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Wild animal suffering

suffering experienced by nonhuman animals in nature through causes such as disease, injury, starvation, natural disasters, and killings by other animals
Juvenile Carpet Snake eating Cane Toad

Wild animal suffering is the suffering experienced by nonhuman animals in the wild due to harms such as disease, injury, parasitism, starvation, extreme weather conditions, natural disasters, and predation.

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  • On the one hand, animals in nature face all kinds of coercive horrors, such as starvation and disease. According to the Principle of Negative Fairness, these natural horrors are a moral issue: we should care about the coercive horrors that animals experience in nature. Simply leaving animals alone in nature – however much animal advocates may like to romanticize it – is, on Rightness as Fairness, not fair to animals. Just as there is nothing fair about leaving fellow human beings to suffer or die from starvation or disease, so too is there nothing fair about leaving animals to suffer and die from such things in nature.
    • Marcus Arvan, Rightness as Fairness: A Moral and Political Theory (2016) ISBN: 9781349712649
  • People who accuse us of putting in too much violence, [should see] what we leave on the cutting-room floor. My conscience troubles me more about reducing the pain and savagery that there is in the natural world than the reverse.


  • But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.
  • Many humans look at nature from an aesthetic perspective and think in terms of biodiversity and the health of ecosystems, but forget that the animals that inhabit these ecosystems are individuals and have their own needs. Disease, starvation, predation, ostracism, and sexual frustration are endemic in so-called healthy ecosystems. The great taboo in the animal rights movement is that most suffering is due to natural causes. Any proposal for remedying this situation is bound to sound utopian, but my dream is that one day the sun will rise on Earth and all sentient creatures will greet the new day with joy.
  • Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder.
    • Nick Bostrom, In Defence of Posthuman Dignity (2005). Bioethics, Vol. 19, No. 3. pp. 202-214.


  • If nature as a whole is good, then pain and death are also good.
    • J. Baird Callicott, “Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair” Environmental Ethics 2 (4):333. (1980).
  • In other cases we are interfering with nature, whether we like it or not. It is not a question of uncertainty holding us back from policing, but rather how to compare one form of policing to another. Humans change water levels, fertilize particular soils, influence climatic conditions, and do many other things that affect the balance of power in nature. These human activities will not go away any time soon, but in the meantime we need to evaluate their effects on carnivores and their victims.


  • I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
  • That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?
    • Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1887)
  • What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!
    • Charles Darwin, Letter to J.D. Hooker (13 July 1856)
  • The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.
    • Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995) ISBN: 9781857994056
  • Wild animals almost never die of old age: starvation, disease, or predators catch up with them long before they become really senile. Until recently this was true of man too. Most animals die in childhood, many never get beyond the egg stage. Starvation and other causes of death are the ultimate reason why populations cannot increase indefinitely. But as we have seen for our own species, there is no necessary reason why it ever has to come to that. If only animals would control their birth rates, starvation need never happen.
    • Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1989) ISBN: 9780192860927


  • [. . .] it is clear you have either never taken a course in ecology and evolution, or forgot the message. There is this strange thing called a food web – in which organisms are primary producers, eat primary producers, eat the eaters of primary producers – and so on. That is called life. It has NO ethical or moral values. Those are HUMAN values. A wolf or lion kills another animal – the pain and suffering are not ecological issues – the life of the wolf or lion is the issue. If the wolf or lion dies of starvation – then the prey potentially become over populated – like the deer in Princeton. Your values are not the values of nature.
  • Indeed the amount of suffering and premature death present in nature could still be glimpsed were we only to consider the tiny number of animals that successfully reach maturity in comparison to those who die shortly after coming into existence. Population dynamics shows how this figure is very low because of the prevalent reproductive strategy in nature, which consists in producing very large numbers of offspring who have very little chance of survival.


