The extremely inconvenient truth of wild animal suffering

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.

MADIKWE, SOUTH AFRICA: A RHINO was snapped fishing a zebra foal out of a mud pit with its horn. The bizarre pictures show how the giant two-tonne beast spotted the baby zebra being stuck in the mud and attempted to lift the hapless creature with its horn. South African guide Roel van Muiden was showing visitors around the Madikwe Game Reserve when he saw the incredible scene, which sadly ended in the death of the foal.

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, we don’t have this 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”, still equals “what is good” or “what is right”. What happens in nature has to happen, or it wouldn’t happen. Or something like that.

Still, 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.
We are also constantly interfering in nature, most of the time for our own – Homo sapiens’ – sake. We have cleared nature for roads, farmland, parks, buildings. Doing this, we have killed countless individual animals.

Many people would agree that we, as humans, could or should try to solve the suffering in nature that we have caused ourselves – the way we make bridges or tunnels as corridors for animals when we have split their habitat into too many parts.
But what about suffering that is not due to us? Suffering is suffering, 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 disease or because she got caught in a poacher’s trap (assuming both kinds of suffering are of similar intensity).

Saving a young zebra from suffocation is a small, concrete intervention, and maybe, if you had been the photographer, you would have done what you could, from a place of (very natural) empathy. But today we have already seen more structural interference among wild animal populations. We have vaccinated some 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. 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 (see the video below, if you dare, for graphic examples).

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. If you’re not convinced, watch this video (trigger warning: graphic footage!)

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?

Two planets
On a wall in the office of the German vegan advocacy organization VEBU in Berlin hangs a framed letter. It is from a little girl, Annika, who later died of a brain tumor, and it is addressed to my friend Sebastian Joy, CEO of VEBU. 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 out this talk about Wild Animal Suffering

Also check the research plans (and the need for funding) of the Foundational Research Institute.

This article was inspired by a talk by Oscar Horta at the Sentience Conference in Berlin.