Scientists’ attitudes towards improving the welfare of animals in the wild: a qualitative study

Cross-posted from the An­i­mal Ethics blog.

An­i­mals in the wild face man situ­a­tions in which they suffer, some­times greatly. While in many cases they are be­ing helped, much more could be done for them. More re­search is needed to al­low us to plan ad­e­quate in­ter­ven­tions hav­ing a net-pos­i­tive effect for all the an­i­mals di­rectly and in­di­rectly af­fected.

In ad­di­tion, aca­demic re­search in this field is needed for an­other, more im­por­tant rea­son. For the wellbe­ing and suffer­ing of an­i­mals in the wild to be con­sid­ered a se­ri­ous sub­ject by the rele­vant agents — policy mak­ers, re­searchers in life sci­ences, and even­tu­ally the gen­eral pub­lic — it seems nec­es­sary that its study be­comes well es­tab­lished in academia.

To find promis­ing courses of ac­tion to pro­mote such re­search, An­i­mal Ethics has car­ried out a qual­i­ta­tive study to as­sess the per­cep­tions and at­ti­tudes that life sci­en­tists have to­wards it, as well as about other re­lated is­sues. The study uses in­ter­views with schol­ars and re­searchers work­ing in biol­ogy, vet­eri­nary sci­ence, and en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies.

In­ter­vie­wees were asked about their un­der­stand­ing of wild an­i­mal suffer­ing and their views of differ­ent ways of helping an­i­mals in need of aid in the wild. They were also asked about the in­ter­est, op­por­tu­ni­ties, and bar­ri­ers for re­search in this area. The re­sults of this re­search helped us de­sign an­other study con­sist­ing of a sur­vey given to schol­ars and stu­dents, which we will pub­lish in a few weeks. Th­ese find­ings will com­ple­ment the re­sults we are pub­lish­ing now.

The pre­sent qual­i­ta­tive study will be use­ful to peo­ple in­ter­ested in helping wild an­i­mals and, es­pe­cially, in pro­mot­ing aca­demic re­search about it.

The study can be down­loaded here (be­low is the ex­ec­u­tive sum­mary):

Scien­tists’ at­ti­tudes to­wards im­prov­ing the welfare of an­i­mals in the wild: a qual­i­ta­tive study

Ex­ec­u­tive summary

Background

Most work car­ried out by an­i­mal welfare sci­en­tists has fo­cused on an­i­mals di­rectly af­fected by hu­mans. Biol­o­gists, es­pe­cially ecol­o­gists, have ex­am­ined the lives of wild an­i­mals from differ­ent per­spec­tives, but rarely from the point of view of their wellbe­ing. How­ever, there has been grow­ing in­ter­est in re­cent years on this is­sue. It has been ar­gued that a new field of re­search ex­am­in­ing this ques­tion should be pro­moted. This new field, ten­ta­tively named “welfare biol­ogy,” would in­te­grate knowl­edge from the sci­ences of an­i­mal welfare, biol­ogy, and other dis­ci­plines in ways that could in­form poli­cies that would pos­i­tively af­fect the wellbe­ing of wild an­i­mals in differ­ent ecosys­tems.

Objectives

The ob­ject of this study was to iden­tify some cur­rent per­spec­tives about this new re­search and the best ways to pro­mote it. To in­ves­ti­gate these ques­tions, the pro­ject was aimed at gain­ing knowl­edge about the fol­low­ing:

  • The per­cep­tions and at­ti­tudes held by those who work in the fields of biol­ogy, vet­eri­nary sci­ence, and re­lated fields to­wards (1) the suffer­ing and wellbe­ing of wild an­i­mals and (2) efforts to re­duce their suffer­ing.

  • Re­search top­ics re­lated to helping wild an­i­mals that are likely to be con­sid­ered worth­while by nat­u­ral sci­en­tists. The fol­low­ing were con­sid­ered in par­tic­u­lar: res­cues of an­i­mals af­fected by se­vere weather events, sup­ple­men­tal feed­ing, pop­u­la­tion con­trol, vac­ci­na­tion pro­grams, and de­par­a­sita­tion.

  • The cur­rent pos­si­bil­ities in academia to con­duct such re­search, and the in­ter­est, bar­ri­ers, and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

  • Recom­men­da­tions by sci­en­tists about how to foster re­search in this field.

Methodology

A qual­i­ta­tive ap­proach was used. We in­ter­viewed 15 ex­perts in biol­ogy, vet­eri­nary sci­ence, and en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies com­ing from the UK, the USA, South­ern Europe (Spain), Ger­man speak­ing coun­tries (Ger­many and Switzer­land) and Latin Amer­ica (Mex­ico and Brazil), and car­ried out a dis­course anal­y­sis of their re­sponses.

Results

The in­ter­views in­di­cated a lack of fa­mil­iar­ity, es­pe­cially among biol­o­gists, but also to some ex­tent among vet­eri­nary sci­en­tists, with the suffer­ing of wild an­i­mals. The biol­o­gists were not very fa­mil­iar with an­i­mal welfare sci­ence and its meth­ods.

We de­tected no clear rank­ing of the level of sup­port that differ­ent in­ter­ven­tions to aid an­i­mals in the wild re­ceive. Pop­u­la­tion con­trol was gen­er­ally ap­proved, es­pe­cially when kil­ling is seen as the al­ter­na­tive, though this did not always mean sup­port for the pro­posed mea­sure. Res­cu­ing an­i­mals in nat­u­ral dis­asters, pro­vid­ing them food dur­ing se­vere weather events, and vac­ci­na­tion were ac­cept­able to many and gen­er­ally sup­ported to a similar ex­tent, with de­par­a­sita­tion get­ting only slightly less sup­port.

