Wild animal welfare received its most far-reaching publicity yet in a new article from Vox. Reporter Dylan Matthews profiles Wild Animal Initiative Executive Director Michelle Graham, whose research on flying snakes raised questions she couldn’t answer.
“I just felt really let down by how little the existing science told me about the welfare of these animals. … We know nothing about what their lives are like in the wild, from an animal-focused perspective.”
Matthews recognizes that answering those questions will require a paradigm shift.
The entire history of conservation, and the field of environmental ethics that has grown around it, pushes us toward a view that accepts or even embraces the suffering of animals in the wild. … But a genuinely animal-focused perspective toward wild animals — one where snakes and birds and fish and rodents warrant care not because of their contributions to their ecosystems, but because they are beings worthy of moral concern in their own right — is rare in both science and animal advocacy.
Underscoring the novelty of this shift, the article points out important differences between wild animal welfare and biodiversity conservation:
“Traditional conservation might have this focus on maintaining the viability of species and preventing extinction, or maintaining these systems working for the sake of humans,” says Francisco Santiago-Ávila, an environmental ethicist at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “Whenever there has to be a decision made between the welfare and well-being of individual animals versus the viability of a certain population or human interests, the interests of individual animals usually get dismissed.”
Even compassionate conservation tends to only address animal suffering directly attributable to humans, whereas Wild Animal Initiative supports research to alleviate any kind of suffering that wild animals experience.
Though the scale of that ambition isn’t lost on Matthews, he acknowledges the opportunities for progress:
“We should reduce the suffering of the literally trillions of animals living in the wild” is a utopian idea … [But] Wild Animal Initiative has taken a pragmatist turn. Graham and others want to answer more basic questions: What sort of factors make for a good life for a jumping snake? What’s it like to live as an owl in a city? They’re trying to do the groundwork for interventions that do more good than harm.
Wild Animal Initiative is a nonprofit dedicated to finding evidence-backed ways to improve the lives of animals in the wild. We rely on donations to fund critical research.
Updated 4/21/21 to change post title
Updated 4/22/21 to clarify that this is crossposted from WAI’s blog