Animal rights theorist Tom Regan famously said that our only obligation to free living animals is “to let them be.” At first thought, this sounds right. We might think that interfering in nature can lead to disastrous results, and if we were to try to help every free living animal who was suffering from disease or starvation, the results would be unpredictable. It would also take organization on a scale we aren’t prepared for, and resources that we don’t have. So trying to help most animals living in the wild looks like a very bad idea – and it probably is. But these are all practical reasons why it would not be a good idea. They say nothing about what we should do if we were in a position to help.
We all know non-domesticated animals suffer, and we know that many of them die when they are very young. But we seldom spend much time thinking about it. This means that we often fail to consider the extent of the harms these animals may suffer.
Animals living in nature suffer significantly and die for numerous reasons. Parasitism and disease are extremely common and cause many animals to die. Ungulates, for instance, suffer from attacks of botfly maggots who live in their nostrils. When the infection is serious, deers die of suffocation. Ichneumonidae wasps lay their eggs in the fully sentient body of immobilized caterpillars, who are eaten alive by the wasp larvae when they come out of the eggs (these larvae leave the caterpillar’s vital organs intact so the caterpillar remains alive for as long as possible).
Hunger and malnutrition are also very common. Many herbivores suffer from them even when there is food available if there are predators around the area where they would graze, since fear of being killed prevents them from eating. Additionally, large numbers of animals starve due to the lack of food or water in harsh winters or droughts. Weather conditions such as temperature extremes can also kill. Animals also die in natural catastrophes such as floods and fires. In addition, many animals suffer accidents which mutilate some part of their bodies, or which leave them in chronic pain for the rest of their lives (as often happens in the case of serious injuries which never heal properly without medical intervention). Also, aggression is very common in nature. Animals may be killed by predators or by other animals who compete with them for territory, food, mates to reproduce, or social status in the case of social animals.
One easily overlooked factor in the huge number of animals who suffer and die in nature is the fact that most animals reproduce by having enormous numbers of offspring. For instance, some amphibians such as frogs may lay thousands of eggs, while fishes can lay millions of them. If animals lived in relatively safe conditions, many of them would survive. But this doesn’t happen. Virtually none of them survives. Otherwise, all animal species would multiply spectacularly in a very short time. However, this doesn’t happen. The reason is that the overwhelming majority of the animals who come into existence die shortly after, when they are very young. Their deaths are often painful: they are often eaten by other animals or simply starve. On average, for stable populations, in each generation just one individual per parent survives. This means that the life of most nonhuman animals in nature is far from being happy. Rather, the usual case is just the opposite.
Consider a situation in which it were possible to help free living animals and we could do so without doing more harm than good. What would we think of the idea? Should we help them? Is it wrong to interfere in their lives? Is it wrong not to? Is it wrong to alter the natural order of things? Would they want our help?
Humans are sometimes in situations in which they need the help of others. For instance, if someone is hiking in the mountains or the woods and gets lost or injured, most people think we should go help her or him. However, there are many cases in which nonhuman animals are in situations similar to these. Surprisingly, in these cases, many people think we should not help them. Why should we help humans but not other animals?
In reality, in most cases it is impossible for us to do anything to help nonhuman animals. But there are some situations in which helping them is certainly feasible, or it would be so if we were willing to work on it. There have been cases in which animals living in the wild have been vaccinated against certain diseases so they don’t pass those diseases on to domestic animals (this has been done with foxes, for instance, in the UK). This shows it would also be possible to treat or vaccinate these animals for their own sake. Also, supplying food for some animals who would otherwise starve is often possible as well. Zoologists observing animals in nature often find themselves in situations in which the animals they are studying are suffering or dying in ways these zoologists could easily relieve (though they often refuse to on the grounds that it would be “unscientific”). Of course, refusing to help humans in situations such as these would be found abhorrent by most people.
We may think that we should help humans because they are members of our own species, but that, because other animals are not, we shouldn’t help them. But this is actually a speciesist position, according to which the interests of human beings take priority over those of other animals. If we reject any kind of discrimination and agree we should give equal respect to all sentient beings, there is no reason to be ready to help some beings but not others because they are not members of our species.
Should we protect humans from natural harms but let other animals suffer from them?
Many of us have a tendency to think that what is natural is good. Understandably, then, we may think that the lives of animals in natural environments has to be good, so we shouldn’t try to help them. But, as we have seen above, there are huge numbers of animals who suffer terribly and die, often painfully, soon after they come to existence. So the idea that lives in natural environments are great is, unfortunately, wrong.