Sev­eral types of re­sponses were re­peated for differ­ent in­ter­ven­tions. Some re­spon­dents ex­pressed un­qual­ified sup­port for the mea­sures while oth­ers re­jected them out­right. Most par­ti­ci­pants ex­pressed sup­port for most of the ways of helping wild an­i­mals, but only un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances. The con­di­tions that were stressed most were if the origi­nal source of harm was an­thro­pogenic and if the in­ter­ven­tion was backed by sound re­search in­di­cat­ing it would not have nega­tive effects that might out­weigh the benefits.

Con­cern­ing what kind of in­ter­ven­tions it would be best to pro­mote, one sug­ges­tion was that fos­ter­ing work aimed at im­prov­ing the wellbe­ing of an­i­mals in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments would be par­tic­u­larly promis­ing. Par­ti­ci­pants also sug­gested that it would be best to start with forms of helping an­i­mals in which there is also an in­ter­est in re­search for other rea­sons. Vac­ci­na­tion was ex­plic­itly men­tioned as promis­ing in this re­spect. This is be­cause, in ad­di­tion to aid­ing an­i­mals, it can pre­vent the spread of dis­eases to hu­mans and do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals. It is also an in­ter­ven­tion that has been car­ried out for a long time and on which a sig­nifi­cant amount of re­search is already be­ing done. Another sug­ges­tion was to start with forms of helping an­i­mals in which in­di­rectly an­thro­pogenic fac­tors may also be in­volved. Aid­ing an­i­mals in need of help due to harm­ful weather events was cited as an ex­am­ple of this, be­cause it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­cer­tain whether the weather events nega­tively im­pact­ing an­i­mals in the wild might ul­ti­mately have a hu­man cause. It was also pointed out that it would be more pro­duc­tive to start re­search on the is­sue with spe­cific and well mon­i­tored cases.

In­for­mants also iden­ti­fied some im­por­tant bar­ri­ers to work­ing in this field, in­clud­ing lack of fund­ing and epistemic challenges con­cern­ing the study of the wellbe­ing of an­i­mals. How­ever, the most im­por­tant ob­sta­cle that came up in the in­ter­views was prob­a­bly the lack of at­ten­tion paid to in­di­vi­d­ual an­i­mals within the cur­rently preva­lent paradigm in biol­ogy. Ad­di­tion­ally, the vet­eri­nary sci­en­tists ap­pear to share some of the val­ues the biol­o­gists have, al­though to a lesser ex­tent. In fact, not all vet­eri­nary sci­en­tists are fully fa­mil­iar with an­i­mal welfare sci­ence, let alone wild an­i­mal suffer­ing.

In re­la­tion to this, it was sug­gested that in­vest­ing in younger peo­ple in academia might be more cost-effec­tive than fo­cus­ing on sci­en­tists with es­tab­lished ca­reers, as the former are more open to new ideas and more in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing new ar­eas of re­search. Fi­nally, it was also men­tioned that the pro­mo­tion of cross-dis­ci­plinary work may be promis­ing in or­der to help over­come the lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with an­i­mal welfare sci­ence among biol­o­gists, in ad­di­tion to be­ing nec­es­sary for the ex­am­i­na­tion of the fac­tors af­fect­ing the wellbe­ing of an­i­mals in the wild.

Limitations

One limi­ta­tion of this study is that, due to sam­ple size rea­sons, the in­ter­vie­wees’ views may not be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of those of other sci­en­tists , al­though the re­sponses we got were quite di­verse. A more im­por­tant limi­ta­tion may be the fact that some of the re­spon­dents did not prop­erly un­der­stand what wild an­i­mal suffer­ing or even an­i­mal welfare is, and some­times con­fused mea­sures aimed at helping an­i­mals with in­ter­ven­tions car­ried out for con­ser­va­tion­ist aims. This re­duced the value and re­li­a­bil­ity of their re­sponses about such in­ter­ven­tions.

Recommendations

Sev­eral recom­men­da­tions can be made about how to pro­mote con­cern and re­search about the wellbe­ing of an­i­mals liv­ing out­side hu­man con­trol. In ad­di­tion to the pro­mo­tion of fur­ther dis­cus­sion about wild an­i­mal welfare among biol­o­gists, vet­eri­nary sci­en­tists, and schol­ars in re­lated fields, the fol­low­ing recom­men­da­tions can be made for courses of ac­tion to help foster re­search in welfare biol­ogy:

  • Pro­vid­ing train­ing in an­i­mal welfare sci­ence for biol­o­gists, es­pe­cially ecologists

  • Pro­vid­ing fund­ing for aca­demic work on this topic, tar­get­ing young re­searchers in particular

  • Pro­mot­ing re­search on wild an­i­mal health (for ex­am­ple, the de­vel­op­ment of new treat­ments or vac­cines)

  • Pro­mot­ing re­search com­bin­ing a wild an­i­mal welfare and an ur­ban ecol­ogy ap­proach to helping im­prove the wellbe­ing of wild an­i­mals in ur­ban environments

  • Pro­mot­ing re­search on the ways to help wild an­i­mals harmed by se­vere weather events

  • Fa­vor­ing the pro­mo­tion of re­search with a cross-dis­ci­plinary ap­proach by com­bin­ing the con­tri­bu­tions from the sci­ences of an­i­mal welfare and biology