Welfare biology

Welfare biology

Welfare biology is a proposed research field devoted to study the wellbeing of animals in general, and focused especially on animals in their natural ecosystems. The field of welfare biology would inform measures aimed at helping animals and environmental management policies, and provide this cause with the attention and recognition it needs.

What is welfare biology?

Welfare biology can be defined as the study of sentient animals and their environment with respect to wellbeing.1 It represents a distinct approach to the study of the lives of animals in their ecosystems. By incorporating knowledge from animal welfare science, ecology, zoology, and other well established academic fields, this new research area has the potential to improve our understanding of the wellbeing of animals living in the wild and to increase our chances of developing effective strategies to help them.

It is important to bear in mind that welfare biology would not focus on questions for which animals are considered as units or exemplars of other objects of research, as happens with the study of ecosystemic relations and biodiversity. Rather, welfare biology would be focused on animals as sentient individuals, and on what could be good or bad for them. This is what makes this field of research novel, and also what explains its applied potential in terms of animals’ wellbeing.

Some people might not consider the creation of this new field of research important, if they share an idyllic view of the lives of animals in nature. This view is not correct. Wild animals suffer in many ways, including hunger and thirst, injuries, disease, stress, extreme weather conditions, natural disasters, and antagonistic relationships with other organisms. In addition, many animals die very young, and it’s probable that in many cases the pain of their deaths outweighs the positive experiences accumulated during their short lives (see Population dynamics and animal suffering).2 Animals living in the wild can be harmed just as domesticated animals can be, so there is no good reason to disregard animals in the wild.3

We must bear in mind that even if animal advocates concerned with the situation of animals in the wild carry out research about it, such research will never be able to be as deep or comprehensive as what scientists in research institutions and academic departments can do. Moreover, it will not be as influential or likely to trigger further research by other academics. In addition, when it comes to social recognition and to informing policymaking, independent research seldom has the impact that established academic research can.

A different approach towards animals and their environment

This issue has not been assessed in depth in academia. The reasons for this are diverse. In some cases, this lack of concern is based on the belief that animals have mostly pleasant lives in their natural environments and do not need our help. For life scientists, it may bey because the focus of their work has been on furthering human interests. Still, as we will see next, the work they have done thus far may provide valid starting points for welfare biology.

Several decades ago, the science of animal welfare was created out of a concern by the general public regarding the terrible ways in which many animals are harmed when they are used for human purposes. While many findings in this field have been employed only to learn how to best exploit the animals studied, much of the research has allowed us to learn about animals’ sentience and how animals can be positively and negatively affected. But little work has been carried out concerning animals in the wild. Researchers on wild animal welfare science have focused on studying the wellbeing of captive animals (such as animals in zoos, wildlife parks and rehabilitation centers),4 animals living in urban and agricultural areas,5 animals affected by hunting and the animal trade,6 and other animals who are directly affected by human activities.7 They have put their emphasis on animals living in close relationships with humans and animal welfare issues caused by human action, overlooking the great majority of wild animals and all the natural harms they suffer. Nevertheless, the methods and the knowledge animal welfare scientists have gathered to date may be applied to assessing how animals in the wild can cope, or fail to cope, with the different situations they find themselves in.

As for researchers in ecology and related disciplines, while they have developed various research fields relevant to gaining a better understanding of wild animal suffering (such as population ecology, community ecology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary ecology, landscape ecology, conservation biology, ethology, wildlife management), there’s still very little information about it. Ecologists have shown interest in animal behavior, life histories, population dynamics, and evolutionary patterns (among other ecological aspects) but have failed to establish the connection that their findings have to the wellbeing of individual animals. However, some of the knowledge already gained in those fields can tell us a great deal about the likely state of wellbeing of animals in their natural environments.

Prospects for welfare biology

Despite the lack of attention to this issue, different courses of action benefiting animals living in the wild have been carried out, including the rescue of trapped animals, helping orphans, and giving medical assistance to injured or sick animals (see Helping animals in the wild). Some efforts have affected large numbers of individuals. These include, for instance, programs aimed at feeding populations of mammals and birds with the purpose of favoring endangered, hunted or charismatic species, reducing human-wildlife conflicts, answering ecological questions, or helping animals.8

Also, many wild animals have been saved by vaccination programs from suffering from painful and often lethal diseases such as rabies,9 tuberculosis,10 myxomatosis,11 and swine fever.12 While these measures are typically carried out to stop wild animals from transmitting diseases to domesticated animals and humans, this shows that aiding wild animals is something feasible, and can also provide benefits for humans and other animals. These efforts have been based on studies in different disciplines, which don’t explicitly address animals’ wellbeing. This might explain why their impacts on the lives of individual animals’ wellbeing are not highlighted when these programs are researched and their results are presented.