Despite this, we may still retain the idea that helping animals is wrong because it’s not natural. After all, this idea may be quite intuitive at first sight. However, if we care about the wellbeing of sentient individuals, all the strength such a claim might have depends on whether a completely natural life is good or not. If it’s not, why should we think it wrong to help someone who isn’t living a good life, but is actually in misery?
In fact, on reflection we can easily see that we don’t quite agree with the idea that we shouldn’t do anything that may be considered not natural. We don’t make that argument when it comes to helping human beings. We’ve already decided as a society that what is natural isn’t always good. We do all we can to shield ourselves from nature, wearing clothes, building homes, taking antibiotics when we’re sick and painkillers when we are hurt.
We intervene in nature all the time to further our own human interests, for agriculture, manufacturing, housing, building roads and extracting natural resources. We couldn’t live without altering the environment, often in dramatic ways. We already accept intervention in nature. So if we intervene when it’s in our interest, why not when it’s in the interests of nonhumans?
It’s commonly thought that we shouldn’t upset the balance of existing ecosystems, that free living animals have a place in the cycle of life, that the ecosystem they live in and are a part of has greater value than the conscious beings who are a part of it. But there is no good reason why that should be the case. And in fact most of us behave in ways that show we don’t actually believe this. We wouldn’t let other humans suffer and die if we could prevent it just because it was good for an ecosystem. We wouldn’t let our dogs and cats suffer and die even if it were good for an ecosystem. If we saw a human or a dog who was sick or injured, we would try to help them.
Yet when it comes to nonhuman animals living in the wild, we suddenly apply a different standard: we think it is wrong to help them because it is unnatural. We see them as part of nature, but humans and domesticated animals as separate from nature. But this is obviously a fiction: what we humans do affects our natural surroundings all the time, in very important ways, and vice versa. We are interacting elements of natural environments as other animals are.
The only thing that makes free living animals different is that they are not one of the species that live in human society. To say that makes them less deserving of our help seems very unfair.
There are many practical reasons why we might choose not to try to help most free living animals. In fact, for practical reasons, in most cases not intervening to help them does seem to be the best course of action currently. We could easily end up doing more harm than good if we tried to help. Nature is complex and it’s not always possible to predict the outcome of our actions. Plus we simply don’t have the resources to help all free living animals, even if we knew exactly how we could do it without causing more harm than good. But these are different from arguments that it is wrong to help them, and arguments that reduce them to units of nature to be balanced rather than recognizing them as conscious beings who are just as deserving of moral consideration as humans, dogs and cats.
Remember the golden rule: any animal who is suffering or dying would want to be helped, just as we would want it if we were in their skin
We rarely stop to think about the suffering of animals in nature, and we often prefer to feel free of any duty toward others. Yet even when we do think about it, many of us still think there’s nothing we should do about the suffering of animals in nature.
In many cases, this is the result of a sincere and committed concern for nonhuman animals. Many of us are aware that humans exploit nonhuman animals in terrible ways, and often keep them in terrible confinement, from which we want to liberate them. This may drive us to think that free living animals are perfectly fine. Most importantly, most people have never stopped to think that, while we may be sitting comfortably in our homes, enjoying our freedom, out there free living animals may be dying in misery. This may result in us thinking that free living animals wouldn’t want our help. But once we learn about the terrible harms they suffer, this view must surely be left behind.
Of course, there may be some people who still think that free living animals would prefer to be left to suffer and die as long as they live on their own in a natural environment. But it’s hard to believe this could possibly be the case. We don’t make this assumption about humans, and we don’t make it about domesticated animals. We think we know when they are suffering and we recognize that they feel better after their suffering is relieved. And if a wild animal who is sick or injured crosses our path, we recognize their pain and think that they would want our help. In fact we think it would be cruel not to help them.
Yet somehow it’s easy for us to think that any animal we don’t see doesn’t want our help and that they would prefer to live and die on nature’s terms. This seems to assume that they see themselves as a part of nature, and that they themselves value the balance of nature more than their own wellbeing. Even if they were capable of understanding their place in an ecosystem, why would they value a nonsentient ecosystem over the wellbeing of themselves and their families? We humans don’t value ecosystem balance over the wellbeing of ourselves and our families. We only value it over the wellbeing of them and their families.
There is no reason to believe that they would prefer not to have any help, and every reason to believe they would. Being conscious means being capable of having positive and negative experiences. Every animal we encounter shows a preference for positive experiences and tries to to avoid negative ones.
