Oscar Horta: Promoting Welfare Biology as the Study of Wild Animal Suffering
Content note: this transcript includes pictures of animals suffering.
Animals in the wild often suffer tremendously, from starvation, exposure to the elements, and preventable disease. Rabies vaccination programs have substantially helped certain wild animals, but those programs were designed mostly to protect humans and our pets. What if we went a step further and tried to help wild animals for their own sake? In this talk from EA Global 2018: London, Oscar Horta argues that we might be able to make a truly huge impact through the study of welfare biology.
We’re going to start first with a little experiment. I want you to think, just for a second, of a wild animal, the first one that comes to mind. Okay? You got it? That’s good. We’ll come back later to that.
The idea of this presentation was to present what wild animal suffering is in general, and then see what we are doing right now to tackle it. We have this aim now, which is the creation of a new field of research, a new scientific field called Welfare Biology to address wild animal suffering. But before I get into that, we need to show why we should be worried about wild animals in the first place. So what I’ll do is, first explain why wild animal suffering is important. Then I’ll present some ways in which we are already helping wild animals, and then I’ll come back to the reasons to create a new field of research.
So, yeah, wild animal suffering is important. Many people have this idyllic view of nature, they think that nature is a paradise for animals.
It’s not that they think that during the evening the animals join together and sing songs and all that, but on the other hand, they think that, yeah, animals are leading good lives in the wild. Unfortunately, this is not really what happens.
There are many reasons why many animals have very bad lives, in fact. There are natural causes such as extreme weather conditions, hunger and malnutrition, parasites, or injuries.
Like for instance, this animal with an injury such as this one, that can mean for this animal death. He or she can’t go to a health center and get some antibiotics or something.
And then we see this, also extremely common. Many animals die due to horrible diseases that cause them suffering throughout long periods of time.
We think of them as used to that, but that’s not the case. They suffer just as humans would. And on top of this, there are reasons to believe that this is not something that happens just to a tiny minority of animals. It’s just the other way around.
And now I want to come back to our experiment from before. So I want to ask you, how many of you thought of a mammal when I asked you to think of a wild animal? Wow, a lot of people. How many of you thought of a bird? Just a couple of persons. Reptile? One. Amphibian? One. A fish? One. An invertebrate? Okay, the tide is changing, so some people are thinking an invertebrate. This is good. It shows that we are making progress in this.
Now, the most relevant question: how many of you thought of baby animals, or very young animals? Only one. So the rest of you basically thought of adult animals. But what happens is that in nature, most animals reproduce by having huge numbers of offspring. This happens in the case of mammals: Rodents can have hundreds of offspring.
Other animals can have thousands of offspring during their life.
Some may have like millions of them. On average, how many of these animals would you guess survive, make it to maturity? It’s very simple. On average, for a stable population, only one animal per parent makes it.
What happens to the other animals? They die, most of them shortly after coming into existence. The thing is that their deaths aren’t really nice deaths. They often die due to hunger. Many animals never eat. They come into existence, look for food, never find any food, and they just die. Others may be frozen, or killed by the cold. Others are eaten alive. And this happens to the overwhelming majority of animals. So this shows that this issue really is serious and deserves more attention than what it has received so far.
What are we doing right now to tackle this? Most of the things that are done deal with very few numbers of animals, or with just one animal. So every now and then, you can see in the media cases of people helping animals in distress like, for instance, in this case this fawn who was there trapped in a frozen lake and was rescued.
Or, in some cases, there are efforts that try to help more animals, like there are centers for injured animals, sick animals, or orphaned animals, such as this baby rhino.
There you have more examples of animals treated in centers such as this one, getting adequate medical care, and so on.
So when we see these pictures, we think, “Well, it’s great that we are helping these animals.”
But after all, when we consider how many animals really are facing these terrible situations, it seems that we need to go further than that. There are some efforts that try to help more animals. These are animal feeders.
They dosify the amount of food that animals can get. They’re used, in some cases, where certain animal populations are threatened. It may be because they are facing a particularly harsh winter or something. You can see this night picture of some animals going to the station to feed.
This is mainly done for conservation as a reason, which is different from caring for the animals themselves. People want to keep a certain population active for scientific reasons or because they want tourists to see these animals, but that’s different from caring for the animals themselves. But still, this helps, and the knowledge we have about how to deal with situations of hunger could be applied in other cases as well.