  • All species reproduce in excess, way past the carrying capacity of their niche. In her lifetime a lioness might have 20 cubs; a pigeon, 150 chicks; a mouse, 1000 kits; a trout, 20,000 fry, a tuna or cod, a million fry or more; [...] and an oyster, perhaps a hundred million spat. If one assumes that the population of each of these species is, from generation to generation, roughly equal, then on average only one offspring will survive to replace each parent. All the other thousands and millions will die, one way or another.
    • Fred Hapgood, Why males exist: an inquiry into the evolution of sex. Morrow (1979).
  • At first sight, domesticated animals may seem much better off than their wild cousins and ancestors. Wild buffaloes spend their days searching for food, water and shelter, and are constantly threatened by lions, parasites, floods and droughts. Domesticated cattle, by contrast, enjoy care and protection from humans. People provide cows and calves with food, water and shelter, they treat their diseases, and protect them from predators and natural disasters. True, most cows and calves sooner or later find themselves in the slaughterhouse. Yet does that make their fate any worse than that of wild buffaloes? Is it better to be devoured by a lion than slaughtered by a man? Are crocodile teeth kinder than steel blades?
  • Nature is babies with teeth growing up into their skulls. It's animals with open wounds rotting over without treatment. It's swollen feet and hunger and painful, infectious blindness. I see a healthy-looking animal getting ripped open and eaten alive by a predator, and while I flinch, I honestly think "Wow, it looked healthy - it was really lucky that only those last 30 minutes were intensely painful."
  • It is commonly believed that animal ethics entails respect for natural processes, because nonhuman animals are able to live relatively easy and happy lives in the wild. However, this assumption is wrong. Due to the most widespread reproductive strategy in nature, r-selection, the overwhelming majority of nonhuman animals die shortly after they come into existence. They starve or are eaten alive, which means their suffering vastly outweighs their happiness. Hence, concern for nonhuman animals entails that we should try to intervene in nature to reduce the enormous amount of harm they suffer. Even if this conclusion may seem extremely counter-intuitive at first, it can only be rejected from a speciesist viewpoint.
  • Then, I claim that if we abandon a speciesist viewpoint we should change completely the way in which we should intervene in nature. Rather than intervening for environmental or anthropocentric reasons, we should do it in order to reduce the harms that nonhuman animals suffer. This conflicts significantly with some fundamental environmental ideals whose defence is not compatible with the consideration of the interests of nonhuman animals.
  • Similarly, some people have argued that the harms suffered by animals in the wild (e.g. disease, starvation and predation) should not concern us because they are natural. This sounds like a speciesist claim, given that such a view is rarely held when humans suffer those harms. Also, it seems that if the animals themselves could have a say on this, they would clearly prefer to be spared those harms, as we would in their situation.
  • This means that the number of animals that come into existence only to die shortly after is extremely high. On average, if we consider a context in which populations remain stable at least in the mid term, for each animal that reproduces, only one of her or his offspring survives (otherwise animal populations would grow exponentially very fast, and would become massive with just one generation). This means that all the rest of the animals die. Many of them die shortly after coming into existence. These animals starve to death, are eaten by other animals, or die for other reasons that usually entail a great deal of suffering. This means that an enormous number of animals come into existence only to suffer. Their lives contain virtually no enjoyment, since they die shortly after they start to exist. However, their lives do contain significant suffering, because of the painful ways in which they die. They thus live lives in which disvalue outweighs value. Living their lives causes them more harm than good. In fact, in many cases it causes them great harm and no good at all.
  • Observe, too, says Philo, the curious artifices of nature, in order to embitter the life of every living being. The stronger prey upon the weaker, and keep them in perpetual terror and anxiety. The weaker too, in their turn, often prey upon the stronger, and vex and molest them without relaxation. Consider that innumerable race of insects, which either are bred on the body of each animal, or flying about infix their stings in him. These insects have others still less than themselves, which torment them. And thus on each hand, before and behind, above and below, every animal is surrounded with enemies, which incessantly seek his misery and destruction.
    • David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)
  • Natural selection, in fact, though like the mills of God in grinding slowly and grinding small, has few other attributes that a civilized religion would call divine. . . . Its products are just as likely to be aesthetically, morally, or intellectually repulsive to us as they are to be attractive. We need only think of the ugliness of Sacculina or a bladder-worm, the stupidity of a rhinoceros or a stegosaur, the horror of a female mantis devouring its mate or a brood of ichneumon flies slowly eating out a caterpillar.
  • The creatures are [. . .] set to fight—whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his thumbs down, as no quarter is given. He must admit that the skill and training displayed are wonderful. But he must shut his eyes if he would not see that more or less enduring suffering is the meed of both vanquished and victor. And [. . . ] the great game is going on in every corner of the world, thousands of times a minute; [. . .] were our ears sharp enough, we need not descend to the gates of hell to hear sospiri, pianti, ed alti guai. . . . Voci alte e floche, e suon di man con elle.
    • Thomas Huxley “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society”, Evolution & Ethics and Other Essays. 1894.


  • A while ago I watched a wildlife documentary about Komodo dragons poisoning, tracking for a week or so, and then, finally, when their victim became too weak to defend itself, disembowelling and eating alive, a water buffalo. The cameraman said this had been his first ever wildlife assignment, and it would probably also be his last, because he couldn’t cope with the depth of suffering he had been forced to witness. That was just one poor creature. Each day, millions of animals are similarly forced to tear each other limb from limb to survive. And this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. This is, in many ways, a beautiful world. But it’s also a staggeringly cruel and horrific world for very many of its inhabitants.


