Wild Animal Welfare Meetup (Spring 2020)

by Wild_Animal_Initiative14 min read23rd Apr 20203 comments

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Wild Animal Initiative, Animal Ethics, and Rethink Priorities co-hosted a virtual wild animal welfare meetup on April 12, 2020. These are rough notes taken during the event. Multiple participants contributed to note-taking. The notes have been lightly edited for readability, and in a few cases sensitive information has been removed. They don’t necessarily represent the considered positions of the organizations that hosted or participated in the event.

Session 1: Introduction to the cause area and organizations

Introduction to wild animal suffering (Oscar Horta, Animal Ethics co-founder)

  1. Two key questions in wild animal suffering
    • Ethical: What are our responsibilities to wild animals?
    • Empirical: What’s going on in the wild?
  2. Unclear how widespread suffering is in the wild, but life is likely not idyllic
    • Animals face disease, natural disasters, harmful weather conditions, disease, accidents, parasitism, etc.
    • There’s also an argument from reproductive strategies which points out that many animals in the wild may have net-negative lives (it is uncertain to what extent)
  3. People have been helping wild animals in a range of ways, demonstrating tractability
    • Individuals saving animals in need of aid
    • Rescue centers and wild animal hospitals
    • Vaccinations
  4. More could be done
    • Urban animals could be an easy target for more assistance
    • Pilot programs aimed at reducing the harms suffered by animals in certain areas could be initiated
  5. The ethical question
    • We recognize that there is more we could do
    • Animals are deserving of our help and consideration
    • These considerations, together with the scale and neglectedness of the cause, make work in it important

Animal Ethics (Cyndi Rook, Animal Ethics Executive Director)

  1. Achieve a better world for all sentient beings
  2. Antispeciesist organization
  3. AE focuses on promoting both theoretical and practical work for the long-term benefit of nonhuman animals
  4. Conducts a range of outreach activities
    • Social media and website material in multiple languages
    • Working on promoting research at the intersection of the sciences of animal welfare and ecology, focusing on areas that both researchers and the general public will find appealing
    • Have conducted research on how scientists perceive various potential wild animal suffering efforts. This work highlighted three potential strong areas of work
      • Urban animals
      • Vaccination
      • Natural disasters/weather conditions.
    • Releasing a free online video course and have released a guide about how best to advocate for wild animals
  5. Research
    • What are the best ways for outside groups to spread antispeciesism in other countries, critically India and China?
    • We aim to promote more research about wild animal suffering, encouraging further efforts by larger institutions with more resources
    • Have also funded small-scale work that can help encourage extra research and build public support
    • Study of common causes of death of animals brought to wild animal shelters in Greece
    • Research on frameworks for welfare-based decision making for stranded whales at Massey University, NZ
      • Ways wild animals are affected by forest fires, by a postdoc at the Autonomous University of Madrid
      • Gather analysis on causes of harm to wild animals across Canada. How does harm/mortality vary across a range of characteristics?, by a postdoc at the University of Guelph.
      • Assessing existing methods to help animals in floods

Wild Animal Initiative (Cameron Meyer Shorb, Wild Animal Initiative Deputy Director)

  1. Theory of change
    • Many animals live in the wild, huge opportunity to help animals.
    • Need to understand a lot more about which animals are sentient, what their lives are like, and what humans can do to help them
    • Core part of answering those questions: having a strong scientific community.
    • Main focus: encouraging more research on this broad area of “welfare biology”
      • Research area drawing on many disciplines to address these questions.
  2. Three main programs
    • Our own internal research: research team focuses on questions that demonstrate the diversity of welfare biology, highlight key themes, and leverage our existing expertise
    • Outreach: we talk about our research with activists and researchers in the field
    • Grant assistance program
      • Helping researchers get more funding for wild animal welfare research
      • We have relationships with some funders to whom we can introduce researchers, we aim to use experiment.com, provide assistance to researchers to identify promising mainstream grant opportunities

Rethink Priorities (Peter Hurford, Rethink Priorities Co-Executive Director)

  1. Think tank dedicated to figuring out the best ways to make the world a better place. 7.5 full-time equivalents on staff. Do research on improving the lives of wild and farmed animals. They also work in some non-animal cause areas
  2. Wild animal work mainly done by Dr. Kim Cuddington, PhD in Zoology and faculty at Waterloo.
  3. Mainly has focused on understanding invertebrate welfare and sentience, and also the life history of wild animals.
  4. Future research will focus on looking at different types of wild animal deaths. Which animals should be the priority and how can we act to help them?
  5. Also looking at moral weight, taking both empirical and philosophical angles
    • How do we trade-off on opportunities to help different animals?
    • Empirically, what things actually help animals?
  6. Philosophy research mainly conducted by Jason Schukraft, PhD in Philosophy.

