This video covers the benefits that the discipline of welfare biology could bring. These are 1) the potential for answering important questions about welfare biology 2) the potential to influence policy regarding animals living in the wild, and 3) the potential for the discipline to fundamentally change how people think about animals living in the wild. It describes the reasons why this research subject is currently neglected, but why there is also great potential for that to change.
Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues
Now that we have seen in some detail what welfare biology is, we can consider reasons why this kind of work could be interesting and useful. There are several, as we will see now.
Many people in modern societies agree that the wellbeing of animals is morally important. This is why the discipline of animal welfare science was created a few decades ago. It was not merely the result of academic interest. The development of this field was possible because it received the public funding it needed. This was motivated by the pressure of public opinion in favor of taking the wellbeing of animals seriously.
In the decades that have passed since then, public interest has only increased. Why, then, hasn’t there been research about the wellbeing of animals in the wild as there has been about animals living in captivity? One answer may be that there are misconceptions and confusion about the lives of animals in the wild that have led many people to believe there’s no reason to worry about what happens to them. Most people don’t know about the harms these animals suffer, and are not aware that the majority of animals in the wild die prematurely, in many cases due to painful causes. And people are not always aware that there are many ways of helping them.
However, public concern for the wellbeing of animals could be an important force towards welfare biology work being carried out in academia, as the example of animal welfare science shows. In fact, given the public concern about domesticated animals, and now that we’ve seen what the lives of animals in the wild are actually like, there is good reason for the public to support a field that aims to understand and reduce wild animal suffering.
Scientists working in the science of ecology and related areas are much more familiar than the general public with the situation of animals in the wild. These scientists could be another driving force in promoting research on this topic. There’s an explanation for why this has not happened yet. Scientists work within certain paradigms that determine what lines of inquiry are appropriate for science. These paradigms concern, among other things, the key assumptions, methods, and questions that are asked in each field. They are partly theoretical and conceptual, but they also have another component, the final aims of research. Humans are not interested in just any knowledge: while knowing the total number of stars in the universe may be interesting, counting the total number of grains of sand on a beach may not be. While most societies are interested in some questions out of pure intellectual curiosity, in many cases research is undertaken to help to achieve certain goals. This is the ethical component of the scientific paradigm, because ethics has to do with the ultimate goals we try to achieve with our actions.
According to the paradigm that prevailed in ecology for most of the 20th century and that is still strongly influential, the primary goal of research was the promotion of human interests. For the past few decades, conservation has been another important aim for the science of ecology. This might explain, at least in part, why nonhuman animals are not usually treated as individuals with interests. In fact, they are typically seen as important only as functional parts of ecosystems or as representatives of abstract entities, such as species or populations. Within this framework, ecologists in particular, and biologists more generally might see little practical interest in research into the wellbeing of individual animals. They might have trouble thinking of them as individuals with interests, so these questions might not occur to them. Due to this, we might think that such questions would not be interesting in biology. But there is nothing about this subject that would make it an inappropriate area of study in biology. The fact that animals have lives that can go better or worse from the point of view of their own wellbeing is one of the things that happens in the natural world, and part of a proper description of it. Life scientists, like other scientists, seek to improve our understanding of the world. If we ignore something significant happening within it, such as the fact that animals have wellbeing, we are missing a part of that. This is a good reason for scientists to be interested in studying factors related to the wellbeing of animals living in the wild. It would advance our knowledge, and researchers who are not interested in promoting the wellbeing of animals could find this knowledge useful for other purposes. This could happen in animal ecology, and in particular the study of animal behavior, because animals’ wellbeing affects how animals behave. It is also relevant for the design of field studies, because the studies can affect the animals’ wellbeing. For example, when animals are made to carry relatively large GPS tracking devices, this would cause them to behave differently, so the results of such studies would be compromised.
Having said this, there is no reason why scientists couldn’t also share the values that many people in contemporary society have towards nonhuman animals. Given that in our society, many people do care about animals as sentient beings, and given that some of these people are scientists, there is no reason why this cannot motivate research in biology to improve the situation of animals.
Independent individuals and organizations like Animal Ethics can do important work by spreading the idea that wild animal suffering is a serious issue and that it would be good to gain more knowledge about it. This can be done among academics and students, as well as among the general public.
Independent researchers can also play a part in the development of welfare biology by doing research that complements what is done by academics. This research could be just as useful and rigorous as that done by academics. In addition, organizations can do some research that scholars are not carrying out yet, in addition to explaining the practical importance and ethical implications of it. This could be useful for exploring further questions beyond what scholars might be ready to research at a given time.
A way that people and groups concerned about wild animal suffering can have a huge impact today is by focusing on promoting welfare biology research in academia. In fact, there are several reasons why doing this might be necessary in order to be able to meaningfully help wild animals. These reasons include (1) the quantity and quality of the research required, (2) how that research is applied in practice and policy making, and (3) the potential to fundamentally change how people think about the issue.
Regarding the quality and quantity of the research, academics have access to a variety of resources that can help them with their research in welfare biology. Academics are also typically highly specialized and can spend long periods of time working on specific problems. In addition, they can influence other academics to do similar work.
Their work can also affect public policy. When policy makers need to know about the feasibility and implications a certain policy could have, they typically ask scientists and academics. This means that it will be very difficult to implement policies helping wild animals if they aren’t backed by scientists. For this to happen, it won’t be sufficient for only a few isolated scholars to be working in the field; rather, we need a recognized field of research involving scholars from different institutions around the world.
Finally, the role of academics is especially important when it comes to changing how people think about issues. This is not only due to their general influence in society, but also because scientific paradigms are taught at universities to new generations of people. If work on the biology of animals’ wellbeing is established within academia, it will eventually be taught to new generations of scientists. This will contribute to people’s perception of what the lives of animals living in the wild are actually like. It is also likely to increase their moral consideration of these animals.
This doesn’t mean that the only work we need to do to promote work in welfare biology is to get involved in or fund academic research. As we have seen above, there are many things that independent organizations working on the subject can do, such as raising awareness or doing their own research about the situation of animals in the wild. Independent researchers can also play a role by doing work on this topic and by helping organizations with their work. These actions will play a vital role; however, what we have seen so far indicates that increasing research about welfare biology in academia is crucial, and that our efforts to improve the lives of wild animals are not likely to be successful without it.
 Linklater, W. L. & Gedir, J. V. (2011) “Distress unites animal conservation and welfare towards synthesis and collaboration“, Animal Conservation, 14, pp. 25-27¸Cattet, M. R. (2013) “Falling through the cracks: Shortcomings in the collaboration between biologists and veterinarians and their consequences for wildlife“, ILAR Journal, 54, pp. 33-40; see also Bekoff, M. (ed.) (2013) Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Beausoleil, N. J.; Mellor, D. J.; Baker, L.; Baker, S. E.; Bellio, M.; Clarke, A. S.; Dale, A.; Garlick, S.; Jones, B.; Harvey, A.; Pitcher, B. J.; Sherwen, S.; Stockin, K. A. & Zito, S. (2018) “‘Feelings and fitness’ not ‘feelings or fitness’–the raison d’être of conservation welfare, which aligns conservation and animal welfare objectives”, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5, a. 296.