Beausoleil Et Al. Show the Value of Collaboration Between Wild Animal Welfare Advocates and Conservationists

Abraham Rowe

Historically there has been little overlap between effective altruists interested in improving wild animal welfare and conservationists. But conservation offers insight, approaches, and tools that are incredibly valuable to the work of reducing wild animal suffering. It would be highly productive for wild animal welfare advocates to actively work with conservationists on research projects, both to encourage a collaborative relationship between our fields, and to find allies for our work.

While advocates for improving wild animal welfare in the effective altruism movement have occasionally framed issues of improving wild animal welfare to be independent of or opposed to conservation ethics and efforts, this may be a strategic mistake, and an act of straw-manning the beliefs and values of many conservationists. We believe that framing welfare advocacy and conservation as totally independent will ultimately be unproductive, and that we can present a positive case for our work within conservation that will move our research and work forward more quickly.

In November 2018 Ngaio Beausoleil et al. published “Feelings and Fitness” Not “Feelings or Fitness” – The Raison d’être of Conservation Welfare, Which Aligns Conservation and Animal Welfare, which proposed a new field at the intersection of conservation and animal welfare, called conservation welfare. The authors, including prominent conservationists like Liv Baker, a founder of the compassionate conservation movement, argue that not only do welfare outcomes need to be considered within conservation projects, but that often animal welfare goals and conservation goals can be aligned.

While the authors do not necessarily endorse interventions to address naturogenic wild animal suffering, their view contrasts with the picture that many wild animal welfare advocates have historically painted of the conservation space—a picture that is demonstrably inaccurate as seen by the rapid rise of the compassionate conservation movement.

Our view is that if we are going to make progress on reducing naturogenic wild animal suffering, there are strong reasons to think that working with conservationists will be a priority, and writing off conservation work will impede our progress. We wanted to provide some perspective on the value that conservation work adds to improving wild animal welfare.

1. Conservationists are not fundamentally opposed to improving wild animal welfare

Currently, conservation as an academic field is undergoing a dramatic period of self-evaluation. Not only has the field begun to critique the idea of baselining to specific historical conditions as the measurement of success in conservation, but compassionate conservation has grown rapidly as a value-driven approach to conservation projects. Additionally, some conservationists working in  invasion biology have started raising questions about whether or not to remove invasive species. The reality is that the wild animal welfare advocate’s view that conservationists are all of uniform values and aiming to simply return nature to some pre-human state is inaccurate. Conservationists represent a broad, rarely value-consistent coalition of researchers, who are often interested in very similar problems to WAW researchers.

In our experience, many conservationists are very comfortable with projects that improve wild animal welfare if it is done either in liminal spaces, or if the harm is caused by humans. These already seem likely to be the areas where we can have the most certainty about the impact of our interventions in the near future, so we ought to embrace animal welfare research from the conservation community and work with conservationists on developing these interventions. It also seems likely, given that many conservationists are interested in animal welfare issues, and given that due to climate change many ecosystems are already rapidly changing, that the reservations within conservation spaces about addressing naturogenic wild animal suffering may diminish in the near future.

2. Among academic scientists, conservationists might be the most inclined to support projects to improve wild animal welfare

Often, academic conservationists working on protecting animal populations grew up loving animals, and loved learning about wild animals. Currently, conservation is presented within academia as how one helps animals in the wild. Our sense is that many conservationists working on preventing extinction of species and related projects are doing so due to a genuine love of wild animals. These academics are the exact scientists that welfare biology needs to work with going forward.

Anecdotally, we’ve found that conservationists tend to be more open to value-driven work, while pure biologists and ecologists tend to be more interested in gathering novel information. While information is of the highest value for our work currently, we also will need research that is value-driven in the future.

We believe that for people who care about wild animals, there is a compelling case to be made for improving wild animal welfare. As the rise of the compassionate conservation movement demonstrates, many conservationists do not see concern for animal welfare as incompatible with  conservation goals. The fact that there are academic scientists doing incredibly relevant work for our field who care about animal welfare should be enough reason for us to work with them, even if they do not share commonly held views within the wild animal welfare community about naturogenic wild animal suffering or utilitarianism.

3. It is unlikely that we will succeed in building an academic field independent of conservation goals in the near future

If we present welfare biology and animal ethics as fundamentally independent of conservation and environmental goals, we will fail at our project to improve wild animal welfare. Climate change is an imminent threat to humanity. Environmental ethics are deeply held by most of the scientists who do or are able to do the most relevant research for wild animal welfare. We cannot frame our work as opposed to these views. Furthermore, we don’t yet have the scientific backing necessary to say with certainty that environmental ethics won’t lead to good outcomes for some wild animals. There are many reasons to believe that habitat destruction, for example, is not only bad for animals from a conservation perspective, but unpleasant for animals to experience directly in the short term.

If we set a goal to not only reduce as much wild animal suffering as possible, but also to do so in a way that directly contradicts the values of many scientists, we are setting ourselves up to fail. The likelihood of us creating a world where everyone holds strong utilitarian views of ethics and behaves accordingly to address wild animal suffering seems incredibly low. It seems much more likely that we can make a lot of progress by working with people who already care about animals, while also working to build our own academic niche and eventually developing welfare biology as a field.

Additionally, we believe that welfare biology will be viewed as more credible if it emerges out of existing science, as opposed to being established by outsiders. We can foster this emergence within the conservation space by working actively on the shared goals we have with conservationists.

4. Conservationists are doing relevant research for improving wild animal welfare

Welfare Biology is necessarily going to be cross-disciplinary. We will need input from ecologists, biologists, and animal welfare scientists. We will need to not only understand animal welfare, but understand the downstream effects of our actions.

Conservationists also face downstream uncertainty. Many conservation projects involve modifying ecosystems, though they aim for different outcomes than improved animal welfare. Work has already been done to model ecosystems, and to predict the effects of intervention in the wild. Fields like predictive ecology, intervention ecology, and restoration ecology raise and research questions about the long-term impact of human intervention in nature, and try to predict the outcomes of these interventions. These fields provide tools, software, and methods that will be the basis of predicting downstream welfare impacts in the future (Wild Animal Initiative is currently conducting comprehensive literature reviews of all these fields to apply the research to our work).

Researchers within this space are doing work that is fundamental to the future of improving wild animal welfare, and we need to be working with them to better understand how to apply these tools to our research.

The work produced by fields like Beausoleil et al.’s conservation welfare will likely all be relevant to wild animal welfare advocates. Conservation welfare as an academic field is made up of a broad coalition of ecologists, animal welfare scientists, and biologists studying the impact of human intervention on wild animal welfare. In fact, if compassionate conservation continues to grow as it has over the last few years, the majority of relevant field and lab research for reducing wild animal suffering may come from this field.

By building relationships early with leaders in this space, we can help grow interest not only in improving wild animal welfare, but in a consequentialist approach to evaluating interventions within the conservation space. Wild animal welfare advocates should be concerned about positioning our work as independent of or opposed to environmental ethics and conservation ethics. Not only is it an inaccurate representation of the views of a broad and diverse section of the academic community, if it is a point of conflict, wild animal welfare simply will not win. Although we must ensure that our focus is on the welfare outcomes of projects, conservationists are important allies doing work that will help us better understand how to make the world a better place for wild animals.

Abraham Rowe