Working for a future with fewer harms to wild animals

Working for a future with fewer harms to wild animals

There are many actions we can take to help reduce the harms experienced by animals living in nature. Many of the ways wild animals suffer have clear causes, such as malnutrition, severe weather conditions, and lack of shelter. We could give them greater assistance if we had more knowledge and means.

For this to be possible, it is crucial that our societies begin to care much more about helping animals in the wild. It is possible that if societies never see helping wild animals as important, their needs will never be addressed. The longer our society delays in taking this issue seriously, the more animals will be left to suffer and die from preventable causes. Conversely, the more our society becomes aware of the harms that wild animals experience, the more action will be taken to improve their lives.

There are several things that can be done currently to help nonhuman animals:

1. Promoting aid to animals in nature whenever it is possible

There are many examples of ways animals can be helped and are currently being helped, as explained in Helping animals in the wild. These range from small actions that anyone encountering an animal in need can do, to large scale programs aiding a large number of animals. These actions include rescuing animals who are trapped or have been the victims of fires or natural disasters, sheltering orphaned animals, providing medical treatment to sick or injured animals, vaccinating them against painful and lethal diseases, and deworming programs. In many cases, however, little is done even when we have the knowledge and means to help. If we aid animals when we can, learn more about ways to help, and let others know too, we can all contribute to spreading concern for animals in the wild, and help make it possible for animals in nature to get the help they so badly need.

Because so many people don’t know we can help improve the lives of individual animals living in the wild, showing cases where this can be done, or is being done already, can help to counter reluctance to support this cause.

2. Promoting the moral consideration of all sentient beings and challenging speciesist attitudes

A second way to promote helping wild animals is by changing attitudes about nonhuman animals, because lack of concern appears to be the biggest obstacle.1 Helping others to understand that animals are sentient, with the capacity to individually suffer, is a necessary step in reducing the hardships they face in the wild. It is likely that most people don’t consider the suffering experienced by most wild animals to be serious harms or are unaware of how prevalent suffering is outside of human societies.2 Another problem is that many people give moral consideration to some animals, but think animals in the wild do not require or deserve the same concern. But in many cases, there is little interest in helping animals in the wild simply due to a general lack of concern for them.

3. Increasing the depth of our knowledge about the ways nonhuman animals can be helped in nature

A common argument against providing aid to animals in the wild is that we don’t have enough knowledge to help animals who are suffering because of the intricate balance of natural processes in ecosystems. According to this view, large scale interventions run the risk of unintentionally causing significantly more harm to occur, so perhaps we ought to simply leave nature the way it is.

This argument is based on an idea that is correct, which is that our current lack of knowledge can severely reduce the effectiveness of actions taken to help large numbers of wild animals. But this problem can be addressed by conducting further research to improve our knowledge about what the lives of animals in ecosystems are like. The more knowledge we have about wild animals and the ecosystems they live in, the more effective our actions to improve their wellbeing will be.

It’s also problematic to object to interventions only when the goal is to help animals. Humans have been intervening in the wild for a long time in order to further antropocentric aims, and continue to do so widely. In recent times, intervention in nature for conservationist or other environmentalist ends have been carried out on a large scale as well. Concerns about our lack of knowledge of the details of how ecosystems work have resulted in these interventions being better informed, but have not stopped them from taking place. There is no reason to have a different approach when the purpose of the intervention is to promote the interests of animals.3

Another reason people argue against helping animals in the wild is because of a bias towards the negative in thinking that if there are unforeseen consequences, they will have negative effects; but unforeseen effects can also be positive. A negative bias towards future consequences is often accompanied by an overly optimistic view of how the present is. If we consider the gravity of the situation of animals in the wild, then the view that the status quo is by default the best situation must be revised.

To conclude, while we already have significant means to implement the ones we know are effective, and to fund research to increase their output and quality, action can be taken now to fund additional research furthering our understanding of the problem.

4. Explaining why the moral consideration of animals should be distinguished from environmentalism

One ethical approach to studying life in ecosystems is environmentalism. Environmentalism is a broad term for various views that include conservationism and valuing nonsentient entities such as ecosystems or species. The term environmentalism can also refer to anthropocentric positions that value conserving nature and natural resources for the benefit of humans.

