Wild Animal Suffering (Republished)

Editor’s note: This post has originally been posted on 9th April 2018, and has now been updated and republished.

Many people have a naive and rosy view of the kind of lives animals are living in the wild. Some people strongly believe, and this includes sometimes wildlife rescuers and rehabbers, conservationists and people who think of themselves as nature or animal lovers, that non-human animals living in the wild live in some kind of paradise. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Animals living in the wild live lives that are far from idyllic, and most of them have to deal with the reality of constant threat of tremendous suffering. Although many people accept the fact that animals experience suffering, the willingness to help, to minimise or eliminate suffering, remains rather an exceptional act of kindness. Also, for reasons remaining mostly unclear, many people assume that wild animals do cope better with suffering than domestic animals or our beloved pets. However, there is no reason or scientific foundation for this assumption. 1

The Impact Of Cats On Wildlife

When following discussions about wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, there are two commonly discussed topics, which frequently result in a heated and emotionally driven argument. The first one, which is better being discussed in separate and dedicated blog posts, is about the impact domestic cats and their ‘owners’ have on wildlife.

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Wild Animal Rescue, Rehabilitation And Release

The second topic, which we would like to discuss here, has to do with the generally acknowledged principle that the ultimate goal of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation should be the release of rehabilitated wild animals back into the wild, as soon as justifiable and possible. In that context, it is worth noting, that it is also common practice to euthanise animals, who are not immediately releasable, or who are not releasable at all. This is often being regarded as the ‘kinder’ option. Also, keeping wild animals in a suitable environment in captivity, or as companion animals, is rarely or not all regarded as an acceptable alternative. But lets take a closer look to explore and examine these fundamentally different ethical viewpoints.

Jackdaw Altona

Loss of Connection Between Humans And Nature

Wilderness and nature are often mistakenly and interchangeably used as a general term for all wildlife habitats, regardless of the fact that most of them are degraded by human expansion or managed by humans. There is often the assumption made that wilderness or nature is a still existing and barely changing entity. Interestingly, humans tend to regularly exclude themselves from being part of the animal kingdom and nature and prefer to position themselves outside or above the otherwise acknowledged natural order.  All these problems are part of a progressively spreading ‘disease’ – the loss of connection between humans and nature.

Wild Animal Suffering

As long as mankind is unwilling and unable to solve their own problems, including the damage caused by their intentional and unintentional actions, there are no viable alternatives, which would minimise or even eliminate wild animal suffering. Releasing rehabilitated animals back into the wild, with all the consequences, risks and threats, is the only viable but not necessarily ethically acceptable option. However, this approach is common practice despite knowing that most animals in the wild have little time to enjoy positive experiences and often die in ways that involve significant suffering. And again, there is also no reason to believe that wild animal suffering is any different to what domestic animals or humans experience. Seeing the situation from this perspective, there is no justifiable reason, why we should not try to help wild animals whenever possible, in the same way we would help domestic animals or our own kind.

Also, due to growth and expansion of the human race, interactions between wild animals and humans are meanwhile rather a normality than an exception. This situation is intensified by an unstoppable large scale habitat degradation driven by mankind’s needs and greed. Urbanisation exposes wildlife to new man-made stresses, which affect species in a variety of ways. This may lead to many different kinds of wild animal suffering, but also for some species to a successful adaptation enabling them to cope with or even benefit from human habits and wastefulness.

A typical example of wild animal suffering is reflected in mortality and life expectancy statistics of wild birds. For example, it is known for robins that there is an extremely high first year mortality rate ranging between 60% and 88%. Also, even if a robin survives his or her first year of life, the average life expectancy is not lot higher than 1.2 years. 2

Other animal species will lay hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of eggs, and only a very few of whom will develop into living beings. Many or most of these animals probably do not die a painless or quick death. Apart from hunger, thirst, cold and drought, wild animals suffer diseases and injuries without any medical care being available to them. They are confronted with natural disasters like floods and fires as well as threats directly and indirectly caused by humans like hunting, culling, habitat loss and climate change. There is also parasitism and of course there is predation.

Is Human Contact Or Temporary Bonding Counterproductive?

