Wilderness and wild animal suffering (again!)

There are some people, who really think that human civilisation is a blessing even for animals, not the least for wild animals, and that wilderness is the epitome of cruelty and violence. As if everything was better than that. Only hopeless romantics admire the wild and in reality the more civilisation the better. Even to the point that humans should here and now interevene with wildlife.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Every intervention of humans with wild animals so far was a desaster. The best for all involved has always been not to intervene. If you feed wild animals, for example, because you think they suffer in winter, than you produce a lot of problems. For a start, ruminants change their digestive system in winter for a different kind of food and if this is not cared for, they suffer with digestive problems or even starve in front of stacks of food. Further, they come and stay closer together the whole winter, which causes illnesses and parasitic infections. Thirdly, they become dependent on humans, do not move much, and must be cared for from that moment on. And last but not least, they overpopulate and would destroy their habitat if nothing is done about that. If they are not fed, then they would not reproduce as much and some of them would die, but most survive, spread out in the habitat and form a happy, healthy, wild and independent population. Which is better? And which causes less suffering? The answer is obvious: not feeding.

Last weekend, I did a little walk in a narrow valley along a small river in the middle of a forest. Beautiful? Well, I was on a road. And the trees around me were all planted by humans, who had harvested the tree generations before. It was a place that had the hallmarks of human usage. But then I saw an old tree, surely 400 years old, standing there beside the street:

And I imagined the primeval forest that wood had been some 200 years ago, when this tree was in its prime. And I imagined how the place would have looked like, with so many old trees about, without roads and clear cuttings, but with wolves, bears, elks, bison and auerochs. And, yes, that place must have been like paradise then. Its aura, its aesthetic beauty, its smell, its feel. By far surpassing any place with human intervention. I would have felt so different, walking there then, with a close nit group of familiar human fellows.

Harari writes in his book brief history of humankind that before the neolithic revolution, ie before domestication and settlement building, when our forebears here at this place were hunter gatherers, they had to work only 4 hours a day to feed themselves. Harari also writes that their food was much more nutritious and healthy, the population density was far lower and therefore they had fewer illnesses. They were just generally better off. And then I look at a company I recently visited, for car cleaning. The people there work 8 hours a day cleaning cars all the time every day. For me, gathering food in the woods is what I do enjoy in my spare time. Cleaning cars I never would. Hence, the life of hunter gatherers was not just a lot less effort. Every second of that life was joyful – apart from the occasional violent conflict. But could there be anything worse than having to do tedious work all day long and rott in a city?

Harari writes that the neolithic revolution was a bad deal for humans on all fronts. And the idustrial revolution equally. What about wild animals then?

Some while back, I witnessed a driven shoot of deer in a 200 ha wood. 12 deer were shot. All had been healthy and happy individuals. Those, who argue that the wild is a place of misery for the animals, claim that we only see the healthy ones, while those suffering and dying are out of view. Where were they on this occasion? The hunt was supported by many dogs running through the undergrowth and flushing out deer. It seems to me that no sick deer could have been overlooked. As a consequence, the upshot of this hunt was that in these 200 ha of forest, 12 lively and happy deer had lived, until humans brought that to an abrupt and violent end. Were those 200 ha the big exception? Would the next 200 ha have shown a different result? I doubt it. There was nothing special about this place. Fact is that most wild animals are happy most of the time.

Now, those who insist on the misery of wilderness for animals usually point to other animal species, who supposedly suffer. Namely those who procreate in large numbers, the r strategists. Like the tadpoles. They are born in huge numbers and most die before they become frogs. True. This spring, in the Corona lockdown, I visited a little pond with hundreds of tadpoles every day for months. I saw them grow in their jelly, I saw them slip out into the pond water, I saw them gather in there in big flocks, I saw them scuttle around, diving, swimming and sometimes getting very close to each other, while others swam further away alone. I never saw any of them suffer or starve or die. It seemed to me that most were happy during those months. And it makes sense. Evolution would drive animals to be such that they are generally happy under their living circumstances, because that is conducive to them multiplying. Hence, those who feel best under their living conditions procreate more and produce offspring with similar feelings.

