[All views are my own and are not those of my employer.]
I think that animals matter morally, and I think that wild animals matter as much as domestic animals do. These are pretty controversial statements, but they’d take many blog posts to address, so I’m mostly going to be talking to an audience that agrees with me about both points.
One common objection I want to examine a little more closely is the “naturalness” objection– that it is ill-advised to interfere with the natural order of things, perhaps because there may be consequences that you are not capable of foreseeing. It’s true that interactions with nature often have unforeseen consequences. If you let your fertilizer run off into a lake, snails will have more to eat; the snails are a secondary host for a parasite that infects frogs; the parasite causes leg deformities in frogs. You wouldn’t guess that one of the consequences of fertilizing your crops is deformed frogs, but in reality it is.
The problem with this objection is that all landscapes are touched by humanity. The heaths of Scotland are a product of human intervention going back thousands of years. Human beings in the Pleistocene played a vitally important role (along with climate change) in the extinction of megafauna such as the mammoth. To get these ecosystems to return to an untouched state, one would have to wind back the clock not decades but millennia.
Furthermore, today in the United States, if something is untouched wilderness, it’s untouched wilderness because someone decided that that particular tract of land needed to be untouched wilderness and another tract over there could be safely transformed into condominiums. Natural parks and reserves are usually managed to allow outdoor recreation like hunting, fishing, wildlife photography, and hiking; national forests often allow logging and livestock grazing. And of course all areas– not matter how untouched– are affected by climate change, pollution, and other global changes that humans have wrought.
There just isn’t a natural wilderness unaffected by humans. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t make sense to argue about whether it would be a good idea to leave untouched wilderness alone, because there isn’t any. Because of our power, humans are already the stewards of nature. The only question is whether we will care about our charges’ happiness or neglect them. And the same management principles that are used to handle things like eutrophication can be used to handle issues of wild-animal suffering as well.
Unlike many anti-wild-animal-suffering advocates, I currently do not support destroying habitat. Partially, this is because I am not sure whether I care about insects. If you think insects are sufficiently morally important, there is an open-and-shut case for habitat destruction, because insect lives suck a lot and they are too tiny and numerous to manage. Since I have a high degree of uncertainty about whether they matter at all, and I wouldn’t care about them very much even if they did matter, I don’t view this as an open-and-shut argument.
I am very uncertain about the quality of life of the average wild bird or mammal. On one hand, they typically experience disease, fear, stress, and a painful death. On the other hand, they get a lot of opportunities to explore, play, engage in social interaction, and perform natural behaviors. I don’t think anyone really knows for certain; it’s simply not been studied enough. I’m also uncertain about the quality of life of the average bird or mammal, given predator removal, addition of food during winters or famines, population management through contraceptives or pain-minimizing hunting, vaccination programs, etc. With an ecologically informed, humane management strategy, is it possible to make wild animal lives worth living in a cost-effective way? I’m not sure.
Humans get a lot of benefits from the continued existence of wild ecosystems, ranging from wild food to climate regulation to their aesthetic value. These benefits disproportionately affect the global poor, who are more likely to eat bushmeat, more likely to be victims of climate change, and who get to look at nature like all the time. I am concerned that habitat destruction will cause grave harm to human beings. (This is a really good paper about the economic and well-being consequences of environmental damage, and I encourage interested people to read it.)
I am concerned about the effects of habitat destruction on currently existing animals. Habitat destruction often hurts the animals that live in the habitat: being burned alive because someone is doing slash-and-burn agriculture on your forest is not a pleasant death. Among animals who live in new, smaller habitats, there are edge effects, which are often harmful to the animal: for instance, edge effects increase the risk of fires in the Amazon rainforest, and they can also make animals more vulnerable to predation.
It is difficult to undestroy a habitat: once a species is extinct, it’s gone; a sufficiently small species will often go extinct even if conservation efforts are made to preserve it; destroying a habitat may involve physical changes that are difficult to reverse; many habitats are a product of decades if not centuries of succession which would have to be repeated. For this reason, I feel it is best to err on the side of not destroying habitat.
I think that in the long term the right attitude for anti-wild-animal-suffering advocates is something like conservation biology. Conservation biology successfully shifted US land management policy from “we care about things that benefit humans, like timber and hunting” to “we care about things that benefit humans AND biodiversity.” I think the end game for anti-wild-animal-suffering advocacy is to shift it to “we care about things that benefit humans AND biodiversity AND the wellbeing of the animals under our care.”
I think this might be the least difficult sell from a public-relations perspective. I think it triggers the whole “leave nature alone” intuition less if we advocate for the well-being of animals to be considered as part of land management, that is, in decisions about nature that humans are already making. I also think that this might enable us to ally more closely with hunters. Assuming that a hunter’s bullet is one of the least painful ways to die (which is not always true, but often is), anti-wild-animal-suffering advocates should promote a massive increase in hunting. Hunters also support some policies, such as providing supplemental food during winters, which conservationists typically disapprove of and which anti-wild-animal-suffering advocates might like.
I also think it might be one of the most effective ways of using activist dollars to help wild animals without destroying habitat, because we’d be focusing on changing the way that the US government spends its money. A single lobbying dollar can influence many more dollars of US government spending.
I have only looked into the history of conservation biology a little bit, but I think one of the key points of their success is combining activist energy with mainstream academic credibility. Conservation biology, in its early days, had many tenured professors whose research had had a lot of influence on the science of ecology, such as E. O. Wilson. Anti-wild-animal-suffering advocacy is distinctly lacking in academic credibility; the few academics interested in it are usually in unrelated fields like economics (Tyler Cowen, Yew-Kwang Ng) or philosophy (Oscar Horta). This is not only a problem for our ability to influence policymakers but also for our ability to understand what we want to influence them to do, which would probably involve a lot of careful ecological research that simply isn’t being performed.
Unfortunately, it may be more difficult to get biologists to be interested in animal welfare than it is in biodiversity, because the loss of biodiversity is a direct threat to the thing they’re studying. Nevertheless, I think that outreach to academic biologists is quite important. I also suggest that students who care about wild animal suffering and have an interest in biology strongly consider a career as an academic biologist specializing in wild-animal welfare.