Should humans try harder to protect even wild creatures from predators and disease? Should we care whether they live good lives? Some philosophers and scientists have an unorthodox answer.

The most emotionally difficult moment in Michelle Graham’s life was when five snakes in her lab died.

She had started a doctoral program studying jumping and flying snakes. There are several species of snakes that not only live in trees but can leap heroically from one to the next. Scientists still aren’t totally sure why they jump, but what Graham wanted to know was: How? How can an animal with no arms and no legs jump at all?

In hopes of observing them fly, her lab purchased from a reptile dealer several snakes collected in southeast Asia, then placed them in an improvised snake jungle gym fitted with GoPro cameras. The team wanted to learn how the snakes could curl up and then launch themselves toward tree branches and other targets, adjusting how they’re coiled to land each jump.

Graham loves animals. Horrified at the treatment of animals in factory farms and the torturous short lives they endured on their way to supermarkets and restaurants, she was, and still is, a vegan. She was comfortable, though, taking those snakes from the wild and putting them in her jungle gym, figuring that their life spent simply being observed would be no worse than in the wild. So she kept up her experiments.

And then, she recalls, it went “horribly wrong.”

Five snakes Graham’s research group purchased didn’t take well to life in captivity. One after another, they died, no matter what Graham and her colleagues tried to keep them going. “I felt like I killed them,” Graham says. The root biological cause of their deaths, whether starvation, stress, or illness, wasn’t important to her sense of guilt and responsibility. She bought them, and they died, and if she hadn’t bought them, they might have lived.

She was anguished by the loss. “I was thinking about quitting my PhD,” she recalls. She sought to figure out exactly what happened. “I needed to understand how stressed they were by the research I was doing,” Graham says. It was noninvasive, for the most part. “You still have to paint markers on the snake to track the body position over time, [which] involves holding them still. You have to move them around from one cage to another,” she explains. “How much does that bother them? What would their life have been like in the wild? Better or worse than it is in captivity?”

The short answer Graham got from the scientific literature was this: Nobody knows. Few people have studied what it’s like to be a wild animal. “I just felt really let down by how little the existing science told me about the welfare of these animals,” she says. “We know nothing about what their lives are like in the wild, from an animal-focused perspective.”

Graham is finishing up her PhD, but two years ago, she got a full-time job running a group called Wild Animal Initiative (WAI), which funds scientists interested in answering the questions that have long vexed her about animals in the wild: What brings them pain, and what brings them pleasure?

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