Wild Animal Suffering

Wild animal suffering is the suffering experienced by nonhuman animals in nature through causes such as disease, injury, parasitism, starvation, natural disasters, and killings by other animals. Wild animal suffering has historically been discussed in the context of the philosophy of religion as an instance of the problem of evil. More recently, a number of academics have considered the suspected scope of the problem from a secular standpoint as a general moral issue, one that humans might be able to take actions toward preventing.

There is considerable disagreement around this latter point, as many believe that human interventions in nature, for this reason, would be either unethical, unfeasible, or both. Advocates of such interventions point out that humans intervene in nature all the time—sometimes in very substantial ways—for their own interests and to further environmentalist goals and that there are many ways that humans already successfully intervene to help wild animals such as vaccinating and healing injured and sick animals, rescuing animals in fires and natural disasters, feeding hungry animals, providing thirsty animals with water, and caring for orphaned animals. Advocates also argue that although wide-scale interventions may not be possible with current knowledge, they could become feasible in the future with increased knowledge and advanced technologies. For these reasons, they claim it is important to raise awareness about the issue of wild-animal suffering, spread the view that we should help animals suffering in these situations and encourage research into effective measures which can be taken to improve the welfare of wild animals without causing greater harms.

Hawk eating a small bird

Hawk eating a small bird

Extent of suffering in nature

Main article: Bioethics

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin acknowledged that the existence of extensive suffering in nature was fully compatible with the workings of natural selection, yet maintained that pleasure was the main driver of fitness-increasing behavior in organisms. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins challenged Darwin’s claim in his book River Out of Eden, wherein he argued that wild animal suffering must be extensive due to the interplay of the following evolutionary mechanisms:

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

  • Selfish genes – genes are wholly indifferent to the well-being of individual organisms as long as DNA is passed on.
  • The struggle for existence – competition over limited resources results in the majority of organisms dying before passing on their genes.
  • Malthusian checks – even bountiful periods within a given ecosystem eventually lead to overpopulation and subsequent population crashes.

From this, Dawkins concludes that the natural world must necessarily contain enormous amounts of animal suffering as an inevitable consequence of Darwinian evolution. To illustrate this he wrote:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Building on this, others have argued that the prevalence of r-selected animals in the wild indicates that the average life of a wild animal is likely to be very short and end in a painful death. According to this view, the average life of a wild animal should thus contain more suffering than happiness, since a painful death would outweigh any short-lived moments of happiness in their short lives.

A litter of mice with their mother.

A litter of mice with their mother. The reproduction of mice follows an r-selection strategy, with many offspring, short gestation, less parental care, and a short time until sexual maturity.

In “Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?”, Christie Wilcox argues that wild animals do not appear to be happier than domestic animals, based on findings of wild animals having greater levels of cortisol and elevated stress responses relative to domestic animals. Additionally, unlike domestic animals, animals in the wild do not have some of their needs provided for them by human caretakers. Welfare economist Yew-Kwang Ng has written that evolutionary dynamics can lead to animal welfare which is worse than necessary for a given population equilibrium.

Philosophical status

History of concern for wild animals

The idea that suffering is common in nature has been observed by several writers historically.

Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci, in his notebooks (written between 1487–1505) lamented the suffering experienced by wild animals due to predation and reproduction, questioning: “Why did nature not ordain that one animal should not live by the death of another?”

Philosopher David Hume in his 1779 posthumous work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion made reference to the antagonism experienced and inflicted by wild animals upon each other, observing: “The stronger prey upon the weaker, and keep them in perpetual terror and anxiety.”

One expression commonly used to express suffering in nature comes from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.”: “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, published in 1850.

In 1851, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer also insisted on the extent of suffering in nature, drawing attention to the asymmetry between the pleasure experienced by a carnivorous animal and the suffering of the animal it consumes: “Whoever wants summarily to test the assertion that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain, or at any rate that the two balance each other, should compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of that other”.

In the 1874 posthumous essay “On Nature”, utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote about suffering in nature and the imperative of struggling against it:

In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature’s every day performances. […] The phrases which ascribe perfection to the course of nature can only be considered as the exaggerations of poetic or devotional feeling, not intended to stand the test of a sober examination. No one, either religious or irreligious, believes that the hurtful agencies of nature, considered as a whole, promote good purposes, in any other way than by inciting human rational creatures to rise up and struggle against them. […] Whatsoever, in nature, gives indication of beneficent design proves this beneficence to be armed only with limited power; and the duty of man is to cooperate with the beneficent powers, not by imitating, but by perpetually striving to amend, the course of nature – and bringing that part of it over which we can exercise control more nearly into conformity with a high standard of justice and goodness.

