Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 22

This video discusses areas where welfare biology research could be particularly impactful. Some key areas are vaccination programs, saving animals from extreme weather events, helping animals in urban areas, and helping large herbivores. These are all potentially popular programs that could help animals while advancing the field of welfare biology.

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Welfare biology

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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

Promising areas for welfare biology research

We have seen different types of intervention to help animals in the wild, and we’ve seen the kind of welfare biology research that can be done. We will now consider several criteria for judging how promising a certain line of research in welfare biology is.

(1) It has the potential to raise interest among scholars

(2) It has the potential to inform policies that can be carried out now or in the near future

(3) It is likely to be supported by the general public

(4) It has the potential to help a large number of animals

(5) It has been (or is being) put into practice already

In the long term, it seems that the fourth criterion will be the most important and the fifth will no longer be relevant. Currently, however, it seems that the first three are more important for the purposes of developing welfare biology, especially the potential to raise interest among scientists.

We will now see several topics in welfare biology that fulfill all or most of these criteria. These aren’t the only promising topics; they are just some very clear examples.[1] We have already seen two of them: wild animal vaccination and rescuing animals affected by weather events. We will also consider two others: helping wild animals in urban environments and helping large herbivores. These are all fields of research that both the general public and scientists usually support.


Let’s start with the advantages of doing research on vaccination. We already know this is one way of helping a large number of animals. We also know that it can be considered quite reliable, because it has been implemented for several decades with excellent results. Vaccination efforts have been primarily for anthropocentric reasons — to prevent wild animal diseases from being passed on to humans or to domesticated animals. But they also have a very positive impact on the vaccinated animals. What’s more important: their current use and effectiveness provide incentives to promote this research and to consider it a respected field of inquiry in academia. This is a serious advantage.[2]

There’s a lot more that can be done in this area of research. More work can be done to prevent animals from suffering from diseases against which they aren’t currently being vaccinated. We can also learn more about the ways vaccination can indirectly affect other animals. In addition, we can move beyond researching only diseases that affect human interests. We can try to influence new research motivated by a concern for animals’ suffering.

Saving animals from harmful weather events

Another promising area of research is about rescuing animals who are victims of weather events, and taking precautionary measures to protect them. We have already seen that animals can be and, in many cases, are rescued from fires, floods, and other natural disasters such as hurricanes. In some cases, it is possible to build shelters, where some animals can take refuge during rain or snow, or from extremely cold or hot weather.[3]

Some people object to helping animals when they are suffering due to natural causes, claiming that we should only help when the cause is anthropogenic. This claim is problematic because, for the animals involved, what matters is the harm they are suffering, and not what triggered it. Besides that, the objection no longer applies now that weather events are changing due to human action. That makes related harms no longer purely natural, but partly anthropogenic. Because of this, and also due to the world’s increasing attention on climate-related issues, helping animals affected by weather events has great potential to get more support.

The wellbeing of urban animals

Some people are concerned that our efforts might change previously untouched areas in unforeseen negative ways. This expresses a valid concern, which is that we should study the ways that our interventions could affect the animals living in those areas. However, this is something we should consider whenever we try to help animals in any environment, not only in untouched ones. In addition, we may note that there are also many ways to help wild animals that would not change untouched areas. This includes efforts to reduce the harms to animals living in urban, suburban, and industrial areas that are partly natural and partly human-caused. Animals living in these areas typically include birds, small mammals and reptiles, and many kinds of invertebrates. In some regions, they can include larger animals too. These are certainly not untouched areas, and while the ecosystems that exist in them are still complex, it can be easier to study the effects of our efforts there than in wilder areas.[4] Pilot programs can be monitored better, and their indirect effects can be more easily studied. This means that we can more effectively implement policies that reduce the suffering of animals in these areas, and what we learn can then be applied in wild areas.

This particular area within welfare biology can be based on contributions from both the sciences of animal welfare science and urban ecology, and could be called urban welfare biology or urban welfare ecology. This research can be started by studying the ecological interactions that urban animals have with each other as well as with their environments. This will increase our understanding of what the lives of urban animals are like, the harms they face, and ways their suffering can be prevented. Although this topic has not been studied yet, there is already an important body of research that is relevant. Urban ecology is a well-established field. The population dynamics and life histories of many urban animals have been studied, as well as other factors that affect their wellbeing, such as their interactions with other animals, the conditions limiting the growth of their populations, and the ways they are benefited or harmed by urban spaces and elements in urban design.

Some of these animals have been studied because their presence (at least above certain numbers) is unwanted by human beings. Knowledge about this can be used in ways that benefit animals because the existence of large populations of these animals may be negative, not only for humans, but also for the animals of those populations themselves, if most of them have short lives where suffering prevails. A good outcome would be relatively small populations, where the presence of animals who tend to have better lives in these environments is favored over the presence of animals who have more difficult lives.