  • The lioness sinks her scimitar talons into the zebra's rump. They rip through the tough hide and anchor deep into the muscle. The startled animal lets out a loud bellow as its body hits the ground. An instant later the lioness releases her claws from its buttocks and sinks her teeth into the zebra's throat, choking off the sound of terror. Her canine teeth are long and sharp, but an animal as large as a zebra has a massive neck, with a thick layer of muscle beneath the skin, so although the teeth puncture the hide they are too short to reach any major blood vessels. She must therefore kill the zebra by asphyxiation, clamping her powerful jaws around its trachea (windpipe), cutting off the air to its lungs. It is a slow death. If this had been a small animal, say a Thomson's gazelle (Gazella thomsoni) the size of a large dog, she would have bitten it through the nape of the neck; her canine teeth would then have probably crushed the vertebrae or the base of the skull, causing instant death. As it is, the zebra's death throes will last five or six minutes.
    • Christopher McGowan, The Raptor and the Lamb: Predators and Prey in the Living World (1997)
  • The suffering that animals undergo while being caught and eaten may be intense and the process by which they are killed may last for a quarter of an hour or more. Because the number of predators worldwide is enormous, and because, like us, many of them must eat with considerable frequency, the aggregate amount of suffering in the world at any time that is caused by predation is unimaginably vast.
  • Viewed from a distance, the natural world often presents a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. Yet beneath the foliage and hidden from the distant eye, a vast, unceasing slaughter rages. Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous.
  • 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.
  • If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals. They have been lavishly fitted out with the instruments necessary for that purpose; their strongest instincts impel them to it, and many of them seem to have been constructed incapable of supporting themselves by any other food. If a tenth part of the pains which have been expended in finding benevolent adaptations in all nature, had been employed in collecting evidence: to blacken the character of the Creator, what scope for comment would not have been found in the entire existence of the lower animals, divided, with scarcely an exception, into devourers and devoured, and a prey to a thousand ills from which they are denied the faculties necessary for protecting themselves! If were not obliged to believe the animal creation to be the work of a demon, it is because we need not suppose it to have been made by a Being of infinite power. But if imitation of the Creator's will as revealed in nature, were applied as a rule of action in this case, the most atrocious enormities of the worst men would be more than justified by the apparent intention of Providence that throughout all animated nature the strong should prey upon the weak.
    • John Stuart Mill, “On Nature in Nature, The Utility of Religion and Theism, Rationalist Press, 1904.
  • The suggestion that we should take wild animal suffering seriously as an ethical issue runs contrary to many of our most powerful biases. It concerns animals for which we, instinctively, feel very little sympathy, and whose suffering we humans did not cause and thus do not feel obliged to help alleviate. The suffering is also far removed from our daily lives and it exists on a scale of magnitude so large that it is hard for us to grasp it. Finally, wild animal suffering challenges a romantic view of nature, which is deeply held by many, and since all large-scale solutions lie far in the future, it is easy for us simply to disregard it.


  • “the death of a gazelle after painful torture is just as bad for the gazelle when torture is inflicted by a tiger as when it is done by a human being ... we have similar reasons to prevent it, if we can do so without doing greater harms."
    • Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006), p. 379.


  • Humans already massively intervene in Nature, whether through habitat destruction, captive breeding programs for big cats, “rewilding”, etc. So the question is not whether humans should "interfere", but rather what ethical principles should govern our interventions.
  • The irrationality of the "appeal to Nature" is illustrated by a simple thought-experiment. Imagine, fancifully, if starvation, disease, parasitism, disembowelling, asphyxiation and being eaten alive were not endemic to the living world - or such miseries have already been abolished and replaced by an earthly paradise. Would anyone propose there is ethical case for (re)introducing them? Even proposing such a thought-experiment can sound faintly ridiculous.
  • It is easy to romanticise, say, tigers or lions and cats. We admire their magnificent beauty, strength and agility. But we would regard their notional human counterparts as wanton psychopaths of the worst kind.
  • The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on.
  • I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs, a very endearing sight, I'm sure you'll agree. And even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters, who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen. Mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that is when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.


  • Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering. So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse. Nor does there seem to be any equally bad or worse evil so connected to the fawn’s suffering that it would have had to occur had the fawn’s suffering been prevented. Could an omnipotent, omniscient being have prevented the fawn’s apparently pointless suffering?
    • William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16.4 (1979): 335-341.


