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.
Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues
Having seen some ethical objections to helping wild animals, we will now see some practical objections. They are claims of intractability, uncertainty, difficulty in researching issues not related to human interests, and fears of meeting disapproval.
One objection is that improving the wellbeing of animals living in the wild is ultimately futile because the huge amount of suffering and death they face would ultimately render our efforts unsuccessful. A response to this objection is that it is missing the point. We might not be able to stop all the harms animals suffer, but that doesn’t mean we should not try to stop some of them. We should try our best to reach the best possible outcome, all things considered. From the perspective of the animals we can help, we will be making a crucial difference.
Another, more radical, version of this objection would be that it is impossible to make any difference at all, that is, impossible to reduce the harms animals suffer in any way. But we can see that this claim is just wrong, as we have seen how it is possible to help animals in the wild, and that this has been done for a long time already.
Another claim is that by helping some animals, we could be harming others, so we’ll never know if we are actually having a positive impact. This is a different claim: that the issue is too uncertain for us to know how to act. We’ll look at this objection next.
There are two different objections claiming that it is not possible for us to attain the necessary knowledge to achieve the aims of welfare biology.
One objection argues that because suffering and other experiences are subjective, they cannot be the proper object of scientific study, so we will never be able to learn about them. This objection conflicts with what most of us believe: that other beings have their own experiences, and we make intuitive guesses about whether they feel well or bad that often turn out to be right. This isn’t just with our close friends or other human beings. A lot has been learned about what nonhuman animals experience without having direct access to their thoughts. For decades, the science of animal welfare has been examining the wellbeing of animals, using established indicators that are applied rigorously. Moreover, not having direct access to what you are studying does not invalidate the possibility of carrying out a scientific assessment of it. One example of this is research in natural history; we can’t have direct access to how life was millions of years ago.
Another objection is that the complexity of ecosystems means that research into the factors that affect wild animal wellbeing would inevitably be incomplete. As a result, welfare biology would not succeed in making sound assessments of the ways to alleviate wild animal suffering. One response to this is that it’s correct that complexity does entail that our actions will have many ramifications, some of which we won’t be able to foresee. So, it’s a reasonable concern that we could make the situation worse by trying to help some animals without sound knowledge. However, this should not stop us from trying to improve the situation for animals. Most scientific disciplines deal with complex phenomena, but we are still able to use their findings to inform our actions. Their incompleteness is not a significant barrier to this. Also, we already know of many interventions that clearly improve the welfare of some animals living in the wild. We need more research to see if these interventions also indirectly negatively affect other animals. In some cases, it seems more likely that the indirect effects will be positive, such as in the case of protecting large herbivores.
In addition, this objection is being very pessimistic about the results our actions could have, probably displaying a bias towards the status quo, while it seems to be quite optimistic about the current situation for animals living in the wild. It gives the impression that things are only slightly wrong with the current situation for animals, and that attempts to correct those things are likely to only make other things worse. But this assumption is wrong, because the current situation is actually very bad for animals living in the wild. When humans are seriously in need of help in complicated situations, efforts are often made to study how to best help them, and uncertainty due to complexity is not considered a reason to do nothing. There is no reason not to also apply it when animals living in the wild are in need. Note that this book is not just about helping animals in need, but also about doing the necessary research in a well-informed way.
According to another objection, there is no point in trying to work in welfare biology, which focuses on the interests of nonhuman animals, because only research that serves human interests is likely to be funded and researched. However, this claim is rendered false by the fact that work in conservation biology is respectable today in academia, even when motivated only by preservationist concerns about the continued existence of certain species or populations, regardless of their impact on humans. If this is the case with conservationist purposes, it could also happen for the study of animals’ wellbeing. Note, also, that in the case of animals there is the precedent of animal welfare science. There is no reason why it should apply to some animals (those used by humans) but not others (those outside of direct human control).
It could be argued that research on the conservation of species or ecosystems, about the welfare of animals used by humans, or about the ways to help animals in the wild, like vaccination, all have anthropocentric motivations. It is true that these different types of research are all carried out partly for anthropocentric reasons. But there is also a concern among the general public about the wellbeing of animals. There is a relative lack of concern for wild animals, but this is due partly to a lack of familiarity with wild animal suffering.