A different ethical view takes sentient beings into account as morally considerable beings. It is based on the idea that the beings who can be harmed by our actions are those with the capacity to have positive and negative experiences, such as feeling pleasure and pain.

Concern for sentient beings and environmentalism are often thought to be related. Because environmentalist views are more widely held today, concern for animals receives less attention and, in many cases, is not well understood. Caring about individual sentient beings is different from caring about ecosystems or species.4 In fact, there are often conflicts between what these views imply, as when animals are killed to promote certain environmentalist aims such as preserving a particular species of plant.

It is sometimes thought that we should not help wild animals in need of aid because that means not letting nature take its course. This argument is problematic for several reasons. First, the argument would not apply to wild animals living in urban or rural environments that humans are transforming continually. Second, even animals living in the wilderness are in ecosystems that have already been transformed by humans. However, the most important point is that the fact that animals are sentient should lead us to give them the consideration they need. It is useful to consider that when humans suffer terrible harms, most people believe we should provide them with help even if that means altering the natural course of things, as when we cure people from natural diseases, or when we build houses, hospitals, or libraries. Applying this only when humans are affected appears to conflict with what impartial consideration implies.

Scientists studying ecosystems primarily have concern for entities that are wholes like ecosystems or species, rather than concern for individuals. But this need not be the case. We must distinguish between knowledge and the aims for which we can apply such knowledge. Scholars in ecology and related disciplines can use their knowledge to promote various aims. In the past, those aims were purely anthropocentric. Today, they tend to be conservationist and environmentalist. In some cases, however, the aim is to promote what is best for all the sentient beings involved, and we can encourage this approach so it is more widely applied in the future.

5. Ceasing to contribute to the idea that nature is a paradise for animals

Finally, it’s necessary that the suffering of wild animals be considered a serious issue that requires our attention. It’s very important that we spread the word about the difficult situation of animals in the wild and the importance of having a positive attitude towards helping them.

The view of nature as a paradise where animals enjoy happy lives is refuted by the available evidence, as shown in The situation of animals in the wild, and in Population dynamics and animal suffering. We may be tempted to console ourselves by thinking that their suffering is not that important or is compensated by other positive things they can enjoy. However, this would be an example of motivated reasoning rather than a realistic response. Wild animal suffering exists in the world regardless of what our moral views are. Its existence cannot be contested in the same way that moral claims can be, because it is not related to our opinions about the way we should behave, but to the actual ways that animals’ lives are. Because of this, spreading information and encouraging discussion about wild animal suffering independently of its moral significance can be very impactful, not only as a way of directly raising concern but also to eliminate incorrect assumptions about the true situation of animals in the wild. This will make it easier to carry out better assessments of how to act in ways that are beneficial for animals. In doing this, we will also be facilitating future concern about this as a serious issue deserving our attention.

Further readings

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1 Horta, O. (2016) “Changing attitudes towards animals in the wild and speciesism”, Animal Sentience, 7 [accessed on 1 October 2019]

2 Waldhorn, D. R. (2019) “Toward a new framework for understanding human–wild animal relations”, American Behavioral Scientist, 63, pp. 1080-1100.

3 See about this Horta, O. (2017) “Animal suffering in nature: The case for intervention”, Environmental Ethics, 39, pp. 261-279; Capozzelli, J. (2019) “Opinion: Uncertainty in wild animal welfare is not an intractable problem and welfare biology is well-positioned to tackle it”, Wild Animal Initiative, July 23 [accessed on 30 September 2019].

4 This has been pointed out especially by environmentalist thinkers. See Soulé, M. E. (1985) “What is conservation biology?”, BioScience, 35, 727-734; Rolston, H., III (1992) “Disvalues in nature”, The Monist, 75, pp. 250-278. Sagoff, M. (1993) “Animal liberation and environmental ethics: Bad marriage, quick divorce”, in Zimmerman, M. E.; Callicott, J. B.; Sessions, G.; Warren, K. J. & Clark, J. (eds.) Environmental philosophy: From animal rights to radical ecology, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, pp. 84-94.