Wildlife Rescue and Moral Consistency

What would you do if you found a small bird with a broken wing, close to death on the sidewalk? Two options spring to mind: walk on by and hope the bird recovers, or contact the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center to take them in. While most people would choose the first option, which clearly requires the least effort, the second option is considered by many as the ‘better’ thing to do. By contacting the wildlife rehabilitation center, they will have a better chance to make a swift recovery, or be painlessly put to sleep, and avoid starving to a torturous death. This is an example of human intervention to improve the welfare of wild animals. Wildlife rehabilitation centers take injured or otherwise unwell animals, treat and rehabilitate them with the appropriate veterinary care, and then release them if it is suitable to do so. Working in harmony with and benefiting the natural world, they currently have widespread public support.

Popular support of wildlife rehabilitation centers does not necessarily mean that they are reducing suffering on balance. It is plausible that by prolonging the lives of certain wild animals who would otherwise have died, the population of that species (or of their predators and prey) could be altered in a way that increases net suffering. For example, saving and releasing an animal that would go on to have a net-negative life, with more suffering than happiness, would be a bad thing to do. Support of further research into the complexity of ecosystems and the welfare of the wild animals affected would enhance the efficacy of such an intervention.

Although many people support the function of wildlife rehabilitation centres, some oppose more active intervention in the welfare of wild animals, proposing that the difference between wildlife rehabilitation and more active intervention is that the former is merely restoring the ‘natural order’ of the ecosystem. This position requires the commonly held and attractively anti-anthropocentric view that nature is a harmonious and finely-tuned balance between flora and fauna, predator and prey, working fairly and happily for survival in a ‘circle of life’.

However, the trillions of animals who have excruciating deaths from predation, starvation, and disease every day would argue otherwise. Charles Darwin, who was an early proponent of the anti-slavery movement, had moral principles, whereas his theory of evolution, and therefore the natural world that developed from it, certainly does not: nature is amoral. Natural selection rewards strategies for continuing a species that are successful in the eyes of the selfish gene, rather than in the eyes of the moral mind. Therefore, the ‘natural order’ is not necessarily something worth maintaining.

Let’s take a look at another example of wild animal intervention. In 2017, this video of a man by the roadside saving a rabbit from a forest fire in California went viral. The gentleman received unanimous praise from the public for his selflessness—likely saving this lucky wild rabbit from an ugly death.

Severe wildfires are well covered in the news, but they are not the only, and certainly not the most frequent or intense cause of suffering for wild animals. If we are in agreement that to save a wild rabbit from a torturous death by wildfire is a good thing, we must accept that if there are other ways we could reliably reduce wild animal suffering, we should seriously consider them.

What we can learn from the support of wildlife rehabilitation and the rabbit-saving hero is that we ought not to dismiss other types of intervention to reduce suffering of wild animals on principle. It would be morally inconsistent to accept that these types of wildlife intervention are good but dismiss other, more active interventions as bad, purely on the premise that we should leave the animal kingdom alone.

While we do not currently have sufficient understanding of complex ecosystems to manage the welfare of many individual wild animals, it does not follow that wild animal suffering is not tractable; rather, we are uncertain about its tractability. With more research into complex ecosystems and interventions to make them less unpleasant places to exist for animals, we could find cost-effective interventions that highlight wild animal suffering as a tractable cause. Support for current stewardship of the welfare of wild animals means that we ought to be open to implementing what this exciting future research presents us.

Matthew Allcock