Introduction to wild animal suffering

Think for a moment of a wild animal. What animal do you picture in your mind?

When asked this, most people picture healthy, adult, big exotic mammals (or maybe another big vertebrate), such as a lion or an elephant. They think of happy animals, enjoying themselves without any human causing them harm. This is a view of the situation of animals in the wild that is prevalent today.

Despite this, there are many people around the world rescuing and aiding wild animals in different ways, as we will see later. These animals would otherwise die in painful ways. Life is not easy for animals out there. From the very moment they are born or hatch from their eggs, they must face very serious threats, which cause them to suffer a lot.

The factors from which animals suffer are very diverse. Some are due to direct human action. Others may be indirect results of human action, natural circumstances, or combinations of the two. Among the factors that can be partly or completely natural are hostile weather conditions, hunger and malnutrition, thirst, a wide range of diseases, accidents and injuries, conflicts with other animals, parasitism, and psychological stress. These are not unusual circumstances, and the harms animals undergo due to them are not trivial. They are as painful and severe to them as they would be to domesticated animals or to us. In fact, due to them, many animals have lives that contain much more suffering than pleasure.

We can think, for instance, of a bird chick who falls from her nest and agonizes, starving to death on the ground for days, suffering from the cold, the distress, and the pain of the injuries she received due to the fall. Or a baby fish starving after never being able to find any food. Such cases are common among young animals. Other animals may be able to survive for longer and reach adulthood but undergo chronic pain, or die after having endured a lot of suffering. One example of this is a deer suffering from Nasal Bot parasitic infection. These are larvae that grow in their nasal cavities until they are so numerous and so large that the deer is no longer able to breath and slowly suffocates to death.

Examples such as these suggest that the idea that the best we can do for animals in the wild is to leave them alone is not always correct. There are many cases where we can’t do anything to help animals, or where helping them may entail causing greater harm to others. But there are other cases where we can make a significant difference for animals that can be net-positive overall.

Some people who, like us, care about animals, might wonder why this should be an issue, given that there are so many visible ways animals are harmed by humans today, such as those kept in captivity or harmed in the wild by things like fishing. Concern about animals suffering for other reasons is just an expansion of this concern. There is no contradiction in caring about all animals, regardless of whether they are being harmed by humans or from other causes, such as harmful weather conditions or disease. There would be a contradiction in caring only about what happens to the animals that humans harm, and not caring about other animals.


Why wild animal suffering is very important

In order to get a better sense of the importance of wild animal suffering, we need to be aware that many animals have lives filled with suffering, like the ones described above. Such cases are much more numerous than we might initially believe. We can see this by examining how animal populations evolve, and what their mortality rates in their youth are. This is studied by different fields in biology, examining the animals’ population dynamics and life histories.

A key factor determining this is the reproductive strategy that different animals follow. In nature, there are some animals who reproduce by having just one offspring at a time. These are animals who typically give a lot of parental care to their offspring, to maximize their probabilities of survival. However, most animals follow a very different reproductive strategy, bringing into existence a very large number of offspring. The survival rates of these animals at the beginning of their lives is typically very low. If the animals in question reproduce just once during their lives and their populations remain stable, on average only two of their offspring per litter or clutch makes it to adulthood (that is, one per parent). If they reproduce several times, the average number decreases.

Some of these animals might survive for some time even if they do not manage to reach maturity. But in many cases, they die not long after they have started to exist. Some of them might never develop into sentient beings. But many of them do, and they typically die in ways that are likely to be painful, sometimes extremely so. They starve to death, are killed in painful ways, or die due to other factors, such as cold or disease. However, because they are very young when they die, they are likely not to have had opportunities to enjoy any pleasures. They experience little more than the pain of their death. Due to this, suffering appears to outweigh happiness in their lives. Unfortunately, these animals are probably a majority of those who come into existence. This indicates why wild animal suffering is of great importance. It also shows why it can make a big difference that there actually are ways to help some of these animals. The following are some examples of this.


