We should never ignore any wild animal’s ordeal providence has placed in our way.
Ethical veganism is anti-speciesist by definition. This is the original concept of veganism as defined by the Vegan Society in which all forms of animal exploitation are avoided, not only those related to diet.
That is to say, it opposes the discrimination of sentient beings on the basis of which species they belong to, in the same way antiracists do, regarding the races humans may belong to.
Therefore, for an ethical vegan, wild animals such as foxes, snakes or wasps should matter as much as chickens, pigs and cows.
In the wild, many animals suffer a great deal due to disease, injury, parasitism, starvation, extreme weather, natural disasters, and predation, problems not directly caused by humans.
Ethical vegans attempting to avoid the harm of other sentient beings could be harming them ‘by omission’. For example, if they encounter an animal in need and are able to alleviate their suffering easily, but decide not to intervene.
Should vegans then try to help prey escape predators, or prevent the fittest offspring of a wild animal outlive the weakest? Not all vegans will give you the same answer.
Some say vegans have an ethical imperative to give wild animals the same consideration as they would domesticated animals.
They say we have a moral obligation to try to reduce, as much as possible, the suffering of all sentient beings of this living planet, and ‘the wild’ is where more suffering is found.
Others say humans are the worst cause of suffering, and any attempt to mess with Nature will end up causing more, as humans have neither the knowledge nor the capacity to intervene in a meaningful way.
They believe the best we can do is avoid being the cause of suffering to the animals we have under our control and let ‘Mother Nature’ deal with the rest. Who is right?
I have been an ethical vegan for almost twenty years now, so I have tried to answer this question many times, especially because my professional career as an animal protectionist has often involved wild animals.
Sometimes I have agreed with one side of the debate, sometimes with the other.
I believe humans tend to create more suffering when they intervene in natural processes, even when the intention was the opposite. For example, captive breeding programmes and the introduction of non-native species have had unintended consequences.
On the other hand, humans are already the cause of suffering for many animals in the wild.
If we are morally obliged to prevent human-made suffering, we then should intervene to help wild animals every time we infect them with pathogens Nature would not have exposed them to (such as Bovine Tb in badgers).
We should help when we cause them starvation because we destroyed their food; when they are eaten because we have forced their predators to move to new areas due to habitat destruction, or when we have messed with their numbers and territories by hunting them.
Natural selection may have avoided an ‘excess’ of suffering in the wild. It has already provided endorphins and the ‘state of shock’ to alleviate suffering.
In the case of the short-tailed grasshopper mice, it has provided resistance to the bark scorpion’s venom – we have already identified the genetic mutation allowing them not to feel pain when stung.
However, these natural coping mechanisms to reduce suffering may not be triggered when the animals are in unnatural situations, such as in captivity or hunted by human technology.
It is possible human-made suffering is, on average, worse as the animals’ biology and psychology may not cope with it as well as they cope with the suffering caused by a natural situation.
In other words, the ‘quality’ of human-made suffering may be worse than Nature-made suffering, and this may compensate for the differences in ‘quantity’.
Those who claim most animals in the wild have negative net welfare (overall experiencing more suffering than happiness) may be too anthropocentric in how they interpret suffering and happiness, possibly overestimating the former and underestimating the latter.
Perhaps they are influenced by Nature documentaries, which tend to focus on the most dramatic moments of life in the wild, such as being killed and ignore the average life of the average wild animal.
People often assume prey are in a constant state of fear, worrying about whether a predator may be around the corner, but such ‘anxiety’ is a very human trait often based on overanalysing information.
It is unlikely to be experienced in prey animals who tend to live in the moment, and who have evolved to detect and evade their natural predators most of the time.
There is also a tendency to be ‘preycentric’, ignoring how ‘happy’ hungry predators might become when they finally catch something to eat and to feed to their offspring.
It is possible that, on average, the suffering of prey may be compensated for by the happiness of predators, especially considering more prey escape than are caught and killed.
Once a cheetah has taken an impala to the ground, she bites the throat with a method known as ‘throat clump’, and this leads to a relatively quick death by suffocation.
The ‘reduction of suffering’ in this case probably co-evolved in both species as a prolonged struggle might end up being too costly for both sides in terms of injury and starvation.
If you give enough time for evolution to do its thing and if natural ecosystems are left undisturbed, it seems suffering (the biological adaptation of having a negative experience to identify an avoidable adverse situation) may exist in the wild in ‘the right amount’, as any other biological trait.
Today our human-made climate breakdown is now affecting our entire living planet.
If we want to be consistent and not speciesist, we need to try to help animals in the wild as much as those in our care, because both are now affected by our behaviour, and both are equally sentient and suffer because of it.
How can we vegans help, though, with such a huge problem and with the history of humanity making things worse every time it tries to intervene?
In the last few months, I finally managed to crystallise a consistent enough answer to this question when I was writing my book ‘Ethical Vegan’.
In it, I introduce a new concept I call ‘ordeal involvement’, in which we should try to stop any ordeal (a very unpleasant and prolonged negative experience) humans are causing to animals because of their direct collective intervention (hunting, pollution, habitat destruction, etc.).
But for the other cases of wild animal suffering, a judgement can be made on a case-by-case basis to decide if, when and how to intervene, based on the degree of the ordeal and our personal involvement after we suddenly find ourselves part of ‘the scene’.
I believe we should leave the most isolated parts of Nature alone as much as we can, trying to rewild the areas close to them, ‘reconnecting’ all the patches of wildness left.
However, at the same time we should never ignore any wild animal’s ordeal providence has placed in our way.
And this is why I am in favour of rescuing stranded animals we encounter, healing injured wildlife which can be rehabilitated back into the wild, or putting out of its misery an agonising wild animal who cannot be saved.
This compromise is intended to give Nature the chance to still select the fittest and create balanced ecosystems where the net amount of suffering overall is likely to be below unbalanced habitats, and at the same time fulfil our moral obligations when we find ourselves involved.
It’s not about eradicating suffering, but about minimising the harm we do to animals. It’s not about fighting Nature, but about avoiding breaking its balance.
Neither is it about closing our eyes and looking away. It is to help significantly when we are already involved and we are sure the suffering experienced is severe.
It is to give equal consideration to all sentient beings in that situation, understanding and trusting Nature, and taking responsibility as a participant, not as an observer. It’s not perfect, but good enough for me.
Jordi Casamitjana is a vegan zoologist, animal protectionist, and author of the book Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world. Twitter @jayseecosta.