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Speaker Biographies and Abstract

Professor Clare Palmer (Texas A&M University, USA)
What is wild animal welfare, and how far should we care about it?

Wild-living wild mammals, birds and fish can - like animals kept by humans - have good or bad welfare. But until recently, wild animal welfare was only (sometimes) considered in the context of wildlife management or control. However, this is now changing, for at least two reasons. First, wild animal lives are increasingly impacted by human activities, including global climate change. And second, new waves of philosophical thinking have highlighted the importance of all suffering, including that of wild-living wild animals.  However, taking wild animal welfare seriously appears to raise overwhelming difficulties, both theoretically and practically. For instance, are we supposed to be policing predation? In this talk, I will try to address such issues head-on.

I’ll begin by considering whether there’s anything distinctive about wild animal welfare. Like any sentient being, wild animals can be well- or malnourished, healthy or sick, can live in a more or less welcoming physical environment, and can exercise more or less natural behaviours. They share this with farm, laboratory, zoo and companion animals. But, I’ll suggest, autonomy can be seen as especially important for the welfare of wild animals.

However, that wild animals can have good or bad welfare doesn’t give us ethical guidance about whether we have responsibilities to do anything about wild animal welfare. And here’s where some difficult issues arise.

Despite being routinely ignored (for instance in building new roads and housing), from almost all ethical positions, harming individual wild animals matters - although such harms may carry different weights, depending on the relative importance of human interests and environmental values in relation to animal suffering.

What I’ll focus on here, however, is not so much ethical issues raised by harming wild animals, but those raised by helping them. Here there are strongly defended, and divergent, ethical views; I’ll discuss three of these (though they may best be understood as points on a spectrum).

  • First are broadly ecological views in which wild animals are primarily understood as parts of wild ecological systems and species. Here, helping wild animals is seen through an ecological lens; unless (for instance) an animal’s species is threatened, assisting individual wild animals is not only not ethically required, it risks undermining other values such as naturalness, and so is discouraged.
  • Second are broadly relational ethical views. While people don’t have general obligations to assist wild animals, for instance in the face of diseases or predation, such obligations might be generated by anthropogenic harms.
  • Third are views - defended from within a variety of ethical theories - that the suffering of all animals, whether wild or domesticated, is of equal importance; and we should endeavor to help all of them, provided that such assistance doesn’t make matters worse down the line.

Having laid out this territory, I’ll then make some suggestions about how to navigate the conflicts here. I’ll argue that (a) There are good reasons to minimize harms to wild animals, for instance in conservation interventions (b) There are also good reasons to consider ways of helping animals significantly harmed by human activities (c) If there are occasions where naturally suffering wild animals can be helped at low cost and low risk, there is at least reason to consider such interventions.

However, in all these cases, I’ll suggest it’s important to weigh values, including the value of human welfare, environmental justice, species protection and ecosystem function. While wild animal welfare should be taken seriously, it shouldn’t be regarded as the only value at stake.

 

Dr Clare Palmer is the George T. and Gladys H. Abell Professor of Liberal Arts & Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University. Originally from the UK, she studied at Oxford University, and worked in the UK, Australia, and the US before moving to her current position in 2010. Her research encompasses animal and environmental ethics – particularly the intersection between the two – and the ethics of emerging technologies. She’s the author or co-author of a number of books including Animal Ethics in Context (2010) Companion Animal Ethics (2015) and, in 2023 with a small team of co-authors, Wildlife Ethics: The ethics of wildlife management and conservation, published in UFAW’S Wiley Blackwell series. Clare is a past elected President of the International Society of Environmental Ethics, and is currently working on a project funded by the US National Endowment for the Humanities on the ethics of using biotechnology for conservation purposes. Together with Peter Sandøe and Dan Weary, she co-authors a monthly Ethics column in the Canadian Veterinary Journal.