This post was written as a guest blog post by Maria Salazar before she joined ACE’s research team in July, 2019. The views expressed here are her own and don’t necessarily reflect ACE’s position.
Preliminary research on the large scale of suffering and premature death that occurs in the wild,1 coupled with the high neglectedness of this issue, make wild animal suffering a very important problem for people and organizations who want to help animals effectively. Given the insufficient knowledge available on this topic, a proposed strategy to tackle wild animal suffering consists in developing welfare biology, a research field focused precisely on addressing this issue. I will briefly argue that fostering the formation of welfare biology as an academic field could be a promising strategy to help wild animals. I will try to make this case by suggesting that despite some attempts to assist wild animals, the issue of wild animal suffering has been highly neglected by society at large, including the scientific community. Then, I will explore the potential benefits and challenges of creating this new academic discipline. Finally, I will share some ideas for actions that advocates can carry out to promote this new research field.
Helping Wild Animals
Attempts to help non-human animals living in the wild include providing them with food and water, rescuing trapped animals and animals in disasters, healing injured animals, looking after orphan juveniles, vaccinating wild populations of animals, and managing their habitat.2 However, not all efforts have been motivated by people’s concern for the well-being of animals. Vaccination programs of wild animals, for example, are normally developed with the purpose of eradicating diseases that may be transmitted to humans and domesticated animals. Installing feeders in urban, semi-urban, and rural locations is often motivated by people’s desire to watch wild animals, and habitat transformation is usually done only for humans’ benefit. However, these actions affect the quality of life of many animals in substantial ways.
Recently, a growing number of people in the animal advocacy and effective altruism communities have started to pay attention to the suffering of animals living in the wild. Organizations and individuals working on this cause have stressed (i) the enormous scale of suffering that occurs in natural habitats, (ii) the neglectedness of the issue by society at large, and (iii) the difficulty of tracking the impact of interventions aimed at tackling this complex issue.3 Behind these claims seems to lie the fact that our current knowledge of the welfare issues occurring in the wild is still very limited. Coupled with rough estimates of numbers of animals in the wild, information about the biological and ecological characteristics of certain species give us some understanding of the potential magnitude of wild animal suffering. For example, the number of wild animals is several orders of magnitude larger than the number of humans and domesticated animals combined,4 and the lives of animals living in the wild are far from idyllic.5 More accurate estimates about the scale of suffering could be achieved if Researchers in life sciences would devote more effort to understanding these animals’ circumstances in relation to their wellbeing.
The welfare of wild animals has been widely neglected by the scientific community, which tends to focus on other topics. Biologists and ecologists focused on studying wild animals seem to be interested in their genetics, evolutionary history, behavior, physiology, and relations with other organisms, but have so far failed to address their welfare.6 There have been some attempts to include animal welfare considerations into wildlife management and conservation policies:7 For example, groups have attempted to use less harmful methods to manage wild animal populations, but they often focus on improving the conditions of animals who are directly harmed by human beings. It’s worth noting that even when wild animals are directly affected by human actions—for example, in the case of wildlife trade—animal welfare has been considered in the literature, but only to a minimum extent.8 Others have tried to assess the welfare of “free-living” animals,9 but again only covering the harms caused by human activities, and therefore failing to provide a comprehensive assessment of wild animal welfare. In other cases, animal welfare scientists specialized in wildlife have focused on animals kept in zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks, disregarding the study of the welfare state of non-captive animals.10
There are different reasons for the lack of interest in studying the welfare of wild animals, including the view that wild animals’ wellbeing doesn’t matter or is not relevant enough, the idea that humans are not entitled to intervene in natural ecosystems, and the belief that animals in the wild don’t need our help since they live very pleasant lives.11 However, an increasing number of students and Researchers who reject favoritisms when it comes to helping sentient beings are recognizing that the wellbeing of animals in their natural ecosystems also matters, and they are willing to engage in research to better understand the suffering of wild animals and to discover effective means of reducing it.
Welfare Biology: A Promising Strategy to Help Wild Animals
Increasing research aimed at understanding the well-being of wild animals could improve our capacity to effectively help them. If we knew more about their state of welfare and how it is affected, we would be more informed about not only the scale of wild animal suffering, but also the best courses of action to reduce it. This is especially why Animal Ethics, Wild Animal Initiative, and other organizations and individuals willing to help wild animals believe that one promising strategy to increase this cause’s tractability is to foster the creation of a new scientific field of research.
