to reduce their consumption of chicken than it would to do this for beef. You can then extend this assessment to vegan advocacy, and from there to advocating for institutional rather than individual change. In reality, of course, these assessments involve many more variables and are much more complex than the example I’ve used.
Cost effectiveness is an important factor in determining the tractability of WAS. This is because if we only discover interventions that are extremely costly relative to the amount of the problem they solve, then it may be the case that we don’t have good solutions to reducing WAS—or that we aren’t in a position to make progress on the problem. For WAS, this assessment is difficult and will unfortunately be imprecise. In assessing broad interventions, we are interested in the expected value of information. For example, how much useful information do we expect to gain from establishing welfare biology as an academic discipline versus the amount we expect to gain from offering grants to post-doctoral fellows across various disciplines to conduct WAS research? In assessing narrow interventions, we are interested in the expected value of action. For example, how much suffering do we expect to reduce from humane insecticide advocacy versus the amount we expect to reduce from artificial regulation of population growth?
What is the likelihood of interventions being accepted and adopted?
We consider this to be important in an assessment of tractability for two reasons. Firstly, given the complexity of reducing WAS, we are likely to encounter—and possibly explore—counter-intuitive intervention proposals. For example, it is worthwhile to weigh the effectiveness of wildlife management activities like reducing the rate of population growth against supplemental feeding programs as solutions to herbivorous resource competition. Secondly, given how “weird” the cause area is to many, we might find greater traction in prioritizing research on interventions that are already being implemented for non-altruistic reasons, or interventions that support other cause areas. For example, some environmentally-friendly intervention proposals include reducing irrigation subsidies and reducing fertilizer use in agriculture.
The goal of this component is to prioritize interventions with the highest probability of being accepted and adopted, and de-prioritize those that are unlikely to ever be accepted and adopted. However, it is plausible that interventions which might initially be unpopular could gain traction through smart, strategic advocacy. To the extent that we can factor this into our assessment, we will—although it will rely largely on our “best guess” (supported by imperfect historical examples).
How Wild Animal Advocates Can Help
In his post introducing the problem of wild animal suffering, Oscar Horta lists a number of ways wild animal advocates can lead or contribute to efforts to reduce WAS. I agree with them wholeheartedly and would like to reiterate them here. We can all individually engage in the following tasks:5
- Spreading anti-speciesism and concern for all sentient beings, including those living in the wild
- Raising awareness of the very bad situation in which wild animals are, and spreading the view that we should be prepared to intervene to aid them
- Doing research regarding the situation in which these animals are and the ways in which the harms they suffer can be reduced, rather than increased
- Supporting those interventions in nature that are feasible today and present them as examples of what could be done for the good of animals in the wild at a bigger scale
Animal Ethics elaborates on these points in an article on ways to work for a future with fewer harms to wild animals. In addition to individual actions, wild animal advocates can also support organized movement growth. We at WASR have identified two promising opportunities:
- Building a community of active researchers and advocates to help us find solutions and promote concern for the cause area
- Increasing revenue to support the community of researchers and advocates implementing broad and narrow interventions
If you want to support organized movement growth by helping to build the community of researchers or advocates, or by increasing revenue to the movement, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Van Gelder (1992) has calculated roughly that it is only 6.4% of the ‘average frog eggs’ that survive and metamorphose and that it is 0.1% of the ‘average frog eggs’ that survives up to adulthood.”
Spitzen-van der Sluijs, A. M. & R. Zollinger, 2010. Literature review on the American bullfrog Rana catesbeiana (Shaw, 1802). Stichting RAVON, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
This list is copied from the aforementioned post by Oscar Horta.