Wild animal suffering is about harms to the wellbeing of animals living in the wild. This is frequently confused with the ways species, populations of animals, or ecosystems can be affected. These are entities, not individuals who can feel and suffer. In this video, you’ll hear about the meanings of “wild animal suffering” and related terms.
Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues
We will now consider in more detail different meanings the term “wild animal suffering” can take on. As the word “suffering” indicates, concern about the harms suffered by animals relates to what affects their wellbeing—with what is positive or negative for them. It’s different from conservation, which is about how species, populations, or ecosystems can be affected. Wild animal suffering is about how the wellbeing of individual animals can be negatively affected. There’s another harm — death — which is not suffering, so strictly speaking it wouldn’t be part of “wild animal suffering,” but the term can also be used in a broader sense that includes not only suffering but also the harm of death.
There are different kinds of factors that can negatively affect animals living outside of direct human control. By animals under “direct human control,” we mean animals such as those living in captivity and domesticated animals whose lives and activities are directly determined by human beings. To simplify things, the harms animals living outside of direct human control can suffer can be put into three main groups:
Directly anthropogenic harms are the harms that are a direct result of specific human actions, either intentional or unintentional.
Examples of intentional direct harm are fishing and hunting. Another example is the intentional eradication of certain animals. This may be for economic reasons, such as when they are killed because of their negative impact on agriculture. It can also be for conservationist purposes, such as when animals are killed as a result of their impact on other species. Examples of unintentional direct harm are when animals are injured or killed by harvesting machines or by being run over byvehicles.
Indirectly anthropogenic harms are the harms that result from human action, but are not the direct result of specific actions.
They range from the harms caused by lost fishing nets to harms to animals due to extreme weather events from human-caused changes to the climate.
Natural harms are the harms suffered by animals that take place without any human action being involved.
Examples of these are harms from starvation, weather events, accidents, conflicts between animals, and natural disasters.
As we saw above, many people are unaware that animals that are not in captivity can suffer for natural reasons, or else they think that only the harms that come from human actions matter. Due to this, the term “wild animal suffering” is commonly used to mean the harms thus excluded, that is, those suffered by nonhuman animals that are either partially or totally natural. Another way of using this term is to mean all kinds of harms suffered by wild animals, including those that are anthropogenic and those that are natural. So we have these two meanings for this term:
Wild animal suffering (1): the harms suffered by animals living outside of direct human control that are partly or totally natural.
Wild animal suffering (2): the harms from any cause suffered by animals living outside of direct human control.
Ultimately, the reasons for concern about natural harms are the same as those about harms from human action: we want animals to have lives that are as good as possible, free from suffering and premature death. So in practical terms, the choice of one or another meaning for the term “wild animal suffering” may not be very important. The point is that all the harms suffered by animals matter, not just those that are directly anthropogenic, but also indirectly anthropogenic and natural ones.
There aren’t strict boundaries between the three different types of harms. It could be argued that poisoning invertebrates with insecticides is a direct anthropogenic harm, but if they are poisoned by pesticides used to kill weeds, that would be an indirect anthropogenic harm. Of course, for the animals affected, the end result is the same. Moreover, there can be combinations of the three types, especially of indirect and natural harms. Suppose that a new disease is introduced into a forest indirectly through human action and that some animals die from it. If the animals contract the human-introduced disease, then that harm is indirectly anthropogenic and partly natural, since the process by which it spreads is natural.
Harms of this combined kind could be very common, because humans have changed most of the ecosystems on Earth. In fact, because of human-caused changes to the climate, it is likely that there is no longer a single ecosystem unaltered by human activities, with the possible exception of some in the deep ocean and other remote zones. In addition, it is estimated that more than one-third of the world’s land surface is being used for agricultural purposes.1 Also, around one-fourth of the total land is forests, including large areas that have been planted partially or totally by humans, especially in temperate zones. Primeval forests, which have developed with very little human interaction, are a minority (a very small percentage for example in Europe).2 Yet, even these primeval ecosystems have been changed because of human activities affecting the climate. This means that there is no longer a clear distinction between strictly natural harms and partly natural, partly anthropogenic harms to animals.
This is also why wild animals living in those areas could be considered to some extent under human control, because human action can modify the places where they live and the conditions in which they live. The animals we are specifically concerned with here live outside of direct human control.
The meaning of “wild animals” should also be clarified. It is inaccurate to think of wild animals as only those that typically live in the wild, because the same animals can be found in other places. The term “the wild”can also be confusing. Properly speaking, it means areas or ecosystems untouched, or only affected in minor ways, by human beings. Sometimes it is understood to mean all areas that don’t have significant human presence or activity, including, for example, forests managed by humans. But the term wild animal suffering is not meant to include only the animals living in those places.
Many animals that most people consider “wild” live outside of direct human control, in areas devoted to agriculture or animal farming. However, they can also be found in urban, suburban, and industrial areas. Many types of vertebrates, like small mammals (e.g., squirrels), reptiles (e.g., lizards), birds, and many invertebrates (e.g., butterflies) live in urban environments.3 They are often directly harmed by human actions. But they also suffer because of how their ecosystems affect their lives. So they can also be included within the definition.
Other animals who live outside of direct human control but are not typically classified as wild arethose considered “feral.” However, the distinction between “feral” and “wild” animals is not relevant from the point of view of their suffering. They are harmed in similar ways because of the challenges they must face. Accordingly, we can certainly include feral animals in the term “wild animal suffering.”