And one day I saw a snake in the pond, a grass snake. And most of the tadpoles, who by then had already feet and big bellies, were gone. Eventually the snake left, well fed. And he or she was happy. Most of the tadpoles had died a violent death, no doubt. There were only a dozen or so left, who had managed to hide somewhere while the snake had hunted. So, yes, 95 % of the tadpoles had only some 5 months of life. But it was a happy life, a free life, full of enjoyment. Something you cannot say about humans at a car wash factory. The tadpoles were never bored, they never had to do streneous work, they never were torn in stress between doing this or that or that first, and they never seemed to be ill. They were only stressed on that dreadful day when the snake arrived. Otherwise their lives were well worth living.

You might say, better a boring and streneous life, but long, than only 5 months with a violent end. I am not so sure. But one thing I am sure about: most of the tadpoles were happy most of the time. And if humans were to intervene in one way or other, it would only lead to misery and suffering. If you save the tadpoles from the snake, what is she or he to eat? And if you fetch them in a bucket and shelter and feed them, where will hundreds of frogs live afterwards? And their children?

Looking at the fact, that human civilisation is leading to billions of farmed animals under most miserable conditions in factory farms, where in contrast to wild animals most suffer most of the time, billions of animals hunted and killed violently by humans, billions of humans either starving or being miserable because of the daily work routine they despise and the bordom and dreadfulness of a life in a concrete jungle without apparent sense, chasing from one hedonic pleasure to the next, I clearly see life in the wild superior. In all senses of this word. Even if it might come to an untimely and violent end. Better free and happy, for a shorter while, in a largely untouched wilderness, than caught in the hamster wheel of civilisation.

The presence of wolves REDUCES animal suffering

Tobias Leenaert is at it again. Speaking about wolves coming back into Europe, his strict utilitarianism led him to the statement: „As far as I’m concerned, those wolves can just get lost“. He posted a picture of a sheep presumably killed by a wolf and accompanied that with the usual propaganda of animal industries and the hunting fraternity. You would have thought a person promoting the cause for animals should know better. But the repeated attacks on wildlife from this corner of the movement is nothing new, see https://martinballuch.com/a-summary-why-life-in-the-wilderness-is-better-than-in-a-technological-mass-society/

Ok, so lets approach this issue from the same angle as Leenaert. We disregard autonomy, we disregard basic rights, and we just compare suffering with and without the presence of wolves. A good example for an area with wolves are the Southern Carpathians. Wolves have always lived there and were never exterminated. And besides, I know this area very well and have been out there on weeks hiking with a tent for more than 10 years. I take that as the basis for my comparison.

Wolves kill the weak, the frail and the sick

While for a society with a monopoly of power, like ours, the weak, frail and sick must be supported, this is not so easy in the wilderness, where at most such support can come from the social circle of an individual. Make no mistake: sickness is far less common for wild animals than for humans and their domestic animals in a mass society, because in mass societies bad germs constantly go around and new illnesses are produced on a regular basis. In addition, wild food is generally far healthier and more nutritious than the food rich in fat and sugar, as in our society. But still, sometimes some wild animals are weak and sick.

So, if we have old or particularly weak individuals in the wild, they might suffer, as they cannot get food or move about easily. The wolves do kill such individuals far more often than healthy individuals. Hence they reduce suffering for them.

Furthermore, if weak individuals are able to procreate in the wild, their offspring are more likely to be weak and less healthy as well. Fact is, wolves therefore have the effect to produce more healthy communities of their prey species‘. This effect was already documented with the first Austrian wolf pack.

Wolves help reduce exploding animal populations

In Austria without wolves, there are far more stag and deer than nature can support. Without predators, such populations would crash one day with a pandemic of starvation and disease. Wolves therefore help to prevent such a desaster.

Leenaert, though, might argue, that human hunters prevent those crashes. And human hunters are supposedly more humane than wolves. But this is not so. I have been observing hunts for 3 decades. In fact, human hunters are not more humane. I have done statistics of how often hunts only maim but not kill their game animals. Only 33 % of deer are dead straight away, when they are shot at, but 11 % live on for a while and 56 % escape injured, only to die much later in agony. For wild boar, 53 % escape injured and for pheasants that number is 27 %. With wolves the opposite is true. If the animal can escape the wolf, than he or she is unharmed, and if the wolf gets him or her, then they are dead. They do not escape injured, especially not in as large numbers.

