Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 19

Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 19

This video clarifies the concepts involved in the consideration of wild animals with respect to their well-being. First, it clarifies the different ways in which the term welfare may be used – that is, what makes a life go well or go badly for individual. It then considers the differences between the commonly interchanged terms “wild animal welfare” and “wild animal suffering.”

View other related videos in our course about wild animal suffering here
Visit the main page of the wild animal suffering video course here


Related pages on the topics covered in this video:

What is wild animal suffering?
What is sentience?


Listen to the audio version of the video:


Extended content of the video with references:

Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues


The concepts of welfare, animal welfare, and wild animal welfare

In the first part of this book, we saw the problem of wild animal suffering, the different ways wild animals are harmed, and some ways in which it can be addressed. In the second part, we saw the reason why wild animal suffering matters, as well as the reasons we have to conclude that many animals, including a very large number of invertebrates, are sentient and thus can be harmed by the different factors affecting wild animals. In the third part of the book, we are going to see how further work on this topic can be carried out in the scientific arena. We will examine the key concepts involved, see why and how such work can develop, and take a look at perspectives for future work in this field.

We have seen that “wild animal suffering” is a general term for the harms that animals living outside of direct human control suffer due to causes that are partly or entirely natural. To refer to the wellbeing of animals living in the wild, we can use the term “wild animal welfare.” There are, however, several different ways the term wild animal welfare is used. We will say more about this and related terms, below.

Concepts of welfare

More often than not, the terms wellbeing and welfare are used to describe how someone feels, i.e., well or bad. We should note that these terms are optimistically biased. The term “well” has a positive meaning. The “well” in “wellbeing” (and in “welfare”) might make us think that the default situation is positive, that is, that individuals tend to have positive wellbeing, when in fact, wellbeing can be positive or negative.

The most common way this concept is understood is that you have good welfare when you have mainly positive experiences, that is, when your life is predominantly enjoyable. And you have negative welfare when you’re feeling bad. In other words, wellbeing can be positive or negative, depending on the circumstances. After all, sentient beings do not always feel good. This is especially the case for nonhuman animals, both those who are used by humans (mostly in factory farms) and those who live in the wild.

Natural sciences, especially veterinary science, primarily use the term “welfare.” When pleasure, satisfaction, or other positive experiences prevail, it is commonly called “good welfare.” When pain, distress, or other negative experiences prevail, it is commonly called “poor welfare.” In philosophy, and sometimes in social sciences, the terms “positive wellbeing” and “negative wellbeing” are more common.[1] The term “wellbeing” is used by philosophers to refer to how well or how badly your life is going. There are several views about what wellbeing is. According to mental states theories, it is only experiences that affect your wellbeing. Some of these theories claim only that having negative experiences such as feeling pain is bad for you; others add to this that having positive experiences, such as feeling pleasure, is good for you. According to the objective list theory, positive and negative wellbeing includes other things, such as meaningful relationships or achievements on the one hand, and failure on the other hand. Desire theory claims that it is good for you to have your desires satisfied, and bad for you to have them thwarted, regardless of whether you have positive or negative experiences as a result. Some of these views, called antifrustrationist, claim that while having your desires satisfied need not be good, not being able to achieve them is always bad.[2]

The term “welfare” is used in three main ways in the natural sciences when discussing animal welfare.[3]

(1) The way someone feels

(2) The way someone feels, plus other factors affecting how someone feels, such as one’s health

(3) The capacity to behave in a way that is considered natural

The second two concepts are more complex than the original and intuitive meaning of the term. We could say they divert the issue from the key problem at stake, which is how good or bad one feels.

The second conception of welfare can be challenged by arguing that external factors that are different from actual experiences are not important in themselves. They can, however, be relevant indirectly, as indicators of how good or bad those experiences are.

The third conception of welfare can be challenged on similar grounds. At this point, we know that what is natural is sometimes good, but is often not. In many cases, animals behaving “naturally” are feeling good, but in other cases, they are not. An animal in a relaxed situation, in which she has food, shelter, and good health, will behave very differently than if she had to face the challenges animals typically face in the wild.

If these criticisms are correct, we might wonder why these alternative conceptions are held. One of the factors explaining this is that the science that studies animal welfare is a cross-disciplinary field that uses various methods. These include the assessment of different physiological and behavioral indicators of animal welfare as well as external conditions. These indicators should not be confused with wellbeing itself. A big challenge we face is that the aspiration to present animal welfare science as providing objective results reinforces this, since we can obtain objective data of factors such as an animal’s health or behavior, but less so of the animal’s experiences.

Meanings of “animal welfare” and “wild animal welfare”

Having seen the classifications above, we can now consider the different ways the term “animal welfare” has been used.[4]

(1) The main and more straightforward meaning is the one we saw above: how good or bad an animal is feeling.

(2) It is also used as the name of a science (or group of sciences). The science of animal welfare is the scientific study of how good or bad animals are feeling, that is, how good or bad their lives are in terms of their wellbeing. It uses different methods that consider behavioral and physiological indicators to assess how animals are feeling.

(3) Another use is to refer to legal measures or regulations whose purpose is to limit the extent to which animals suffer some harms.