It may be thought that this issue is not easy to deal with, as current knowledge and technology to improve the welfare of animals in the wild is still insufficient. But this is because there have been no serious attempts to make progress on this issue. As mentioned above, thus far, ecologists and other life scientists have shown little concern for the wellbeing of animals and, instead, have focused their efforts on other issues such as the conservation of biodiversity and other natural resources for human benefit. Establishing research on welfare biology and promoting it may thus increase our ability to successfully tackle it.

The creation of new scientific disciplines that earn respect in academia typically takes some time and the involvement of committed people, but we can find a number of recent examples. Several new fields of research appeared in the 20th century that were not considered as relevant areas of study before and have become respected disciplines in academia. In the case of welfare biology, there are some promising perspectives for the future as more people become concerned about the suffering of animals in the wild. This is happening both among the general public and among people working in academia, especially students and young researchers.

New research projects focused on appraising the wellbeing of animals in the wild and considering the best ways to improve their situation can be designed and accomplished by addressing several different topics. Examples include further research into vaccination programs, as we saw above, work on urban welfare biology for the sake of animals living in urban, suburban, or industrial areas, research on the impact of hostile weather conditions and shelter building for animals’ wellbeing, assessment of parasites, population dynamics and the feasibility of deparasiting efforts, and many others. The importance of these projects being successfully developed is not only that they will be useful to implementing measures and policies to help animals, but also that successful projects can help to raise more interest in carrying out further research on the topic. This can potentially increase the amount of work and publications in this area of research until it becomes established as a new discipline.

Further readings

Bovenkerk, B.; Stafleu, F.; Tramper, R.; Vorstenbosch, J. & Brom, F. W. A. (2003) “To act or not to act? Sheltering animals from the wild: A pluralistic account of a conflict between animal and environmental ethics”, Ethics, Place and Environment, 6, pp. 13-26.

Broom, D. M. (2014) Sentience and animal welfare, Wallingford: CABI.

Clarke, M. & Ng, Y.-K. (2006) “Population dynamics and animal welfare: Issues raised by the culling of kangaroos in Puckapunyal”, Social Choice and Welfare, 27, pp. 407-422.

Cohn, P. (ed.) (1999) Ethics and wildlife, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen.

Dawkins, R. (1995) River out of Eden: A Darwinian view of life, New York: Basic Books, ch. 5.

Dorado, D. (2015) “Ethical interventions in the wild: An annotated bibliography”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 219-238 [accessed on 29 September 2018]

Faria, C. (2013) Animal ethics goes wild: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature, Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Gregory, N. G. (2004) Physiology and behaviour of animal suffering, Ames: Blackwell.

Horta, O. (2017) “Animal suffering in nature: The case for intervention”, Environmental Ethics, 39, pp. 261-279.

Jones, M, & MacMillan, A. (2016) “Wild animal welfare”, Veterinary Record, 178, 195.

Kirkwood, J. K. (2013) “Wild animal welfare”, Animal Welfare, 22, pp. 147-148.

Kirkwood, J. K. & Sainsbury, A. W. (1996) “Ethics of interventions for the welfare of free-living wild animals”, Animal Welfare, 5, pp. 235-243.

Lauber, T. B.; Knuth, B. A.; Tantillo, J. A. & Curtis, P. D. (2007) “The role of ethical judgments related to wildlife fertility control”, Society & Natural Resources, 20, pp. 119-133.

McLaren, G.; Bonacic, C. & Rowan, A. (2007) “Animal welfare and conservation: Measuring stress in the wild”, in Macdonald, D. & Service, K. (eds.) Key topics in conservation biology, Malden: Blackwell, pp. 120-133.

McMahon, C. R.; Harcourt, R.; Bateson, P. & Hindell, M. A. (2012) “Animal welfare and decision making in wildlife research”, Biological Conservation, 153, pp. 254-256.

