Animal Welfare in the Anthropocene

Jordan Hampton

Wild animals outnumber farmed animals by orders of magnitude. Are we obligated to help them? And even if we wanted to, do we know how?

Asterisk:  One of the major themes in your work is the consequentialist approach to conservation. Can you talk about this approach and what sets it apart from other ways people think about conservation, and in particular how we interact with wild animals?

Jordan:  My particular niche is trying to find a place for animal welfare. This is a relatively modern entrant into the values that are prioritized when it comes to wildlife management, but one that's become increasingly important, particularly in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. There's been a real focus on the welfare of individual animals in ecosystems, not just populations, species, or biodiversity. That's where some of my work has entered the fray. 

Any time we talk about intervening in the lives of wild animals beyond those species that we target — if, for example, we're particularly concerned about wild horses or kangaroos and decide that we should do something for them — there's the need to not only consider the direct consequences of those actions, but the indirect impacts that might affect nontarget species in that ecosystem. Consequences might be those that affect other species via trapping or shooting or roundup. 

Trapping or shooting have obvious consequences, but there are subtle effects that occur when we change ecosystems. Some well-meaning efforts to improve the lives of wild animals — for example fencing — have yielded unintentional and negative consequences. The framing of consequentialism reminds anyone involved in these decisions that there are implications beyond those that are intentional and designed to improve the lives of animals that people care about. 

A: It’s complicated to track the many impacts of any of these interventions. I'd love to talk about some of the case studies that you've done in a little more detail, like your work on using predators to control herbivores. It’s really fascinating to me in terms of the trade-offs that come up there.

J:  I think it's going to remain one of our prime dilemmas as we're collectively more interested in trying to restore our ecosystems, particularly the apex predators that sit within those ecosystems. These are animals that have important benefits for ecosystems, but on occasion they will eat us. They'll eat our kids. They'll eat our pets. So there are real-world negatives for us in terms of convenience and safety in having these predators provide these services to the ecosystem. 

That's the case in Australia. We have large populations of introduced herbivores, mostly ungulates or hoofed mammals. A lot of land managers, whether they're conservationists or farmers, would like to have some or all of these animals removed. One idea is that rather than shooting, poisoning, or trapping a large number of animals, we could use more “natural” control methods. This is where predators come in. When a native or established predator has been eradicated, like in the case of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, people start thinking, “we could just reintroduce this animal; it naturally lived here.” That's been the case with wolves in many places. It's been discussed with dingoes in Australia. But from an animal welfare perspective, well, how are these top predators achieving these desirable outcomes of fewer herbivores in the landscape or less grazing pressure? And the obvious reality is that they're chasing, attacking, and eating animals. 

A:  Do you think that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone ultimately had an overall positive or negative welfare impact on animals in that ecosystem? Or, if that’s not possible to answer, how would we go about trying to answer that?

J:  Animal welfare is a pretty young science, and there are some unavoidably subjective components to it. We don't have a good scientific basis to understand what's going on with consciousness in humans, so it's quite difficult with animals. But let's talk about at least three ways we can conceive of animal welfare. 

One is a net balance of positive to negative feelings. A second way of thinking about it is whether animals are performing natural behaviors. The third way is thinking about biological functioning, or just having good health. There could be an argument made that it's good for the welfare of wild herbivores to interact again with a predator they've evolved with on an individual animal level. I accept that the prospect of being run down and bitten and eaten alive doesn't sound appealing, but nonetheless we are talking about a natural relationship that's evolved over a long period of time. But if we think about the feelings approach to animal welfare, it's very hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s going to be bad. 

A:  The cortisol studies and the stress response studies just seem pretty compelling evidence that the experience for the animals is negative. It's hard to see how this consequentialist way of looking at it could square with a natural behaviors approach. 

J: The interesting thing about studies that utilize cortisol or other stress hormones is that there's a growing recognition that they really just measure levels of arousal, not necessarily of negative experience. Cortisol will certainly go up during long-term painful experiences, but they'll also go up during generally pleasurable experiences like sex and eating. So we have a tool that's useful for looking at how aroused animals are, but not necessarily whether that arousal is associated with something that's positive or negative. 

And yes, different ways of thinking about ethics and welfare often don't overlap a lot. A natural-behavior benefit for an animal doesn't always mean that there's going to be an associated improvement in their subjective experiences.

Melody Newcomb

A:  This also ties into your work on wildlife contraception. I think there is a sense among people who don't follow this closely that contraception is more humane than lethal control methods. But you've written about how hormonal contraception and endocrine disruptors really get in the way of animals expressing natural behaviors. It even changes them physiologically, and we don't understand the welfare effects of this.