In his 1892 book Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, the English writer and naturalist Henry Stephens Salt focused an entire chapter on the plight of wild animals, “The Case of Wild Animals”. Salt wrote that:

It is of the utmost importance to emphasize the fact that, whatever the legal fiction may have been, or may still be, the rights of animals are not morally dependent on the so-called rights of property; it is not to owned animals merely that we must extend our sympathy and protection. […] To take advantage of the sufferings of animals, whether wild or tame, for the gratification of sport, or gluttony, or fashion, is quite incompatible with any possible assertion of animals’ rights.

Salt argued that humans are justified in killing wild animals in self-defense, but that “[…] we are not justified in unnecessarily killing—still less in torturing—any harmless beings whatsoever.” English writer. In 1782, Member of Parliament Soame Jenyns argued that this should apply to insects as well: “We are unable to give life, and therefore ought not to take it away from the meanest insect without sufficient reason.”

In his 1906 book The Universal Kinship, J. Howard Moore argued that the egoism of sentient beings—a product of natural selection—which leads them to exploit their sentient fellows, was the “most mournful and immense fact in the phenomena of conscious life”, and speculated whether a sufficiently sympathetic human could significantly improve this situation if given the chance: “[One] cannot help wondering whether an ordinary human being with only common-sense and insight and an average concern for the welfare of the world would not make a great improvement in terrestrial affairs if he only had the opportunity for a while.”

In 1991, the environmental philosopher Arne Næss critiqued what he termed the “cult of nature” of contemporary and historical attitudes of indifference towards suffering in nature. He argued that we should confront the reality of the wilderness and that we should be prepared to disturb natural processes—when feasible—to relieve suffering.

Ecology as intrinsically valuable

Holmes Rolston III argues that only unnatural animal suffering is a morally bad thing and that humans do not have a duty to intervene in natural cases. He celebrates carnivores in nature because of the significant ecological role they play. Others have argued that the reason that humans have a duty to protect other humans from predation is because humans are part of the cultural world rather than the natural world and so different rules apply to them in these situations. Others argue that prey animals are fulfilling their natural function, and thus flourishing, when they are preyed upon or otherwise die, since this allows natural selection to work. This can be seen by some as an appeal to nature.

Wild animal suffering as a reductio ad absurdum

That people would also be obliged to intervene in nature has been used as a reductio ad absurdum against the position that animals have rights. This is because if animals such as prey animals did have rights, people would be obliged to intervene in nature to protect them, but this is claimed to be absurd. An objection to this argument is that people do not see intervening in the natural world to save other people from predation as absurd and so this could be seen to involve treating non-human animals differently in this situation without justification, which is due to speciesism. However, this argument already grants the premise in question that animals should have rights, and that preferring human interests is wrong, and therefore it is begging the question.

Relevance to the theological problem of evil

The problem of evil has been extended beyond human troubles to include the suffering of animals over the course of evolution.

The problem of evil has also been extended beyond human suffering, to include suffering of animals from cruelty, disease and evil. One version of this problem includes animal suffering from natural evil, such as the violence and fear faced by animals from predators, natural disasters, over the history of evolution. This is also referred to as the Darwinian problem of evil, after Charles Darwin who expressed it as follows:

‘the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time’ are apparently irreconcilable with the existence of a creator of ‘unbounded’ goodness.

— Charles Darwin, 1856

The second version of the problem of evil applied to animals, and avoidable suffering experienced by them, is one caused by some human beings, such as from animal cruelty or when they are shot or slaughtered. This version of the problem of evil has been used by scholars including John Hick to counter the responses and defenses to the problem of evil such as suffering being a means to perfect the morals and greater good because animals are innocent, helpless, amoral but sentient victims. Scholar Michael Almeida said this was “perhaps the most serious and difficult” version of the problem of evil. The problem of evil in the context of animal suffering, states Almeida, can be stated as:

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good.
  2. The evil of extensive animal suffering exists.
  3. Necessarily, God can actualize an evolutionary perfect world.
  4. Necessarily, God can actualize an evolutionary perfect world only if God does actualize an evolutionary perfect world.
  5. Necessarily, God actualized an evolutionary perfect world.
  6. If #1 is true then either #2 or #5 is true, but not both. This is a contradiction, so #1 is not true.

Interventions to reduce suffering

Arguments for intervention

Farm Sanctuary's shelter in upstate New York provides a home to hundreds of rescued goats, sheep, cows, pigs, poultry, rabbits, and other farm animals.

