Why I am Donating to Wild Animal Suffering Research
A dead turtle appeared on the shores of Playa Dorada in the Galapagos last month. The turtle, Benny, had died a few hours earlier, and his body was cold. Not too long ago Benny had been a baby with tiny little webbed hands and eyes that barely opened. You can see videos online of baby turtles just like Benny hatching and their little bodies moving oh-so-slowly as they meet the world for the first time. Benny had been one of them. Then he grew up and lived in the waters of the Galapagos–until one day, when he ate a jellyfish called "hielo," or ice, that poisoned him. Benny convulsed in severe pain until he suffered an abrupt death.
How did Benny die?
The species of the jellyfish that Benny eat is rapidly expanding thanks to the warming global climate.
Benny could not see the jellyfish because industrial chemicals had blinded him.
It was not a jellyfish that Benny ate–it was a plastic bag.If I told you any of the above stories–that Benny died because of a plastic bag, industrial chemicals, or climate change, you would be outraged. You would clamor for justice for animals like Benny, recognizing that he agonized unnecessarily.
The truth, though, is that Benny's death, as far as I can tell, had nothing to do to humans. It was simply an event that happened in the wild to Benny and fifty other turtles in a short period of time. It also happened to the jellyfish, who may feel pain, or not: we don't even know. Benny and so many others are why I have decided to start making monthly donations to Wild-Animal Suffering Research (WASR).
Wild-Animal Suffering Research is a new group started by the Europe-based Effective Altruism Foundation to research strategies to alleviate the suffering of wild animals. WASR's goal is to address questions very few people are addressing (basically just WASR, Animal Ethics, and Utility Farm from what I can tell). What is life like in the wild? How can it be improved? WASR currently runs off of a shoe-string budget with three part-time staff members, but it is looking to grow. Here's why I'm supporting them:
1) Impact: Animals in the wild suffer terror and pain on a massive scale, and virtually nobody even considers trying to address this problem. From WASR:
For every human on earth, there are at least 10 animals suffering in farms, and likely 1,000 to 100,000 wild vertebrates and plausibly 100,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 “bugs” (including creatures such as insects, spiders and earthworms).Simply put, to focus entirely on domesticated animals–human and nonhuman–is to examine a fraction of sentient life. Only two other groups, Animal Ethics and Utility Farm, seem to work on this.
Many individuals and organizations work on conservation, and some of this work probably helps wild animals, but this work in general serves another purpose: it focuses on species rather than individuals. What is good for turtles may not be good for The Turtle, and vice versa: one could imagine, say, cruel methods of population control that help keep a species alive while inflicting suffering on a scale tantamount to factory farming. Cornell Law Professor Sherry Colb has a beautiful essay on this subject (that neatly ties in Plato's Allegory of the Cave).
Some might object that there is nothing we can do for wild animals. When humans intervene in nature, it might be said, things go awry. There are two problems with this. First, human intervention in nature to date has generally been focused not on helping animals but on human ends. Second, many interventions in nature, while imperfect, have been far from clear failures. Even the act of building buildings is itself an intervention into nature. There's also the basic issue of what "nature" means. Humans, after all, are animals. In what sense are we not natural?
It's convenient to end the circles of compassion at nature's border, but it's not defensible. Peter Singer powerfully showed in Animal Liberation that our values toward humans imply compassion toward animals. A very similar logic implies compassion for wild animals.
In short, the world needs an organization that considers individual wild animals, and this is it. It's true that any systematic effort to intervene in nature right now is quite uncertain. That's why research is so valuable: it can help us know if there is anything that works. As WASR's own Ozy Brennan argues, there very well may be things we can do that would help–but we don't know them yet.
2) Organizational Competence: I am sympathetic to concerns with speculative causes. Speculation is rife with bias, and humans are not good at making predictions. Moreover, I think aid to wild animals is an area particularly deserving of caution.
Happily, I have been thoroughly impressed with my personal interactions with WASR staff as well as their output to date. WASR staff appear to be hesitant to draw radical conclusions and aware that common intuition often has a non-obvious reason behind it. Their research plan for the coming year illustrates a careful distribution of labor on the most important topics around wild animals. Importantly, they also seem to care a lot about expert advice and experience. I am concerned that many people in the current effective altruism movement give insufficient weight to the value of academic training, and WASR is interested in getting academics involved in research as much as possible.
I'm excited to be able to support a group that does as good work as WASR does. I explored a variety of charities, and I think there are a number that make equally excellent giving opportunities and deserve support. I'm very impressed with Animal Charity Evaluators (which I think is becoming more rigorous every year) and its new charity recommendations, with Charity Science, with upstart groups like the Sentience Institute, and increasingly with charities working on far future causes. I hope people support all of these groups, and for the reasons above, I hope WASR gets the funding it needs so that we can learn if Benny can be helped.
Update: I added Utility Farm above to the list of charities focusing on this issue at Louis Francini's suggestion.