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.

A tran­script of Os­car’s talk is be­low, which we have lightly ed­ited for clar­ity. You can also read the talk on effec­tivealtru­ism.org, or watch it on YouTube here.

The Talk

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.

1100 Oscar Horta (1)

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.

1100 Oscar Horta (2)

So, yeah, wild an­i­mal suffer­ing is im­por­tant. Many peo­ple have this idyl­lic view of na­ture, they think that na­ture is a par­adise for an­i­mals.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And then we see this, also ex­tremely com­mon. Many an­i­mals die due to hor­rible dis­eases that cause them suffer­ing through­out long pe­ri­ods of time.

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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.

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Other an­i­mals can have thou­sands of offspring dur­ing their life.

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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.

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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.

1100 Oscar Horta (11)

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.

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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.

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There you have more ex­am­ples of an­i­mals treated in cen­ters such as this one, get­ting ad­e­quate med­i­cal care, and so on.

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So when we see these pic­tures, we think, “Well, it’s great that we are helping these an­i­mals.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Here’s an­other pa­per, this one tack­ling swine fever virus.

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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.

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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.

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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.

1100 Oscar Horta (23)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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