What is wild animal suffering?

The term “wild animal suffering” is a general term that can be defined as follows:

Wild animal suffering: the harms that animals living outside direct human control suffer due partly or totally to natural causes

Since this is a relatively new concept, there are several points to clarify concerning its scope.1

Wild animal suffering: what is it about?

As the term “suffering” indicates, we are concerned about harms affecting the wellbeing of animals. It is therefore different from an interest in conservation. That is, it is not about how species, populations, or ecosystems can be affected, because species and ecosystems are not themselves sentient individuals with subjective feelings. Wild animal suffering is about how the wellbeing of individual animals can be negatively affected. Moreover, animals can be harmed in another way, which is by dying. Given this, the term “wild animal suffering” can also be used in a broader sense that includes not only suffering but also the harm of death.

There are different kinds of factors that can negatively affect animals living outside of human control. To simplify things, they can be grouped into three main groups:

Directly anthropogenic harms: the harms caused by human beings that are the direct result of specific actions, either intentional or unintentional

Examples of intentional direct harm are fishing and hunting. Another example is the intentional eradication of certain animals. This may be for economic reasons, such as when they are killed because of their negative impact on agriculture. It can also be for conservationist purposes, as when animals are killed because of their impact on other species. Examples of unintentional direct harm are when animals are injured or killed by harvesting machines or being run over by vehicles.

Indirectly anthropogenic harms: the harms that result from human action but are not the direct result of concrete actions

There are many different types of these harms. They range from the harms caused by lost fishing nets to harms to animals due to extreme weather events from human-caused changes to the climate.

Natural harms: the harms that take place without any human action being involved

Examples of these are harms from starvation, weather events, accidents, conflicts between animals, and natural disasters.

Generally speaking, the term “wild animal suffering” covers all the harms that are either completely or partly natural. It doesn’t include directly or indirectly anthropogenic ones in which no natural factor is present. The term does include harms resulting from indirectly anthropogenic effects that are more diffuse. An example is when animals die for natural reasons in a new ecosystem created by humans, such as a planted forest.

There aren’t strict borders between the three different types. For example, there is often no clear boundary between direct and indirect anthropogenic harms. It could be argued that while poisoning invertebrates with insecticides would be a direct anthropogenic harm, if they were poisoned by pesticides used to kill weeds then that would be an indirect anthropogenic harm, though both cases would be similar in the end.

Moreover, there can be combinations of the three types, especially of indirect and natural ones. Animals can suffer harms that are partly natural and partly indirectly anthropogenic. Suppose, for example, that a new disease is introduced into a forest indirectly through human action and that some animals die from it. If the animals who live in that place contract the human-introduced disease, then that harm is indirectly anthropogenic, though it is also partly natural because the disease spreads through the population through natural patterns.

Harms of this combined kind could be very common, because humans have changed most of the ecosystems existing on Earth. In fact, because of human-caused changes to the climate, it is likely that there is no longer a single ecosystem unaltered by human activities, with the possible exception of some in the deep ocean and other remote zones. In addition to this, it is estimated that more than a third of the world’s land surface is being used for agricultural purposes. Also, around a fourth of the total land is forests, of which there are large areas that have been planted partially or totally by humans, especially in temperate zones. Primeval forests, which were not planted and have developed with very little human interaction, are a minority (a very small percentage for example in Europe).2 Yet, even these primeval ecosystems have been changed because of human activities affecting the climate. This means that there is no longer a clear distinction between strictly natural harms and partly natural, partly anthropogenic harms to animals.

This is also why, strictly speaking, wild animals living in all those areas could be considered to some extent under human control, because human activities can modify the places where they live and the conditions in which they live. In order to distinguish the animals we are concerned with here, we need to point out that they live outside direct human control.

Wild animal suffering: not just about animals living in the wilderness

Something else that should be clarified about the term “wild animal suffering” is the meaning of “wild animals.”

We might think wild animals are simply those that typically live in the wild. But this is inaccurate. The same animals living in those areas can be found in other places. Also, the term “the wild” can be confusing. Properly speaking, it means areas or ecosystems untouched, or only affected in minor ways, by human beings. Sometimes it is understood to mean all areas that don’t have significant human presence or activity, including, for example, forests managed by humans. But the term wild animal suffering is not meant to include only the animals living in those places.

Many animals that most people consider “wild” live outside direct human control in areas devoted to agriculture or animal farming. They can also be found in urban, suburban, and industrial areas. Many types of vertebrates, like small mammals, reptiles and birds, some large vertebrates, and many invertebrates live in those places. Birds, squirrels, butterflies, and lizards are examples of animals living in urban environments.3 They are often directly harmed by human actions. But they also suffer because of how their ecosystems affect their lives. Because of this, they can also be included within the definition.

There are some animals who live outside human control but are not typically classified as wild, such as animals who are considered “feral.” However, the distinction between “feral” and “wild” animals is not relevant from the point of view of their suffering. They are harmed in similar ways because of the challenges they must face. Accordingly, under the term “wild animal suffering” we can certainly include concern for feral animals.

We can therefore see that the term “wild animals” in “wild animal suffering” denotes all animals living outside of human control. “Wild animal” is just a linguistic shortcut that is used for simplicity. But we have to remember that it covers not only the animals living in wild or semi-wild areas, but also feral animals and animals living in urban environments.

Species membership is not what is relevant

A common way to use the term “wild animal” is to refer to animals who do not belong to species that have been domesticated (selectively bred for many generations by humans, like dogs and chickens).

These are not the animals referred to in the term “wild animal suffering.” There are animals who are wild in this sense but live in captivity, such as minks in a fur farm, captive elephants trained for working, and zebras in a zoo.