We have seen that some animal advocates think that human concern for nonhuman animals should be restricted to animals whose suffering is directly caused by us. But there is another possible concern. Some animal advocates might think that the idea of helping animals in the wild is too new and too hard to accept for the general public, and that as a result our efforts will be unsuccessful. They might also think that if people find this idea too strange, it could hurt the defense of animals in general.
These concerns are, however, based mostly on intuitions, not on actual experience in communicating with the public about this issue. As far as we know, there is no data backing these fears, and our experience at Animal Ethics is that the general public is quite receptive to the idea of helping wild animals in need of aid. Among the people who are concerned about animal suffering, most have never heard about the harms animals suffer in nature or the reasons to help them. When this is explained, many of them become concerned. As a result, there are now many more people who agree with helping wild animals than there were just a few years ago. This shows it’s possible to change people’s minds about this. Of course, for this to happen, we have to communicate effectively with the general public about this issue.
The lines of research we consider likely to be successful are ones that most people will probably find quite acceptable. In fact, as more people become aware of what we can do for wild animals, public attitudes may become an important driver of political and legal action that can help to further promote welfare biology. Actually, most people are much more open to helping wild animals than to other mainstream ideas in animal advocacy, such as giving up the use of animals as resources. This could be because it doesn’t require much compared to behavioral changes, such as not using animal products or services. Similarly, raising concern about the moral consideration of animals and speciesism tends to be well received and not met with reluctance or opposition the way advocacy for behavioral change often is. We encourage animal advocates who might still be a bit wary about how the public might receive the message to get in touch with Animal Ethics, and we will be happy to provide ideas and materials to run a small event or campaign to gauge how positive the reception by the public is.
Some people are concerned about the attitudes of scientists towards wild animal suffering. They fear that scientists might view this work as misguided. However, even if the prevailing paradigm doesn’t consider animals as individuals, this doesn’t mean that scientists won’t be interested in learning more about the wellbeing of nonhuman animals. Scientists are in principle in favor of gaining new knowledge and, accordingly, of more resources being employed in research. The discussion that can take place afterwards, about how to apply the knowledge, is a different question. But scientists don’t have to agree with a certain course of action to think it’s a good idea to learn more about issues related to it. Also, we have to bear in mind that not all scientists think the same way, and there are researchers with an interest in helping animals.
So we have good reasons to support gaining more knowledge about the wellbeing of wild animals and how to best help them. We’ve also seen that the objections against doing this are not conclusive. In the final chapter, we will consider the importance this research has, especially for the future.
 For responses to this and other objections see Faria, C. (2016) Animal ethics goes wild: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature. PhD thesis, Barcelona: Pompeu Fabra University; Horta, O. (2017b) “Animal suffering in nature: The case for intervention”, Environmental Ethics, 39, pp. 261-279; Johannsen, K. (2020) “To assist or not to assist? Assessing the potential moral costs of humanitarian intervention in nature”, Environmental Values, 29, pp. 29-45.
 This objection is presented in Delon, N. & Purves, D. (2018) “Wild animal suffering is intractable”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 31, 239-260. Throughout this book, we have seen many possible ways in which it is possible to make a positive difference for animals at different scales. See footnotes in the sections about different ways to help animals, and in section about the promising fields of research for welfare biology.
 See Morris, M. C. & Thornhill, R. H. (2006) “Animal liberationist responses to non-anthropogenic animal suffering”, Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, 10, pp. 355-379.
 Two studies carried out by Animal Ethics indicate that many life scientists find this kind of research useful and interesting. See Animal Ethics (2019c) Scientists’ attitudes toward improving the welfare of animals in the wild: A qualitative study, Oakland: Animal Ethics, https://www.animal-ethics.org/scientists-attitudes-animals-wild-qualitative [accessed on 22 March 2019]; (2020) Surveying attitudes toward helping wild animals among scientists and students, Oakland: Animal Ethics, https://www.animal-ethics.org/survey-helping-wild-animals-scientists-students [accessed on 22 March 2019].