Sainsbury, A. W.; Bennett, P. M. & Kirkwood, J. K. (1995) “The welfare of free-living wild animals in Europe: Harm caused by human activities”, Animal Welfare, 4, pp. 183-206.

Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (2015) “Update on oral vaccination of foxes andraccoon dogs against rabies”, EFSA Journal, 13 (7) [accessed on 15 August 2020].

Wobeser, G. A. (2005) Essentials of disease in wild animals, New York: John Wiley and Sons.


1 Ng, Y.-K. (1995) “Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering”, Biology and Philosophy, 10, pp. 255-285.

2 We must bear in mind also that the number of animals living in the wild is very high. Rough estimates suggest that the global population of wild vertebrates may be up to 1014, and that of arthropods maybe up to 1018, and other invertebrates that might be sentient are even more numerous. See Tomasik, B. (2019 [2009]) “How many wild animals are there?”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Aug 07 [accessed on 3 July 2021].

3 All this is explained in more detail in the different texts included in these two sections of our website: The situation of animals in the wild, Why wild animal suffering matters.

4 Brando, S. & Buchanan-Smith, H. M. (2017)“The 24/7 approach to promoting optimal welfare for captive wild animals”, Behavioural Processes, 4 November. Kagan, R.; Carter, S. & Allard, S. (2015) “A universal animal welfare framework for zoos”, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18, sup. 1, pp. S1-S10 [accessed on 17 June 2018]. Hill, S. P. & Broom, D. M. (2009) “Measuring zoo animal welfare: Theory and practice”, Zoo Biology, 28, pp. 531-544.

5 Ferronato, B. O.; Roe, J. H. & Georges, A. (2016) “Urban hazards: Spatial ecology and survivorship of a turtle in an expanding suburban environment”, Urban Ecosystems, 19, pp. 415-428. Souza, C. S. A.; Teixeira, C. & Young, R. J. (2012) “The welfare of an unwanted guest in an urban environment: The case of the white-eared opossum (Didelphis albiventris)”, Animal Welfare, 21, pp. 177-183. Ditchkoff, S. S.; Saalfeld, S. T. & Gibson, C. J. (2006) “Animal behavior in urban ecosystems: Modifications due to human-induced stress”, Urban Ecosystems, 9, pp. 5-12.

6 Baker, S. E.; Cain, R.; van Kesteren, F.; Zommers, Z. A.; d’Cruze, N. C. & Macdonald, D. W. (2013) “Rough trade; animal welfare in the global wildlife trade”, BioScience, 63, pp. 928-938 [accessed on 18 February 2020].

7 Kirkwood, J. K.; Sainsbury, A. W. & Bennett, P. M. (1994) “The welfare of free-living wild animals: Methods of assessment”, Animal Welfare, 3, pp. 257-273.

8 Dubois, S. D. (2014) Understanding humane expectations: Public and expert attitudes towards human-wildlife interactions, PhD thesis, Vancouver: University of British Columbia [accessed on 2 September 2018].

9 Slate, D.; Algeo, T. P.; Nelson, K. M.; Chipman, R. B.; Donovan, D.; Blanton, J. D.; Niezgoda, M. & Rupprecht, C. E. (2009) “Oral rabies vaccination in North America: Opportunities, complexities, and challenges”, Neglected Tropical Diseases, 3 (12) [accessed on 9 July 2018].

10 Díez-Delgado, I.; Sevilla, I. A.; Romero, B.; Tanner, E.; Barasona, J. A.; White, A. R.; Lurz, P. W. W.; Boots, M.; de la Fuente, J.; Domínguez, L.; Vicente, J.; Garrido, J. M.; Juste, R. A.; Aranaz, A. & Gortázar, C. (2018) “Impact of piglet oral vaccination against tuberculosis in endemic free-ranging wild boar populations”, Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 155, pp. 11-20.

11 Ferrera, C.; Ramírez, E.; Castro, F.; Ferreras, P.; Alves, P. C.; Redpath, S. & Villafuerte, R. (2009) “Field experimental vaccination campaigns against myxomatosis and their effectiveness in the wild”, Vaccine, 27, pp. 6998-7002.

12 Rossi, S.; Poi, F.; Forot, B.; Masse-Provin, N.; Rigaux, S.; Bronner, A. & Le Potier, M.-F. (2010) “Preventive vaccination contributes to control classical swine fever in wild boar (Sus scrofa sp.)”, Veterinary Microbiology, 142, pp. 99-107.