Dear Science: Can we help wild animals?

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In a recent Washington Post article titled, “Dear Science: If an animal is lost or injured, why shouldn’t I help it?”, we see the unquestioned refrain that we should let nature take its course, leaving someone who is suffering to their fate.

The authors of the Washington Post article begin with a reasonable approach, saying that it can be difficult to assess whether our impact is harmful or helpful. For example, some young animals who look lost or abandoned actually are not. In cases like these, figuring out how to help the individual animal can be difficult. For these few paragraphs, the authors seem mostly concerned with the welfare of the animals.

Unfortunately, the broken record begins to play when the authors consider the bigger picture. They completely let go of the welfare question and begin calculating in terms of abstract entities like species. The authors bolster their advice with a claim that it’s “what the science has to say,” but few scientists would suggest science can answer ethical questions like whether a species matters more than individuals.

The well-being of sentient creatures seems much more important than the preservation of any of their lineages. If you had to escape a burning house and could either save the residents, or an exceptionally beautiful painting (with no donatable resale value), would you ever choose the painting? A species is not sentient, so why would we prioritize it over the needs of sentient beings?

Because it’s individuals who matter, the authors’ assumption that conservation is the sole measure of morality when intervening in the wild seems misguided. If we are optimizing for conserving a species, are we doing the most we can for the individuals that species is comprised of (and the other individuals we are impacting)? As the authors state, “aiding animals is sometimes antithetical to the notion of conservation.” That is probably true, and it only means we need more research on how conservation actually affects wild animals’ welfare, because we could be doing more harm than good.

The authors appeal to the fact that today’s extinctions are primarily human-caused, but that doesn’t make species conservation more important than animal suffering, and neither does the observation that “individual animals die from natural causes all the time.” If someone is suffering and dying, it makes no difference to her whether that’s caused by humans or a natural process. Either way, she suffers.

The focus on individuals’ welfare is obvious in the human case. If someone is suffering in extreme poverty in a geographically isolated community, and that community is struck by a drought, we don’t resign to let nature take its course with them — we readily (and rightly) offer our assistance. Of course, we should ask the people in need for more information about those needs, and carefully consider the potential indirect impacts of our intervention, but we would ultimately be focused on the wellbeing of those individuals. We need to show wild animals the same compassion.

A final important point is that human civilization does not exist in a vacuum separated from the rest of the world — we affect the natural world with everything we do. We redesign ecosystems and affect massive numbers of animals with agriculture and the construction of our cities. Anthropogenic climate change will transform the planet’s landscape. Because ecosystems are very complicated, it is difficult to fully assess any intervention, so we have cause to be cautious and thorough when we intervene — whether we do so in the interests of the animals or ourselves. There are so many animals suffering in the wild, and our actions will affect them either way, so it is important for us to expand our scientific study of wild animal suffering and potential ways to help them.


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