Improving the overall situation by helping large herbivores

One concern about intervention in the wild is that by helping some animals, we might harm others. Our goal shouldn’t be just to help certain animals regardless of any indirect effects on others, but to look for ways of helping that can be net-positive, considering all animals. To achieve this, we have to study ecosystems as a whole. In fact, eventually, the best ways of helping animals will be at the ecosystem level. What we would look for isn’t an improvement for a certain group of animals, but a scenario in which the overall proportion of suffering to happiness has shifted in a positive direction.

We currently have what looks like a good example of this. There is much interest in the protection of large herbivores such as elephants. There are also important reasons to support this if we are focused on the wellbeing of animals. Elephants invest a lot in caring for their children and they have high survival rates. This means they tend to live relatively good lives, containing significantly less suffering than most other animals. They also consume large quantities of plants. This plant biomass would otherwise have supported the reproduction of very large numbers of smaller animals. As we have seen, smaller animals typically reproduce by having large numbers of offspring, most of which die, often painfully, shortly after coming into existence. Therefore, protecting large herbivores like elephants tends to improve the overall wellbeing of animals living in that ecosystem.

Whether this is similar for other large herbivores remains to be seen. Studies would have to be carried out on a case-by-case basis for large animals such as hippos and rhinos. The presence of other, smaller herbivores like antelopes or goats who don’t consume as much biomass might also make a positive difference. This is a feasible way that we can act to benefit animals. And we are already intervening this way, although with different aims, focused on the conservation of these animals.[5]

So we can see that there is much promising work ahead. In the short run, academically respected work will increase interest in this issue, which, in the long run, will maximize the expected positive result for animals in the wild. All this gives us reasons to be optimistic concerning the progress that the field of welfare biology can make from now on.

There is another type of research that is very promising for the development of welfare biology: the study of methods to assess the wellbeing of animals in the wild. This can facilitate further scientific work that considers animal welfare when examining wild animals. So, it is focused not on a particular way to help wild animals, but on a way to improve the probabilities of success of other ways. We will see this next, when we examine the relationship welfare biology could have with other cross-disciplinary fields.


[1] An example that does not fulfill the fourth criterion but scores very well on the rest of them is helping stranded marine mammals.

[2] Vitasek, J. (2004) “A review of rabies elimination in Europe”, Veterinární Medicína, 49, pp. 171-185; Turnbull, P. C. B.; Tindall, B. W.; Coetzee, J. D.; Conradie, C. M.; Bull, R. L.; Lindeque, P. M. & Huebschle, O. J. B. (2004) “Vaccine-induced protection against anthrax in cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)”, Vaccine, 22, pp. 3340-3347; Fausther-Bovendo, H.; Mulangu, S. & Sullivan, N. J. (2012) “Ebolavirus vaccines for humans and apes”, Current Opinion in Virology, 2, pp. 324-329.

[3] Flueck, W. T. (2011) “Continuing impacts on red deer from a volcanic eruption in 2011”, European Journal of Wildlife Research, 60, pp. 699-702; White, S. (2012) “Companion animals, natural disasters and the law: An Australian perspective”, Animals, 2, pp. 380-394, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4494289 [accessed on 14 September 2019]; Palmer, C. (forthcoming) “Assisting wild animals vulnerable to climate change: Why ethical strategies diverge”, Journal of Applied Philosophy.

[4] Hadidian, J. & M. Baird (2001) “Animal welfare concerns and the restoration of urban lands”, Ecological Restoration, 19, pp. 271-272; Martinson, T. J. & Flaspohler, D. J. (2003) “Winter bird feeding and localized predation on simulated bark-dwelling arthropods”, Wildlife Society Bulletin, 31, pp. 510-516; Krimowa, S. (2012) Pigeons and people: Resource ecology and human dimensions of urban wildlife, master’s thesis, Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington; McCleery, R. A.; Moorman, C. E. & Peterson, M. N. (eds.) (2014) Urban wildlife conservation: Theory and practice, Dordrecht: Springer; Adams, C. E. (2016) Urban wildlife management, Boca Raton: CRC press.

[5] Van Aarde, R. J. & Jackson, T. P. & Ferreira, S. M. (2006) “Conservation science and elephant management in southern Africa: Elephant conservation”, South African Journal of Science, 102, pp. 385-388; Kerley, G. I. H. & Landman, M. (2006) “The impacts of elephants on biodiversity in the Eastern Cape Subtropical Thickets: Elephant conservation”, South African Journal of Science, 102, pp. 395-402; Guldemond, R. A. R., and van Aarde, R. J. (2008) “A meta-analysis of the impact of African elephants on savanna vegetation,” Journal of Wildlife Management, 72, pp. 892-899; Pearce, D. (2015) “A welfare state for elephants? A case study of compassionate stewardship”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, pp. 133-152, 3, https://www.ledonline.it/index.php/Relations/article/view/881 [accessed on 11 December 2019].

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