In other texts, we have examined several ways of helping animals that require rescuing them in some way, and in some cases also providing them some special care, such as medical attention and vaccination. Here we will see two other forms of helping animals that can be done without rescuing them, having to do with providing for their basic needs. One of them is providing shelters they can use to avoid the worst effects of weather conditions. Another is providing food and water to hungry and thirsty animals. These actions have to be carried out very carefully so they aren’t counterproductive.
In our website section about the situation of animals in the wild, we have seen that among the harmful circumstances they must face are harmful weather conditions, malnutrition, hunger, and thirst. There are actions that can prevent animals from suffering and dying due to these causes.
Access to a high degree of control over our climates by living in buildings is something that many people take for granted. It may be difficult for us to imagine how hard it can be to lack access to these things. It is unfortunately all too common for animals to lack access to even rudimentary structures to help them maintain their temperature in a safe range. We should remember that natural conditions are not necessarily good for animals. Indeed, these conditions are often harsh and can cause great suffering to animals.
One way we may be able to help wild animals is by building shelter or other structures for them to use. These structures allow animals to avoid dangerous weather conditions and to avoid predators. Many different types of animals build nests for these reasons.1 However, in some cases this may take a significant amount of time and they will often not be as good as structures that we could build for them. We can help animals by providing them with suitable pre-constructed shelters or nests. Other animals who do not normally build them may still be able to recognize and benefit from shelters. If we see that the structures are being used by animals, that gives us a good indication that they are helpful to those animals.
Structures may allow animals to avoid predators because they can serve as hiding places that other predatory animals may not notice. They may also help animals if their entrances are too small for predatory animals to squeeze inside. Similarly, for animals that climb or fly, structures that are high up off the ground may be unreachable for species that prey on them. In addition to protecting them from wind, rain, and other climactic phenomenon, structures can regulate the temperature of the animals living inside them in other ways. Inside a structure, the heat that the animals lose through their bodies is partially given back to them because it contributes to warming the structure, rather than being lost as it would otherwise be.2 For these reasons, access to this kind of shelter can easily be the difference between life and death for an animal.
The most common way in which people help animals in this way is by building and maintaining “bird boxes.” These structures enable birds to raise their young in an environment that is sheltered from the weather and from predators.3 Buying and installing a bird box is something that anyone can do to help animals living in the wild. This is a common practice, and this intervention is well studied.
You can find plenty of information on the best practices for selecting and maintaining a bird box. Placing the box away from anywhere that predators could access it is important. An entrance that is not too big is also important, because this may enable predators to be able to get inside. Having some small holes for ventilation and drainage is also important. Providing suitable bedding material inside the box will be helpful to the birds who make it their home. It is important that bird boxes be cleaned after a family of birds finishes using it. Otherwise, diseases and parasites may be spread to the new family of birds.4
Structures might be built for many other animals as well. For example, bats need a warm place to roost where they can safely sleep and hibernate. It has been found that bats will roost in human buildings when they have good opportunities to do so. Bats living in these buildings were found to be doing much better, on quite a few different metrics, than bats roosting in natural settings.5 We could build more structures specifically for bats to use or we could allow them to use certain places in existing buildings. Special boxes for bats to roost in can also be built and installed in appropriate locations. Like bats, hedgehogs need a very safe and warm place to hibernate in over the winter. Specific boxes can be built for them to do this. This is an option for anyone who lives in their geographic range.6
Other animals who live in urban areas also try to make their homes inside of buildings when given good opportunities to do so. Pigeons, for example, frequently nest inside of abandoned buildings.7 Society could help pigeons by allowing them to do so in suitable spaces and by removing impediments, such as metal spikes, that people have placed to prevent them from perching or roosting in certain areas. Squirrels, blackbirds, and field mice are among other animals who live in urban areas and who can also be helped.8
The use of artificial warrens by rabbits has been studied. When the warrens are well placed and designed, they are frequently used by rabbits and appear to be helpful to them.9 This suggests that warrens could be built for the sake of improving the situation of these animals.
A species of moth, Acrobasis betulella, has been found to use leaf rolls that were created by scientists. Other species of arthropod in the area were also found to use these structures.10 Again, these structures may help by providing safety from predators and from the weather. More of these structures could be provided in order to help these arthropods.
One of the main reasons animals die in the wild is lack of food and water. Moreover, during food shortages those who don’t starve to death suffer from malnourishment and hunger, as well as thirst.11 It is in many cases perfectly feasible to help these animals. However, we must be careful. Feeding some animals now can in many cases lead to greater reproduction of these animals and more animals starving later. This can be avoided if feeding the animals is combined with taking measures so the animals we save from dying do not reproduce.12 This can be done by administering contraceptives to the animals whose lives have been saved, so no one has to starve in order for their population not to grow. However, when this measure is not taken, feeding the animals may be a bad idea, because it can cause more harm than it prevents.
There are, however, cases where this doesn’t happen. If there is some other reason, different from food, that a certain population won’t grow (that is, if the population has a limiting factor different from food availability), then saving some animals from starving may not have the negative effect of increasing future suffering. More importantly, there are animals like large herbivores who reproduce by having small numbers of offspring and who tend to have relatively good lives. If those animals are not present, other animals (mainly very small animals), will eat the food they would have consumed. These smaller animals may have high mortality rates at the beginning of their lives. Due to this, the total amount of suffering existing in the ecosystem is lower when the larger herbivores are there. So, providing food for them is a good idea when there are circumstances limiting food availability, as, for example, when heavy snows or long droughts occur.
A final point related to this is that feeding animals who would otherwise starve to death is an example that many people can understand, and that can help to counter the idea that it is not possible to help animals in the wild, because saving animals from starving is feasible in many situations.
In fact, humans often do this even if they aren’t concerned about the wellbeing of animals. For example, in some cases, feeders are installed by hunters who want to attract certain animals to keep them alive to hunt later. In other cases, humans often intervene to feed animals in the wild even if they do not care about the animals themselves but instead have conservationist purposes, such as the conservation of a certain species that is particularly appealing to human beings.13 To achieve such purposes, animals in the wild are regularly fed in many places.
In some cases, humans deal with the problem of animals starving in the wild in terrible ways, often by killing them. In a case in Zimbabwe, elephants and impalas were massacred for this reason. In a case in Kenya, zebras were rounded up to be taken to lions for them to eat (this was done for economic reasons, so that there would be more lions for tourists to see). However, there are many other cases in which people act ethically by feeding starving animals. An example can be found here:
Efforts to help wild animals have also been carried out traditionally in some places, for animals such as large herbivores. In different communities in North India, there is a tradition of caring for animals in the wild, which includes providing them with food.
Many of us are actually in a position to save animals from suffering from hunger and starvation. Here are some very basic instructions explaining ways of doing so:
Winter tips for helping wild animals
We must bear in mind the precautions mentioned above, which means that we should carefully evaluate when to act to help animals in order to avoid future harms to them from their populations growing.
Lack of access to clean water is another source of suffering and a serious risk to the health and lives of animals. Wild animals can also be helped when they need water, and it’s often easy to do. Some campaigns have provided water to stray animals, and this has also been done in the wild, through the creation of ponds or reed bed construction for water cleaning.
In doing this we should be careful, however, not to increase the suffering of other animals. When ponds are created, some animals might drown, or it might increase the reproduction of certain animals who parasitize others who breed in ponds, or it may increase the reproduction of animals, especially of those having large numbers of offspring, such as mosquitoes and other insects. This can cause many of them come into existence only to die painfully shortly afterwards due to lack of resources.
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