As said before, it seems naive to believe that most wild animals will have no contact to humans during their life in the wild, at least not here in Western Europe. This seems to contradict a common teaching dogma of old school rescuers and rehabbers, which postulate that wild animals will only survive in the wild, if physical contact to humans is kept to a minimum. The general view is that habituation due to temporary voluntary emotional animal contact or bonding during the rehabilitation process is seen as a big risk factor, which will jeopardise the rehabilitation result and will reduce the chances of survival in the wild.

Rook Teal'c

However, this view clearly underestimates the intelligence and adaptability of animals. It also negates the emotional needs of animals, who have been through an emotional roller coaster, after for example being injured, then rescued and subsequently taken into an alien environment for rehabilitation. Depending on species and individual personality, many years of experiences gathered in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation have shown the opposite effect. A voluntary emotional bond between carer and animal patient has been found to be crucial for a successful rehabilitation and the subsequent release, as there is no significant difference in the emotional needs of non-human animals and humans. Animals tend not to generalise from the experiences they made with one particular person, and they usually tend to cut this bond, when they feel that the time is right to do so.

Scientific evidence is growing on a daily basis providing more and more  evidence regarding the necessity to take psychological needs of animal patients into account when treating and rehabilitating them. Even the sometimes slightly rigid and often stubborn science community seems to acknowledge the growing evidence, as more and more scientists and behaviourists are starting to regard biocentric anthropomorphism used in a responsible way as an acceptable and scientifically useful tool to explain non-human emotions and feelings. 3

What Is The Preference – Life In Captivity Or Euthanasia?

When it comes to unreleasable birds, then there are certainly animal species like swifts, who are without a doubt not suitable for a life in captivity.  Other bird species like corvids are better suited and more adaptable, assuming an appropriate living environment can be provided. Euthanising a sentient being is a difficult, ethical and irreversible decision. To be sentient is to be capable of being affected positively or negatively. Ending the life of a sentient being is clearly affecting the animal concerned negatively, unless the animal is suffering. This means that euthanasia should only be considered to avoid unnecessary suffering, and should only be used after all other available avenues have been fully explored.

A life in a suitable captive environment, or if feasible as a companion animal in the care of a committed person, is more likely to be in the interest of a non-human animal than to be killed. It might also be even more desirable for an animal than to be released back into the wild, where it would face the constant threat of tremendous suffering and is likely to be killed prematurely. Although decisions should be based on known species specific facts and experiences, the individual personality of the animal concerned should always being taken in account. Once a decision against euthanasia has been made, one needs to be also prepared to review this decision regularly throughout the life of the animal. If in doubt, a trial period might answer any open questions, in one or the other way.

Carrion crow Merilyn

Ethical Conclusions

From this viewpoint, releasing animals back into the wild is ethically seen a doubtful way to show compassion and to reduce wild animal suffering. However, so far at least, there are no better alternatives available. But when it comes to releasing animals back into the ‘wild’, then these animals should be at the very least in perfect health. They should never be released prematurely or with, for example, a suboptimal plumage. Sadly, this still happens quite frequently, a move which is often being ‘justified’ with high demands and pressures put onto chronically underfunded wildlife rescues and rehabbers. However, to give these animals truly the chance they deserve, no shortcuts must be taken. Adhering to the highest standards of care is crucial, and only when doing so, lives will be truly saved.

Euthanasia is certainly the first choice when it comes to avoid suffering, but only as long as one bears in mind that the animals concerned are not objects or possessions, but sentient beings. This implies that other options, as outlined above, should always be taken seriously in consideration, which will obviously depend on species specific necessities and practicalities.


  1. Animal Ethics, The situation of animals in the wild, http://www.animal-ethics.org/wild-animal-suffering-section/wild-animals ↩︎
  2. Offwell Woodland & Wildlife Trust, Ecological Survey & Habitat Restoration Site, Lifespan of Birds, How long does a bird live?, Dr Mike Hounsome, http://www.countrysideinfo.co.uk/bird_lifespan.htm ↩︎
  3. Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce. 2009. Wild justice: the moral lives of animals. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ↩︎

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