Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Wild animals suffer, too. Should we help them?

Catia Faria

The amount of animal suffering in the world is overwhelming. Luckily, there are effective ways to help. For instance, by transitioning to a plant-based diet, you can save on average 30 animals a month, 365 animals a year, and thousands of animals during your lifetime. To reduce animal suffering, it is crucial to stop doing much of what we currently do. Yet, merely stop harming other animals will not put an end to animal suffering. Just like humans, the other animals suffer and die due to natural causes. They are susceptible to injury, hunger and various forms of disease. And often, humans can do much to help.

This is not news. Most people give their companion animals veterinary care and believe such care should be extended to all captive animals. But what about animals suffering in the wild, shouldn’t we also help them? Beneath the green exuberance of natural landscapes, wild animals are experiencing excruciating deaths at the claws of predators, being devoured by parasites, starved, or killed by disease. Once you see the truth of wild animal suffering, you can’t unsee it. That suffering too should concern us.

After all, suffering is bad for whoever experiences it, no matter what causes it, where or why it happens. If The Drowning Child taught us anything it is that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”. If animal suffering matters at all, then, we should also prevent or otherwise reduce it, whenever we can. Oddly, this basic idea is often the most difficult part for people to wrap their minds around.

I could never relate to that. Throughout my life, I’ve been horrified by animal suffering caused by natural events —particularly predation and natural catastrophes— and, to almost the same extent, by the widespread human indifference to it. To my dismay, besides a few notable exceptions, the topic remained largely overlooked in the animal ethics literature, persisting, until very recently, as the ‘greatest taboo in animal rights advocacy’. These were compelling reasons to devote my efforts to researching it, so that’s what I did.

This book is an answer to the moral problem of wild animal suffering. In a nutshell, it argues that on the assumption that we have reasons to assist other individuals in need, if nonhuman animals are fully morally considerable, we should intervene in nature so as to alleviate wild animal suffering as much as possible.

Several objections might be pressed against this conclusion. Intervention might be counterproductive, it might produce no significant effects at all, or it might threaten other, more important values. It might also be argued that we lack the morally relevant relationships with wild animals which give rise to obligations of assistance. Or, alternatively, that we should treat wild animal communities akin to sovereign states, so that our relations to them be governed by non-intervention. In addition, alleviating the harms that fall upon human beings or domesticated animals might be more important or wild animal suffering might just be impossible to address. All these objections ultimately prove unsound. Crucially, we ought to put ourselves in a position, both individually and collectively, to develop safe and effective future solutions to the plight of wild animals.

This is not the only answer, nor is it definite. The scale of the problem is enormous and our current capacity for action is fairly limited. Much more work is needed on different fronts to address this crucial moral topic. Yet, we should be wary of not over-focusing on practical issues and minimising the question of how to develop the appropriate moral attitudes which will make it increasingly feasible to provide wild animals with the care they need. This is, in my view, the greatest obstacle to tackling the problem wild animal suffering. Notice that we have been —and still are— continually intervening in nature. What’s being proposed then, is not that we start intervening in nature, but rather that we shift the aim of present and future interventions, so that they are guided by a concern for wild animal welfare. A moral shift is thus essential in order to change the narrative toward a broader acceptance of interventions beyond the human and the domestic spheres. Hopefully, Animal Ethics in the Wild is a step in the right direction.

Animal Ethics in the Wild By Catia Faria

About The Author

Catia Faria

Catia Faria is Assistant Professor of Applied Ethics at the Complutense University of Madrid and a founding member of the Centre for Animal Ethics at Pompeu Fabra University, Barce...

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