We can therefore see that the term “wild animals” in “wild animal suffering” denotes all animals living outside of direct human control. “Wild animal” is a linguistic shortcut that is used for simplicity. But we have to remember that it covers not only the animals living in wild or semi-wild areas, but also feral animals and those living in urban environments.
A common way to use the term “wild animal” is to refer to animals who do not belong to species that have been domesticated (selectively bred for many generations by humans, like dogs and chickens). There are animals who are wild in this sense but live in captivity, such as minks in a fur farm, captive elephants trained for labor, and zebras in a zoo. These animals usually suffer a lot because of their use by human beings, and their situation is something that anyone concerned about animal suffering should be quite worried about.
Our focus here is animals who do not live in captivity. They are in a different situation and have different needs. To account for this, they are covered by the term “wild animal suffering.” Borderline cases include animals who are used in farming but spend most of their lives unconfined, like a goat or a sheep who spends her whole life in the hills.
Another term that is often used is “wildlife.” This is an inaccurate term for wild animals for two reasons. First, it is often used to refer to all kinds of living organisms. This doesn’t differentiate animals from other organisms that are not sentient. Second, even when it is used to refer specifically to wild animals, the word “wildlife” is not a countable quantity, so it doesn’t recognize animals as individuals.
So, to conclude, the word “wild” as used in “wild animal suffering” does not distinguish animals in terms of their species. It doesn’t, like “wildlife,” refer to them as part of an undifferentiated component of an ecosystem. It also has nothing to do with the assumption that they have a ferocious character or nature. It just describes a circumstance they are in.
People concerned about the situation of these animals sometimes use other terms. “Helping wild animals” has been used to refer to efforts to help them. The term “wild animal welfare” is used as a descriptive term for their situation from the point of view of their wellbeing.4 Note, however, that “wild animal welfare” has been used in several different ways:5
Wild animal welfare (1): the situation of undomesticated animals with respect to their wellbeing.
Wild animal welfare (2): the regulations about the ways undomesticated animals are kept in captivity.
Wild animal welfare (3): the science that assesses the wellbeing of undomesticated animals.
Another possible source of confusion comes from the common use of the term to refer to undomesticated animals living in captivity, rather than those living in the wild.
Finally, the term “welfare biology” is used for a proposed field of study that would examine the wellbeing of all animals, especially those living outside of direct human control. It would primarily, though not necessarily only, study wild animal suffering. More technically, it can be defined as the study of sentient living beings with respect to their positive and negative wellbeing.6 Welfare biology would be a cross-disciplinary field that includes wild animal welfare science together with contributions from ecology and other fields in the natural sciences. Wild animal welfare science would assess the wellbeing of animals by considering their behavior, physiology, and other indicators. Other fields like ecology would examine the external factors that affect it. Welfare biology has the potential to inform policies to help wild animals and prevent some of the harms they suffer.
1 Bruinsma, J. (ed.) (2003) World agriculture: Towards 2015/2030. An FAO perspective, London: Earthscan, pp. 124-157 [accessed on 15 November 2019].
2 Potapov, P.; Laestadius, L.; Yaroshenko, A. & Turubanova S. (2009) Global mapping and monitoring the extent of forest alteration: The intact forest landscapes method, Rome: Forest Resources Assessment; Potapov, P.; Hansen, M. C.; Laestadius, L.; Turubanova, S.; Yaroshenko, A.; Thies, C.; Smith, W.; Zhuravleva, I.; Komarova, A.; Minnemeyer, S. & Esipova, E. (2017) “The last frontiers of wilderness: Tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013”, Science Advances, 3 (1) [accessed on 16 November 2019].
3 Hadidian, J.& Smith, S. (2001) “Urban wildlife”, in Salem, D. J. & Rowan, A. N. (eds.) The state of the animals 2001, Washington, D. C.: Humane Society Press, pp. 165-182; Michelfelder, D. P. (2018) “Urban wildlife ethics: Beyond ‘parallel planes’”, Environmental Ethics, 40, pp. 101-117.
4 See for instance Kirkwood, J. K.; Sainsbury, A. W. & Bennett, P. M. (1994) “The welfare of free-living wild animals: Methods of assessment”, Animal Welfare, 3, pp. 257-273; Harrop, S. R. (1997) “The dynamics of wild animal welfare law”, Journal of Environmental Law, 9, pp. 287-302; Kirkwood, J. K. (2013) “Wild animal welfare”, Animal Welfare, 22, pp. 147-148; JWD Wildlife Welfare Supplement Editorial Board (2016) “Advances in animal welfare for free-living animals”, Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 52, pp. S4-S13.
5 See Haynes, R. P. (2008) Animal welfare: Competing conceptions and their ethical implications, Dordrecht: Springer. Sometimes the term “animal welfare” is used among animal advocates for the viewthat it is acceptable to cause certain harms to animals provided that they are not excessive—see Francione, G. L. (1995) Animals, property and the law, Philadelphia: Temple University Press; (2000) Introduction to animal rights: Your child or the dog?, Philadelphia: Temple University Press. According to this view, some uses of animals that can be harmful to them are acceptable if the harms that are considered necessary for such use are minimized. This meaning is different from the others we have seen here. What we have said up to this point, and in the rest of the book, does not concern this other question, or imply taking a stance in support of this view.
6 Ng, Y.-K. (1995) “Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering”, Biology and Philosophy, 10, pp. 255-285; see also Carpendale, M. (2015) “Welfare biology as an extension of biology: Interview with Yew-Kwang Ng”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 197-202 [accessed on 17 October 2019]; Faria, C. & Horta, O. (2019) “Welfare biology”, in Fischer, B. (ed.) Routledge handbook of animal ethics, New York: Routledge, pp. 455-466.