Helping wild animals

Improving the lives of wild animals is a complex issue. It is very difficult to predict exactly how an ecosystem will react to interventions, and making progress will require cautious and thorough research that combines expertise in ecology, ethics, and welfare biology.

Animals living in the wild experience suffering in many different ways. Some of this suffering is caused by the byproducts of human activities, such as pollution and habitat destruction. Some of it arises naturally through disasters, disease, and the competition for survival (such as predation and starvation). In both cases, if there are ways we can alleviate or prevent such large-scale suffering cost effectively, then we should take action.

At this stage, very few interventions are being implemented to improve the lives of wild animals, with the exception of some small-scale projects (such as using contraceptives to control population sizes). Instead, the organisations involved are mostly focused on building an academic field around the issue, in order to create a stable base of research from which promising interventions can be identified in the future.

Why is helping wild animals important?

We think helping wild animals is a high-priority cause because relatively little is being done, especially given the scale of the issue. However, it's hard to tell how tractable this cause is at such an early stage.

What is the scale of helping wild animals?

We can consider the scale of wild animal suffering using three factors:

  • The number of animals affected
  • Their capacity to suffer
  • The amount of suffering they endure

Numbers of wild animals

Using research on the distribution of biomass on Earth, we can estimate the numbers of different animals. The following table summarises the major groups:

Livestock (not including fish and invertebrates)10^10
Wild birds10^11
Wild mammals10^11 to 10^12
Cnidarians (e.g., jellyfish and anemones)10^16
Terrestrial arthropods (e.g., insects and spiders)10^18
Annelids (e.g., earthworms and leeches)10^18
Molluscs (e.g., snails and octopuses)10^18
Marine arthropods (e.g., crabs and shrimp)10^20
Nematodes (e.g., hookworms and pinworms)10^21

Visualising the magnitude of some of these numbers is very difficult. To give some indication, for each human alive on the planet today, there are an estimated 100,000 fish, 100 million molluscs, and 100 billion nematodes.

Are wild animals sentient?

Most of us care when we think other beings are suffering, recoiling when we see a beloved pet in pain. This is because we believe our pets can feel pain — we think they're sentient. What about wild animals?

Within the vertebrate animal groups, it's widely accepted by experts in neuroscience (and related disciplines) that mammals and birds are sentient and thus have the capacity to suffer.2 While fish sentience has been studied less, there is evidence to suggest they're comparably sentient, as they show many similarities in neurology and behaviour.3

The situation for invertebrates is more complicated. The category of invertebrate covers a vast range of different animals, and there are large differences in the complexity of their brains and nervous systems. Given a lack of available evidence, and the difficulty in understanding the subjective experience of others, it's difficult to draw conclusions. That said, as the numbers are so large, it may make sense to use the precautionary principle, and assume that animals in the wild have some level of sentience, until proven otherwise.4 This is especially true as new evidence continues to emerge for sentient-like behaviours in some invertebrates.

Suffering in the wild

Many of us think of nature as idyllic, and often admire its beauty. It's easy to think that wild animals lead carefree lives and do not experience much suffering. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth, and it's important we understand the harsher realities of life in the wild.

One example of this is the screwworm, a fly that lays its eggs in the wounds of mammals, especially white-tailed deer. This causes great suffering as the larvae feed on the flesh of the living animal, killing their host in about two weeks. Screwworms were so prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries that they decimated the populations of white-tailed deer by up to 80% in some regions, before they were wiped out by a successful government sterilisation program.

Such examples are common in nature; the reality is that animals in the wild experience suffering in many different ways, including:

All of these can result in physical injuries that go untreated. Finally, disease, weather conditions, and natural disasters can exacerbate these issues and cause their own problems.

There is a lot we don't know about suffering in the wild. For example, research into causes of death has particularly focused on adult, large-bodied mammals and birds. As most animals do not survive to maturity and die as juveniles, and smaller-bodied animals tend to produce larger numbers of offspring, there is a significant gap in our understanding of the suffering of the most abundant groups of animals.5

Is helping wild animals neglected?

Most organisations focused on wild animals do so through an ecological lens, particularly focused on preserving biodiversity. These groups are not focused on the welfare of individual wild animals in those populations, and it is not clear that improving or preserving biodiversity will affect their welfare (though there are other reasons to value biodiversity).

There are very few organisations that focus specifically on improving the welfare of wild animals, and it's likely that less than $10 million USD per year is spent on addressing this problem.6 Relative to other cause areas, this is a very small amount of funding. For reference, improving the welfare of farmed animals is a cause that we consider to be very neglected, and it currently receives an estimated $170 million USD annually. When compared with another of our high-priority cause areas, global health and development, funding for helping wild animals is smaller still — in 2019, state funding alone for global health was $22.4 billion USD.

Is helping wild animals tractable?

