Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 23

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


Welfare biology and other cross-disciplinary fields

Exploring methods to assess the welfare of animals living in the wild

During the last few decades, scientists have increasingly shown interest in evaluating the wellbeing of animals through the development of welfare assessment methods. Most of these methods have focused on animals used by humans, particularly domesticated animals. Assessments of animal welfare vary, but they often include the evaluation of several parameters of health, physiology, and behavior. They are also often supported by an examination of how environmental conditions can affect animals in different ways. This plurality of methods makes animal welfare science a very interdisciplinary field.[1]

In principle, welfare biology could examine all the aspects related to the wellbeing of all animals. It would not necessarily be focused only on animals who live outside of direct human control. However, for animals in captivity, the knowledge from ecology and from other fields like wildlife management wouldn’t be needed, because the lives of these animals are not determined by their ecosystemic relations with other animals or with other elements of a certain ecosystem. Rather, their lives and the conditions affecting their lives are largely determined by the human beings in control of them. So to assess the situation of animals in captivity, the contributions from standard animal welfare science may be sufficient, but not for animals living in the wild. In order to effectively help them, we need to adequately understand how welfare is affected at the level of an ecosystem.

Although welfare assessment methods have usually been designed for captive animals, some have been proposed to evaluate the welfare of animals living in the wild.[2] Their emphasis has typically been on evaluating the harms caused by human activities, neglecting non-anthropogenic welfare issues. But these efforts can be the starting point whether the harms are anthropogenic or not. An analysis of the frameworks, approaches, models, criteria, and indicators already proposed by animal welfare scientists can help provide a foundation for new welfare assessment methods for wild animals. This will help other studies in welfare biology to be carried out more efficiently, by providing them with better tools to appraise whether certain animals are suffering or are in a good situation.

Alternatively, work on the welfare of certain animals not only has the potential to improve the situation of those animals, but also to advance the study of the welfare of wild animals more generally. In particular, it could help to develop or to establish certain methods of welfare assessment. As we have seen, this work needs advancement.

Conservation and welfare biology

There are other cross-disciplinary fields from which welfare biology could gain useful knowledge. One that comes to mind is conservation biology. We have already seen the difference between the motivations of the two fields. Conservation biology is concerned with the continued existence of natural entities like ecosystems, populations, or species, rather than with animals themselves as individuals with wellbeing. Technically speaking, a distinction is made between conservationism and preservationism, the first referring to the conservation of biological entities for the benefits this will have for future generations of human beings, and the latter for their own sake. However, it is customary today to use the term “conservationism” to include both.

We have seen already that the different ethical approaches of conservationism and concern for sentient beings can lead to conflicts, such as when the killing of animals in certain areas is proposed, for example, because they are not native to those areas or because they are considered to have a negative impact on a certain ecosystem for other reasons. Despite this, there are also common grounds for joint academic work. We considered one of these earlier. We saw that, among the different ways we can help animals in the wild, some consist of assisting those who are suffering some harm, while others can actually prevent those harms from occurring in the first place, as in the case of vaccination. Another example is the protection of big herbivores like elephants. This is something that conservationists often work to achieve. Those who want to promote the best situation for animals will be interested in attaining this too, because an ecosystem where these animals are present might be better, when we consider the total amount of suffering and wellbeing in the ecosystem. This is related to something we have already seen. We know that the life history traits of different animal species, especially the ones relevant to the animals’ reproductive strategies, can also be relevant to their welfare and their suffering. Animals with high mortality rates in infancy tend to have, on average, harder lives containing more suffering than those with higher survival rates.

There are many cases where animals with better life expectancies are specialists who are very well adapted to living in a specific niche in some area, and have a hard time surviving in new and changing environments. Such animals are frequently endemic to the areas they live in, and in many cases conservation biology is concerned with the conservation of these animals. In contrast, generalists are able to survive in a variety of environments and tend to colonize new areas when the previously existing ecosystems are disrupted, but they tend to have worse lives. They are often animals who reproduce in large numbers and have lower survival rates, which, as we have seen, means they tend have much more suffering in their lives. Conserving specialists may result in ecosystems with less suffering overall. These are cases of convergence of the aims of welfare and conservation biology that the general public will also tend to approve of.

Also, there are some conservation efforts where much attention is paid to some specific individuals (as when a certain species with only a few members is chosen to be preserved). The goal in this case is to prevent them from dying. Because the same circumstances that typically cause animals to die also cause them to suffer, conservationist research in these cases can provide useful insights about factors that are negative for the animals’ wellbeing. This knowledge could, in some cases, be extrapolated to other animals as well.

Compassionate conservation

There are conservation scientists who are concerned about the methods of their discipline when those methods harm animals. They have proposed alternative methods that do not cause such harms. This approach has been called “compassionate conservation.”[3] Its goals are different from those of welfare biology. They are more focused on preventing direct anthropogenic harms while achieving conservationist goals, rather than on actively improving the lives of animals. Nevertheless, scientists with this perspective are likely to be interested in methods to assess the welfare of animals in the wild, and possibly also in the conditions affecting it. This means that their work can also help advance research on welfare biology.

In addition to this, those working in compassionate conservation have pointed out that there are cases where factors negatively affecting the wellbeing of animals can impede the achievement of conservationist aims. These can be caused by conservationists’ actions. One example is harming animals by keeping and breeding them in stressful conditions in captivity. Other harmful interventions include causing discomfort or stress to animals by marking or tracking them in invasive ways, and killing animals that threaten the existence of a preferred species. In order to prevent these kinds of issues, other conservationists would need to consider the welfare of animals. Research on this subject would be similar to welfare biology and would also advance that field.

Conservation welfare

Another cross-disciplinary field could combine the knowledge and aims of conservation biology and animal welfare science, under the label “conservation welfare.”[4] This approach would differ from that of compassionate conservation in not focusing on the harms caused to animals in conservationist efforts.

Conservation welfare could address other issues unrelated to how conservationist interventions affect the wellbeing of animals. This could include the assessment of the wellbeing of animals as a result of indirectly anthropogenic or natural harms when conservation can benefit from it. This knowledge could be very useful for the aims of welfare biology, despite the difference in their ultimate goals (conservation welfare would focus more on conservation, and welfare biology on reducing harm to animals). What’s more, in some cases it would match the kind of work that would be done in welfare biology.


[1] Broom, D. M. (1988) “The scientific assessment of animal welfare”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 20, pp. 5-19; Mellor, D.; Patterson-Kane, E. & Stafford, K. J. (2009) The sciences of animal welfare, Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell; Walker, M.; Díez-León, M. & Mason, G. (2014) “Animal welfare science: Recent publication trends and future research priorities”, International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 27, pp. 80-100; Hemsworth, P. H.; Mellor, D. J.; Cronin, G. M. & Tilbrook, A. J. (2015) “Scientific assessment of animal welfare”, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 63, pp. 24-30.

[2] We have seen this above already, see for example 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; 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.

[3] Bekoff, M. (ed.) (2013) Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] 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.