by Brian Tomasik
First written: 24 June 2013; last update: 17 Dec. 2016
Here are some ways to get involved with spreading concern for wild-animal suffering. If you have additional suggestions, please let me know. If you would like to help out, contact me to coordinate. Thanks!
- 1 Summary
- 2 Applied welfare biology
- 3 Survey on the relationship between animal rights and environmentalism
- 4 Talking with grad students and professors
- 5 Outreach
- 6 Opposing live-fed prey
- 7 Evaluating these approaches
- 8 Should you go to grad school in ecology?
- 9 Footnotes
Applied welfare biology
There are many environmental choices made by both individuals and governments that have major repercussions for wild animals. We can explore which policies are beneficial to wild animals and encourage them. In doing this analysis, we need to be careful to also consider implications for global stability and intrinsic values that other people care about. Many conclusions in applied welfare biology tend to favor habitat loss, which unfortunately may often conflict with international peace and deep-ecological intuitions. It would be good to explore whether there are cases where animal welfare aligns with these other values. For a long list of potential topics to study, see "Applied Welfare Biology and Why Wild-Animal Advocates Should Focus on Not Spreading Nature."
One area in particular where I think more progress can be made easily is to improve my rudimentary research into which types of plant foods are better than others from the perspective of wild-animal suffering.
Survey on the relationship between animal rights and environmentalism
Currently I'm worried about the possibility that conventional animal activism might cause harm to wild animals by increasing support for wilderness preservation and notions of human non-interference with animal autonomy. I've outlined a survey to help explore this crucial question. I consider this sufficiently important that I would pay for someone to carry out this project.
Talking with grad students and professors
When you browse through any ecology journal, you find copious research relevant to wild-animal suffering: Population dynamics, r selection, lifespans, causes of mortality, etc. Almost no one has drawn the link from this to calculations about wild-animal suffering, but the fruit is ripe and ready to be picked. It's easy to imagine making a whole academic career out of this. Eventually, in Yew-Kwang Ng's vision, welfare biology could become its own discipline, like welfare economics.
You could write to grad students, professors, undergraduates, or other scholars in the fields of ecology, environmental ethics, philosophy, ethology, entomology, neuroscience, and so on, to see if you can interest any of them in these kinds of questions or see if they know others who might be inclined in this direction. You can find directories (like this) of grad students in a research program. Make sure your emails are personalized and non-spammy, or else you'll probably cause more harm than good. Start out by asking questions rather than promoting your agenda.
I've done this for entomology professors at various universities. Here's a snippet from one email:
I'm interested in studying whether some insect-control methods cause less pain to insects than others. (Assuming insects can feel pain, which is questionable but not too unlikely, IMO.)
For example, what's the relative painfulness of chemical neurotoxins vs. biological control by predators/parasites vs. insect growth regulators, etc.? If you were an insect, how would you most and least like to be killed?
Probably 1/3 of professors wrote back, and some actually gave very useful information. Contacting people serves two purposes: (1) Learning more about the topic and (2) encouraging the person you ask to think about it as well, with some remote chance it could lead him/her or someone he/she knows to look into the issue in greater detail. Building a network of knowledgeable scientists is useful.
Conventional "wild animal" issues not always positive
There is some existing research and advocacy in the realm of "wild animal" issues. Alas, these efforts may often be more harmful than helpful. "Defending" wild animals, in the eyes of traditional animal advocates, often means preserving their habitats and allowing greater numbers of them to be born.
Alternatively, it may mean stopping humans from reducing predator populations. There are in fact whole organizations, such as Predator Defense and Project Coyote, devoted to making sure that predators can continue to brutally tear apart the flesh of large numbers of prey animals. We can think of similar campaigns to defend polar bears, seals, tigers, dolphins, and many other ferocious killers. Note that it seems likely that maintaining predators is bad for wild animals on the whole, because lower populations of large herbivores may result in many more smaller, more r-selected animals eating the same food. So these predator-preserving efforts probably can't even be justified with far-sighted rational arguments. The best that can be said of them is that they help combat speciesist prejudices.
So when we encourage academics and advocates to work on issues related to wild-animal suffering, it's important to be clear what we mean by that, rather than what people might assume from a first-glance reading. At the same time, we also don't want to push too far against conservation in cases where environmentalism is actually important for global stability and international cooperation.
There are many possible venues for an introductory article about the importance of wild-animal suffering and why we should expect suffering to dominate happiness in the wild.
It could be on a popular blog, an animal-welfare newsletter, or other publications that have a large readership of people who are influential and might take the message seriously. In the long run, we might shoot for a New York Times-quality publication, perhaps co-authored with a famous person.
One can also write scholarly articles, again possibly coauthored with an established academic if that helps. These might reach fewer people but might also have more authority.
Consider writing a journalistic article on an issue relevant to wild animals for submission to a real magazine, newspaper, or editorial site. Not only might this allow you to reach a large audience, but in the process of conducting interviews for the piece, you can implicitly put the idea of wild-animal ethics in the heads of the experts whom you contact.
Readings on wild-animal suffering could be incorporated into Environmental Ethics 101.
Other outreach methods
- Talk with your friends
- Forums, Facebook, Quora, etc.
- Create a YouTube video
- Run online ads.
People love to read stories, and we often connect best to someone else by getting to know him/her through his/her stories. It's hard not to care about someone once you meet him/her. Wild animals can't write their stories for us, but we can imagine ourselves in their positions. You could compose and publicize a compelling narrative of the short life and painful death of an insect or minnow. Including the horror of being eaten alive, or starving, or being crushed would make the story more accurate than the cheerful accounts most of us may have read in children's books about wild animals.