Causes of wild animal suffering and ways to aid animals

Animals in the wild can suffer very significantly and die prematurely due to different factors, including hostile weather conditions, natural disasters, diseases of many different kinds, parasitism, hunger, malnutrition and thirst, psychological stress, conflicts between animals, and accidents that can cause them severe injuries. In many cases, however, they are helped. There are many examples of this. They include rescues of animals stranded on beaches, trapped in ice, snow, mud ponds and many other situations, providing shelter and assistance to sick and injured animals, and care for orphans, and saving some of them from starving in particularly harsh situations. On a larger scale, vaccination programs save huge numbers of animals from suffering and dying due to disease. New programs to help animals can be developed. For example, well-monitored pilot programs can start with the aim of improving the situation of wild animals living in suburban, urban, or industrial areas. What we learn from them can then be applied for animals living in agricultural zones, and then to aid those in need of help in semi-wild and wild areas. Also, we must bear in mind that in the future we may be able to improve things in ways we can’t now. For this to be possible, however, it will be necessary that we have an attitude of concern, and not of disregard, for animals.


Why do people refuse to support helping animals?

Some people don’t care about what happens to animals at all, despite the fact that they can also feel and suffer. This appears to be one of the forms of the discrimination known as speciesism. lHowever, many others do care about animals, but are often unaware of what happens to wild animals. We’ve seen just a few examples of the kind of help they need. Most people would never imagine that wild animals need our help so much. There are reasons that explain this:

First, most people are not familiar with what the lives of these animals are like. In particular, they don’t know about animal population dynamics. Moreover, those who know sometimes fail to reflect on what it means for animals from the point of view of their suffering.

Second, we have cognitive biases that distort how we imagine animal life in nature to be. As I mentioned at the beginning of this video, when most people think of wild animals, the image that comes to their minds is that of big animals, most likely mammals, or maybe big birds; in any case almost surely vertebrates. Furthermore, in almost all cases, they think of adult animals. They may think of lions and tigers, perhaps of giraffes, elephants, wolves, eagles… but they seldom think of, say, fishlings or invertebrates that have just broken out of their eggs. However, these are the overwhelming majority in nature. Most animals are small, and most animals are very young ones. The picture of wild animals that many people have, which is totally unrepresentative, very much conditions the view many people have of how animal lives are in nature.

Finally, there are also people who think that we should not help animals living in the wild because doing so is not “natural.” We should note, however, that when humans are suffering in the way that wild animals commonly do, we typically support helping them. Why have a different attitude in the case of animals? This seems to be a form of discrimination against animals living in the wild. The animals just want to be free from the suffering caused by those conditions, so we should help them whether or not humans are responsible for those harmful conditions.

In fact, we should also note that humans already frequently do intervene in nature to further human interests. We build houses, hospitals, schools, libraries… We also plant the food we need to eat. If we are ready to transform our surroundings for the sake of our needs, we should be willing to do so when other, equally sentient beings like wild animals are need help.


Learning more about how to best help animals

Because it requires careful study to learn how to best help animals, it’s important to invest in research that will help us to both optimize the results for animals and to avoid negative indirect consequences of helping them. The good news is that there is already a lot of data that could be used for this purpose. Veterinary scientists have focused on assessing the wellbeing of domesticated animals, but they have also examined that of wild animals. Ecologists have researched the population dynamics of these animals, their life histories, and the way they interact with other animals and their surroundings. All this can potentially provide us with firm grounding on which to base programs to help animals.

Unfortunately, knowledge from these different areas is seldom integrated. We must also bear in mind that concern for nonhuman animals as individuals has not been included yet among the ends of most scientific research projects. This is the reason why it has been argued that a new cross-disciplinary field of research should be created. This new field would allow us to gather more knowledge that could be used in helping animals in the wild.

In the present, research on this issue can allow us to develop new ways to help animals, and to examine the existing ways. Some of the current methods may be more effective than others, which is to say that some of these methods might allow us help animals more than others. More research can help us to choose and improve the more effective methods, as well as helping others to understand how important this issue is.