Q&A

  1. How close are we to a welfare biology journal?
    • Michelle Graham, Wild Animal Initiative Executive Director: Maybe 4-15 years
    • Oscar: My guess is it will happen in the early 2030s
  2. How many academics are interested in working on this?
    • Michelle: Only a few right now that are explicitly interested in this field for all the same reasons as we are, but many that are doing helpful research in related fields (e.g., disease ecology, wildlife contraceptives, population modeling, etc.)
  3. Are you more funding- or talent-constrained?
    • Oscar: There are lots of researchers out there who would work on this if we offered them funding to do so.
    • Michelle: Wild Animal Initiative is primarily funding-constrained. Hiring can also be challenging, but not as much.
    • Peter: Funding-constrained. We have had to turn away talented people we didn’t have the funds to hire.

Session 2: Breakout groups

Effective Altruism community

  1. What do EAs currently think of wild animal welfare work?
    • General perceptions
      • A lot of interest, decently mainstream, doesn’t see anyone taken aback by wild animal welfare work, no real opposition
      • Used to be very very out there, doesn’t seem to be the case anymore
      • Some funding, but not people to take up the funding
      • Broad support but support is shallow
      • A lot smaller of a cause area compared to other cause areas (e.g., farmed animal welfare, global health)
        • ACE money moved is a multiple of total spending on wild animal welfare spending
        • OpenPhil doesn’t really do grants in wild animal space
    • Concerns
      • Animal work may be dominated by farmed animals
      • As interest in wild animal grows, could come at the cost of farmed animal welfare work
      • Lack of tractability
    • Why is wild animal welfare so small?
      • People who don’t want to fund or support wild animal welfare don’t really say why
      • Existing funders are already funding existing groups as much as they think they can, might be willing to fund new groups
      • Large pre-existing farmed animal movement that intersected with EAs
      • Wild animal welfare is newer
      • Lack of tractability, again - too many unanswered research questions
        • Analogy to AI and longtermism?
          • A lot more enthusiasm to tackle longtermist questions than wild animal welfare questions
    • Trade-offs
      • More longtermist people gravitate towards x-risk and shorttermist people stay with global health and farmed animal welfare?
      • Trade-off between farmed and wild animal welfare
        • What is the trade-off between wild and farmed animal welfare work?
        • How do these cause areas coexist?
        • Should we be concerned about undermining farmed animal welfare work?
          • Perception that there is only so much room for animals in EA
  2. What do we want EAs to think of wild animal welfare work?
    • Would like wild animal welfare to have a larger seat at the table, but this might be hard because of the shorttermist/longtermist problem
  3. How do we get from here to there?
    • Should we try to convince longtermists to think about animals? Convince shorttermists to embrace the uncertainty and lack of tractability?
    • Longtermist case for moral circle expansion
    • Convince OpenPhil?
    • Things have changed a lot over the past three years and may change a lot over the next three years

Animal advocacy community

  1. How could wild animal welfare be spread within traditional animal advocacy?
    • There is confusion among animal advocates about what is meant by wild animal welfare. Many groups view Sierra Club, WWF, etc. as wild animal welfare. Wild animal welfare advocates could make their views better understood by other animal advocates
    • Researching interventions that help both farmed and wild animals (example, reducing sea lice infestations on salmon). Working with animal conservation groups who already impact welfare
    • Addressing the appeal-to-nature fallacy that is present within animal space - barrier to making progress in this community
    • A few ways to approach this found to be effective by Animal Ethics: try to get a message out that is “try not to harm and try to help when we can." Consistent with the views of many animal activists. AE has found it easier than talking about behavioral change. Trying to make an appeal based on respect, instead of an emotional appeal. Telling stories about what the lives of wild animals are actually like - just the facts end up being an emotional story. It can both be factual, but have an emotional impact
    • Funding projects for how they will be publicly seen - a project on whales might not impact many animals, but will be widely interesting to people in important spaces. Focusing on interventions for the message they will promote, instead of what might have the biggest impact in the short term. Targeting animal advocates with messaging has always been very important. If other animal advocates don’t support this cause, it will be hard to promote this cause
  2. Challenges to increasing concern about wild animal suffering among animal advocates
    • One challenge - EAs call it the “animal advocacy” community, but people in the space generally speak of “animal activism” and speak of “animal liberation” or “animal rights." Also, they don’t understand well what “animal welfare” means. How do we explain these topics to people interested in rights?
    • If you support human rights, you should support similar rights to animals, rights can be negative ones (not to be harmed) and positive ones (to be provided aid), the latter would apply in the case of wild animals in need of aid. It’s also true that some animal advocates reject the term “animal welfare” (they identify it with animal exploitation whitewashing)
    • What about when rights conflict? E.g. a wolf having to eat meat
      • Maybe we should avoid these topics and focus on what we can do or might be able to do
      • We should not focus on predation - while it is real, it shouldn’t be where we should focus. As for the particular problem, when rights conflict, rights views typically accept to do what’s best
    • Targeting large funders might be more effective, as they can impact the direction of the groups

