If you have any knowledge about animals kept in captivity for various purposes such as food, fur, or entertainment, you may assume that wild animals live extraordinary lives. In the vision of nature as a Garden of Eden, these animals thrive without any interference from humans. On the other hand, some people perceive wildlife as harsh and unforgiving. It has been famously said that nature is “red in tooth and claw” by poet Alfred Tennyson, suggesting that wild animals face constant challenges for survival, including the never-ending pursuit of food and shelter, diseases, and the ever-present threat of brutal death.
This viewpoint seems to dominate discussions on the ethics and welfare of wild animals, despite efforts by scholars like Yeo-Kwang Ng and Oscar Horta to challenge it. These scholars aim to debunk the notion that wild animals are solely victims of predators and other forms of harm. However, this opposing perspective can also be misleading. In a recent article, we argue that the reality of wild animal experiences lies somewhere in between these two extremes – and it is far better than commonly believed.
The general perception of the suffering of wild animals has been shaped by a focus on the circumstances surrounding their deaths, rather than considering the range of positive experiences they encounter throughout their lives. While death is certainly an unpleasant part of an animal’s existence, it is only a small fraction of their overall lifespan. Scientific studies have demonstrated that both humans and animals often experience reduced pain during moments of intense fear or injury, as adrenaline floods their systems to numb immediate sensations. This suggests that hunting experiences, although unpleasant, may not be as painful as they initially appear.
Furthermore, even if animals do suffer during their final moments, it should not solely define their overall well-being. Death, especially when faced with predators, is relatively short compared to an animal’s entire lifespan. For animals that follow reproductive strategies involving producing many offspring, most of whom are unlikely to survive to maturity, the balance between positive and negative experiences may be different. While some cases may lean towards the negative, it is crucial not to underestimate the potential for positive experiences during their time alive.
To accurately assess the quality of an animal’s life, we must consider their entire range of experiences rather than cherry-picking the negative aspects. While it is true that wild animals face numerous challenges such as hunting, starvation, disease, parasites, harsh weather conditions, and aggression from their own species, it is equally important to acknowledge the positive aspects of their lives. These include social interactions, eating, mating, restful moments, play, exploration, and experiencing things they enjoy such as sights, sounds, or smells.
One concept that holds significance here is the idea of the “joy of life” – a fundamental experience that all animals may possess, which inherently brings positivity. This joy of life is believed to provide animals with motivation, ensuring their survival. Humans often experience a lack of motivation and desire to move when feeling depressed, and the same could apply to animals. Being alive, understanding, exploring, and experiencing the world could potentially bring happiness to animals. When considering these factors, it becomes less clear that the lives of wild animals are universally worse, and it greatly depends on the interplay between positive and negative experiences, their duration, intensity, and how the animal perceives their significance. Additionally, different species may fare differently in this balance.
A superficial analysis of the lives of wild animals cannot provide meaningful conclusions about the overall balance. Instead, empirical research conducted in the field by organizations such as the Wild Animal Initiative is necessary to explore the intensity, duration, and impact of different experiences on wild animal well-being. This research can pave the way for more effective interventions, reducing widespread sources of suffering, such as disease outbreaks or pest control, while minimizing interference with positive experiences. Although more information is needed, there are compelling reasons to suspect that many, if not most, wild animals actually lead happy lives.
1. How do wild animals experience life compared to captive animals?
Wild animals in their natural habitats are believed to lead more fulfilling lives compared to those in captivity. They have the freedom to engage in natural behaviors, form social bonds, find food, and explore their surroundings. Captive animals often face limitations and restrictions that hinder their natural behaviors and well-being.
2. Do wild animals suffer significantly in their lives?
While there are undoubtedly challenges and moments of suffering in the lives of wild animals, it is important to consider the entirety of their experiences. Death, particularly in the context of predator-prey interactions, may be quick and intense but is relatively short compared to an animal’s overall lifespan. Additionally, animals may still experience joy, motivation, and positive interactions throughout their lives.
3. How can research on wildlife welfare help?
Research on wildlife welfare aims to understand the experiences of wild animals in more depth, considering both positive and negative aspects. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of their well-being, interventions can be designed to minimize sources of suffering while preserving positive experiences. This research can guide efforts to improve the welfare of wild animals and inform conservation strategies.
4. Is it possible for wild animals to lead happy lives?
While further research is needed to confirm this, there are compelling reasons to believe that many, if not most, wild animals experience happiness and lead fulfilling lives. The balance between positive and negative experiences, as well as the individual animal’s perception of their importance, plays a crucial role in determining their overall well-being.