Surveying attitudes towards helping wild animals among scientists and students
Cross-posted from the Animal Ethics blog.
Wild animals suffer due to many different factors, sometimes very significantly. There are many ways in which a few of them are currently being helped. Academic research on this topic can provide the knowledge needed to develop new ways of helping them that could have a much higher impact. Such knowledge can inform not only the initiatives that animal organizations can promote, but also public policies and protocols. In addition, it can help to provide more legitimacy to this cause.
Animal Ethics recently published a qualitative study examining the views life scientists have towards different research areas aimed at helping wild animals. Gaining this knowledge will help us to understand what kinds of research projects are more promising in order to maximize the cost-effectiveness of our efforts. After this research, Animal Ethics conducted another study that has studied these questions further, not just in a qualitative but in a quantitative way as well. This study consisted of a survey where we asked hundreds of students and scholars in life sciences about their perceptions and attitudes towards different ways of helping wild animals and the possible obstacles that intervention might face.
This research will be of interest to anyone concerned about wild animal suffering, and especially those interested in promoting academic research about it. It has been possible thanks to the support of Animal Charity Evaluators, which funded this work through its Animal Advocacy Research Fund.
You can download this study here (below is the executive summary):
While the science of animal welfare has been a well-established field for several decades, it has focused mainly on examining the wellbeing of animals used or directly affected by humans – mainly those kept in captivity. For their part, ecologists and other biologists have studied the lives of animals in the wild and how they relate to their environment, but not the wellbeing of the animals themselves. These animals are threatened by many factors that can cause them suffering, including starvation, thirst, disease, parasites, injuries, aggression, extreme weather conditions, and stress. While providing them aid may in many cases be beyond our capacities, there are many circumstances where doing so is feasible. Acquiring more knowledge can improve the prospects of positively impacting the wellbeing of wild animals.
This project aims to assess the perceptions and attitudes held by scholars and students in life sciences toward researching different forms of interventions to reduce the suffering of wild animals. The project is based on and complements a previous study based on qualitative interviews with scientists to gain more knowledge about this question.
This study has examined several questions related to how to best achieve this goal. It has aimed to attain the following:
Identify which research projects focused on ways of improving the wellbeing and reducing the suffering of wild animals are likely to get more attention from scientists
Identify the extent to which those projects are likely to be supported in academia
Identify the extent to which the projects are likely to be interesting to students
Learn more about what obstacles such research might face, and the most promising ways to overcome them
These questions were examined using a semi-structured survey for quantitative and qualitative data collection. We sent 3,905 emails with an invitation to fill out an online questionnaire to scholars at university departments of biological, ecological, veterinary, and related sciences around the world. We received 111 responses from scholars in 19 different countries. We also distributed questionnaires among life science students in different countries, who were recruited through a snowball sampling procedure. We received 226 questionnaires completed by students in 24 countries.
The questionnaires asked participants about three hypothetical research projects: the first one (Vaccination) was about wild animal vaccination aimed at stopping the spread of a disease among animals in the wild; the second (Urban Ecology) about how to reduce the harms that wild animals suffer in urban environments; and the third (Weather Effects) about how to successfully intervene to aid animals suffering in the wild due to harsh weather events. The motivation for these three research projects would be the improvement of the wellbeing of animals. We had previously identified these three projects as especially promising in our former qualitative study, and they have also been mentioned in the literature about the issue. We asked participants about their support for each of these projects, about their opinions concerning the support of other scholars and students for these projects, and about the likelihood that university departments would support such projects. We also asked them about what obstacles they perceived for each of these three research projects to be successfully carried out.
Responses were mostly favorable in all cases. Levels of support and perceived support by others ranged, depending on the question, from over 60% to over 90%. Students and scholars tended to give similar responses. The level of support was highest in almost all cases for the second project, Urban Ecology. The first project, Vaccination, also received substantial support. It was ranked second except in one very important category – expected support at university departments, in which it was ranked third. The third project, Weather Effects, was ranked first in this category. The results showed no substantial conflict between the perceptions and attitudes among scholars and students.
The perceived obstacles to the development of these projects were mainly external, having to do especially with lack of funding, and, to a lesser extent, with technical issues and bureaucracy. Attitudinal obstacles were less frequently mentioned. Those that were mentioned include the idea that the wellbeing of animals is irrelevant, the fact that the projects would study ways of intervening in nature, that they would study non-anthropogenic harms suffered by non-threatened species, and that they would not benefit humans. These objections were least prevalent in the case of the Urban Ecology project, and were most commonly mentioned for the Weather Effects project. Nevertheless, they were a minority among those that were mentioned for each of the three research projects.
We didn’t get conflicting responses from scholars and students. But we detected three other ways in which the results of the study may have been distorted to some extent. First, some respondents confused considerations about interventions with considerations about research projects studying those interventions. Second, we consider it likely that there is a self-selection bias resulting from the scholars who responded being more sympathetic toward helping wild animals than average life scientists. To counter its impact on the validity of our results, we included questions about perceived attitudes and support by fellow scholars and university departments. Third, our results may have been affected by some respondents not properly understanding the meaning of the term “animal welfare.”
Given the results, it seems that there is much room for growth in the development of research on this topic. Concerns about the tractability of improving the wellbeing of animals in the wild do not appear to be shared throughout academia. In particular, projects aimed at improving the situation of wild animals in urban environments are likely to get support if they are promoted. In addition, research on helping animals suffering as a result of weather events may be successful in challenging the idea that we should not intervene for the sake of wild animals. In the responses about this project, we found an interesting combination of factors: respondents saw it as the most likely of the three projects to be supported in academia, and the subject of the research is also seen as a form of intervention in nature to improve the wellbeing of animals, which is a common objection.
This study shows that there is a lack of familiarity among biologists with the science of animal welfare. The study also suggests that the attitudes of students in natural sciences regarding aiding wild animals are not significantly different from those of scholars. In fact, we found no indication of any recent paradigm change with respect to the consideration of animals’ wellbeing in biological sciences. This suggests that in addition to promoting new research projects, raising awareness about the reasons to work on the wellbeing of animals could be fruitful.
In light of the results, we make several specific recommendations for those who want to improve the wellbeing of wild animals. They include
The promotion of cross-disciplinary academic research on helping animals living outside of direct human control
Emphasizing projects aiming at
(i) improving the wellbeing of animals in urban and similar areas and
(ii) helping animal negatively affected by weather effects
The promotion of training in animal welfare science to biologists and environmental scientists, and especially to students in these fields
Carrying out educational work about the feasibility of helping wild animals among natural sciences students in particular, and among other relevant agents in society