Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 20

Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 20

This video describes welfare biology, the proposed field of study of animals with respect to their well-being as individuals. This field would incorporate ecology, zoology, and other fields, to understand in order to improve the welfare of animals living in the wild. Though previously these these subjects were studied mainly to help humans or for environmentalist reasons, welfare biology would help animals, including especially animals living apart from humans.

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:

Welfare biology
Research projects in welfare biology


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


What is welfare biology?

The term “welfare biology” has been used to name the study of the factors affecting the wellbeing of animals, especially those living outside of human control. Research in this area is still very recent and limited.[1] More technically, it can be defined as follows:

Welfare biology: the study of sentient living beings with respect to their positive and negative wellbeing

In principle, welfare biology concerns the wellbeing of all animals, whether they live in captivity or outside of human control. However, the main task of welfare biology would be to assess what the lives of animals in the wild are like and to find ways of reducing the harms they suffer. This is because, given the complexity of ecosystems, it’s much more difficult to discover the best courses of action to help animals in the wild. For this reason, it’s an area where studies in biology and, more specifically in ecology, are crucial. We don’t need to know how ecosystems work in order to know that a dog is suffering in a cage and will be better off if we free her, but we do need to understand how they work to know if a certain change in an ecosystem will likely result in less overall suffering for the animals there. So we can say that welfare biology would primarily, though not necessarily only, study wild animal suffering, and that one of its main goals would be to inform policies to prevent the harms the animals suffer.

The term “welfare biology” has sometimes been used in a different sense, meaning using the science of ecology to improve human wellbeing. However, a better term for that field would be “human welfare biology.”[2] Literally, the term “welfare biology” means research in biology about welfare, so there is nothing in the term to limit the relevant welfare to humans alone. Also, because the point of welfare biology is to study the welfare of sentient living beings, it is not primarily concerned with other questions that are not directly related. Accordingly, it doesn’t consider animals as mere representatives of their species or population group, or as units of an ecosystem. Rather, it would focus on animals as sentient individuals, and on what could be good or bad for them as individuals.

The wild animal welfare science approach

We now know that the term “wild animal welfare science” can be used for the study of the wellbeing of undomesticated animals. This can be seen as part of the work of animal welfare science. However, work in this field has mostly focused on animals in captivity, seldom considering animals living outside of human control. Despite this, much of the work that has been done in this field can be applied to animals in the wild. To start with, existing knowledge about what kinds of things can positively or negatively affect animals in captivity can be extrapolated to other animals in similar situations. This is pretty clear when the animals are of the same species or closely related ones. Even when this is not the case, some of the findings can help us to make informed guesses when it comes to other animals.

Now, let’s consider ways of assessing the wellbeing of animals who live outside of human control. As mentioned before, animal welfare science integrates methods from very different approaches. This is because it considers several different criteria or indicators related to animals’ wellbeing. The most important ones include physiological and behavioral assessments of how animals may be feeling.

Physiological assessments consider factors related to the state of the animals’ bodies. They include parameters concerning the health of the animals and indicators showing the animals’ physiological states when they are in certain situations. They include, for example, heart rate variations, temperature, and corticosteroid levels. The idea here is twofold. First, when an animal’s health is bad, the animal could be in pain. Second, when animals are distressed or in pain, it also affects their physiology.

Behavioral assessments consider what animals’ behavior can tell us about the way they feel. We’re all familiar with making such assessments of the individuals who surround us; animal welfare science does this in more rigorous ways, using knowledge of how animals of different species behave when they are feeling well or ill.

Another consideration is how external factors affect the animals. These include the availability of the resources animals need to live, such as food and water, shelter to mitigate the impact of weather conditions, and others related to their particular environments. By examining the conditions animals live in, it is possible to make estimations of how they feel. One way is by studying animals’ preferences for certain situations or places over others. This combines an assessment of external factors with an assessment of the animals’ behavior. It serves as an indicator of what kind of environments are more likely to make them suffer or feel well.[3]

The ecology of wild animal suffering

We’ve talked about the need to expand wild animal welfare work so it covers animals living outside of human control. However, this is only a part of the work that could be incorporated within the field of welfare biology. The methods of animal welfare science are focused primarily on the state the animals are in and on how the circumstances they face affect their wellbeing. But it doesn’t explain how such circumstances end up the way they are. In order to know this, we need to understand how animals living in the wild are affected by their physical environment and by other living organisms in ways that are good or bad for them. Also, the study of other factors, including their population dynamics and life histories, can help us in making estimations of the average wellbeing of different animal populations or species. This is where ecology is crucially needed.

The study of ecosystems and how they evolve has been approached from many different perspectives by ecologists, giving rise to different fields within ecology, such as population ecology, community ecology, systems ecology, landscape ecology, and many more. The factors that are relevant for each of them are diverse, and together they cover a large portion of the possible ways we could approach the study of ecosystems. However, the wellbeing of animals has not been one of those factors. We still lack an understanding of how ecosystems work in relation to the wellbeing of their members. Welfare biology would fill this gap.