The tractability of this issue is currently unclear. Some direct work has been done that may have improved the welfare of wild animals (such as vaccination programmes), but these have emerged primarily as a way to benefit humans. Improving the welfare of wild animals for their own sake is a very new field, and very little progress has been made in terms of actual welfare improvements so far. Instead, wild animal welfare advocates are focused on conducting research to identify promising ways to help wild animals, and building up an academic field in order to encourage others to conduct more research. A steady stream of research into wild animal welfare could lead to interventions that can be tested and eventually implemented in the wild.

A core issue is the sheer complexity of intervening in wild ecosystems. An intervention that helps one species might have negative consequences for another. The risk of interventions backfiring seems high relative to less complex systems involving animals, such as factory farms.

How can we best help wild animals?

To date, there have been three main approaches to helping wild animals:

  1. Helping wild animals directly.
  2. Researching interventions to directly help wild animals.
  3. Building an academic field in welfare biology.

Helping wild animals directly

There are a few isolated examples in which we can take steps to improve the welfare of wild animals. These often occur at the boundaries of interaction between humans and other animals. Some aim to change human activity that negatively affects animals, such as improving the methods of slaughter for wild-caught fish. Others intervene in animal populations as a way to improve the lives of both humans and animals, such as vaccinating wild animals that may carry diseases that threaten human welfare.

On the whole, these approaches are far and few between, and do not necessarily target the areas where we expect the most suffering to be. More research is needed to further identify these areas.

Researching new interventions to help animals directly

For new interventions that could directly help wild animals, researchers' suggestions are highly specific, often targeting one species — for example, using birth control on pigeons in cities to reduce starvation from food scarcity. The majority of these specific interventions are either hypothetical or in the process of being studied, and have not yet been rolled out on a wide scale. This means that the question of tractability for direct interventions at this point is difficult to assess. The scope of ways in which wild animals could be helped is broad — each species will have its own unique sources of suffering, and each of those could plausibly be addressed by multiple interventions.

Therefore, there are few tractable solutions we can implement right now, but there are likely to be many solutions we could implement in the future. The difficulty is in knowing whether these interventions will be a net positive for wild animals.

Building an academic field in welfare biology

One focus that appears tractable is building welfare biology into an established academic field. Creating such an academic field will attract researchers to find interventions we could implement in the future. Over time, this should create more direct research being produced.

One of the main organisations working in wild animal welfare, Wild Animal Initiative, aims to achieve this with two streams:

  1. Outreach to existing academics in adjacent fields.
  2. Conducting its own foundational research to lay some groundwork from which the field can be built.

These steps are both tractable, but it's not certain whether they will result in an academic field that will one day help identify effective interventions to help wild animals.

Why might you not prioritise helping wild animals?

You are sceptical that we can help wild animals

Given the complexity of wild ecosystems, you may be sceptical that we can find ways to help animals without doing harm elsewhere in the ecosystem. As discussed, this is a very difficult issue to analyse. There is some promise in the few interventions identified so far that do not seem to affect the broader ecosystem. And while it is possible that it will be very difficult to discover more interventions that we are confident will improve the lives of wild animals, given the scale and neglectedness of the issue, we think this area is worth exploring.

You want your donation to have an immediate impact on animals

Improving the welfare of wild animals is a very new field. Most of the work being done on it is in the form of research and field-building. This won’t lead to change for wild animals until these efforts identify interventions that have a positive impact, which are then implemented at scale. It seems unlikely that this will be happening in the near future, and as such, there will be a delay between the donation and its impact. Thus it’s inherently riskier than donation options that have a more direct path to impact.

You believe that we should prioritise addressing suffering caused directly by humans

While there are some examples of human-caused wild-animal suffering,7 much of the suffering of wild animals is caused by "natural"8 phenomena. And while it is hard to disentangle the effects of human impact on the natural world, there are certainly more clear-cut cases of humans causing suffering to animals directly — most notably through factory farming.

Advocates for wild animal welfare have argued that the cause of suffering should not impact whether we have a moral obligation to address it, but this can be an unintuitive claim that some people do not agree with. Additionally, other considerations (such as tractability) may lead some to favour work that affects animals impacted directly by human actions.

For more information on animal suffering caused by humans, see our pages on advocating for farmed animal welfare and reducing the demand for animal products.

What are the best charities, organisations, and funds supporting wild animals?

You can donate to several promising programs working in this area via our donation platform. For our charity and fund recommendations, see our best charities page.

How else can you help?

Wild Animal Initiative has covered ways in which you can shape your career to help wild animals.

You could also consider volunteering with Faunalytics to summarise academic literature in wild animal welfare to inform other wild animal advocates.

Learn more

Our research

This page was written by Jamie Spurgeon. You can read our research notes to learn more about the work that went into this page.

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