More ambitious efforts can be considered too. As you can see, this is a picture of a scientific paper, which is about vaccination against tuberculosis of wild animals. And there are several other diseases which have been researched in order to learn how to best eradicate certain diseases from certain populations.
Here’s another paper, this one tackling swine fever virus.
And another one, this time against rabies. I want you to notice the date of this paper, which is 1988. So this has been some research that has been going on for a while already. It’s been decades since scientists started to work on this and much progress has been made.
Rabies has been eradicated in many countries, in northern Europe and wide areas in North America. And again, the reason why this measure is carried out, it’s not because people are concerned about animals, or that we don’t want them to suffer this horrible death. Rather than that, we don’t want those animals to pass these diseases to human beings, or to the animals human beings live with. But still, even if it’s not the purpose we are trying to achieve, we are still helping a lot of animals. Even though there’s been some research on this already, however, much more work could be carried out.
Just to explain you how this is done, those are biscuits with nice smells for the animals, and a nice taste, and they introduce the vaccine there. Then they distribute them in the wild. So there are different ways to do this.
One is with these dosifiers, so they go there dispense just one biscuit at a time, so no animal gets a lot of them. They also with helicopters and they have boxes with doses of the vaccine, and they just distribute them like candy for the animals.
Yeah. It’s amazing how we can do things that actually can help, not just one animal, not just ten animals, but thousands of animals. And, as I said, are current efforts are only really concerned with humans. So imagine how much we could help these animals, if we were concerned for the animals themselves.
So this is where the need for a new field of research comes from. There are several cost efficient courses of action today to address wild animal suffering. And of course one is to spread the idea that animals in the wild matter.
This implies first, speaking out against the discrimination of animals, against speciesism, and spreading concern for animals in general. But then, spreading concern for wild animals in particular because there are many people who, while concerned about animal welfare and animal rights, have never thought that wild animals may need our help, because they are suffering due to natural reasons.
Some organizations are working on this problem. I’m working in animal ethics, and we are distributing materials to educate the general public with a focus especially on people who are involved in academia. We want to also reach animal advocates to give them information about this, so they themselves can go on working and spreading the word about that.
Here is a picture of our website. It’s in Chinese because it’s so cool that we have our website in eight different languages. I could have put it in English, but, you know, I’m putting it in Chinese! Why not?
But still, this is only a part of the solution. There are more things that are necessary here. One of them is supporting the interventions that are already being carried out, such as the ones that I presented before. And then helping to create and develop new ways of helping animals in nature. And it’s here where raising interest among life scientists is key. The reason for this is that when you consider the work that life scientists carry out, that is related to either directly or indirectly to wild animal suffering, what you find out is that there is no idea of wild animal suffering as such, or even wild animal welfare.
For instance, when you consider the work of animal welfare scientists, they may work with animals that are exploited by humans. In fact, there is a field that is called wild animal welfare. What they do is, they focus on wild animals that are in captivity or, in some cases, wild animals that are being affected in the wild by humans, by say, hunting or fishing or similar activities. Right? There is also another field, which is compassionate conservation, and they focus on trying to achieve conservation in ways that don’t harm individual animals.
So all these are fields that are related to what we need here, but aren’t quite the same thing. And then we have the field of ecology, and the field of ecology now has many subfields. Ecology works on the study of ecosystemic relations, so there is community ecology, population ecology, behavior ecology, all them are fields of ecology. But what we don’t have yet is this, welfare biology, or welfare ecology. What is welfare biology? Well, it’s been defined as the study of living beings with respect to their positive and negative wellbeing.
But basically, another way of understanding this is, it’s just a study of how animals feel with all kinds of situations, including in the wild. So the welfare biology would include animal welfare science as we understand it today. It would go further than that because it would address as well the situations that animals are undergoing in the wild. This is a new field that we have to create. And it’s amazing that in ecology and that in animal welfare science, there is no work on this. Right?
Clearly, even if only from a scientific, from an epistemic viewpoint, if we want to know about the reality of animals or the reality of ecosystems out there, then the wellbeing of animals clearly seems to be something very relevant. If on top of that, we are not only curious about how things are, but we are also concerned about how those things are for particular individuals, then it seems clear that we have a major reason to try to develop these new fields.
There is some work going on in these fields already. This is a list of publications that we’ve published, and you can see that it’s a long list. I put it there not so you can read them, but only for you to look at how long the list is. But even if it’s a long list, it’s not long enough. And in addition to that, a significant part of this literature is by people who are working in philosophy or ethics or other related fields, but not actual biology. And that’s what we need.
