Wild Animal Suffering: Getting The Public To Care
Wild animal suffering is an oft-overlooked field of animal rights. Much of this is due to a belief that nature is self-governing and separate from the human domain, and that intervening in nature has poor outcomes – which can often be true. The goal of this study was to determine what language is most useful in eliciting positive responses to strategies to reduce wild animal suffering. 1,371 American volunteers were given this study through Amazon MTurk, an online survey portal.
The study began with three initial questions about the participant’s support for combating wild animal suffering, as follows:
- Q1: “Should humanity take steps to reduce the suffering of wild animals, even if these steps involve significant changes to nature and ecosystems as we know them today?”
- Q2: “Should humanity redesign ecosystems in order to create habitats with lower rates of infection, disease, and predation from wild animals, even if this process involves reducing or eliminating some species?”
- Q3: “Should humanity take steps to decrease the suffering of wild animals in nature by removing or reducing the number of predators, and directly managing prey species to prevent overpopulation?”
After answering each question on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being strong opposition and 5 being strong support, each participant would be given one of three prompts. Each prompt was roughly a paragraph long, and used different language to argue in favor of action on wild animal suffering. The first prompt used language emphasizing intervention, the second used language emphasizing “active participation,” and the third emphasized stewardship. After reading their prompt, the participants would re-answer the three initial questions. The researchers would then compare support levels before and after the prompts.
Q1’s approval began higher than the others’, but fell after every prompt. Q2 and Q3’s approval rates began relatively low, but rose after every prompt. P2 and P3 were the most successful, increasing support of Q2 and Q3 by roughly 10% and decreasing support for Q1 by under 10%. In contrast, P1 only increased support for Q2 and Q3 by roughly 5%, and decreased support for Q1 by nearly 20%. The researchers believe that Q1 being the most general of the questions was responsible for its high initial approval.
Prompts 2 and 3, which emphasize active participation and stewardship rather than intervention, were more successful at garnering support than P1. The researchers note that Q2 and Q3 provided specific examples, like redesigning habitats and culling predators, while Q1 only suggesting taking generic “steps.” It’s possible that the general public is initially skeptical about specific plans without first being informed about the logic behind them, while simultaneously being more generous in their assessments of generic proposals.
Animal advocates working on wild animal suffering issues who are proposing concrete steps would do well to present their case before asking for support. This study showed that people are capable of changing their minds on niche issues when presented with information, which should make all animal advocates hopeful. While wild animal suffering remains a relatively unknown issue – and this is a still-tentative first step in understanding how to do public outreach related to it – knowing that the public has some openness to the idea should be encouraging.
The topic of wild animal suffering is one that has gained some recognition within animal advocacy circles, but remains controversial. As some advocates looking at the topic do advocate for “reducing or eliminating some species” to serve a greater good, it’s not hard to see why it may remain controversial for some time to come. While this study looks at how wild animal suffering advocates can better communicate their message to the general public, they will also need to reconcile how some of their positions fit into animal advocacy more broadly.