In Austria and elsewhere, hunters want to have large numbers of game animals, and therefore feed them almost everywhere. This feeding causes untold animal suffering. That is because the animals suffer from stress in so close proximity of each other, the animals become dependent on the feeding and stay in the nearby area instead of spreading out, the animals become sick due to germs spreading at such densely populated areas and especially because at the feeding sites there is a lot of dung and there are parasites abound. And the animals damage their natural environment especially by eating young trees and the bark of older trees. If wolves are present, those feeding sites are abandoned, because otherwise the wolves would just wait there for their prey. And with that, all the problems and the suffering associated with those feeding sites disappear.

Wolves cause less fear than human hunters

A number of scientific studies have shown that game animals are constantly in stress when they are hunted by humans. This is because guns have a long range and the animals are not equipped to deal with that. Hence, death can happen unforeseen anytime. The opposite is true when wolves are present. Generally, the prey species hunted by wolves are well equipped to escape a wolf and they feel therefore safe. In addition, they can see, hear or smell the wolf coming, and they can stay in an area where they are sure to realise the presence of wolves before they come dangereously close. Hence, wolves reduce the suffering due to fear by animals.

The presence of wolves leads to fewer deaths of domestic animals

What might sound contradictory at first sight is actually true: wolves reduce the death toll of domestic animals. In Switzerland, about 10.000 sheep die each year on their pastures due to bad wheather and neglect. When the wolves arrived, the sheep were better shepherded. In consequence, today only 5000 sheep die each year on their pastures, most of them still due to bad wheather and neglect. But the numbers have come down because the sheep husbandry has improved with the presence of wolves.

Apart from that, if a domestic animal dies due to a wolf attack, this is arguably with less suffering than if this animal was slaughtered by humans. Especially sheep, the primary domestic victim of wolves, are often sent on long live animal transports, especially into the Middle East. And there the slaughter is horrendeously cruel, in addition to the suffering on the duration of the travel. But also in European slaughterhouses, there is a lot of cruelty involved at the slaughter. The sheep are first driven together, which causes panic. Then they are put on transport lorries, which makes them panic even more. At the slaughterhouse, usually the sheep have to wait long periods of time, always smelling the death of the other animals and hearing their screams. When it comes to their slaughter, they often are not stunned, or not stunned properly, and sometimes regain consciousness during the bleeding from their cut throats. Death in a slaughterhouse is the most horrific death imaginable. The death due to wolves is a mercy in comparison.

Wolves kill animals who kill animals

The last argument I want to put forth now, I dislike profusely. But Leenaert and other Utilitarians must accept it. Foxes kill mice. In fact, a study revealed that each fox kills about 20 mice a day or 7000 mice a year. And they kill sometimes hares and birds and amphibians and so forth. Similar statistics are true for jakals and lynx. Fact is that wolves do kill foxes, jakals and lynx. It is well known that the number of foxes, jakals and lynx is balanced out with the number of wolves. The more of the latter the fewer of the former and the other way round. Hence, wolves do, by killing those predators, save the victims of them. A similar argument could be made with wild boar. In areas where wild boar are abundant, they are the primary prey species of wolves. But wild boar eat a lot of animals, especially ground dwelling ones, like amphibians, mice, moles and so forth. By killing wild boar and reducing their numbers, wolves are saving those animals.


Wolves are at the moment in Europe returning to their original habitat on their own accord. Before, they have been systematically exterminated by humans with the most cruel methods, in order to breed live stock that humans can use and abuse. In fact, humans have exterminated all mammals larger than foxes in Europe, with the exception of very few species, and those they saved mostly for hunting purposes. In Europe, there used to be different species of elefant, some species of mammoth, also 3 species of rhino and 3 species of bison, and there were horses, lions, sabre tooth cats, hyenas, 2 species of bear, tigers, elk, 5 species of stag, antilopes and so forth. This multitude of animals all disappeared so that humans could breed their livestock unhindered and eat the body and mother milk of those species. Humans would have exterminated all mammals, probably, if they had managed. But those species smaller than foxes they could not get easily enough.

This wave of exterminations led to a barren landscape, devoid of big animals. Otherwise it would be in Europe as lively as today in Africa. Slowly, humans do realise what they have done. And slowly measures are taken to stop this mass slaughter of wild animals. One sign is the return of the wolf into his natural habitat. So far, wolves are still protected from being attacked again by humans. Statements like the one from Tobias Leenaert play into the hands of the exterminators. Animal industries and the hunting fraternity try to twist the truth and claim that wolves are terribly dangereous and blood thirsty, while in reality those characteristics apply to humans much more.

