Wild animal welfare
Researching how to responsibly improve the wellbeing of wild animals
Why work on improving wild animal welfare?
There is a chance that right now many trillions or quintillions of wild animals are experiencing lives that include terrible suffering. For many animals the threat of predation is nearly constant, which, in more brutal terms, is the prospect of experiencing the horror and pain of being eaten alive. Wild animals face many other sources of suffering such as extreme weather conditions, hunger and untreated disease. In addition, the brief lifespan of many smaller-sized animals – particularly animals traditionally classified as r-strategists who produce many offspring with the expectation that most will die in infancy – suggests a small window of opportunity for any positive hedonic value to outweigh the pain of death.
Yet it seems there are things we can already do to make the lives of wild animals better. Welfare biology is a relatively new but quickly growing academic field exploring the welfare of wild animals and what we can do to improve it.
More research on wild animal welfare could involve further developing interventions for improving animal welfare. Interventions that already exist include wild animal vaccination to prevent diseases, fertility control to improve the welfare of urban wildlife, and ways of aiding animals affected by factors such as weather conditions or natural disasters. To ensure these interventions are effective, research is also needed to improve our understanding of how to measure the welfare of wild animals and how to model indirect impacts on ecosystems.
There are other, more foundational questions we need more research to answer. For example: Which animals are sentient? What kinds of affective states does an animal experience day-to-day? When should we regard the bad experiences of animals as outweighing the good? How does this vary across species? How does an animal’s lifespan connect to its wellbeing? Can we ever understand the ecosystem well enough to intervene?
Foundational research could conclude that animals don’t have a morally relevant experience, or that there is no way for us to intervene effectively – although based on our current scientific understanding, we can anticipate that many wild animals do likely suffer a great deal and there seem to already be ways we can act to improve their lives. But regardless, given the vast number of wild animals, even a very small chance that they are suffering needlessly and avoidably is worth investigating. There are probably over a thousand wild vertebrates for every human, and the number of invertebrates is orders of magnitude greater. It would be an enormous gamble to look the other way and not research this topic more.
Until recently, there were only a dozen or so researchers dedicating their lives to improving our understanding of wild animal welfare. There is still a massive research deficit, much we don’t know, and the stakes are high.
Here are some steps that can help you do research in this area.
Explore our research direction profiles below this introduction for some deeper dives into specific areas of welfare biology and more specific resources.
- Wild Animal Suffering is a great place to start for an introduction to this area.
- Animal Ethics is a key organisation in this area. Their resources include:
- This video explores two objectives relating to wild animal welfare interventions; that the positive impact persists into the future, but also that interventions are reversal if they have a negative impact.
- Explore our research direction profiles below.
- See the research priorities from the Wild Animal Initiative here.
- Explore these ideas for research projects from Animal Ethics
Animal Ethics offers 1:1 guidance on getting started in this field and can help connect you with other researchers.
The Wild Animal Initiative also has a number of services that can help you get started in this area, including the below:
- An online research community
- Careers advice if you want to pursue research in this area
- Research collaboration
Apply for our coaching for more personalised guidance on getting started in this area and to be connected with researchers who can help you refine your ideas. You can also join our community if you’re interested in connecting with other students specifically.
New York University has a new program on wild animal welfare.
The EA animal welfare fund may fund research in this area, as can the Wild Animal Initiative.
Sign up for our newsletter to hear about opportunities such as funding, internships and research roles.
Sign up for the Wild Animal Initiative newsletter and Animal Ethics newsletter to stay up-to-date with news in this area.
This introduction was last updated 10/11/2022. Thanks to Will Fenning for originally writing this introduction and Professor Oscar Horta for helpful feedback.
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