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The wild frontier of animal welfare


Dhaka, 22 April, 2021: 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?

Agricultural scientists working in the industry or at research universities have learned tremendous amounts about how farmed animals live in captivity, mostly from the perspective of those farming them. Ecologists have learned a good deal about how wild animals interact with each other and contribute to overall ecosystem health, as well as why biodiversity is important for humanity and the overall fate of the planet.

But a genuinely animal-focused perspective toward wild animals — one where snakes and birds and fish and rodents warrant care not because of their contributions to their ecosystems, but because they are beings worthy of moral concern in their own right — is rare in both science and animal advocacy. And it’s often regarded as outright bizarre in the broader world.

But in the past decade or so, a small movement of philosophers and zoologists has coalesced around the idea that wild animal suffering is a very serious moral problem, that the pain suffered by a jumping snake plucked from the jungle matters the same as the pain of a chicken in a factory farm, the pain of a cat in an apartment unit, and even the pain of a human being. Once one accepts that pain matters, wild animal suffering advocates argue, what, if anything, can be done about it becomes an urgent concern.

Many of us are aware of threats to wild animals, particularly when they are threatened by human activity: Think of the koalas and bears dying or suffering in climate change-linked wildfires in Australia and California; or the wild turtle in Costa Rica with a plastic straw stuck up its nose.

But those who’ve adopted the cause of wild animal suffering believe we ought to address even the problems that exist when humans aren’t around. If humans suddenly vanished tomorrow, flesh-eating screwworms would still infest deer, slowly eating them alive from the inside. Lions would still hunt gazelles and violently wrench the meat from their still-moving bodies.


A koala expert in Sydney, Australia, tends to an animal rescued from the country’s 2020 bushfires. The fires burned for months, scorching tens of millions of acres.  Cole Bennetts/The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images


An animal rescuer in 2020 carries a wounded kangaroo from its habitat in a nature preserve. The fires leveled habitats, leaving surviving kangaroos, koalas, and more at risk of starvation.  John Moore/Getty Images

The suffering of animals from predators, disease, and starvation is truly massive in scale. By one estimate, some 24 billion animals are alive and being raised for meat at any given time. We have only the vaguest idea of how many wild animals there might be in the world, but we know the number is high: anywhere from 100 billion to 1 trillion mammals, at least 10 trillion fish, and another 100 to 400 billion birds. Factory farms start to look almost like a rounding error next to the pain and suffering of all the fish in the sea.

“We should reduce the suffering of the literally trillions of animals living in the wild” is a utopian idea, one that flies in the face of ecologists’ general assumption that human intervention is a malevolent force in nature, and that we should leave natural habitats be. The wild animal suffering movement is aware of this reaction, and Wild Animal Initiative has taken a pragmatist turn. Graham and others want to answer more basic questions: What sort of factors make for a good life for a jumping snake? What’s it like to live as an owl in a city? They’re trying to do the groundwork for interventions that do more good than harm.

If Graham’s near-term goal is modest, the long-term project is not. The wild animal suffering movement wants nothing less than for humankind to totally reconceptualize its relationship with the natural world and fellow members of the Kingdom Animalia. It envisions a decades-long moral awakening that takes us from feeling sympathy and resignation when the baby chicks of March of Penguins starve to death, to feeling outrage.

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Posted by on Apr 22 2021. Filed under News at Now, Wildlife. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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