J:  Most thinking around animal welfare came from laboratory livestock or pet animal scenarios — animals for which humans had a widely understood duty of care, animals that lived in very unnatural conditions. For most of us that own pets, fertility control is widely seen to be a good thing, certainly preferable to having mass numbers of animals killed. But with wildlife, there are other considerations. First, there’s the logistics. It's quite difficult to make it effective at a population scale unless we have small islands and fenced populations. I think most of the fertility control came about from a distaste for killing. There has been  a growing global movement towards mutualism and thinking that, rather than having dominion over wild animals and killing them whenever they’re inconvenient to us, perhaps we can learn to live with them.

But treating animals with a surgical procedure, or an implant, or a vaccine designed to reduce their reproduction is going to have impacts on their physiology and on population demographics. There's some evolutionary concern about the selection pressures imposed if we do start using fertility control widely. What traits will be selected for amongst those animals that remain fertile? Even at an individual animal level, if we're using hormonal products that do markedly change the physiology of an animal, that might mean that they're less capable of competing with rivals. We use chemicals that reduce the body size or muscle mass of male animals or that prevent fertilization in females, leading to prolonged estrus periods associated with the stress and the competition of mating seasons. And then there's longer term indirect impacts that we're really not quite sure about right now.

A:  Some of the studies that try to use more subjective models seem, intuitively, to me as a human, that they overweight the suffering associated with very quick deaths. Take leopards, which tend to kill in less than sixty seconds. In a model like the Five Domains Model, this is rated as very high suffering, because those few seconds before the animal dies are presumably quite painful. But it’s over so quickly. It seems less bad than some ways I as a human with good medical care might expect to die, and it’s certainly less bad than most ways that animals could die in the wild. I’m curious about some of the intuitions that go into trying to quantify these effects and weigh them against each other.

J:  I think intuitions is the key word there. A real stumbling block for all of this science is that it's hard to separate our own tastes or distaste for what we'd like to happen to us from what we think is good or bad for an animal. Prey animals have an evolved aversion to the idea of being attacked and eaten. It's hard for us to sit back and say, “well, you know, I don't think that would be so bad,” without putting ourselves in that position of being hunted down by a pack of ravenous animals. On the other hand, there are killing methods that have been shown from our objective measures to be relatively quick, efficient, and painless. Here I'm thinking about methods like the shooting of kangaroos at night time in Australia, where the animals are required to be shot in the head. Ninety-eight or ninety-nine percent of animals probably have no experience of it beyond seeing a bright light. Most people intuitively still don't like the idea of that, and if they're forced to think about the welfare impact, they generally score it as quite high suffering. So this is a limitation of relying on expert opinion and thinking about subjective experiences. 

A:  Speaking of intuitions, let’s talk about hunting. I think a lot of people, including myself, have the intuition that it's this across-the-board more humane alternative to eating farmed meat. But you have some interesting work on how the welfare impacts of hunting vary a lot depending on the hunting technique. 

J:  When we compare food production methods on animal welfare grounds or biodiversity or anything else, it's all about land clearing. Any food production method that doesn't require the clearing of land is going to yield better outcomes for individual animals. That’s where hunting and other forms of wildlife harvesting have a genuine advantage over our traditional widespread clearing, fencing, monoculture cropping, or livestock grazing regimes. But obviously it involves the killing of animals, so there are always going to be animal welfare impacts. We have seen an incredible evolution in hunting methods used over the last few centuries. 

Still, there are a number of techniques in modern recreational hunting that involve serious animal welfare concerns. Take the use of dogs to hunt large mammals. First, we have concerns there for the animal being hunted — say a deer being pursued through a forested area for several miles — and for the dogs themselves.  There's also been a long-term concern about wounding. It's relatively easy to hit a duck but not kill it outright. How long do they survive for and how impeded are they? 

And then there's a really broad group of indirect impacts that come about from nearly all hunting methods. Lead has been used widely in ammunition for as long as we've had guns, and it's a really nasty toxicant. There's been a move internationally to replace some of the lead used in ammunition so that we reduce the nontarget impacts on wildlife species. 

A: In a lot of animal welfare work, there is, I can sense, a real need to be sensitive to the concerns of hunters, ranchers, farmers, wildlife managers, of all of these people who have stakes in how we treat wild animals, but for whom animal welfare is not their first priority. 