Actually, wolves have a right to life and protection, so that they can live their lives in a self-determined way. But even if these rights are denied, I have argued that the presence of wolves leads to a lot less suffering for the other animals. If reducing suffering was our primary concern, the best we could do as humans is withdraw from the natural habitats around us as much as we can and let wildlife take its own course. That would be for the better of everyone involved. And suffering would be reduced enormously.

Critique of the political aspects of CEVA workshops

First and foremost let me stress here that I am not against CEVA workshops. CEVA is the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy and their workshops are held by Melanie Joy and Tobias Leenaert across the world. Our group VGT has organised such a workshop in Vienna as well. So, yes, please do participate in those workshops and take a number of relevant skills with you. But that should not stop me voicing some criticism.

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Should we force uncontacted tribes of humans into the modern world?

In the New Scientist issue of 30th September 2017, author Curtis Abraham from Uganda asks the question, if we as a technological mass society should force uncontacted tribes of aboriginal peoples into our global human civilisation or leave them be and act as they wish. I think this is a very interesting question with a lot of implications for speciesism and especially the view that humans should intervene in wildlife. The arguments for the interventionist perspective are essentially that our global human society has introduced human rights (and might introduce more generally animal rights), which do not exist in the wild, be it human or non-human aboriginal life. And, the argument goes, only basic rights can prevent interpersonal violence, which it is our duty to prevent. So, yes, they say, we should intervene and extend human rights and police powers to uncontacted tribes of humans and extend animal rights and interventional forces to nonhuman wild living animals. I have argued to the contrary, see https://martinballuch.com/a-summary-why-life-in-the-wilderness-is-better-than-in-a-technological-mass-society/.

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A summary: why life in the wilderness is better than in a technological mass society

Within the animal movement, a fraction is suddenly particularly concerned about not what humans do to non-human animals, but what a lion in need of food is doing to a zebra in order to survive. This approach is misguided in many ways. For a start, I consider myself part of the animal liberation movement, similar to the liberation movement of people of colour in the USA or of women worldwide. The issue is not the reduction of suffering in a liberation movement, but the liberation of beings of a certain group due to a suppressive ideology, be it racism, sexism or speciesism. The goal is for those beings to be able to govern their life independently of powerful interest groups, which solely exist in technological mass societies. Hence, animal liberation means the liberation of nonhumans from human suppression in such a society. Animal rights, which only exist in such societies and not outside, are a means to that end.

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Most wild animals are happy most of the time!

Being just back from a trip with the tent into the wilderness of the Southern Carpathians in Romania, I realised once again the truth of the statement: Most wild animals are happy most of the time. With wild animals I mean here animals, who are not being persecuted by humans, who live an independent life outside of civilisation. I say that, because I keep seeing animals in the wild, and they almost always seem content and happy. Some are frolicking in the sun, some are playing, some are making love, some are resting and simply enjoying themselves. In only very rare occasions do I see animals, who are suffering.

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The State vs. VGT

On international conferences, I am often met with utter disbelief that the group I work with, VGT, does not receive any funding from the state. Isn’t animal advocacy work charity in the public interest? Especially in Eastern Europe, it seems, the financial existence of most groups is depending on that kind of income. The disbelief changes to amazement, if I add that in Austria, to the contrary, the state is considering us enemy number one and will try everything in its power to attack and destroy us, on all fronts.

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Wildlife suffering – wildlife intervention?

A new proposal is floating through the movement, wildlife intervention to prevent wildlife suffering. If you are new to this topic, you might be forgiven for thinking wildlife suffering is referring to hunting, or trapping, or „pest control“ or car accidents. No, it is not. The proponents of this idea are talking about the, as they call it, „most abundant animal suffering on the planet“, the suffering of wild animals due to interpersonal conflict between themselves, predation and natural hardship. The solution proposed ranges from extending civilizational technologies into the wild to genetic modification of predators so that they become natural vegans. If you think that is a fringe issue, maybe it is, hopefully, actually, but I hear some people are preparing a conference on solely that question in Berlin next year.

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The International Animal Rights Conference 2016 in Luxemburg

It was 2002, when we held our first animal rights conference in Austria. From the start, the question was hotly debated if the conference language should be English or German. We chose German for 2002 and 2004, but took on English in 2006. In 2008, we switched back to German again. The organisers in Luxemburg, seemingly inspired by our style of conference, never had these quarrels. English it should be from the start, to become a truly international European animal rights conference. And so it was this year with a few hundred participants as well.

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