Biology research

  1. What research questions do attendees consider to be the most interesting with regards to wild animal welfare?
    • What animals are conscious? This is a crucial consideration
      • A lot more people are interested in studying sentience, while wild animal welfare has gathered less interest
      • If vertebrate sentience gets a lot of attention, might not actually help answer invertebrate sentience questions
      • Could be important to think about what academics find interesting (what’s going to get done anyway) vs what the WAW community should encourage in particular?
      • If we start acting without knowing the answer to these questions, could end up wasting a lot of effort (e.g. if insects aren’t sentient). Seems important to get right
      • But, could take a very long time to address these questions.
      • At Wild Animal Initiative, we work more in ecology and population biology, so we are focusing more effort there. This work is also important. But very interested in doing more sentience work if capacity builds
      • It seems reasonable to focus on doing research on questions that will be applicable regardless of whether or not insects are sentient, while trying to figure out if they are. Fertility control is an example. Use of genetic technologies (e.g. for disease resistance) is another example. Could be used to help any animal, if society is on board with using these methods to improve welfare
  2. How can we get academics interested in studying wild animal welfare?
    • How can biology researchers bring more people to the table?
    • Discussion groups among students at universities
    • Finding ways to incorporate welfare into standard biology curriculum
      • E.g. currently lecturers say “keep nature pristine” “we need conservation” with no explanation of why
      • If any lecturer were to draw a distinct line between biology and helping welfare, and counteract the narrative that nature is “perfect” the way it is
      • Could run seminars
    • In the EA community: getting the word out that people with a biology background could gather in this cause
      • What about an EA community biology facebook group? Might be mostly medical people or whatever, but having a strong thread of ecology in such a group could be encouraging.
      • EA is somewhat dominated by non-biologists, so it’s hard for people first getting into EA who are biologists to see their fit with the community
    • Does Wild Animal Initiative require/encourage academics seeking funding to ascribe to being a part of the wild animal welfare community/being a “welfare biologist?"
      • Wild Animal Initiative doesn’t want to be an advocacy group seeming to “tell scientists what to do.” But we do encourage interested people to join the advisory panel. Eventually, would be nice to encourage grant recipients to join a “society of welfare biologists” or similar to create a community of scientists in the area

Politics and law

  1. Are there any actionable policy recommendations right now? Last year, the feeling was there was nothing we could do soon
    • I’ve changed my mind about that a lot! Not quite as robust or scalable as the recommendations in farmed animal welfare, but Wild Animal Initiative is discovering some possibilities for moderate-scale interventions that seem to point in the right direction (both in terms of values and research priorities). E.g., use contraception instead of poison to control urban pigeon populations
      • Daniela Waldhorn at Rethink Priorities is looking into cost-effectiveness and a case study of Barcelona’s implementation of pigeon contraception
      • Simon Eckerström Liedholm at Wild Animal Initiative is looking into the welfare, physiological, and ecological effects of contraceptives on pigeons. Do they work the way we think they do? How do population dynamics change? How do pigeons die instead? etc.
  2. Connections between COVID-19 and wild animal welfare?
    • Need to be careful not to be seen as cynically opportunistic
    • COVID-19 could raise institutional interest in wildlife disease
    • This will lead to more pressure to close wet markets in China, more funding for zoonotic disease research from an anthropocentric perspective. We could shift that in a direction that’s more useful for wild animals, and to open up conversations about how we interact with wild animals
    • Lowest-hanging fruit would be around banning captive wild animals, banning wild animal consumption, etc. A lot of the effect for wild animal welfare would come in terms of what coalitions are built and what public statements are made Probably no large effect on long-term wild animal welfare movement-building.
    • Relevant research note from Lewis Bollard

