Vegans should care about wild animal suffering because wild animals are not morally different from the other animals vegans care about, namely animals in captivity. Additionally, there are many more wild animals than there are in captivity, so that their average level of wellbeing might matter much more than that of captive animals.
Why vegans should care about wild animal suffering
This is straightforward. By definition, vegans embrace “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. 1. Now, wild animals are not exploited, but there is cruelty to them. They are harmed or killed by predators, struck by disease, natural disasters, or by famine. As there is cruelty to these animals, vegans should care about their suffering.
In response, one might argue that all these forms of suffering, apart from predation are not technically cruelty to them because there is no perpetrator. Instead, they are an undirected, naturally occurring form of misery. Therefore, vegans have no business with wild animal suffering that goes beyond predation. Maybe they should rot out all carnivores, as McMahan suggests, but that’s it then.
However, this would ignore the reason why vegans think cruelty to animals is wrong. Cruelty to animals is wrong because it causes them suffering. Now if vegans care about things that cause animals suffering, then they should also care about all forms of wild animal suffering.
Another response might be that the difference between captive and wild animals is that humans have no direct role in the suffering of wild animals, they are not the root cause of it. That should make no difference. An analogy, adapted from Peter Singer’s pond story, can help me clarify this point: Imagine you walk by a pond and see a child drowning. You don’t know the child, and you have nothing to do with the fact that the child is drowning. Most people would agree that you should jump into the pond and save the child. That’s in analogy with the wild animal. To take the analogy further, imagine that you have a neighbour who does not take very good care of their own child. That’s the captive animal, say a dairy cow. You stand at the pond and see a child drowning. Are you really only obliged to save the child if you recognise them as your neighbour’s? The answer, as I’m sure most people would agree, is no.
Wild animals are much more numerous than captive animals
There are thousands of billions of wild animals, compared with only 24 billion captive land animals and another few hundred thousand captive marine animals. By going vegan, you can save a few thousand of them every year, but you cannot do much more. Through campaigning and ‘veganising’ others, you might save a couple thousand more. But compare that to the thousands of billions who potentially suffer every year. If you pretend to care about animals, you should at least spend some time thinking about them as well.
Sources in order: UN 2019; Taylor et al 2008; World Atlas; FAOSTAT database (data from 2017); Wild birds and mammals (middle value of estimate range, respectively, cited in Tomasik 2009): Gaston and Blackburn (1997 p. 615), Matheny and Chan (2005, p. 585). 2
How we can help wild animals
Presently, we can rescue trapped animals, vaccinate them, help them in natural disasters, feed them, care for orphaned animals. In the future, as mentioned above, we might rot out (or sterilise) the carnivores, to prevent deaths through being eaten alive. Disasters might be avoided totally if we regulate the climate better.
However, the overall benefit of these interventions, present and future, is debatable.
It is recognised by biologists that the natural economy operates in a Malthusian model: the more animals survive (through the above interventions), the more offspring they will produce. This will continue until the point at which some of the babies do not make it past childhood because there is not enough food for them. Thus, by feeding animals for example, we might only alleviate animal hunger in the short run. By vaccinating them, we might also contribute to overpopulation, as well as through the elimination of carnivores.
It seems that this problem could only be solved if we used birth control on animal populations, yet that’s of course not yet possible. It might in fact never be possible. Given this fact, one might conclude that it is better to kill off all animals altogether – while this would of course cause suffering to one generation of animals, it would avoid it in the future.
Our view on this depends on the balance of pleasure and suffering that we think animals experience in their current lives. At present, it seems like we do not know much about that balance3, and thus more research is required.
In the meantime, I think one good way to start is to establish animal clinics and sanctuaries that help animals that are found suffering by humans. These sanctuaries should, for the above discussed Malthusian reasons, sterilise their patients.
- The Vegan Society 2019
- Note that these are all stock variables, apart from the number of vertebrates in experiment captivity, which is a flow variable (‘used per year’). As the life expectancy of lab animals is generally lower than 1 year, Tomasik 2009 estimates the number of lab animals at any given point in time to be lower than 100 million.
- Animal Ethics