"Many humans look at nature from an aesthetic perspective and think in terms of biodiversity and the health of ecosystems, but forget that the animals that inhabit these ecosystems are individuals and have their own needs. Disease, starvation, predation, ostracism, and sexual frustration are endemic in so-called healthy ecosystems. The great taboo in the animal rights movement is that most suffering is due to natural causes." ~ Albert, a dog in "Golden" by Nick Bostrom [1]

For utilitarians, animal suffering is worth caring about. Accordingly, many endeavour to reduce animal suffering, for example by becoming vegetarian. But many people have a blind spot for the suffering of wild animals.


In utilitarianism, wild animals ought not be painfully killed whether it is at the hands of humans, domesticated animals or other wild animals.

The Quality of Life in the Wild[edit | edit source]

It isn't at all clear that on the whole wild animals have very good lives. Certainly, there has been a lack of research into this area. At the very least, we need to know whether the natural world does create more suffering on net, and if it does, how much. We need to know which animals can suffer: mammals probably, but what about fish, reptiles, birds. Insects? Amoeba? It sounds ridiculous, but there are such enormous stakes here: Alan Dawrst estimates 10^18 insects on the planet. So, we must establish as a matter of urgency whether these organisms can suffer and if so, how we can prevent this.

Is the Hedonic Level of Wild Animals Above or Below Zero?[edit | edit source]

For a classical utilitarian, this is one of the most important questions in all science. If wild animals, on balance, flourish more than they suffer, then there should be made as many wild animals as possible, all else being equal. If the opposite is true, then the Earth should be made to sustain as little wildlife as possible. This has implications for a wide-range of questions. If we are able to, should we:

  • Minimize/maximize the number of wild animals on earth?
  • Eliminate animal farming?
  • Spread life in the universe?
  • Create new universes?

Causes of Wild Animal Suffering[edit | edit source]

Scarcity of resources, population growth and animal suffering[edit | edit source]

Unlike humans in wealthy countries, animals cannot store food and drink to ensure they never go without. The result is that animals are often exposed to the risk of hunger and thirst. This is especially the case for population that experience alternating seasons of abundance and scarcity. During the season in which resources are scarce, and the climate hostile, a significant share of the species' population may die of hunger, thirst or exposure.

Population growth seems to ensure that widespread wild animal suffering continues. Dawkins describes the equilibrium of population growth in the following passage:my opinion is

During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying from starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.[2]

Though this Malthusian outcome of scarcity, crowding and competition for survival are no longer the norm for humans, they remain the typical state of wild animals and this will not be easy to overcome.

For some species, particularly ones with small bodies, populations fluctuates rapidly year to year or within a year. These species are known as 'r-selected' and use the strategy of producing very large numbers of offspring, only a tiny fraction of which will survive to adulthood.[3] Individuals in these species are the most likely to have brief and harsh lives. Others known as 'K-selected' species, have populations that are typically quite constant and close to the maximum that the environment can bear. Their mortality rates are much lower. Relatively few individuals belong to K-selected species but we might be more optimistic about their lives. Whether overall there is more suffering than pleasure among wild animals should depend in large part on how many small animals there are relative to large ones, and how sentient they are relative to each other.

Parasites[edit | edit source]

It seems reasonable to assume that parasites cause much suffering. Parasites in humans can stay in a living host and cause sickness and pain for several years, potentially for a significant portion of the host's lifetime. For example, the tropical parasites described here seem to lead to debilitating and painful conditions. Perhaps the suffering is much less intense than suffering from predation, but because of the long duration it should be an important consideration. It is also possible that it decreases the host's welfare below zero.

How prevalent are parasites in the wild? According to wikipedia: "most hosts harbour few parasites, while a few hosts carry the vast majority of parasite individuals."[4] The conclusion to draw seems to be that only small minority of all animals suffer from parasites.

Of course, this also raises the issue of whether the suffering of the host can be outweighed by the welfare of the parasites, especially since the hosts that are worst off harbor the most parasites.

Predation[edit | edit source]


A Lioness about to catch its prey. In utilitarianism, this event, although natural, is terrible in proportion to the sentience of the prey.

