Wild animal welfare received its most far-reaching publicity yet in a new article from Vox. Reporter Dylan Matthews profiles Wild Animal Initiative Executive Director Michelle Graham, whose research on flying snakes raised questions she couldn’t answer.

“I just felt really let down by how little the existing science told me about the welfare of these animals. … We know nothing about what their lives are like in the wild, from an animal-focused perspective.”

Matthews recognizes that answering those questions will require a paradigm shift.

The entire history of conservation, and the field of environmental ethics that has grown around it, pushes us toward a view that accepts or even embraces the suffering of animals in the wild. … But a genuinely animal-focused perspective toward wild animals — one where snakes and birds and fish and rodents warrant care not because of their contributions to their ecosystems, but because they are beings worthy of moral concern in their own right — is rare in both science and animal advocacy.

Underscoring the novelty of this shift, the article points out important differences between wild animal welfare and biodiversity conservation:

“Traditional conservation might have this focus on maintaining the viability of species and preventing extinction, or maintaining these systems working for the sake of humans,” says Francisco Santiago-Ávila, an environmental ethicist at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “Whenever there has to be a decision made between the welfare and well-being of individual animals versus the viability of a certain population or human interests, the interests of individual animals usually get dismissed.”

Even compassionate conservation tends to only address animal suffering directly attributable to humans, whereas Wild Animal Initiative supports research to alleviate any kind of suffering that wild animals experience.

Though the scale of that ambition isn’t lost on Matthews, he acknowledges the opportunities for progress:

“We should reduce the suffering of the literally trillions of animals living in the wild” is a utopian idea … [But] Wild Animal Initiative has taken a pragmatist turn. Graham and others want to answer more basic questions: What sort of factors make for a good life for a jumping snake? What’s it like to live as an owl in a city? They’re trying to do the groundwork for interventions that do more good than harm.

Wild Animal Initiative is a nonprofit dedicated to finding evidence-backed ways to improve the lives of animals in the wild. We rely on donations to fund critical research.

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Updated 4/21/21 to change post title

Updated 4/22/21 to clarify that this is crossposted from WAI's blog

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I feel a bit bad about my other comment being the first and only comment here, because while I stand by what I said there I also think this coverage is great news and WAI is totally justified in being really excited about it. So, congratulations!

Hollis here from Wild Animal Initiative! Our thinking behind posting this on the EA Forum:

  • We think this is an exciting development in the wild animal welfare cause area.
  • There may be forum users who are interested but would not have heard about the article through other channels.
  • On a previous linkpost, we were asked to include some of the linked text in the body of the post. I copied the text from our blog into this post, but I didn't make it clear that it was crossposted when I first published it.

I've added a link to make it clearer that this wasn't originally written for the forum. We only want to post things here that are relevant and useful to the community, so we welcome your feedback!

I'd be interested in getting others' takes here, but as currently phrased this post feels a bit too much like marketing / propaganda for me to be comfortable with it as a post on this Forum.

(I continue to be very supportive of WAI's mission, methods, and staff.)

FWIW, I can see where you're coming from but I think for me personally these kind of posts are overall net good. The key thing is making me aware that some new piece has been published, which may be interesting for various use cases. (E.g. currently I'm designing an EA seminar series.) I don't care much about how the post is phrased, I get all the relevant info from the title + link.

Tbc, it seems very possible to me that there would be another way for me to get such information that doesn't take up Forum space or comes with other costs.

I think this post should be on the Forum and doesn't feel too much like marketing/propaganda to me. I wouldn't have known about this article if not for WAI posting about it.

I guess if we start getting way too many (i.e. more than 4 a day across different orgs?) of these positive self-posts by organizations on the forum, we should start getting concerned, but I don't think we're close to that point yet.

Yeah, to be clear I'm happy for EA and EA-adjacent orgs to publish news they're excited about on the Forum, and this certainly qualifies.

Something about the phrasing does bug me, but I'm not sure exactly what. This could be explained by WAI copying phrasing from another source (e.g. promotional material) to make this post, which would be understandable as a time-saver.

Hi Will, Hollis here! You're correct, this is crossposted from our blog, which has a different tone from most EA Forum posts. I've added a note and a link above to clarify.