Earlier this year, I interviewed Cameron Meyer Shorb, Acting Executive Director of the Wild Animal Initiative. Founded in 2019, WAI is dedicated to improving the lives of non-humans in nature. Animal Charity Evaluators recently named the nonprofit one of its main charities, noting that WAI was one of the few groups working in an important, albeit underdeveloped, field.
Splice today: How did your organization get started?
Cameron Meyer Shorb: As an area of cause, the welfare of wild animals grew out of a dialogue between ethics and ecology. There is a relatively large consensus among ethicists that we should prevent suffering where possible, including the suffering of other animals. Environmentalists point out that suffering is common in nature, where most animals go through difficult lives before dying prematurely from disease, starvation, exposure or other causes. But ethicists consider appeals to nature to be a logical error. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is desirable, as humans demonstrate every day by choosing to wear shoes and take medication to protect themselves from natural harms. Environmentalists warn that protecting other animals from natural damage wouldn’t be so simple, as species are diverse and ecosystems are complicated.
The need to act is clear, but the actions to be taken are radically uncertain. Conservation biology has made strides in informing conservation efforts for species and habitats. But attempting to improve the real quality of life for animals in the wild opens up a whole host of questions that remain largely unanswered: a scientific frontier that is as intellectually exciting as it is ethically important. Wild Animal Initiative was created to bridge the gap between the needs of wild animals and what we know about how to help them.
ST: What is your group doing?
CMS: Wild Animal Initiative strives to understand and improve the lives of wild animals. We believe the most responsible and effective way to do this is to support the growing field of academic research on the welfare of wild animals. We envision a thriving interdisciplinary community of researchers rigorously answering the questions of which animals are susceptible, what their life is like in the wild, and what we can do to help them.
Our work towards this goal currently consists of three programs. Our research program conducts fundamental research on the welfare of wild animals to identify promising methods and topics for academic researchers. Our outreach program helps researchers find opportunities to apply their expertise at these scientific frontiers. Finally, our grants program connects these pioneers with funders interested in research on the welfare of wild animals.
ST: Why do you choose to focus on the welfare of wild animals as opposed to the welfare of domestic animals? Is one more urgent than the other?
CMS: We focus on wild animals because there are so many and so neglected. Even under the most conservative assumptions, there are about a thousand times more wild animals than humans and pets combined. This means that at least 99.9% of all people living today are wild animals.
But most of the efforts that we think of as helping wildlife are actually aimed at helping species or ecosystems. Hardly anyone approaches it from the point of view of the individuals themselves: what would wild animals ask of us if they could? Preserving habitats or species may be part of the answer, but it is not the complete answer, as most wild animals struggle to survive even under natural conditions.
While the overwhelming majority of animals live in the wild, building a better future requires considering both the welfare of animals in captivity and the welfare of wild animals. Society cannot take the lives of wild animals seriously if they ignore the suffering of domestic animals. Factory farming must therefore cease. But the end of factory farming has uncertain consequences for wild animals. What happens to the vast expanses of land currently consumed by animal feed production will determine the number and well-being of the wild animals that end up living there.
Mitigating climate change will also require massive changes in land use as we increase renewable energy production and carbon sequestration. Either way, the next few decades will be a turning point for captive and wild animals. Advancing the science of wildlife welfare is the only way to ensure that this historic transition benefits as many people on Earth as possible.
ST: How has the animal movement at large reacted to your work?
CMS: The larger animal rights movement has been a constant source of support for our mission. Of course, it helps that animal advocates care deeply about non-human animals. But just as important, it is a movement of people open to new ideas. Many animal advocates can point to a time when learning to factory farm led them to see the world in a whole new way, including radically changing their diet and lifestyle. These people are exceptionally willing to learn that life in the wild is not as idyllic as it once thought, and they are motivated to take action to change the status quo.
The larger animal rights movement has made a real difference to our cause every step of the way. Animal ethicists were among the first to articulate the problem of suffering in wild animals and the obligation to prevent it. From the earliest days of the Wild Animal Initiative as a non-profit organization, Animal Advocates have supported our operations by sharing professional advice and donating to our organization. For example, Encompass helped us operationalize racial equity in our organization whenever they could do so without undermining their primary focus on farm animal welfare organizations.
Most importantly, in 2020, Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) intensively examined our profitability, adaptability, and need for additional funding. They concluded that we are one of the top four charities where they believe donor dollars can go the most to help animals. This was the first time ACE has awarded Top Charity status to a wildlife organization. Historically, ACE has focused on charities that reduce the harms of factory farming, for example by improving agricultural welfare standards, advocating plant-based diets, or accelerating the growth of the industry. alternative proteins. While we are far from the first organization to care about wildlife, ACE underscored our strategic and wellness-focused approach.
ST: What are the policy proposals, both modest and ambitious, that will alleviate the suffering of wild animals?
CMS: The most valuable thing policy makers can do to improve the welfare of wild animals is to invest in rigorous research into the most responsible and cost-effective ways to do it. A better understanding of how to measure well-being and take into account the trade-offs between different species will open up much more sustainable and scalable ways to help them. In the meantime, the diversity of wild animals also offers many different opportunities to help them in the short term. We are optimistic that while all of these issues cannot be resolved, many can. Here are some approaches that already look promising:
Make existing interactions more human. Humans kill many wild animals through agricultural pest control, urban pest control, commercial fishing, etc. We could prevent or eliminate much of the pain of these deaths by finding ways to share space, using non-lethal management methods such as birth control, or using less painful pesticides or fishing methods.
Reduce disease. The scientific community has made huge strides in reducing the burden of disease on humans and pets. These same techniques could be extended to protect wild animals from the most noxious or painful diseases.
Provide better habitat. Some landscapes are better for animals than others. As we restore habitats for biodiversity, plant forests for carbon sequestration, or otherwise alter landscapes, we should try to incorporate changes that create more opportunities for more animals to live good lives, all by limiting the risk of creating environments where survival is a struggle.