Last week, viewers took to the internet to collectively grieve the “heartbreaking” and “horrifying” scenes of animal suffering throughout Our Planet, the new Netflix nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough.
One of these scenes appears only 15 minutes into the series: a group of flamingos descend on a salt flat in Africa that has been hit by a sudden flood. They mate amid the rapidly evaporating lake, only to have their hatchlings emerge one month later to a bone-dry and scorching hot climate. In order to survive, the chicks must embark on a marathon-like journey to find water. This proves impossible for one of the baby flamingos in particular, whose legs are caked in thick layers of salt that cause him to stumble and fall to the ground repeatedly. Ultimately, he is unable to keep up with the flock, and we are left to assume that he dies, slowly and all alone. This heart-wrenching scene isn’t an exception. In the next episode, an orca whale bounces a penguin like a beach ball and then devours its body. And later in the series, we watch walruses tumble over the edge of a cliff to their death, due to lack of land and overcrowding.
Anyone who welled up during these scenes is in good company. The reaction to them was so widespread that Netflix issued a warning with time-stamped intervals that “animal lovers may want to skip.” Attenborough himself says he has been “deeply moved […] and worried” at the animal suffering captured in his documentaries.
As a society, we have quite romantic ideals about the experience of animals in the wild. We imagine otters holding hands, birds snuggling in nests, and deer frolicking through grassy fields. Our Planet is helping to add the darker realities to this rose-tinted view of nature.
For most of the trillions of wild animals on the planet, suffering is inevitable. They fight daily battles for scarce resources, experience disease, injury, starvation, and natural disasters, and risk long and painful deaths from predators. A lot of them give birth to up to hundreds of offspring at one time, most of whom die before reaching adulthood. Reflecting on this grim situation in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins doesn’t mince words: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.” On top of this, much of the suffering of wild animals can be attributed to humans, through climate change and habitat destruction.
The empathy we intuitively feel toward companion animals like dogs and cats (and even some cute farm animals like pigs) doesn’t fully extend to animals in the wild. But while opinions differ about how we should best respond to animal cruelty, the vast majority of people agree that we should prevent animals from suffering–at the very least, we certainly shouldn’t be causing any of it.
The tide is slowly changing, and the plight of animals living in the wild is finally receiving more than just the sympathy of Netflix subscribers. There is a small but growing number of researchers who are becoming increasingly interested in wild animal welfare (abbreviated as WAW), and are looking at ways to learn more about whether we can safely and effectively intervene to reduce the suffering of wild animals.
The scale of wild animal suffering alone is a compelling enough argument for intervention; it’s estimated that the number of wild animals on earth is more than several orders of magnitude higher than humans and farm animals combined. However, ecosystems are delicate and complex, and this presents massive challenges which are acknowledged by those who are looking to work on these problems. However, the difficulty of understanding and working within the natural world are not necessarily reasons to shy away from this task, and many who object to intervention are doing so on premises based in misconception.
One objection is that intervening in nature could cause ecological chaos. This is certainly true, as millennia of human experience has demonstrated the enormous failures that humanity has had in intervening in nature, at the expense of animal and plant life. Researchers focusing on WAW are acutely aware of the complexity of the problem in front of them. And they know this complexity is a sound reason to exercise caution. Researchers focusing on this issue are taking a slow and methodical approach to their investigations, such as by funding small projects and focusing on interventions with which we already have experience.
For starters, we can take simple steps to avoid adding to the suffering of animals who live in urban environments. Consider backyard bird feeding: though well intentioned, if done improperly, it can spread serious diseases. As one expert explains, this is “[b]ecause [when] you provide more food in one place than any natural source, birds are far more likely to come into contact with each other at a feeder than they are in the wild.” One of the elegant solutions? Clean the bird feeder at least once per year (which will help disinfect it)! From keeping cats indoors (they cause millions of unnecessary deaths of wild animals per year) to using a no-kill, catch-and-release mouse trap as a humane way to catch mice around the house, we can focus on improving the way we currently treat wild animals, making sure we aren’t contributing to their suffering through our actions.