Some humans may prefer to see animals in nature live and die on their own without any help from us. But that reflects our preference, not theirs. If we value the balance of natural processes more than the wellbeing of the animals who live in nature, but we don’t value them more than human lives or the lives of dogs and cats, this is an arbitrary discrimination against free living animals. Why should how we treat them be determined by where they live? As mentioned above, we may find practical problems with helping free living animals, so we should be very careful and, first of all, do research on how to do it properly. But if we agree that moral consideration should be based on sentience, then there are no good moral reasons not to.
If we know animals are suffering and dying, shouldn’t we do something?
As we have seen above, there are several reasons that explain why we seldom notice that there are lots of animals suffering and dying in nature. But once we see that they are, and that we could help them, can we, in good conscience, remain indifferent?
One response that can be given to this is that we don’t know what’s good for other animals, and even that it’s arrogant to assume we can know this, that it comes from an assumption of human superiority. But does it really? How many people make this argument to criticize humans who help dogs and cats? We know that they need care because they aren’t able to take care of themselves. Nobody calls this arrogance and suggests that the moral course of action would be to let them die in the streets without any help. Free living animals are better able to take care of themselves than domesticated animals, but are still vulnerable in ways that most humans are not.
We all recognize it as obvious that an infant or a sick human or a human suffering after a natural disaster or an injured dog is in need of help. The question, then, is why is it arrogant to say the same thing about free living nonhumans who are suffering and unable to help themselves? When we see a fox trapped in a leghold trap we know she’s suffering. It’s not arrogant to say this, just as it’s not arrogant to say it would be good for her to be helped. If the same fox is trapped in similar circumstances for some natural reason, such as an accident she’s suffered, we also know she’s suffering, and that she’d be better off if she were helped. Again, there’s nothing arrogant with saying this. It would be absurd to claim one thing in one case and another thing in the other.
There is, however, an attitude that is truly arrogant: the one that assumes human beings are the center of the world and that we should only be concerned with human interests and wellbeing. The interests of nonhuman animals, including of course non-domestic ones, also count.
Let’s not discriminate against animals; let’s show our solidarity with them
Humans routinely intervene in nature with the aim of exploiting animals for human benefit. The horror we may feel about this may be present in our minds when we consider intervening for completely different reasons. This may lead us to see any intervention in the same light, and think that it’s an instance of domination just as their exploitation for our own benefit is. But if we consider the issue carefully we will see this is not so. Helping is not synonymous with domination. Actually, it is an antonym of it. Things are just the other way around: the behavior that is more in accordance with an attitude of domination is refusing to help someone, that is, refusing to show solidarity to someone who needs it. Solidarity and domination are opposing terms: intervening in nature to exploit animals is domination, while rejecting exploitation is characteristic of solidarity; intervening in nature to help animals is solidarity, while refusing to help others is characteristic of domination.
If someone could save our lives or relieve our illness, wouldn’t we want them to do it? There is a big difference between intervening in someone’s life for the sake of their interests and using them to further our own interests.
If a race of superintelligent extraterrestrials were to come to earth and tell us they could relieve us of human diseases and end world hunger, and that they would intervene in our lives only to the extent that was necessary to help relieve us from those terrible harms, would we tell them we don’t want that? Would we call them arrogant and call their offer an attempt to dominate us?
Should we leave animals to suffer by claiming that the harms they undergo are not our responsibility?
If we accept that sentience or consciousness should be the basis for moral consideration then we should give equal consideration to the interests of all conscious beings (that is, all who can have experiences). This simply means that we should treat like interests alike. It doesn’t mean that all sentient beings should be treated exactly alike. A deer doesn’t have an interest in voting, so we have no obligation to make sure she can vote, but she does have an interest in not suffering pain or hunger or fear. We have every reason to believe she suffers these things to the same degree as a human, so we should give her the same consideration we would give to a human. We should try not to do things that cause her to suffer. And if we believe we have an obligation to help other humans who are suffering, then if we can relieve her suffering, we should do it.
Most of us do think we should relieve the suffering of other human beings, even when we are not the ones who have caused them to suffer. We all (or at least most of us) think it would be terrible not to save the life of a baby drowning in a pond, or if she were being eaten alive by parasites. We assume not only that it’s bad to cause suffering to other human beings; we also assume it’s good to help them when they are suffering. So we shouldn’t have a different attitude when it comes to other animals. Otherwise, we would be maintaining a speciesist position.
It shouldn’t matter whether someone walks on four legs or two, or flies through the air. And it shouldn’t matter where they live. If it’s good to relieve hunger, thirst and pain for humans, then it’s good to relieve it for nonhumans who suffer from them.