These animals usually suffer a lot because of their use by human beings, and their situation is something that anyone concerned about animal suffering should be quite worried about. Animal advocates have therefore struggled for a long time to defend these animals. However, this is a different concern. Wild animal suffering relates to the situation of animals who do not live in captivity. Borderline cases include animals who are used in farming but spend most of their lives unconfined. As an example, we can think of a goat or a sheep who spends all her life in the hills.

Problems with the term “wildlife”

Another term that is often used is “wildlife.” This is an inaccurate term for wild animals for two reasons. First, it is often used to refer to all kinds of living organisms. This doesn’t differentiate animals from other organisms that are not sentient. Second, even when it is used to refer specifically to wild animals, the word “wildlife” is not a countable quantity, so it doesn’t recognize animals as individuals.

So, to conclude, the word “wild” as used in “wild animal suffering” does not distinguish animals in terms of their species. It doesn’t, like “wildlife,” refer to them as part of an undifferentiated component of an ecosystem. It also has nothing to do with the assumption that they have a ferocious character or nature. It just describes a circumstance they are in with regard to humans.

People concerned about the situation of these animals sometimes use other terms. “Helping wild animals” is a term that has been used to refer to efforts to aid them. The term “wild animal welfare”4 is used as a descriptive term for their situation from the point of view of their wellbeing. Note, however, that “wild animal welfare” has been used in several different ways:5

Wild animal welfare (1): the situation of undomesticated animals with respect to their wellbeing

Wild animal welfare (2): the regulations about the ways undomesticated animals are kept in captivity

Wild animal welfare (3): the science that assesses the wellbeing of undomesticated animals

Due to this, there is the possibility of confusion here, among other reasons because this term is often used to refer to undomesticated animals living in captivity.

Finally, the term “welfare biology” is used for a proposed field of study that would examine the wellbeing of all animals, especially those living outside human control.6 It would primarily, though not necessarily only, study wild animal suffering. More technically, it can be defined as follows:

Welfare biology: the study of sentient living beings with respect to their positive and negative wellbeing

Welfare biology would be a cross-disciplinary field that includes wild animal welfare science together with contributions from ecology and other fields in the natural sciences. Wild animal welfare science would assess the wellbeing of animals by considering their behavior, physiology, and other indicators. Other fields like ecology would examine the external factors that affect it. Welfare biology has the potential to inform policies to actually help wild animals and prevent the harms they suffer.


1 Horta, O. (2010) “Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes: Population dynamics and suffering in the wild”, Télos, 17, pp. 73-88 [accessed on 17 October 2019]; (2017) “Animal suffering in nature: The case for intervention”, Environmental Ethics, 39, pp. 261-279; Tomasik, B. (2015 [2009]) “The importance of wild animal suffering”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 133-152 [accessed on 2 October 2019]; Dorado, D. (2015) “Ethical interventions in the wild: An annotated bibliography”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 219-238 [accessed on 15 October 2019]; Faria, C. (2016) Animal ethics goes wild: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature, Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra; Soryl, A. A. (2019) Establishing the moral significance of wild animal welfare and considering practical methods of intervention, Master’s thesis, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam. See also Animal Ethics (2018) “Publications about wild animal suffering”, Blog, Animal Ethics.

2 Potapov P.; Laestadius L.; Yaroshenko A.; Turubanova S. (2009) “Global mapping and monitoring the extent of forest alteration: The Intact Forest Landscapes method”, Forest Resources Assessment, Working Paper 166 [accessed on 17 October 2019]; Potapov, P.; Hansen, M. C.; Laestadius, L.; Turubanova, S.; Yaroshenko, A.; Thies, C.; Smith, W.; Zhuravleva, I.; Komarova, A.; Minnemeyer, S. & Esipova, E. (2017) “The last frontiers of wilderness: Tracking loss of intact forest landscapes from 2000 to 2013”, Science Advances, 3 (1) [accessed on 11 October 2019].

3 Hadidian, J. & Smith, S. (2001) “Urban wildlife”, in Salem, D. J. & Rowan, A. N. (eds.) The state of the animals 2001, Washington, D. C.: Humane Society Press, pp. 165-182; Michelfelder, D. P. (2018) “Urban wildlife ethics: Beyond “parallel planes”, Environmental Ethics, 40, pp. 101-117.

4 See for instance Kirkwood, J. K.; Sainsbury, A. W. & Bennett, P. M. (1994) “The welfare of free-living wild animals: Methods of assessment”, Animal Welfare, 3, pp. 257-273; Harrop, S. R. (1997) “The dynamics of wild animal welfare law”, Journal of Environmental Law, 9, pp. 287-302 [accessed on 17 October 2019]; Kirkwood, J. K. (2013) “Wild animal welfare”, Animal Welfare, 22, pp. 147-148; JWD Wildlife Welfare Supplement Editorial Board (2016) “Advances in animal welfare for free-living animals”, Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 52, pp. S4-S13.

5 See Haynes, R. P. (2008) Animal welfare: Competing conceptions and their ethical implications, Dordrecht: Springer. Sometimes the term “animal welfare” is used among animal advocates for the view that it is acceptable to cause certain harms to animals provided that they are not excessive. Accordingly, some uses of animals that can be harmful to them are acceptable if the harms that are considered necessary for such use are minimized. This meaning is totally different from the other ones we have seen here.

6 See Ng, Y.-K. (1995) “Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering”, Biology and Philosophy, 10, 255-285; Carpendale, M. (2015) “Welfare biology as an extension of biology: Interview with Yew-Kwang Ng”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 197-202 [accessed on 17 October 2019]; Faria, C. & Horta, O. (forthcoming) “Welfare biology”, in Fischer, Bob (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Animal Ethics, London: Routledge.