Another option is to provide wild animals with vaccines. We’ve done this before to aid the conservation of wildlife, especially in instances where an afflicted species is endangered. For example, there have been some successful interventions to stop an anthrax outbreak among wildlife. The World Health Organization reported that one outbreak among wildlife in United Republic of Tanzania was controlled by using a dart to administer a single treatment of antibiotics to several species of antelope. Anthrax vaccines have also been used to immunize zebras, black rhinoceroses, and elephants. A similar approach could be undertaken for the sake of WAW, as eliminating diseases in wild animals, regardless of their conservation status, presumably has the same effect as it does in human populations, allowing them to live happier lives.
Another potential way to help reduce wild animal suffering is through contraception (i.e. birth control). Consider that today, in instances in which overpopulation of a wild species interferes with human activity, cruel culling methods are typically deployed, such as shooting animals with a rifle or releasing toxic gases that poison them to death. A more humane alternative is immunocontraception, which uses the animal’s own immune system to prevent reproduction. Specifically, in response to certain injections, the animal’s body produces antibodies that interfere with reproduction. In fact, this has already been tried on white-tailed deer: In Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, rather than hunt them with firearms or lure them with bait before they could be netted and killed with a captive bolt–a device used to stun or kill some farm animals in slaughterhouses–the town enacted a plan in 2014 “to inoculate as many does as can be reasonably captured.” While there are undoubtedly opportunities to increase vaccine efficacy, four years into the program, a report concluded that the “study data thus far indicate that the vaccine is effective at reducing fawning rates.”
Some critics also argue as a point of simple fact that it is inherently bad to intervene in the wild. This is because people have a strong aversion to what is “unnatural.” Yet plenty of natural things are bad: events like disease and natural disasters are naturally occurring phenomena that we don’t ever let go unchecked if we can help it, and in fact go to great lengths to intervene and alleviate the suffering they cause. Similarly, plenty of unnatural things have helped the human race–take vaccines for example. We can argue that all is fair in nature, that it’s survival of the fittest, but we say that from our insulated homes as we turn up the air conditioner, order delivery, and watch TV. When an animal is being eaten alive, the argument that it’s natural does nothing to alleviate that suffering. Philosophers refer to this tendency to (falsely) believe that anything natural is good as the “naturalistic fallacy,” and we’d be wise not to fall victim to it.
Still other detractors contend that trying to understand the true experience of wild animals through a human lens is impossible. While it’s true that we don’t know enough about animal cognition to be certain that some or all species suffer in equivalent ways to humans, the claim that animals aren’t sentient (and therefore don’t feel pain) has long been debunked, and studies have shown that domesticated animals are less stressed than their wild counterparts. Guinea pigs, for example, have serum epinephrine and norepinephrine concentrations that are up to eight times lower than their wild counterparts. Similar results have been found in rats, ducks, and even fish. In fact, a decreased stress response compared to wild counterparts has been found in nearly every single domesticated species that has been studied.
In her recent interview on the 80,000 Hours podcast, Open Philanthropy Project researcher Persis Eskander said that the most compelling argument against intervening in wildlife–particularly on a large scale–is that it’s just too complex a problem. Consider predator-prey dynamics as just one of countless conundrums that should inspire humility: would it be better to prioritize reducing the number of predators to improve the welfare of prey, or increasing the number of predators to end the miserable existence of prey altogether? It’s unclear what obligations we have to each group or how best to reduce their suffering. It’s a not a new concern. Philosopher Peter Singer shared this same sentiment over 40 years ago when he wrote that “for practical purposes I am fairly sure, judging from man’s past record of attempts to mold nature to his own aims, that we would be more likely to increase the net amount of animal suffering if we interfered with wildlife, than to decrease it.” Yet this may not be an unsolvable issue. In order to determine if we can overcome it, we first need more data. The few people in the WAW movement agree: at the moment, we sorely need more resources dedicated exploring the question.
We don’t yet know exactly how to end wild animal suffering. But we do know that we have already shifted the balance of power in nature in our favor. Isn’t it time we try to find a way to harness that power for the good of all sentient beings, wherever they reside? After all, we only have one planet. Now that’s a documentary I’d like to see.
Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Brian is the editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook (Hachette Book Group: September 18, 2018) and The Reducetarian Solution (Penguin Random House: April 18, 2017).