What Animal Ethics is currently working on

27 Feb 2021

At Animal Ethics, we work on relatively diverse projects, but they all help move us towards our aims of seeing a world with greater respect for nonhuman animals and helping the most vulnerable.

We work with several goals in mind:

· First, we want to bring about a long-term shift in attitudes so that societies and individuals give greater moral consideration to all sentient beings. This includes dissemination of information about ethics, sentience, the situation of domesticated and wild animals, helping wild animals, and other related issues.

· Second, we want to promote work on interventions to help wild animals. This is primarily work related to interventions that could be done in the near future and that can be done without affecting the animals in ways that will do more harm than good, either directly or indirectly. This work can have a powerful effect by modeling what can be done, which can encourage others to support work to help wild animals, inform policies, and foster further research on this topic.

· Third, we promote the research that is a prerequisite to designing most large-scale interventions. This includes studies of factors affecting animal wellbeing, with a focus on how contributions in the science of ecology and related fields can illuminate this issue. We focus on animals living in the wild because that’s where the vast majority of nonhuman animals are and yet it is a severely neglected area of work.

If you haven’t yet, please take a look at our latest publication, an illustrated physiology of invertebrate nervous systems. It provides schematic illustrations with descriptions of the degree of centralization and physical structures of the nervous systems of different types of invertebrates, from worms to bees to octopuses. This kind of information is useful because in order to know which animals can be harmed or helped by our actions or inaction, we first need to know which animals can feel and experience their lives.

Earlier this year we published our overall plans for 2021. Here’s an overview that gives a little more detail on some of the things we are currently working on.

Sentience

A literature review about the behavioral evidence for sentience in invertebrates

Background: There’s no definitive way to determine if other beings in addition to ourselves are sentient or not. However, there are several types of indicators that provide evidence – not proof – of the presence or lack of sentience. They include looking at structures in the nervous system that would allow for central processing of information (like neurons), physiological indicators like rapid heartbeat when reacting to something external, the presence of certain chemicals (like receptors for opiods which reduce pain), and evolutionary evidence such as proximity to a species that is sentient. Another type of indicator is behavioral. This might be seen in behaviors such as nursing an injured body part or reactions we typically associate with fear.

This literature review considers behavioral features that provide evidence of sentience and looks at their presence in invertebrates. When considered together with the other types of evidence, it helps us to estimate the likelihood of sentience in different types of invertebrates. This is valuable information because it can help us when we make decisions that could affect the wellbeing of other animals. The evidence reviewed includes behavior that suggests adapting and learning, certain avoidant reactions that appear too complex to be reflexes, and behaviors suggestive of emotion. The interactions of social insects also appear to indicate sentience.

Wild animal suffering

Paper about the lives of wild animals in urban areas

Background: Urban welfare ecology is a proposed field of research that deals with the living conditions of wild animals in suburban, urban, and agricultural areas. Wild animals in these areas include animals such as birds, mice, rabbits, tortoises, and lizards as well as a large number of insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, bees, and butterflies. These animals are often mistreated, killed, or accommodated in ways that are harmful to them (such as humans feeding them sweets). There is growing concern about their plight, both within academia and among the general public.

This paper discusses the factors affecting the wellbeing of wild animals in urban areas and shows how these factors affect the lives of five groups of urban animals: pigeons, house sparrows, field mice, fruit bats, and iguanas. It will also give some recommendations about how to improve the lives of these animals.

Interventions to help wild animals

Blueprint for a Brucellosis vaccination program for bison

Background: Programs to vaccinate wild animals on a large scale have been successfully implemented for decades, with international cooperation. Certain diseases have been eliminated in some areas of the world, such as rabies in North America. The goal of these vaccination programs has not been to improve the wellbeing of the vaccinated animals themselves, but rather to protect humans and domesticated animals who they might infect, or to prevent the extinction of animals of a certain species. In the future, widespread vaccination could be done for the sake of the animals themselves.

We are working on a blueprint for a Brucellosis vaccination program for bison in Yellowstone National Park in the USA. This is part of our plans to help enable interventions that will help wild animals in the near future. Bison are frequently killed because of the risk of the infection they can spread to other animals. However, vaccination is an alternative. If it is effective, it could gain acceptance quickly.

Post calling for the end of badger killings in the UK in favor of vaccinating them

Background: The UK government has long been killing vast numbers of badgers under the pretense of reducing transmission of tuberculosis from them to cows on farms. They do this because of an economic interest in exploiting the cows. This is done even though vaccinating them is a far better option, even without considering the wellbeing of the badgers themselves. In 2015 we wrote a post arguing that the killing should be stopped in favor of vaccination.

This paper is an update based on new developments and new evidence. It discusses how vaccinating badgers against tuberculosis is an alternative to killing which helps them rather than harming them. The developing of a vaccine that allows cows to be more effectively vaccinated and an oral bait version of the vaccine for badgers make the case for vaccination even clearer. The paper calls for action on this point, and it discusses how it is practically and politically possible.

Ethics and animals

Updates to the ethics section on the website

Background:  Animal ethics is the field of ethics that deals with how and why we should take nonhuman animals into account in our moral decisions. It is clear that some theories, such as egalitarianism, utilitarianism, care ethics, and different types of suffering-focused ethics should incorporate concern for nonhuman animals. In other theories, it may seem less clear, but we argue they also imply consideration for nonhuman animals.

We are updating web pages in our section about ethical theories and animals, section and adding a few more pages. Among the ones we’ll be updating are contractarianism, rights theories, and virtue and care ethics. We’re adding two new pages, on prioritarianism and suffering-focused ethics, both of which give more weight to alleviating the worst conditions than on overall or average wellbeing.

Cognitive biases

A new section on cognitive biases

Background: Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that help us to make quick decisions without having to think much about them. Making decisions without thinking is functional in some circumstances – such as running away from a snake – but when we need to make a decision that requires deliberation, these shortcuts distort our thinking in ways that lead to incorrect perceptions and poor decisions. A common one that you may be familiar with is confirmation bias, in which we want to prove something so we only look for evidence in favor and not evidence against it.

This new website section on cognitive biases includes the ostrich effect, in which we avoid information we don’t want to know; the bandwagon effect, in which we believe something because others do, and wishful thinking, in which we believe what want to believe.

Outreach

A report about perspectives on animal advocacy work in China with a focus on wild animals

Background: Working in China requires a great deal of knowledge about the culture, politics, and history of animal protection activities by both local and international groups.

This report will examine how to help promote advocacy in China currently, and the best ways to incorporate concern for wild animal suffering in animal advocacy movements in China.

Outreach in India

The COVID-19 situation has slowed down our outreach efforts, but we have been meeting and giving interviews online, and we are especially active in India at the moment. Representatives there are holding online conferences and webinars and doing academic outreach.

Outreach in Brazil

We recently uploaded an online course in Portuguese about animal ethics, explaining different arguments for respecting the interests of all animals, with a focus on those in the wild. We are currently organizing several officially recognized courses on this issue at universities in Brazil.