Animals who don't die from thirst, sickness or starvation will face death by a predator. How bad are deaths from predation? The animals no not always die quickly, sometimes being eaten alive. When an elephant is predated, for example, in might take 30 minutes to die.[3]

Large cats, may well execute a fairly tidy, bloodless killing, but this does not always happen, plus some species – notably hyaenas and hunting dogs – seem to ordinarily take chunks out of the prey while it’s still very much alive. In some cases the prey dies from the resulting trauma and blood-loss, and not from tidy bites to its throat or vital organs. Let me add, by the way, that I’m basing these bold assertions on what I’ve read in books and seen on TV: I have no field experience[5]

Hyenas seem to sometimes eat their prey while it is still alive. Perhaps this even happens in many or most cases of predating hyenas. [6]. There are extremely graphic and disturbing videos that depict predation that seems like suffering comparable to the worst forms of human torture. [7]Lizards and flytraps eating living prey. The following prose also describes predation:

The lioness sinks her scimitar talons into the zebra's rump. They rip through the tough hide and anchor deep into the muscle. The startled animal lets out a loud bellow as its body hits the ground. An instant later the lioness releases her claws from its buttocks and sinks her teeth into the zebra's throat, choking off the sound of terror. Her canine teeth are long and sharp, but an animal as large as a zebra has a massive neck, with a thick layer of muscle beneath the skin, so although the teeth puncture the hide they are too short to reach any major blood vessels. She must therefore kill the zebra by asphyxiation, clamping her powerful jaws around its trachea (windpipe), cutting off the air to its lungs. It is a slow death. If this had been a small animal, say a Thomson's gazelle (Gazella thomsoni) the size of a large dog, she would have bitten it through the nape of the neck; her canine teeth would then have probably crushed the vertebrae or the base of the skull, causing instant death. As it is, the zebra's death throes will last five or six minutes.[McGowan, pp. 12-13]

Some predators kill their victims rather quickly, such as constrictor snakes that cut off their victims' air flow and induce unconsciousness within a minute or two,[eaten-alive] while others impose a more protracted death, such as hyenas that tear off chunks of ungulate flesh one bite at a time.[Kruuk] Wild dogs disembowel their prey,[McGowan, p. 22] venomous snakes cause internal bleeding and paralysis over the curse of several minutes,[McGowan, pp. 49] and crocodiles drown large animals in their jaws.[McGowan, pp. 43]

One snake-owner's guide explains, "Live mice will fight for their lives when they are seized, and will bite, kick and scratch for as long as they can."[Flank] Once captured, "The snake drenches the prey with saliva and eventually pulls it into the esophagus. From there, it uses its muscles to simultaneously crush the food and push it deeper into the digestive tract, where it is broken down for nutrients."[Perry] Prey may not die immediately after being swallowed, as is illustrated by the fact that some poisonous newts, after ingestion by a snake, excrete toxins to kill their captor so that they can crawl back out of its mouth.[McGowan, pp. 59] And regarding housecats, Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland remarked, "People who are appalled by the indiscriminate killing of wildlife by mechanisms such as leg-hold traps should recognize that the pain and suffering caused by cat predation is not dissimilar and the impacts of cat predation dwarf the impacts of trapping. [Sallinger][8]

Exposure[edit | edit source]

Animals can regulate their body temperatures and are suited to their climate, to an extent. Unfortunately this is not fool-proof and when temperatures rise very high or low, or water is not available, animals can get very hot or cold and potentially even die of exposure. Small animals have little trouble staying cool in hot weather due to their high surface to volume ratio, but have the opposite problem of struggling to stay warm in cold weather.

Can Insects Feel Pain?[edit | edit source]

Quotations and references are assembled here to support or oppose the hypothesis that insects and other lower invertebrates can suffer. From a review of invertebrate learning (pp. 473-76)[4]:

The progress achieved over the last 10-15 years in studying a wide variety of forms of learning in simple invertebrate animals is quite striking. There is now no question, for example, that associative learning is a common capacity in several invertebrate species. In fact, the higher-order features of learning seen in some invertebrates (notably bees and Limax) rivals that commonly observed in such star performers in the vertebrate laboratory as pigeons, rats, and rabbits.

[... We] have reason to hope that the distinction between vertebrate and invertebrate learning and memory is one that will diminish as our understanding of underlying mechanisms increases.Jennifer A. Mather[5]

The physiological systems that control responses to what we call pain mostly are universal across the animal kingdom, and snails often are used as models for such responses. Can we treat them as having sensations that resemble ours without being concerned for their welfare when they do?

Still, it is less easy to take that leap of faith and presume parallels with how you feel when the animal concerned is completely unlike you. Insects, for instance, can walk normally with a couple broken-off legs and survive with apparent unconcern as a parasite is eating them up inside, when presumably we would be in excruciating pain. Does that mean they cannot feel pain? I asked a friend who works with ants wha she thought about this apparent inability to feel the pain we do. She said that she spilled a drop of acetone on an ant by accident one day and that it had recoiled and tried to wipe the substance off its abdomen. Maybe it is still pain, just responding to different stimuli. Alternately, maybe it is just an automatic grooming reaction. Because nuclear radiation can kill us without our feeling a thing, humans too do not always respond with pain to possible tissue destruction.[6]

Futuristic Issues[edit | edit source]

For negative utilitarians and for classical utilitarians who believe that wild animals live lives not worth living, the notion that wildlife might be enlarged is concerning. In particular, there is a futuristic concern that humans could gain sufficient technology to seed biospheres on other planets. Another thought is that technology could create simulations of ecosystems. If these simulations become sufficiently advanced, maybe they will include these organisms' experiences. Thus, on other planets, or in the computers on our planet, the extent of suffering could be increased.