Farm Sanctuary’s shelter in upstate New York provides a home to hundreds of rescued goats, sheep, cows, pigs, poultry, rabbits, and other farm animals.

Some theorists have reflected on whether we should accept the harms that animals suffer in nature or try to do something to mitigate them. The moral basis for interventions aimed at reducing wild animal suffering can be rights-based or welfare-based. From a rights-based perspective, if animals have a moral right to life or bodily integrity, intervention may be required to prevent such rights from being violated by other animals.

From a welfare-based perspective, a requirement to intervene may arise insofar as it is possible to prevent some of the suffering experienced by wild animals without causing even more suffering. Advocates of intervention in nature argue that nonintervention is inconsistent with either of these approaches. Some proposed courses of action include removing predators from wild areas, refraining from reintroducing predators, providing medical care to sick or injured animals, and rescuing wild animals from natural disasters.

Practicality of intervening in nature

A common objection to intervening in nature is that it would be impractical, either because of the amount of work involved, or because the complexity of ecosystems would make it difficult to know whether or not an intervention would be net beneficial on balance. Aaron Simmons argues that we should not intervene to save animals in nature because doing so would result in unintended consequences such as damaging the ecosystem, interfering with human projects, or resulting more animal deaths overall. Philosopher Peter Singer has argued that intervention in nature would be justified if one could be reasonably confident that this would greatly reduce wild animal suffering and death in the long run. In practice, however, Singer cautions against interfering with ecosystems because he fears that doing so would cause more harm than good.

Other authors dispute Singer’s empirical claim about the likely consequences of intervening in the natural world, and argue that some types of intervention can be expected to produce good consequences overall. Economist Tyler Cowen cites examples of animal species whose extinction is not generally regarded as having been on balance bad for the world. Cowen also notes that insofar as humans are already intervening in nature, the relevant practical question is not whether we should intervene at all, but what particular forms of intervention we should favor. Philosopher Oscar Horta similarly writes that there are already many cases in which we intervene in nature for other reasons, such as for human interest in nature and environmental preservation as something valuable in their own rights. Horta has also proposed that courses of action aiming at helping wild animals should be carried out and adequately monitored first in urban, suburban, industrial, or agricultural areas. Likewise, moral philosopher Jeff McMahan argues that since humans “are already causing massive, precipitate changes in the natural world,” we should favor those changes that would promote the survival “of herbivorous rather than carnivorous species.”

Peter Vallentyne suggests that, while humans should not eliminate predators in nature, they can intervene to help prey in more limited ways. In the same way that we help humans in need when the cost to us is small, we might help some wild animals at least in limited circumstances.

Potential conflict between animal rights and environmentalism

It has been argued that the environmentalist goal of preserving certain abstract entities such as species and ecosystems and policy of non-interference in regard to natural processes is incompatible with animal rights views which place the welfare and interests of nonhuman animals at the center of concern. Examples include environmentalists supporting hunting for species population control, while animal rights advocates oppose it; animal rights advocates arguing for the extinction or reengineering of carnivores or r-strategist species, while deep ecologists defend their right to be and flourish as they are; animal rights advocates defending the reduction of wildlife habitats or arguing against their expansion out of concern that most animal suffering takes place within them, while environmentalists want to safeguard and expand them. Oscar Horta has argued that there are instances where environmentalists and animal rights advocates may both support approaches which would consequently reduce wild animal suffering.

Welfare biology

See also: Animal Welfare

Welfare biology is a proposed research field for studying the welfare of nonhuman animals, with a particular focus on their relationship with natural ecosystems. It was first advanced in 1995 by Yew-Kwang Ng, who defined it as “the study of living things and their environment with respect to their welfare (defined as net happiness, or enjoyment minus suffering)”. Such research is intended to promote concern for nonhuman animal suffering in the wild and to establish effective actions that can be undertaken to help these individuals.

History of interventions

South Africa Hippo Water Child Watering Hole

South Africa, Hippos in watering hole

In 2016, 350 starving hippos and buffaloes at Kruger National Park were killed by park rangers. One of the motives for the action was to prevent the animals from suffering as they died.

In 2018, a team of BBC filmmakers dug a ramp in the snow to allow a group of penguins to escape a ravine.

In 2019, 2000 baby flamingos were rescued after they were abandoned by their parents in a drought in South Africa.

Wildlife contraception has been used successfully to reduce and stabilize populations of wild horses, white-tailed deer, American bison and African elephants.

See also:

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