  • The ways in which creatures in nature die are typically violent: predation, starvation, disease, parasitism, cold. The dying animal in the wild does not understand the vast ocean of misery into which it and billions of other animals are born only to drown. If the wild animal understood the conditions into which it is born. what would it think'? It might reasonably prefer to be raised on a farm. where the chances of survival for a year or more would be good, and to escape from the wild, where they are negligible. Either way, the animal will be eaten: few die of old age. The path from birth to slaughter, however, is often longer and less painful in the barnyard than in the woods. Comparisons, sad as they are, must be made to recognize where a great opportunity lies to prevent or mitigate suffering. The misery of animals in nature-which humans can do much to relieve makes every other form of suffering pale in comparison. Mother Nature is so cruel to her children she makes Frank Perdue look like a saint.
  • It is of the utmost importance to emphasize the fact that, whatever the legal fiction may have been, or may still be, the rights of animals are not morally dependent on the so-called rights of property; it is not to owned animals merely that we must extend our sympathy and protection. [. . .] To take advantage of the sufferings of animals, whether wild or tame, for the gratification of sport, or gluttony, or fashion, is quite incompatible with any possible assertion of animals' rights.
  • One simple test of the claim that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain [. . .] is to compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of the animal being devoured.
  • The fact that in nature one creature may cause pain to another, and even deal with it instinctively in the most cruel way, is a harsh mystery that weighs upon us as long as we live. One who has reached the point where he does not suffer ever again because of this has ceased to be a man.
    • Albert Schweitzer, Animals, Nature, and Albert Schweitzer. The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, The Albert Schweitzer Center, The Animal Welfare Institute, and The Humane Society of the United States, 1982. Animal Welfare Institute 2002. 4 July 2006
  • Nature is often perceived as an idyllic, beautiful and peaceful place, where wild animals live in freedom. This romanticized view conceals the fact that wild animals suffer in horrible ways. Far from being idyllic and peaceful, nature is actually “red in tooth and claw”: at its heart it’s all about competition. Animals are frequently eaten alive by predators – a horrific, extremely painful death. Food scarcity often leads to starvation, and wild animals endure injury and painful diseases without relief. Nature’s cruelty knows no boundaries: For example, gulls peck out the eyes of baby seals, leaving them to die so they can later eat their remains. Some animals use venom to paralyze their prey and eat them piece by piece. Wild animals certainly also experience moments of happiness, but gruesome fates as described above are by no means exceptional. On the contrary, they are rather commonplace in nature, and even if a wild animal manages to avoid them, his or her life is for a large part a constant struggle for survival in a harsh and relentless environment.
  • ... for practical purposes I am fairly sure, judging from man’s past record of attempts to mold nature to his own aims, that we would be more likely to increase the net amount of animal suffering if we interfered with wildlife, than to decrease it. Lions play a role in the ecology of their habitat, and we cannot be sure what the long-term consequences would be if we were to prevent them from killing gazelles. ... So, in practice, I would definitely say that wildlife should be left alone ... The remaining question is purely hypothetical, and perhaps it would be politic to refuse to answer it. Nevertheless, philosophers are supposed to answer hypothetical questions, so I will risk it. If, in some way, we could be reasonably certain that interfering with wildlife in a particular way would, in the long run, greatly reduce the amount of killing and suffering in the animal world, it would, I think, be right to interfere.
  • If animals like free-range cows have lives that are not worth living, almost all wild animals could plausibly be thought to also have lives that are worse than non-existence. Nature is often romanticised as a well-balanced idyll, so this may seem counter-intuitive. But extreme forms of suffering like starvation, dehydration, or being eaten alive by a predator are much more common in wild animals than farm animals.


  • Why did I feed these animals against all advice? Because we live in the same place, because they were individuals, because they had relatives, experience, a past, and desires, because they were cold and hungry, because they hadn’t found enough to eat in the fall, because each had just one life.


  • It is often assumed that wild animals live in a kind of natural paradise and that it is only the appearance and intervention of human agencies that bring about suffering. This essentially Rousseauian view is at odds with the wealth of information derived from field studies of animal populations. Scarcity of food and water, predation, disease and intraspecific aggression are some of the factors which have been identified as normal parts of a wild environment which cause suffering in wild animals on a regular basis.



  • When it comes to wild animals, though, only the last [expression of normal behaviour] is guaranteed. They have to struggle to survive on a daily basis, from finding food and water to another individual to mate with. They don't have the right to comfort, stability, or good health. [...] By the standards our governments have set, the life of a wild animal is cruelty.
  • The simple facts are that both predation and starvation are painful prospects for deer, and that the lion’s lot is no more enviable
    • George C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought (1966), p. 255

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