As with animal welfare science, we already have a substantial amount of knowledge from ecology that could be applied to estimate the suffering of animals in different situations. To start with, as indicated above, there are some fields, such as population dynamics and life history theory, that are highly relevant to making estimations about what the proportion of suffering compared to positive welfare in the wild might be. In addition, we’ve seen that there is a great deal of information concerning different ways these animals can suffer. This information was just a short summary of a few things from a huge amount of scientific literature in biology that can inform us about the lives of animals in the wild. In light of this, we might wonder in what sense the kind of work proposed here would be original. The answer is simple: so far, all the available information that is relevant for wild animal suffering has been gathered not out of an interest in the animals’ wellbeing, but out of other concerns. As a result, while such research already contains information from which it is possible to draw sound inferences about the suffering of animals, such inferences were not previously made. For example, there are scientific articles examining how many animals in a certain population starve to death or die due to the cold in a particular location, but they do not consider the suffering this meant for the animals involved. Nevertheless, given what we know about the suffering caused by dying in those ways, we can infer that the animals involved probably suffered a great deal.

Unfortunately, in many studies, much more information could have been gathered that would have been relevant for estimating the wellbeing of the animals, if there had been an interest in this question. But this viewpoint has been increasingly incorporated in research. In fact, even just literature reviews of the research already done can provide important information.

A cross-disciplinary field

In light of what we have just been considering, we can see that welfare biology can be described as a cross-disciplinary field involving various other disciplines, including especially the sciences of ecology and animal welfare. In fact, these two sciences are already cross-disciplinary. Some other fields would also be involved, such as zoology and ethology, as well as two applied fields, environmental management and what is called “wildlife management.” The purpose of these two fields is to guide decisions about how to best act in different ecosystems. To date, the ends of such actions have been to further human interests or conservationist aims. But there is nothing essential to the kind of knowledge associated with these disciplines that restricts its application to the pursuit of these aims alone. Instead, we can apply such knowledge to find the most effective ways to help animals living in the wild. It can also help us to compare different ways ecosystems might evolve with or without our help and how different scenarios would affect the wellbeing of animals. In addition, just like conservation biology, welfare biology could be informed by social sciences.

How could welfare biology evolve?

The current academic system tends to classify knowledge into specialized domains. However, for decades there has been increasing enthusiasm for interdisciplinary research.[4] The point at which a certain field is no longer considered to be just an intersection of other disciplines and is considered a discipline on its own is not clearly defined, although there are some factors that can indicate when it reaches that point. They include the organization of international conferences, the creation of specific academic journals to publish studies on them, the inclusion with their own names as areas of study in academic curricula, and the publication of student handbooks focused on them. After this happens, the cycle continues, and subdisciplines of new fields can start, as well as the creation of new areas of study at the intersection with other fields.

As welfare biology develops, subfields could include, for example, welfare ecology, focused on the part of welfare biology more concerned with how animals’ relationships with their environments affect their wellbeing; urban welfare ecology, focused on animals living outside of human control in urban or suburban ecosystems; and applied welfare biology, focused not so much on diagnoses of the wellbeing of animals but on ways to improve it that can guide actual policies and interventions. Wild animal welfare science could be another of these subfields.


[1] See Ng, Y.-K. (1995) “Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering”, Biology and Philosophy, 10, pp. 255-285; Faria, C. & Horta, O. (2019) “Welfare biology”, in Fischer, B. (ed.) Routledge handbook of animal ethics, New York: Routledge, 455-466.

[2] Eckersley, R. (1992) Environmentalism and political theory: Toward an ecocentric approach, New York: SUNY Press; Wells, D. (1993) “Green politics and environmental ethics: A defence of human welfare ecology,” Australian Journal of Political Science, 28, pp. 515-527; Ghosh, D. (1999) Selected essays on welfare ecology, Calcutta: Centre for Sustainable Living.

[3] 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; Jordan, B. (2005) “Science-based assessment of animal welfare: Wild and captive animals”, Revue Scientifique et Technique-Office International des Epizooties, 24, pp. 515-528; Botreau, R.; Veissier, I.; Butterworth, A.; Bracke, M. B. & Keeling, L. J (2007) “Definition of criteria for overall assessment of animal welfare”, Animal Welfare, 16, pp. 225-228; Brennan, O. (2018) “‘Fit and happy’: How do we measure wild-animal suffering?”, Wild Animal Suffering Research, https://was-research.org/paper/fit-happy-measure-wild-animal-suffering [accessed on 30 October 2019].

[4] Lélé, S. & Norgaard, R. B. (2005) “Practicing interdisciplinarity”, BioScience, 55, pp. 967-975; Campbell, L. M. (2005) “Overcoming obstacles to interdisciplinary research”, Conservation Biology, 19, pp. 575-577; Frodeman, R. (ed.) (2017 [2010]) The Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.