Gathering more knowledge can aid us in developing new ways of helping animals that will increase our positive impact in the future. Also, we will be able to learn more about how the wellbeing of animals is affected on an ecosystem level in different situations, and of the best ways to achieve transitions from worse to better situations in the wild.

Due to this, an attitude of caring about animals in the wild can potentially have a big impact not only on the animals currently living but on future ones as well. This is very important, because if we really care about what happens to animals, we should not worry only about those living today. Those who will live in the future have the potential to suffer just as much, so making it possible that the future is the best it can be for them should be a top priority for all of us.

Further readings

Dorado, D. (2015) “Ethical interventions in the wild: An annotated bibliography”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 219-238 [accessed on 23 November 2019].

Faria, C. (2013) “Differential obligations towards others in need”, Astrolabio, 15, pp. 242-246 [accessed on 14 October 2019]

Faria, C. (2018) “The lions and the zebras: Towards a new ethics of environmental management in African National Parks”, in Ebert, R. & Roba, A. (eds.) Africa and her animals: Philosophical and practical perspectives, Pretoria: UNISA Press, pp. 325-342.

Faria, C. & Paez, E. (2015) “Animals in need: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 7-13 [accessed on 30 September 2019].

Faria, C. & Horta, O. (2019) “Welfare biology”, in Fischer, B. (ed.) Routledge handbook of animal ethics, London: Routledge, 455-466.

Garmendia, G. & Woodhall, A. (eds.) (2016) Intervention or protest: Acting for nonhuman animals, Wilmington: Vernon.

Hadley, J. (2006) “The duty to aid nonhuman animals in dire need”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 23, pp. 445-451.

Horta, O. (2010a) “Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes: Population dynamics and suffering in the wild”, Télos, 17 (1), pp. 73-88 [accessed on 28 September 2019].

Horta, O. (2010b) “The ethics of the ecology of fear against the nonspeciesist paradigm: A shift in the aims of intervention in nature”, Between the Species, 13 (10), pp. 163-187 [accessed on 4 November 2019].

Horta, O. (2013) “Zoopolis, intervention, and the state or nature”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 113-125 [accessed on 18 September 2019].

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

Horta, O. (2017b) “Population dynamics meets animal ethics”, in Garmendia, G. & Woodhall, A. (eds.) Ethical and political approaches to nonhuman animal issues: Towards an undivided future, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 365-389.

Johannsen, K. (2017) “Animal rights and the problem of r-strategists”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20, pp. 333-345.

Mannino, A. (2015) “Humanitarian intervention in nature: Crucial questions and probable answers”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 109-120 [accessed on 30 October 2019].

Moen, O. M. (2016) “The ethics of wild animal suffering”, Etikk i Praksis – Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics, 10 (1), pp. 91-104 [accessed on 2 December 2019].

Musschenga, A. W. (2002) “Naturalness: Beyond animal welfare”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 15, pp. 171-186.

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

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Palmer, C. (2013) “What (if anything) do we owe wild animals?”, Between the Species, 16, pp. 15-38 [accessed on 23 September 2019].

Pearce, D. (2015a [1995]) The hedonistic imperative, Seattle: Amazon Digital Services.

Pearce, D. (2015b) “A welfare state for elephants? A case study of compassionate stewardship”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 153-164 [accessed on 22 November 2019].

Ryf, P. (2016) Environmental ethics: The case of wild animals, Basel: University of Basel.

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Tomasik, B. (2015 [2009]) “The importance of wild animal suffering”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 133-152 [accessed on 3 December 2019].

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Vinding, M. (2014) A Copernican revolution in ethics, Los Gatos: Smashwords [accessed on 28 July 2019].

Vinding, M. (2016) “The speciesism of leaving nature alone, and the theoretical case for wildlife anti-natalism”, Apeiron, 8, pp. 169-183 [accessed on 28 October 2019]

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