The situation of animals in the wild

Many people today have a romanticized view of nature and what the lives of animals in the wild are like. They believe that animals live mostly happy lives as long as they are in a natural environment. Other people are aware that animals in the wild can suffer and die prematurely but believe these are exceptions. Others think that having autonomy is what matters most for animals, regardless of how much they suffer. Some people believe that the fact that an animal’s species has survived for so long shows that the members of that species have good lives. However, being able to survive and reproduce is very different from being comfortable. Most of us would not consider a human life good merely because a person survived. The truth about the lives of animals is very different from the way most people think of it, if they think of it at all.

The vast majority of animals in the wild die shortly after coming into existence, with their lives containing little more than the pain of their deaths. This happens because most animals have huge numbers of offspring, of which, on average, only one per parent survives to maturity. The rest die very young, most of them almost immediately after being born or hatched, and they likely die in pain or fear. We assume that it’s likely they feel pain or fear when they die because the evidence indicates that most animals are sentient (capable of feeling pain and having other experiences) and we know that the way most animals die would be painful to animals who can feel pain. This includes starvation, thirst, and attacks by other animals.

Animals who survive face many threats to their lives and natural harms are part of their everyday experience. This includes physical injuries, illness, hunger, malnutrition and thirst, and psychological stress.

Being concerned about the situation of animals in the wild differs from having conservationist views, though the two are often confused. We should be concerned about what happens to animals not because they belong to a certain species or ecosystem, or because they are living beings, but because they can feel and suffer. Conservationist efforts sometimes entail harming or killing certain animals in the wild.

Moreover, conservationists can discourage us from helping animals in situations where we could save them from terrible suffering and death on the grounds that doing so is not natural, even though we intervene when it comes to human beings in perilous situations.

It is important that people learn about the true situation of animals in the wild because this will help dispel the idyllic view of nature, which impedes efforts to help animals living in the wild. It is also important as a form of moral advocacy; people who learn about the situation some animals live in may become motivated to help them. Finally, it is also important because it can better inform our efforts to help animals living in the wild.

In the following pages you will find more information about the ways animals in the wild are harmed by natural causes.

Malnutrition, hunger and thirst in wild animals

One of the most important factors limiting the growth of animal populations is the lack of food and water, which can kill huge numbers of animals. We can imagine how much suffering this entails. One of the reasons why many animals have huge numbers of offspring is in order to make it possible that at least some of them can find food and survive, even if it means many others starve to death.

Diseases in nature

Animals in the wild can suffer many different kinds of diseases, some of which are very painful and can kill them slowly. Even those that are not lethal can cause great suffering. While it would often be possible to vaccinate or treat them, this is only done in some cases, and many animals who could be saved will die.

Physical injuries in wild animals

In the wild, animals are injured for various reasons. The actual wounds may kill the animals, or their injuries may cripple them in ways that are fatal, such as certain types of mutilations. In other cases, even though they survive, they are partly crippled or suffer chronic pain, and their lives are much shorter.

Weather conditions and nonhuman animals

Many animals die after suffering a great deal due to extreme temperatures. This happens regularly in nature, and sometimes animals suffer for whole seasons due to this. In addition, animals are negatively affected by other climatic factors such as rain, snow and droughts.

Animals in natural disasters

Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and natural forest fires can cause much suffering and many deaths. Even when it would be possible to help them, most animals affected by natural disasters are left to die or to endure debilitating injuries that could have been healed.

Interspecific conflict

In nature, the ecosystemic relations in which an organism causes harm to another for his or her own benefit are called antagonistic ones. These types of relations occur frequently and cause many animals pain and distress, often for a long time, and they may eventually die.

Intraspecific fights

Animals of the same species can have conflicts and fight for number of reasons, including territory, mates, and social status. Animals of many different species also engage in cannibalism, infanticide, and fights to death with siblings.

Sexual conflict

Sexual coercion is common among animals of many species, and can result in serious harms. In addition, the males sometime kill the offspring of other males in order to mate with their mothers. Some animals kill those they mate with.

Psychological stress in wild animals

In addition to suffering physically, many animals also undergo significant psychological stress due to the environmental pressures they have to endure. They often find themselves in situations in which they suffer fear and distress, and, in the case of some animals, sorrow when their offspring or animals within their group die.

You can also read the articles in these related sections:

Introduction to wild animal suffering

An introductory text that summarizes the content of the Wild animal suffering section. You can start here, or read just this text if you’re only going to read one.

Why wild animal suffering matters

Presents the reasons why the interests of animals in the wild matter, and why we should be concerned about wild animal suffering.

Helping wild animals

Explains several ways in which animals can be helped, and are currently helped, when they are harmed by natural or indirectly anthropogenic causes.

Welfare biology

Introduces the field of welfare biology, a proposed cross-disciplinary field of study in natural sciences that studies the situation of animals with regard to their wellbeing. Welfare biology would assess the suffering of animals in the wild and the ways to help them.

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