Institutional Attitudes Towards Wild Animal Suffering
Wild animal suffering is a concept that is fairly self-explanatory — it includes the suffering inflicted on wild animals by other animals, humans, disease, natural disasters, starvation, etc. Wild Animal Suffering, as a field of study, is less clear cut: it is an emerging discipline that looks at the dynamics of what causes wild animal suffering in both broad and specific terms, with an eye towards developing strategies on how to prevent it for ethical reasons.
This study consisted of interviews with fifteen biologists, ecologists, and veterinary scientists to determine their knowledge level, interest, and concerns with the field of Wild Animal Suffering, or WAS. The interviewees were given several situations in which wild animals would suffer and asked to explain why we should or should not intervene to prevent or reduce suffering, and why. Some of these situations would include vaccinating animals against diseases, sterilizing animals to prevent overpopulation, and rescuing animals from a volcanic eruption.
Most interviewees were willing to help the animals under certain circumstances. For example, saving animals from a natural disaster caused by climate change would be generally supported, since humans are a proximate cause of the suffering. Furthermore, vaccinating animals against a disease would be supported if the disease posed a danger to humans — this coronavirus outbreak being a clear example, though this study took place before this current outbreak. Biologists were generally supportive of interventions that would protect a species from extinction, but were less concerned about the suffering of individual animals. Many biologists were unfamiliar with the concept of WAS, and thought of their responses in terms of protecting populations or ecosystems, rather than alleviating the suffering of an individual. Biologists often expressed skepticism about interventions, believing that large-scale involvement in nature almost always results in worse outcomes for animals.
Unintended consequences, such as vaccinating a population leading to overpopulation, which leads to starvation, were routinely brought up as a major concern. Many respondents adopted a hands-off point of view, in which humans should only be responsible for alleviating suffering that we caused ourselves. However, some were more generous, believing that since basically every natural habitat has been affected by humans at some level, more widespread interventions were justified. In general, most respondents were at some level supportive of working to reduce suffering in wild animals, but motivations varied, and many were skeptical that we could do so on a large scale without creating more problems. Methods of intervention that could benefit humans, such as vaccinating animals against diseases that could jump to humans, were also widely supported.
The authors of this study recommend that more attention be given to the issue of WAS and are heartened that younger respondents seemed more receptive as this might lead to more research in the future. The authors believe that more cross-discipline interactions would further this goal, as veterinary scientists seemed more receptive to the proposals than did biologists. The authors also promote the idea of beginning with urban wildlife, as interventions in this habitat are less likely to have major ramifications for endangered animals or protected, relatively pristine ecosystems. For animal advocates, this study shows that further education is required for the issue of WAS; it is still a relatively fringe issue and will likely find much lower levels of support compared to reforms targeting domestic animals and human influence on the environment.