Media and communications

  1. What do we think other parties think about this? Are there misconceptions?
    • Often has overlap on topics people care about already like speciesism and that animals are not suffering. People in EA tend to think this is intensely controversial
      • Message framing and the messenger matters in communications
    • Shift in animal rights movement lately in favor of animal welfare movement around wild animal welfare. I’ve given presentations and responses changed over time. In the past, antispeciesists gave speciesist arguments to suggestions about helping wild animals. Speaking about intervening in nature may be less receptive than other language (emotive) about this topic
    • People in EA tend to think this is intensely controversial, and given certain ways to bring this up, this could generally be true
      • Should be shaping messages such that the hands-off approach isn’t necessarily the best. More participatory nature ethics might be the path to go
    • In the French AR community, wild animal welfare is a controversial topic. This is partially due to beginning discussions with strong and deep interventions like genetic technologies or feeding lions, but not more discussion of smaller interventions
      • This is also a problem in English language discussions
    • Varies by community. EA community may be very into expanding interests, but others have different interests
  2. Messaging strategies
    • What are interesting media documentaries about the internal lives of wild animals? Particularly short materials and infographics. Need media to relate to emotional lives of animals
    • It’s plausible that we can find materials that make people more informed about cognitive and emotional capacities of animals. (Judgement bias tests are convincing.) Leaning into these things could be really helpful. EAs are really into rationality, but for the general population different strategies may be needed. More like asking simple questions, around what happens to welfare given roughly static populations
    • Should we avoid talking about speciesism, and is that related to specific audience (more likely general public)?
    • Should we develop a poll about the best ways to message to the public?
    • People really like stories. Art really speaks to people sometimes
      • Giving people small action steps can be useful. Even if it’s as small as educating your friends
    • Most nature documentaries aren’t focused on individuals, instead focused on the species. Altering this framework could be really useful
    • Infographics should be employed more
    • Getting people to know and think about mental lives of animals as opposed to thinking about organizations that work on species without focusing on individual needs
    • Should we educate on differences between welfare and conservation? e.g., many believe WWF advocates for individuals
  3. What research is helpful?
    • Messaging-wise, surveys found a complicated phenomenon: although addressing harms due to weather events was seen as an intervention, which is objected to by scientists and students, it was also considered something likely to be funded. This indicates a potential challenge to the objections against interventions. Quantitative and qualitative studies suggested that targeting academics, students are useful. Continue targeting students, particularly grad students: biology, environmental studies, vet students, etc.

Session 3: Final Q&A

  1. How much is sentience a crucial consideration? Seems intractable and not crucial
    • Better understanding of sentience (especially insects) would help win over skeptics. It has been slow going historically, but technology has improved a lot, so might be easier to answer soon. Vertebrate sentience does not seem to have high value of information, so research should focus on invertebrate sentience
    • Want to also flag that “sentience research” - which I interpret primarily as neuroethology - would be useful not only for determining who matters but also for how to help them
    • Good point. This conversation has updated me to think that the most tractable and useful work on sentience research would be empirical research and highly empirical philosophy of mind rather than armchair theory, where there is a strong inductive argument for intractability
  2. The Dodo is actually really good at wild-animal-welfare-aligned viral videos (animals being helped by humans). Great example of effective popular narratives
  3. Do people have to care about farmed animals, and/or be vegetarian/vegan, in order to care about wild animals?
    • EAs tend to expect people’s ethics to be extremely consistent, but most people’s aren’t. Lots of people care about wild animals and aren’t vegetarian (e.g. most birders). Wild animal welfare could actually serve as a novel avenue to get people interested in farmed animals. We also underestimate how many people working in traditional conservation/environmentalism are already primarily motivated by concern for wild animals’ welfare
    • Might be easier to convince people to care about wild animal welfare than farmed animal welfare, because agreeing doesn’t require them to change their lifestyle
  4. I’d like to hear more about the attitudes and beliefs of birders
    • NYC just required new buildings to use reflective glass that reduces the likelihood of bird collisions. Birders supported it even though it primarily values birds that are not rare (rock pigeons) or even invasive (European starlings, which many birders actually want fewer of)
    • We need to think a lot more broadly about who is already value-aligned. E.g., many people are upset by the treatment of tigers in “Tiger King” but not cows
    • Oddly, hunters are plausibly a good audience for wild animal welfare work. It may seem inconsistent, but many have an ethic that recognizes the difficulty of life in the wild and envisions a positive role for humans in nature (stewardship of populations and habitats, food provisioning for target species, hunting as a humane alternative to starvation or predation)

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