This research field has been referred to as welfare biology and is defined as the study of living beings and their environment with respect to their welfare.12 Welfare biology may be understood as the study of the wellbeing of animals in their ecosystems—it is thus the field that studies wild animal suffering. It would necessarily be interdisciplinary as it would use research results and methodologies from at least two well-established academic fields: ecology and animal welfare science. In addition, this field would include descriptive and prescriptive components, since it would not only contribute to understanding the state of welfare of animals in the wild, but it would also study possible ways to improve their quality of life and prevent the harms they suffer. Just as conservation biology aims both to study and preserve (and even increase) biodiversity, welfare biology would aim both to study and identify strategies to improve the wellbeing of wild animals.
Creating a new interdisciplinary academic field is a challenging project, as it requires (i) resources (e.g. funding, time, interested scholars), (ii) efforts to articulate a new conceptual and methodological framework, and (iii) collaborative work between academics and probably other sectors of society (e.g. general public, governmental and non-governmental institutions). However, in the current context of biological and social sciences, the formation of new interdisciplinary fields for solving complex “real-world” problems is not uncommon (typical examples include climate studies and criminal justice).13 Since the 20th century, the rise of interdisciplinary research has created a constant opportunity for the establishment of new scientific subdisciplines—these can in turn mature into distinct, recognized disciplines.14 If welfare biology becomes a scientific discipline formally established in universities and other academic institutions, research outcomes could have a substantial influence on society. Research conducted by academics is recognized as meeting high-quality standards and being relevant for overcoming social challenges, having thus high credibility among decision and policy makers who usually find academic research as a reliable source of knowledge. If the study of wild animal welfare is developed outside of academia, it could run the risk of lacking scientific rigor. This could prevent it from accurately informing interventions aimed at helping wild animals, and it could lead to fewer opportunities to influence policy makers and to create significant social change. What’s more, academics often have resources from their departments or research centers at their disposal (e.g. infrastructure, materials, established research and publication protocols, opportunities for teaching) that facilitate the development of research projects, the publication of research results, and the reproduction of knowledge.
The formation of a new academic field around wild animal suffering could provide a better understanding of this complex issue in terms of quantity and quality of research, and could therefore have a great impact in producing social change. It could inform strategies and policies aimed at reducing wild animal suffering, and at the same time, it could contribute to a culture in which the wellbeing of all animals (including those living under and outside human control) matters, independently of its cause (whether it is anthropogenic or not).
Promoting the Creation of Welfare Biology
With these potential impacts in mind, organizations and individuals advocating for wild animals are working on different outreach projects to engage with the academic community and unite efforts to promote research in welfare biology. Apart from increasing the amount of research projects and publications, there are specific actions that typically contribute to the formation of new scientific disciplines. These include founding non-governmental organizations devoted to the promotion of research and discussion, creating peer-reviewed journals, establishing courses and degrees in colleges and universities, and publishing textbooks. Raising concern about the importance of the problem through popular books and applying public pressure to governmental institutions may also be key elements to early field growth (at least this is the case for young disciplines such as animal welfare science15 and conservation biology16). Although more research is still needed to determine the best ways to promote the creation of welfare biology in particular, people concerned about the suffering of wild animals can take the following actions:
- We can all help by raising awareness about wild animal suffering and the importance of doing research on this topic. These efforts can target different audiences, including the general public, animal advocates, effective altruists, as well as Researchers and students in life sciences. We can also support different projects and organizations working in this area.
- Animal advocates should incorporate a concern for wild animals as an integral part of the defense of nonhuman animals.
- Students, especially those in natural sciences, veterinary sciences, and interdisciplinary sciences, can raise awareness about this issue at their universities: They can talk about wild animal suffering and welfare biology at student societies/clubs, as well as organize talks and seminars to discuss and promote research on this topic.
- Researchers and scientists can conduct research projects in welfare biology.17 They can also collaborate by speaking about this issue with other interested colleagues or students, or by hosting events addressing it.
See the Animal Ethics website for a description of some of these interventions.
Animal welfare seems to go beyond the scope of ecological subdisciplines such as wildlife ecology, probably because the ecological principles applied in this field, although they may address relevant issues to determine animal welfare (such as fitness, behavior, and life history strategies), do not explicitly deal with this concept. In biology and ecology textbooks and encyclopedias, for example, animal welfare is often mentioned as a (bio)ethical matter, but it is not considered as an object of scientific study (Fath, 2018).
See, for example, Compassionate Conservation.
Animal Ethics is working on a research project to better understand the attitudes of scientists and students towards research in wild animal suffering; results would probably give more clarity to why this issue has been neglected by the scientific community.
Miller, 1982; Pohl, Truffer, & Hirsch-Hadorn, 2017
See Animal Ethics, 2018 for examples of research projects in welfare biology