Wild Animal Suffering: Potential Solutions From CRISPR
Most animal activists have no problem with intervention in nature in order to prevent or reduce harm caused by humans. Breeding programs to help species’ recovery from poaching or habitat loss, for example, are relatively uncontroversial practices. If humans are to blame for the suffering, then it follows that it’s acceptable for humans to intervene on the animals’ behalf.
However, the natural world is full of suffering from completely non-human sources. Predators, parasites, diseases, and the elements all inflict an extraordinary amount of suffering on animals, but many animal advocates believe that humans have no role to play in alleviating it. The primary argument against human intervention in natural practices is that of ignorance: humans have no way of knowing whether a well-intentioned intervention will have disastrous results, given how complex the connections in the natural world are.
Furthermore, they argue that any successful intervention would require turning the natural world into a giant zoo. Predators would be separated from their prey, veterinary staff would treat illnesses and control breeding, and food would be supplied by humans. Does improving the lives of wild animals require the end of their wildness?
This paper argues that one source of wild animal suffering in particular can be solved with minimal human involvement: high infant mortality rates. While some animals operate in a similar way to humans – actively raising a small number of offspring – others (termed r-strategists) rely on sheer volume. If an r-strategist has 100 offspring and 80 are killed before maturing, that still means 20 survive to maturity and reproduce. While this may be an effective strategy – it wouldn’t exist otherwise – it is full of suffering for those 80 ill-fated offspring.
New gene-editing technology called CRISPR may offer a solution. While earlier gene-editing technology was inaccurate and expensive, CRISPR is relatively inexpensive, and can alter a single genome without affecting any others. Furthermore, the gene that is edited through CRISPR has a near-certain chance of being passed on to offspring, meaning that an edit can quickly reach an entire population. This method is already being tested as a potential solution to malaria, through reducing the amount of offspring that malaria-carrying mosquitoes bear and conferring resistance to the malaria parasite.
The author argues that CRISPR could be used to reduce the amount of offspring that r-strategists produce, and therefore reduce the amount of animals dying premature deaths. Importantly, this would solve the problem without reducing the animals’ wildness – it does not require further human intervention.
The paper anticipates two counter-arguments to this proposal. First: reducing the number of r-strategist offspring will simply result in their extinction, as predators will simply kill off all the young. Second, predators of the r-strategist will possibly go extinct through lack of food. The author argues that CRISPR could present a solution to both of these complaints through production of carnivore-edible plants.
Even if these exact solutions prove unsuccessful, the author argues that CRISPR-based solutions should always be considered as a possibility to alleviate the suffering of wild animals. Others might argue that the harm required in CRISPR laboratory experiments makes this solution morally wrong. The author believes otherwise, contending that even if hundreds of animals live horrible lives in a laboratory, the gene-editing solutions will help millions of animals, if not billions.
A final point worth considering as advocates, is that this would not be a practical solution for every animal. Sea turtles, for example, are incapable of guarding their nests, as they breed on land but live in water. With many other animals, it would require a drastic change in behavior, which might have unintended ecological consequences.
Overall, the author argues that CRISPR-based solutions should be kept on the table as proactive solutions to the natural suffering of r-strategist animals. Even if the exact methods outlined in this paper are unsuccessful, they believe that selectively editing genes is a morally right action to alleviate and prevent suffering in the natural world.