Scientists’ attitudes towards improving the welfare of animals in the wild: a qualitative study

by Animal_Ethics 4 min read12th Feb 20201 comment

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Cross-posted from the Animal Ethics blog.

Animals in the wild face man situations in which they suffer, sometimes greatly. While in many cases they are being helped, much more could be done for them. More research is needed to allow us to plan adequate interventions having a net-positive effect for all the animals directly and indirectly affected.

In addition, academic research in this field is needed for another, more important reason. For the wellbeing and suffering of animals in the wild to be considered a serious subject by the relevant agents — policy makers, researchers in life sciences, and eventually the general public — it seems necessary that its study becomes well established in academia.

To find promising courses of action to promote such research, Animal Ethics has carried out a qualitative study to assess the perceptions and attitudes that life scientists have towards it, as well as about other related issues. The study uses interviews with scholars and researchers working in biology, veterinary science, and environmental studies.

Interviewees were asked about their understanding of wild animal suffering and their views of different ways of helping animals in need of aid in the wild. They were also asked about the interest, opportunities, and barriers for research in this area. The results of this research helped us design another study consisting of a survey given to scholars and students, which we will publish in a few weeks. These findings will complement the results we are publishing now.

The present qualitative study will be useful to people interested in helping wild animals and, especially, in promoting academic research about it.

The study can be downloaded here (below is the executive summary):

Scientists’ attitudes towards improving the welfare of animals in the wild: a qualitative study

Executive summary

Background

Most work carried out by animal welfare scientists has focused on animals directly affected by humans. Biologists, especially ecologists, have examined the lives of wild animals from different perspectives, but rarely from the point of view of their wellbeing. However, there has been growing interest in recent years on this issue. It has been argued that a new field of research examining this question should be promoted. This new field, tentatively named “welfare biology,” would integrate knowledge from the sciences of animal welfare, biology, and other disciplines in ways that could inform policies that would positively affect the wellbeing of wild animals in different ecosystems.

Objectives

The object of this study was to identify some current perspectives about this new research and the best ways to promote it. To investigate these questions, the project was aimed at gaining knowledge about the following:

  • The perceptions and attitudes held by those who work in the fields of biology, veterinary science, and related fields towards (1) the suffering and wellbeing of wild animals and (2) efforts to reduce their suffering.
  • Research topics related to helping wild animals that are likely to be considered worthwhile by natural scientists. The following were considered in particular: rescues of animals affected by severe weather events, supplemental feeding, population control, vaccination programs, and deparasitation.
  • The current possibilities in academia to conduct such research, and the interest, barriers, and opportunities.
  • Recommendations by scientists about how to foster research in this field.
Methodology

A qualitative approach was used. We interviewed 15 experts in biology, veterinary science, and environmental studies coming from the UK, the USA, Southern Europe (Spain), German speaking countries (Germany and Switzerland) and Latin America (Mexico and Brazil), and carried out a discourse analysis of their responses.

Results

The interviews indicated a lack of familiarity, especially among biologists, but also to some extent among veterinary scientists, with the suffering of wild animals. The biologists were not very familiar with animal welfare science and its methods.

We detected no clear ranking of the level of support that different interventions to aid animals in the wild receive. Population control was generally approved, especially when killing is seen as the alternative, though this did not always mean support for the proposed measure. Rescuing animals in natural disasters, providing them food during severe weather events, and vaccination were acceptable to many and generally supported to a similar extent, with deparasitation getting only slightly less support.

Several types of responses were repeated for different interventions. Some respondents expressed unqualified support for the measures while others rejected them outright. Most participants expressed support for most of the ways of helping wild animals, but only under certain circumstances. The conditions that were stressed most were if the original source of harm was anthropogenic and if the intervention was backed by sound research indicating it would not have negative effects that might outweigh the benefits.

Concerning what kind of interventions it would be best to promote, one suggestion was that fostering work aimed at improving the wellbeing of animals in urban environments would be particularly promising. Participants also suggested that it would be best to start with forms of helping animals in which there is also an interest in research for other reasons. Vaccination was explicitly mentioned as promising in this respect. This is because, in addition to aiding animals, it can prevent the spread of diseases to humans and domesticated animals. It is also an intervention that has been carried out for a long time and on which a significant amount of research is already being done. Another suggestion was to start with forms of helping animals in which indirectly anthropogenic factors may also be involved. Aiding animals in need of help due to harmful weather events was cited as an example of this, because it is becoming increasingly uncertain whether the weather events negatively impacting animals in the wild might ultimately have a human cause. It was also pointed out that it would be more productive to start research on the issue with specific and well monitored cases.

Informants also identified some important barriers to working in this field, including lack of funding and epistemic challenges concerning the study of the wellbeing of animals. However, the most important obstacle that came up in the interviews was probably the lack of attention paid to individual animals within the currently prevalent paradigm in biology. Additionally, the veterinary scientists appear to share some of the values the biologists have, although to a lesser extent. In fact, not all veterinary scientists are fully familiar with animal welfare science, let alone wild animal suffering.

In relation to this, it was suggested that investing in younger people in academia might be more cost-effective than focusing on scientists with established careers, as the former are more open to new ideas and more interested in exploring new areas of research. Finally, it was also mentioned that the promotion of cross-disciplinary work may be promising in order to help overcome the lack of familiarity with animal welfare science among biologists, in addition to being necessary for the examination of the factors affecting the wellbeing of animals in the wild.

Limitations

One limitation of this study is that, due to sample size reasons, the interviewees’ views may not be representative of those of other scientists , although the responses we got were quite diverse. A more important limitation may be the fact that some of the respondents did not properly understand what wild animal suffering or even animal welfare is, and sometimes confused measures aimed at helping animals with interventions carried out for conservationist aims. This reduced the value and reliability of their responses about such interventions.

Recommendations

Several recommendations can be made about how to promote concern and research about the wellbeing of animals living outside human control. In addition to the promotion of further discussion about wild animal welfare among biologists, veterinary scientists, and scholars in related fields, the following recommendations can be made for courses of action to help foster research in welfare biology:

  • Providing training in animal welfare science for biologists, especially ecologists
  • Providing funding for academic work on this topic, targeting young researchers in particular
  • Promoting research on wild animal health (for example, the development of new treatments or vaccines)
  • Promoting research combining a wild animal welfare and an urban ecology approach to helping improve the wellbeing of wild animals in urban environments
  • Promoting research on the ways to help wild animals harmed by severe weather events
  • Favoring the promotion of research with a cross-disciplinary approach by combining the contributions from the sciences of animal welfare and biology

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