Many people have a romanticized view of wild animals; they think wild animals are toughened by their environment and do not feel pain, or, at least, do not feel it to the extent that humans and domesticated animals do.
According to another view, they are different from humans and domesticated animals in that, while they experience pain, they don’t want to be helped in their difficult situations.
These views are simply untrue. The key reasons for believing that humans or domesticated animals are conscious also apply to animals living in the wild. Many harms that come to animals are unrelated to being confined or harmed by humans.
Many wild animals possess nervous systems that are not much different from our own. In fact, many are very similar to the nervous systems of animals that humans usually consider to be conscious. Consider the minimal differences between wolves and dogs, wild cats and domesticated cats, wild birds and chickens, or boars and pigs. It seems hard to believe that only some of them could be sentient or that some suffer less than others. Just because some of them have been domesticated does not mean that their capacity to feel is different. Sentient animals have the capacity to feel and suffer because of their physiology, not because of their circumstances or proximity to humans, or because of the ways humans use them.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency to think that the continuous threats of injury, hunger, pain, and fear to wild animals make them less sensitive to these harms relative to humans or domesticated animals. Yet, there is little evidence to support this conclusion. In addition to the physical harms animals face, surviving in the wild often requires that they be alert and responsive to threats they might encounter in their environments. Given the number and severity of these threats, many wild animals experience constant stress throughout their lives.1 Fear of predators is one major cause of this.2 Many social animals experience sorrow and grief following the deaths of their family members and peers, and non-social animals must maintain a constant state of vigilance to their surroundings to protect their own safety.3 While not all animals living in the wild experience serious amounts of psychological suffering resulting from these conditions, it is an important factor for others.4
Those animals who survive infancy still die at a very young age due to injury, illness, hunger, or predation.5 Like humans and many domesticated animals, some of these animals give birth to small numbers of live offspring. However, most animals tend to have large numbers of offspring, and most of them die when they are very young. In addition to the suffering they undergo in the process, death is a harm to these animals because it deprives them of future positive life experiences they might otherwise have had.
Given these considerations, the claim that wild animals can’t be harmed does not correspond to the facts of biology or physiology.
Some people oppose helping animals living in nature because they regard suffering as a natural part of life in the wild. This way of thinking is based on a fallacy called an appeal to nature, in which it is assumed that because something is natural, it must be good, or at least an evil we should not try to eliminate. Do we really think suffering is fine as long as it’s natural? This is not how we regard human suffering. We care about the harm it can cause to the person experiencing it.
Some people oppose helping animals in the wild because what they care about are entities like ecosystems. They might argue that the suffering of individuals contributes to the functioning of ecosystems. To be clear, an abstract entity like an ecosystem can be altered or even damaged, but it cannot actually be benefited or harmed. As the argument from relevance shows, when it comes to being harmed or benefited, the determining factor is whether an individual within an ecosystem – a sentient animal – can experience suffering and joy.6
We would not show such a lack of concern if we were considering humans living under similar conditions to most wild animals. It is widely believed that humans should receive help under harmful natural circumstances (e.g., famine, disease) regardless of whether the suffering they experience contributes to the integrity of a natural ecosystem. Since there are no good reasons to treat species as a boundary for moral concern, we should not have a different attitude when it comes to helping wild animals.
When we consider preventable harm in an impartial manner, it does not make sense to oppose only certain harms to particular animals, such as domesticated animals or humans. Yet, many people who oppose animal exploitation do not oppose harms to wild animals that occur in nature. According to this view, it is not the harm that is the problem, but rather the manner in which it occurs. If it occurs naturally, there is nothing bad or unacceptable with it, only if it occurs because humans cause it is bad and unacceptable.
Others argue that the existence of natural harms to animals makes it acceptable to harm animals intentionally. Their view is that animal exploitation is okay because other animals suffer naturally in the wild. Yet they don’t make the same claim about humans.
Yet, suffering is suffering and deprivation of happiness is deprivation of happiness, regardless of who is affected or in what manner.
Because of the terrible harms that animal exploitation causes, we might think that animals are in a good situation when they are not living in captivity. Many people believe that animals have happy and fulfilling lives in nature because they are free to act on their own.7 But freedom does not automatically entail a good life.