Another option is to create parables against status-quo bias in nature, similar to Nick Bostrom's
Humans tend to regard small animals like mice as disposable. They don't think much when birds eat mice, nor when feeding mice to pet snakes. I think one particularly compelling story would be to portray a world in which humans are the prey of a larger creature -- say, large snakes -- and then ask whether giants would have an obligation to save humans from the snakes. The giants might say, "Nature has always been this way, and the snakes need to survive somehow." Perhaps some of the giants would feed humans to their pet snakes -- live, of course, because the snakes wouldn't eat them dead. If a story like this were written in a compelling way, it could be a powerful challenge to people's intuitions about predation on smaller creatures.
That said, there are already many books and movies in which humans are the prey of monsters, aliens, dinosaurs, etc. That these stories don't seem to have made much impact on sentiments about non-human predation might weaken our estimated value of such stories.
Opposing live-fed prey
Many owners of reptiles and amphibians feed their pets live prey -- live insects, live mice, etc. I don't know how many reptile pets there are in the United States, but suppose there's one mice-eating reptile pet for every 100 Americans. This rate might seem high, but keep in mind that some people may own many such reptiles at once. One source estimates that "a large sand boa can thrive on approximately 30 mice per year." Another source explains: "Calculations of the energy requirements of snakes suggest that a snake weighing 0.5 kg (1 pound) could survive on 20-40 mice per year. However, certain kinds of snakes such as whipsnakes and racers appear to require nearly twice as much food in order to achieve normal growth and reproduction." So let's say a snake needs 30 mice per year. I'll conjecture that about half of all mice are fed live and the rest are pre-killed. This suggests a total of about (316 million Americans) * (1% mice-eating reptiles) * (30 mice/reptile-year) * (1/2 live mice) = ~47 million live mice per year. That's a small number compared with nearly 10 billion chickens killed in the US per year, but it's closer to the number of mice used in laboratories. Plus, being eaten by a snake sounds to me like a worse death than being killed in a lab or slaughterhouse.
In any case, the live-fed prey issue may have broader significance. I can't recall ever seeing an animal-advocacy campaign against live-fed mice. I suspect this is partly because people have the intuition that if a snake needs live prey, then it's okay for it to eat live mice because this is "natural" and necessary for survival.a Challenging this assumption would help challenge the corresponding assumption about wild predators. If reptiles can't eat pre-killed prey, then people shouldn't own them.
I don't claim that such a campaign would be optimally effective. Unlike the case of humane farm-animal slaughter, it's not possible to lobby a few central processors. And legislation against live-feeding mice seems virtually impossible. I mainly raise this issue because of its relevance to wild animals and its apparent neglect by the animal movement.
Evaluating these approaches
It's good to try several outreach strategies in order to see which ones bear the most fruit. It helps if you report back on what you've tried so that we can learn from the experience and avoid duplication. Thanks again for caring about this topic!
Should you go to grad school in ecology?
I'm often asked by people who want to research applied welfare biology: "Should I get a PhD in ecology first?" I think it's generally unwise to get a PhD (or advanced degree of any kind) right away. I think it's better to work in a field for a few years to make sure you want to do that kind of work in the longer term and then only consider the advanced degree once your long-term plans have solidified. You'll probably change your career path, so it's better to produce some lasting value now by doing direct research than by studying for a few years only to do something else later.
Applied welfare biology is at such an early stage that it doesn't require PhD-level expertise to make important contributions. There's already an abundance of published data to draw from, and basic ecological models don't require that much background knowledge to understand, especially for people with a quantitative background.
What about credibility? Isn't a PhD important for being taken seriously? I think credibility is somewhat less important at this stage than actually making progress on the hard questions, of which there has been very little exploration so far. Peer review in journals is theoretically double-blind, so your lack of formal credentials can't directly hurt your ability to publish articles. If the endorsement of credible scientists becomes more relevant down the road, it'd be easier to recruit existing ecologists than to become one yourself.
Still, I don't rule out the possibility that getting an ecology PhD could be an optimal long-term direction for some people. But I think it's better to test the waters before jumping in. Graduate school entails a teaching load (potentially 10-30 hours/week), and you might be required to focus on projects that your advisor finds interesting rather than those you want to pursue. It's also unclear how much leeway an ecology department would allow for research on wild-animal suffering, which includes an inevitable normative dimension that may be unwelcome in a scientific discipline.
Short-term vs. long-term planning
My advice in this section reflects a more general heuristic of mine, which is that being a greedy algorithm is often wise, except in very stable domains like saving for retirement. Life is chaotic, and it's likely that a few years from now, you'll choose to do something other than what you plan to do now. Making elaborate, long-term plans is setting yourself up for future sunk costs when the landscape changes. Instead, I favor spending ~80% of your time on whatever project you think is most directly useful right now. This will not only accomplish some short-term results, but it will also help you learn more about whether your long-term plans make sense or should be revised toward a new direction. With the remaining ~20% of your time, you might focus on long-term learning and skill building, to find out whether your greedy focus on immediate results in one domain is short-sighted.
In a podcast that I can't now recall, someone discussed the Stanford marshmallow experiment. "In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned." Normally we give praise to those kids who hold out for two marshmallows later on. But, the podcast speaker noted, we should think about why people have evolved to be inclined to eat the one marshmallow now: It's because in the human ancestral environment -- where stored goods could easily rot or get stolen -- life was sufficiently unstable that seeking immediate gratification was generally more effective. A similar thing may apply to low-income human communities where crime rates, unemployment, etc. are high. And I suspect that when you're young and exploring career options, your future also resembles the ancestral environment, which suggests that you're better off being short-sighted in many cases.