Possible Action[edit | edit source]

It is unquestionably difficult to act to reduce the suffering of wild animals. Interfering in ecosystems with present technology would have uncertain consequences. However, this may not continue to be the case as technology advances. One day, we may redesign ecosystems to reduce suffering. Thus, maybe we ought to raise concern for wild animals.

Concern for wild animal suffering may also change humanity's attitude towards developing in ways that reduce the size of the wilderness, such as clearing land for cities. In the future it might lead us to sponsor fewer parks in which to preserve the wilderness.

As detailed by Tyler Cowen in 'Policing Nature' (Part V), there are some ways humans could try to reduce predation in the wild that would not require them to do much more than they do already.[9] Of course, reduced predation may just result in population growth and more starvation, so as long as wild animals remain in a 'Malthusian trap', this kind of piecemeal approach may not be worthwhile.

Reasons to Encourage Concern for this Issue[edit | edit source]

  • To encourage our descendants to use technological advancements for the purpose of reducing wild-animal suffering here and elsewhere in the universe, and
  • To ensure that those descendants think carefully before engaging in actions like terraforming, directed panspermia, space colonisation, or lab-universe creation that would result in more wild animals existing.

What Would Success Look Like?[edit | edit source]

Wild-animal suffering becomes regarded by most people in the same way as human hunger or malaria are now: as a natural harm to be avoided if possible by human charity. Things that increase hunger and malaria are bad; similarly with the suffering of animals in nature.

To What Movements is This One Similar?[edit | edit source]

Concern for wild animals has something in common with past movements associated with:

  • Animal welfare and rights
  • Slavery and racism, which required expanding the sphere of moral concern
  • Deep ecology: a modern concern that few people used to care about
  • In vitro meat

How Might This Movement Spread?[edit | edit source]

In the long-term, the movement can grow by:

  • Word of mouth — talking to people
  • Books (a la Animal Liberation by Peter Singer)
  • Scholarly articles and conferences
  • Forum discussions
  • Videos, posters, slogans, pamphlets
  • Organizations

How Can This Movement Begin to Exist?[edit | edit source]

In the short-term, the movement needs to:

  • Find academic philosophers, environmental ethicists, neuroscientists, and animal-ethics scholars writing on topics related to this. Get them interested in wild-animal suffering and guide them in talking more about it.
  • Find interesting academics. Start with environmental ethics and suggest that wild-animal suffering be considered an important part of that.
  • Look for Environmental Ethics 101 courses: could this be covered as a topic in those?
  • Summarize their papers on your blog, or forums where you participate, or in Facebook posts.
  • Start conversations.
  • Promote awareness of how emotionally rich animal lives are.
  • Highlight the issue from the perspective of the arbitrariness of Darwinian selection, which is completely indifferent to the pain or happiness it brings to the individuals involved. Use this as a jumping-off point for Dawkins communities, transhumanists, ethics / biology students, etc.

References[edit | edit source]

Further Reading[edit | edit source]

The Importance of Wild Animal Suffering [10] : Talks about wild animal suffering in general, gives estimates of animals in the world, talks about policy for activists.

Reprogramming Predators [11]: David Pearce talks about a possible intervention into natural ecosystems.

Sentient Developments [12]: Hosts a series of posts with high level discussion in the comments from David Pearce.

Dawrst, Alan. "How Many Wild Animals Are There"

Dawrst, Alan. "Vegetarianism and Wild Animals

Pearce, David. "Hyenas and Baby Elephant"

Blog Posts[edit | edit source]

Caring About Wild Animals

Anissimov, Michael. "Charles Rubin on Reprogramming Predators"

Anissimov, Michael. "Reactions to the 'Reprogramming Predators' Piece"

Tomasik, Brian. "Caring about Animal Suffering

Tomasik, Brian. "Reactions to Animal Suffering"

Dawrst, Alan. "Worms in the Rain"

Videos[edit | edit source]

Horta, Oscar. On wild animal suffering.

Academic Pieces[edit | edit source]

  • Fink, Charles K. "The predation argument". Between the Species, 5 (2005).
  • Naess, Arne. "Should we try to relieve clear cases of extreme suffering in nature?". Pan Ecology, 6.1 (1991).
  • Sapontzis, Steve F. "Predation". Ethics and Animals, 5.2 (1984): 27-38.
  • And a more thorough bibliography here.

Speakers[edit | edit source]

Frequent lecturers on the issue[edit | edit source]
Other promising candidates[edit | edit source]

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