Theorists of liberty often point out that freedom does not simply mean that an individual is not coerced into doing something. Rather, freedom requires being able to do what one wants to do, in accordance with the way they would like to live. Most animals, including the vast majority of those living in the wild, are not free in these respects, so their freedom is limited.
Consider the case of an impoverished child who, rather than playing and going to school, must endure harsh working conditions for very little money in order to avoid starvation. Children living under such conditions might not be slaves in the sense that they have the option to choose not to work, but given that the alternative is death, we could not claim that they are free in any meaningful sense. This is much like the situation of wild animals who must face constant threats to their survival and suffer serious harms that they have no control over. When the alternative is death, a difficult life is endured rather than chosen, and this cannot really be considered freedom.
Actually, most animals can never enjoy any freedom because they die shortly after coming into existence. The circumstances of their deaths are almost always based on chance rather than choice, and the shortness of their lives means that they seldom have the opportunity to exercise their own freedom.8 This is the fate of most animals, because almost all of them have large numbers of offspring, some laying hundreds, thousands, or even millions of eggs at a time. In order for their populations to remain stable, most of their offspring must die.
We can add to this that freedom can be gratifying for humans when we have many of our other needs met and have many options available for us to decide the course of our lives. However, without these options, we would not consider freedom alone to be sufficient for living a good life.9 Some have argued, accordingly, that what really matters is our capacity to experience pleasure or pain. Others have argued that a good life is characterized by the possibility of having our preferences fulfilled and not thwarted. Still others argue that freedom, if it is a good thing, is just one among several necessary things and that other things can be more important to wellbeing and having a good life.
Being free can help you to achieve some things that are good for you. However, if your freedom only allows you to die in pain, as is often the case for wild animals, then it is not going to make you better off.
It is sometimes argued that living in the wild permits animals to fully express and fulfill their true natures or to develop their capacities according to their biology. However, it seems unlikely that living in nature guarantees such a life, particularly when we consider that most animals don’t survive long enough for this to happen. One has to be alive in order to live according to one’s nature. When we consider human infants who die shortly after birth, we don’t talk about how much they benefited from the freedom to develop their capacities or fulfill their natures. Individuals living very short lives that last mere hours or minutes can’t enjoy these capacities because they don’t have the opportunity to develop them. So, even if we set aside the fact that their deaths are often terrible and painful and just focus on whether they can develop their capacities and fulfill their natures, it seems clear that they can’t in such a short life. 10
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6 See for instance Bernstein, M. H. (1998) On moral considerability: An essay on who morally matters, Oxford: Oxford University Press; (2015) The moral equality of humans and animals. Basingstone: Palgrave MacMillan.
7 It has also been argued that animals have the capacity to make their own choices and that, accordingly, the best thing for them is to let them form their own communities in the wild which would be like political entities we should respect. According to this, it would be right to aid them but only to help maintain these communities. This means that intervention is acceptable provided that it is not very significant, unless the animals’ community we are helping faces a very bad situation so it can no longer continue to exist as it did. This view has been presented in Donaldson, S. and Kymlicka, W. (2011) Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Critics of this view have pointed out that most animals in the wild suffer so much that leaving them alone can be very bad for them, that the assumption that animals forms communities is only correct in the case of some social animals that are a minority in nature, and that we should care about all animals regardless of the group they belong to. See Horta, O. (2013) “Zoopolis, intervention and the state of nature”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 113-125 [accessed on 14 September 2019]; Cochrane, A. (2013) “Cosmozoopolis: The case against group-differentiated animal rights”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 127-141 [accessed on 14 September 2019]; Mannino, A. (2015) “Humanitarian intervention in nature: Crucial questions and probable answers”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 109-120 [accessed on 14 September 2019].
8 See in particular Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two concepts of liberty”, in Berlin, I. (1969) Four essays on liberty, London: Oxford University Press. See also: Gray, T. (1991) Freedom, London: Macmillan; Miller, D. (ed.), Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
9 This is different from the claim that freedom matters when it has to do with autonomy, which theorists such as Alasdair Cochrane claim only some animals, but not others, have. See Cochrane, A. (2011) Animal rights without liberation, New York: Columbia University Press.
10 See on this Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, ch. 6.