J:  My PhD supervisor used to say to me, “if you want to improve animal welfare, you have to start by being inside the tent.” You need to have enough rapport to be part of the conversations and have your suggestions taken seriously if you want to see any improvements made. A lot of really strong emotions and opinions come out in animal welfare. There are some ethical views that are really aligned with abolition of all animal use practices, whether that’s farming or hunting or even pet ownership. But the disadvantage of some of the more extreme views is that those groups have been marginalized, and their voices haven't been considered when management or regulatory decisions are made. 

A:  Abolition is an interesting concept. It seems very nonobvious to me that wild animals have higher welfare lives than domesticated animals. 

J:  And I would say that many people would disagree with you directly.

A:  What do you think?

J:  My feeling is that globally we're moving towards a situation where most people that are influential within animal welfare feel that livestock have better lives. And I think increasingly we're seeing wildlife managers, veterinarians, and other biologists trying to treat wild animals more like we would treat domestic pets or livestock. There’s more discussion of supplementary feeding during cold winters or after bushfires, more discussion of parasitism, of whether we should intervene to save animals if they're drowning in a river or a flood. And even if that's not a conscious decision, I think it's being manifested in how we manage wildlife. We’ve moved from the older days of “nature red in tooth and claw” to the attitude that we're in the Anthropocene now and everything that happens on the globe is within our sphere of influence. 

A:  So in your personal opinion, what is the lowest-suffering diet a person could eat?

J:  I did a project with a few colleagues on a very conceptual overview of this question. We settled on foraging for wild plants and wild fungi. If you could make it nutritionally balanced, that would negatively impact the fewest animals. Beyond that, we started moving down the rankings, and we found that if you can harvest abundant wildlife species in a way that results in a very quick death, that's going to really yield very few animal welfare impacts. But anything that involves the clearing of land fencing, irrigation, or fertilizers is going to impact millions and millions of animals, often in indirect or invisible ways.

A:  I've been having a bit of a crisis about wheat since I read in a paper that around five-hundred mice are poisoned for every ton of wheat harvested in Australia. And rodent poison is usually a horrifically painful way to die. 

J:  What happens to those species that live in the paddock really is significant, particularly with mice that will congregate en masse when there's grain spilled on the ground or stored in a silo or grain elevator, and it’s quantifiable. A few studies have had eye-watering results about the number of small mammals that are killed. 

But if you want to minimize the animal welfare impacts from how you get your food, land clearing alone is much better than first clearing the land and then putting cattle on it. There are impacts on the cattle themselves, and then there might be predator control to prevent the cows from being eaten, and fertilizer and irrigation and fencing. These consequences just add up and up and up. In the paper we did, we ended up with intensive dairy farming as one of the worst systems. 

A:  I thought that dairy cattle themselves had some of the better lives among intensively farmed animals.

J: There is diversity in dairy production systems, but it's certainly an industry that involves daily interference in the lives of animals and quite a lot of external inputs required for the system to work.

A:  So, order of magnitude, do you think that the direct harm done to farmed animals is more or less than the indirect harm done to other species that are affected by land clearing? 

J:  In any context, the indirect harms are going to dwarf anything that we do directly, and they're not always intuitive. Whatever our understanding is right now of the indirect harms being created by cropping or fencing or clearing, it's likely that we're missing a lot. In Australia, something that looks relatively benign, like the use of fertilizer, causes outbreaks of blue-green algae because the extra nitrogen is ending up in our creeks and our rivers, which is in turn causing the mass death of fish and profound impacts to marine and estuarine ecosystems. If we're going to think about animals in a relatively egalitarian sense, in that they all have lives or welfare status that's roughly equal, the indirect harms are just astonishingly elevated beyond what we do directly.

A:  What do you think the most under-addressed issues in wild animal welfare research are right now?

J:  I've been researching pollutants for the last few years, and I'm amazed at how widespread they’ve become, from Arctic ecosystems through to the tropics, and the diversity of pollutants, from pharmaceuticals to heavy metals. I think over time we're going to find that these chemicals are having harmful impacts on the lives of animals. But a lot of the time they're difficult to study.

I think it's easy to get emotional about seeing a rat caught in a trap or a kangaroo shot, but I don't think those direct impacts are the bigger story. The indirect stuff we're doing through climate, through the spread of species and infectious agents and chemicals, are probably having really profound and accelerating impacts. My feeling is we're going to start seeing more and more of that the deeper we dig.

Jordan Hampton is a McKenzie Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and a veterinarian with broad research interests in wildlife management, animal welfare, toxicology, public health, and ethics.

Published March 2023

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