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Somewhere in South Africa, not that long ago, a young zebra has gotten stuck in the mud. She’s panicking. If nothing happens her cries and struggles will be to no avail, and she’ll suffocate very soon.
Yet suddenly, there is help: a young rhinoceros sees the zebra, puts his gigantic head under the animal, and lifts her out of the mud. For a moment, it looks like a successful rescue operation. The rhino, however, forgets about his tusk, which pierces through the zebra, killing the animal.
At a safe distance, another being has been watching the scene: a Homo sapiens. A professional nature photographer, he made a series of pictures of the drama. The man could have interfered, but would later tell a journalist that he felt it was best to “let nature be nature”.
So this was the situation: a zebra in mortal danger is “helped” by a rhinoceros who cannot help her (maybe he wanted only to play or was just curious), while a human, who could have helped, watches and decides that fate shall have its course.
When a human being in need of rescuing crosses our path, we will take action – at least if there’s little or no risk for ourselves. With animals, many of us don’t feel the same sense of moral obligation. Especially wild animals seem to belong to a different world, in which we should not interfere. But why not?
“Natural” doesn’t equal “good”
For many people, “what is natural” equals “what is good” or “what is right”. What happens in nature has to happen, or it wouldn’t happen. Or something like that. At the same time, the whole of human evolution is a story of going against, conquering, outrunning and outsmarting nature. This is not a problem in itself. On the contrary. All the medication that we take is “unnatural”. So are glasses and crutches and cars and bicycles. Or the way you are reading this text: on a screen. None of this can be found in nature.
It is true, of course, that most of the time when we interfere in nature, it is for our own – Homo sapiens’ – sake. We clear nature for roads, farmland, parks, buildings, killing countless individual animals in the process.
Many people would agree that we, as humans, could or should try to solve the suffering in nature that we have caused ourselves. For instance, when wild animal populations suffer because we have split their habitat into too many parts, we may build corridors under or across highways to give these same animals a bit more room again.
But what about suffering of wild animals that is not due to us? It seems that many people think that there is no reason for us to try to alleviate that kind of suffering.
My personal take is that suffering is suffering and that pain is pain. The cause of this suffering and pain – human or not – is totally irrelevant for those experiencing it. For a rabbit it is irrelevant whether she suffers because of some naturally occurring disease or because she got caught in a poacher’s trap (assuming both kinds of suffering are of similar intensity).
Maybe you agree that saving the zebra from suffocation would have been a good thing to do. But what about more structural interventions among wild animal populations. What’s already happened, for instance, is that humans have vaccinated some animal populations (even though the reason has been to avoid human contamination). In some natural parks we have experimented with contraception (feeling that preventing some animals from being born is more humane than letting those already there suffer a horrible death from hunger).
Why the idyllic view of nature is wrong
You may have a very idyllic view of nature, thinking happiness and serenity abound. Throughout the ages, our views on the nature of nature, so to speak, have changed back and forth. Today, the view of nature as “red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson described it, unfortunately seems a pretty good description of what’s going on in the wild. Here is part of the reason why.
We humans usually have few children, but we invest a lot in them and as a result almost all of them (at least in western countries, but more and more in developing countries too) will survive and thrive. Many or most animals have a different strategy: they have many young, but don’t invest a lot of parental attention in them. The result is similar: one or just a few survive (thus, the population remains stable). This second strategy (ecologists traditionally talked about “r-selection” and “k-selection”) means that an incredible number of animals will die at a very young age. European rabbits, for instance, can have 360 young in their lifetime, fifteen percent of which make it through their first year. Some animals can lay hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of eggs, not all of whom will develop into living beings. But even if an animal only has a few young, one or more will often not survive. A panda, for instance, usually has twins, of which typically only one will survive as the parents only really invest in looking after one of them.
Many or most of these animals probably don’t die a painless or quick death. Apart from hunger, thirst, cold and drought, wild animals suffer diseases and injuries without any medical care being available to them. They are confronted with natural disasters like floods and fires. There’s parasitism, and of course there is predation (you can look on youtube for videos of wild animal suffering or predation, if you need more convincing. It’s not pretty!).
Finally, let’s take into account the actual numbers that we are talking about here. Humans number about seven billion. A rough estimation of the number of fish we take from the sea is between one and three trillion animals. An even rougher estimation of the number of animals out there could be 10 to the 19th (see this article for more info).
The bottom line seems to be that the idyllic view of nature is wrong and that the amount of suffering is vast.
The question of whether we should ever do something about this huge problem is controversial. It especially surprises me that it is even controversial among vegans and animal rights supporters, who seem to think we should mainly care about our own duties and the suffering we ourselves have caused. Again: to the animal that is suffering, it doesn’t matter whether we caused the harm or not.
Yes, estimating the consequences of intervention could be incredibly, impossibly complex. Yes, intervention could have catastrophic effects. But the people thinking this issue through are obviously aware of both risks and complexity. Any progress will be gradual and slow. But let’s also not forget that what is happening is already catastrophic.
The main question to me is not whether we should intervene or not, but to what extent and how. I think most people would agree with the interventions that we already do: saving individual animals, vaccinations, even contraception – at least on the condition that these interventions are done very carefully and cause no greater harm. But shouldn’t we go a bit further?
On a wall in the office of the German vegan advocacy organization Proveg International in Berlin hangs a framed letter. It is from a little girl, Annika, who later died of a brain tumor, and is addressed to my friend Sebastian Joy, CEO of Proveg. In the letter, the girl suggests that we should have two planets: one for humans, and one for the animals. The thinking is endearing, and at first sight you might agree that this is a good idea. But thinking it through, you realize that this animal planet would be full of suffering. And you realize that maybe, just maybe, if Homo sapiens manages to survive itself and we become better at being human, then we could be of real significance and do something for the wild animals out there to make their lives better or to spare them from suffering. I’m aware that to some, this view will sound crazy, or hubris-like, or how they will say this is not a priority while there are easier ways to help people and animals. But just consider that we may be around for tens or hundreds of thousands of years more. Who knows what moral and technological evolution we may go through in that period?
In the meantime, what can we do? We can start being open-minded about this topic, for one thing. We can examine our biases, our speciesism. We can examine where our real priorities are: with animal rights? With the prevention of suffering? We can spread this idea further. We can support whatever thoughtful interventions are already happening. And we can be open to the development of new technologies that may help us in the future.
To the animals, this planet is hell and people are their devils, wrote Schopenhauer. I believe we don’t need to be devils to animals. Maybe we can be their angels. Someday.
Want to learn a bit more? Check the links below
- Wild Animal Initiative, an NGO founded around this topic
- a talk about Wild Animal Suffering
- Animal Ethics‘ page on wild animal suffering
This article was inspired by a talk by Oscar Horta at the Sentience Conference in Berlin.