Wild Animal Suffering

Wolves and Elk

Wild animals matter too. This is an area often overlooked in calculations about the effectiveness of our actions to reduce suffering. It is an under-researched, underemphasized issue which may be crucial to evaluate the effectiveness of certain actions we may take, both now and in the future.

About the Problem

The idyllic descriptions of life in the wild that are prominent in media about wild animals are drastically incomplete. Many animals die in excruciating pain after living very short lives. Particularly troubling are the species whose strategy is to “live fast, die young, and leave plenty of offspring.” Many produce thousands of young, the vast majority of which die very quickly. Richard Dawkins is one of many who have remarked on the cruelty of nature: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.”1

Historically, ecologists have used the concepts of K-selection and r-selection to describe a heuristic difference between species in which parents invest many resources in raising a few young and species in which parents have many young and invest few resources in each. Many of the more charismatic species of wild animals, including elephants and apes, are mostly K-selected, raise their young carefully, and live relatively long lives. This leads to a perception that life in the wild is not so bad. However, r-selected species are extremely common in nature. Many such animals, including most fish, birds, and insects, are small, and often their populations are accordingly higher, at least at times of year when their young have recently been born. Even if animals’ sentience or ability to experience pain or pleasure depends partly on their size, the numbers in the following table (from Tomasik 2013a) suggest that ignoring the lives of r-selected animals leads to a severe underestimate of the suffering that occurs in nature. Additionally, the raw numbers provide some guide as to how much of the pleasure and pain experienced in the world is experienced neither by humans nor domesticated animals, but by animals in the wild.

Animal Type World Population
Humans 7 * 109
Livestock 2.4 * 1010
Land Birds 6 * 1010 to 4 * 1011
Land Mammals 1011 to 1012
Land Reptiles 1012 to 1013 (?)
Land Amphibians 1012 to 1013 (?)
Fish at least 1013
Insects 1018 to 1019
Zooplankton 1018 to 1021

What Can We Do?

Currently, one important thing we can do is promote concern for wild animals in the hope that future generations—who are likely to have much more wealth, technology, and knowledge—will act rationally and humanely to reduce suffering in nature. Animal ethicist Oscar Horta explains: “Our job now is to prepare the grounds for forthcoming generations to take action where we may be currently unable to act.”

Promoting concern for wild animals now is critical for two reasons. First, such concern is not widespread. Many people believe that human concern for non-human animals can be restricted to those animals whose suffering is directly caused by humans. Others believe that humans should be concerned about what happens in nature, but in the interest of protecting species or ecosystems rather than the individual animals who feel pleasure and pain. Second, our current understanding of many factors is highly incomplete. These include animal sentience, the amount of suffering caused by different experiences, and the effects of interventions on ecosystems and the animals in them. Many actions that appear to have positive consequences now might have negative consequences in reality, so many direct interventions should wait until we know more. By promoting concern for wild animals, we can hasten this time.

Another strategy currently employed by some activists is working to end human activities that increase suffering in nature. For example, there is evidence suggesting that wild-caught fishing increases the number of small, short-lived fish by decreasing predator populations. If the small fish then starve to death due to reduced predation resulting in insufficient food supply, total suffering may increase significantly. Should further research strengthen these conclusions, this would provide a viable means to prevent large amounts of wild animal suffering in the present. This strategy raises awareness of wild animal suffering while avoiding a taboo against intentional intervention in nature.

Besides advocacy, a promising avenue for effective animal activists is research. Wild animal suffering has been a neglected issue, so there are far more questions than answers. For example, what types of animals suffer most? Which ecosystems have the most suffering? How do various human interventions affect suffering? One of the most important and challenging areas of research involves the existence or depth of pain felt by animals. It could be an interesting and rewarding career to answer questions on the cutting-edge of neuroscience and the philosophy of mind.


Efforts to reduce wild animal suffering are riskier than other causes, but the stakes are too high to ignore. As John Stuart Mill said, “In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature's every day performances…. The phrases which ascribe perfection to the course of nature can only be considered as the exaggerations of poetic or devotional feeling, not intended to stand the test of a sober examination. No one, either religious or irreligious, believes that the hurtful agencies of nature, considered as a whole, promote good purposes, in any other way than by inciting human rational creatures to rise up and struggle against them.” As beings who are both intelligent and empathetic, we occupy a rare position in our world. If we choose to, we can use it to shape the experience of all animals, reducing suffering and promoting general well-being.


McMahan, J. (September 19, 2010). The Meat Eaters.
Tier-im-fokus.ch. (January 29, 2013). Oscar Horta - Why Animal Suffering is Overwhelmingly Prevalent in Nature.
Tomasik,B. (2013a). How many wild animals are there?
Tomasik, B. (2013b). Should We Intervene in Nature?
Tomasik, B. (2014). The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering.
Tomasik, B. (n.d.). The Predominance of Wild-Animal Suffering over Happiness: An Open Problem.

  1. Dawkins, R. (1995). River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books