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):

Sur­vey­ing at­ti­tudes to­wards helping wild an­i­mals among sci­en­tists and students

Ex­ec­u­tive summary

Background

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.

Objectives

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

Methodology

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.

Results

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.

Limitations

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.”

Conclusions

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.

Recommendations

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