(4) Finally, it is sometimes used for the view that the harms animals suffer because of their use in animal products or services should be reduced, though not necessarily eliminated.

The term “animal welfare” as used in “wild animal welfare” concerns the first and second uses of the term.[5] It doesn’t necessarily concern the third one, as there are currently very few laws about how the welfare of wild animals can be affected by human actions. Almost all of the laws affecting animals in the wild are based on environmental or conservation law that considers animal populations or species, but not individuals. So, “wild animal welfare” can be understood to mean:

First, the situation of undomesticated animals (including feral ones) with regard to how good or bad their wellbeing is.

Second, the scientific study of how good or bad such wellbeing is. There has been very little research about this in comparison to research on the wellbeing of domesticated animals.

“Wild animal welfare” and “wild animal suffering”

There are three main differences between the meanings of “wild animal welfare” and “wild animal suffering.” The term “wild animal suffering” has been used to name partially or completely natural harms suffered by animals living outside of direct human control. In some cases, “wild animal welfare” is used as a synonym of “wild animal suffering.” This can make sense depending on the context, though we should bear in mind the possible confusions derived from the different meanings of “wild animal welfare.”

The first difference is that the term “wild animal welfare” appears to consider the wellbeing of animals in the wild in general, while “wild animal suffering” refers in particular to their negative wellbeing, that is, to the bad part of it. However, factors positively affecting the wellbeing of individuals typically also reduce their suffering. Also, it could be argued that the most crucial component of the wellbeing of animals in the wild (and of others as well) is their suffering.

Another difference between the terms is that, unlike “wild animal suffering,” the term “wild animal welfare” is also commonly used for the welfare of wild animals directly affected by human beings (and the study of this). This includes both animals in captivity and animals in the wild being directly harmed by humans (for instance, by eradication methods or by fishing). Not only this, but because of a tendency to disregard the wellbeing of animals living outside of human control, the term “wild animal welfare” is most often used to refer to captive animals of species that have not been domesticated, such as wild animals in circuses or zoos. There is no reason to limit the meaning of the term this way. It could also refer to animals living outside of human control. The term “wild animal suffering,” on the other hand, does not refer to wild animals in captivity, but only to those living outside of human control.

The third difference is that the term “wild animal welfare” is also used for the science that studies the welfare of the animals mentioned above. Again, this typically includes animals in captivity, and it’s sometimes assumed to include only them. But here again, it is perfectly valid for the term to include the scientific study of the wellbeing of animals in the wild as well, and to use the same indicators of wellbeing that are used for animals in captivity. In fact, the term “captive wild animal welfare science” could be a more appropriate name for the study of animals in captivity.

In some cases, “wild animal welfare” is used as a synonym of “wild animal suffering.” This can make sense depending on the context, though we should bear in mind the possible confusions derived from the different meanings of “wild animal welfare.”

Wild animal welfare science can help us to assess the wellbeing of animals living in the wild. But in order to understand why the conditions of an animal’s life are the way they are in a particular environment, we need ecology and other scientific fields. An understanding of how ecosystems work will help us to understand what kinds of conditions could result from different ecosystem changes, whether natural or human-caused. This is one of the things we’ll look at next.


[1] Broom, D.M. (1991) “Animal welfare: Concepts and measurement”, Journal of Animal Science, 69, pp. 4167-4175; Crisp. R. (2017 [2001]) “Well-being”, in Zalta, E. N. (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford: Stanford University, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being [accessed on 15 October 2019]; Nordenfelt, L. (2006) Animal and human health and welfare: A comparative philosophical analysis, Wallingford: CABI.

[2] Parfit, D. (1984) Reasons and persons, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Crisp, R. (2006) Reasons and the good, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Fletcher, G. (2016a) The Philosophy of well-being: An introduction, Oxford: Routledge; (ed.) (2016b) The Routledge handbook of the philosophy of well-being, Oxford: Routledge.

[3] Hewson, C. J. (2003) “What is animal welfare? Common definitions and their practical consequences”, Canadian Veterinary Journal, 44, pp. 496-499; Duncan, I. J. (2006) “The changing concept of animal sentience”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 100, pp. 11-19; Nordenfelt, L. (2006) Animal and human health and welfare: A comparative philosophical analysis, Wallingford: CABI; Fraser, D. (2008) Understanding animal welfare: The science in its cultural context, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

[4] Haynes, R. P. (2008) Animal welfare: Competing conceptions and their ethical implications, Dordrecht: Springer.

[5] Kirkwood, J. K. (1992) “Wild animal welfare”, in International Whaling Commission (ed.) Report of the whale welfare and ethics workshop, Cornwell: Eden Project, pp. 66-68; Sainsbury, A. W.; Bennett, P. M. & Kirkwood, J. K. (1995) “Welfare of free-living wild animals in Europe: Harm caused by human activities”, Animal Welfare, 4, pp. 183-206; JWD Wildlife Welfare Supplement Editorial Board (2016) “Advances in animal welfare for free-living animals”, Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 52, supp. 2, pp. S4-S13; Soryl, A. A. (2019) Establishing the moral significance of wild animal welfare and considering practical methods of intervention, Master’s thesis, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.