We need biologists who are involved in this. This is what’s necessary now. This is really something we need.
Fortunately, there are already some people who are getting involved in this. We are now creating a small network of ecologists and other biologists. Some animal welfare scientists are starting to be interested in this. The prospect of having this new field created is actually feasible now. Some years ago, this could seem like a crazy idea, but now, it’s not going to be immediate, it’s going to take a while, but we are on our way there.
What are we doing now? By us, I mean the people who are working in this field in general. There are several organizations working on this, Animal Ethics is one of them. Then there is Wild Animal Suffering Research, Utility Farm, and other groups are working on this too. In particular, in the case of Animal Ethics, we are now carrying out research on how new scientific fields have been created in the recent past. We have already interviewed around 15 scientists in different countries. Mainly biologists, but also animal welfare scientists, to see what ideas they have regarding this, what kind of interventions they think it would be promising to research. We’ve asked people from different countries, like in the UK, in the US, some around Europe too, Germany, Switzerland, but also in Latin America, in Brazil, in Mexico. So we tried to cover a wide range. We are also working on designing drafts of what could be research projects, which welfare biologists could work on, to make it as easy as possible for interested people to do this work. We are also working in designing subjects that a biology scholar could teach at the university. Subject that are either focused on wild animal welfare, or that include welfare biology among other concerns.
So, yes, there is much work to be done, but as I said, what’s more important to this is getting life scientists involved. So I would have liked to have more time to speak about welfare biology as such and the new developments, but I thought that it would be useful to first tell you a bit about wild animal suffering.
On behalf of all these animals, again, I want to thank you for your interest in this topic. Thanks.
Question: Should care about animal extinction along the same lines that we care about human extinction? Is there a non-speciesist difference between the two cases?
Oscar: Actually, if you are concerned about animals themselves, you aren’t really concerned by what happens to the species as such. Also, in the case of humans, like for instance, suppose that humans were somehow replaced by other beings who would be more caring individuals, more intelligent, and with better aims than we have, would that be bad? Many people, at least among effective altruists would say, “Well, that would probably be a good thing.”
So this would be something that would have to do somehow with instrumental reasons, but it also shows that we aren’t concerned with species as such. We are concerned with individuals. And the same would happen in the case of animals, I would say.
Question: Especially regarding the vaccination efforts that you mentioned in your talk, in general, won’t wild animals just die of something else, even if they are treated for a vaccine? Does this pose some problem for the field of wild animal suffering?
Oscar: Yeah, that’s a good question. The thing is, in fact, there are different ways of dying, and it’s not just the harm of death we’re worried about. In fact, there are some people who don’t believe in the harm of death specifically. Most people think that when you die, you lose everything, so you can’t have any more moral positives in your life, so dying is a harm. But in addition to this, there is also the harm of suffering, and some diseases really are terrible and cause terrible amounts of suffering. So if we could avoid that, it would be worth it.
But in addition to this type of question, it allows us to present really what would be the best way to address this issue, which would be on a larger scale. So what welfare biologists could do is, they could research the amount of suffering the different ecosystemic relations create in comparison to others. For instance, when you consider the conservation of elephants, well, killing elephants may be bad for the elephants, but there is something else to take into account there, which is that elephants are eaters of huge amounts of biomass.
So if they aren’t there, that biomass is going to be eaten by tiny invertebrates who will have lots of offspring, and they will be eaten by other tiny invertebrates, but a bit larger, and so on. We will have very long trophic chains, in which there is much suffering. So it’s not just about creating particular interventions that reduce suffering, it’s about studying the big picture and taking a look at what is the direction in which we want ecosystems to go for there to be less suffering.
Question: Is there a risk that welfare biology will focus almost entirely on mammals and birds and, if so, does that change the cost benefit analysis of welfare biology generally?
Oscar: Yeah, that’s another good question. I think that it will focus definitely on vertebrates at the beginning for several reasons. Not necessarily in the case of all the research that is going to be carried out, but surely, the focus is going to be on those animals at first. But that may be like the foot in the door, the way to get more work in general done and to establish the name of welfare biology as something that is respected in academia, and that will allow us to then afterwards go on and do research on other animals as well.
It’s also like this in the case of animal advocates in general, who mainly work on vertebrates, but who are now starting to consider invertebrates as well.