Nature Can’t Exist Without Suffering—And We Can’t Change That

Just because we want to limit wild animals’ pain doesn’t mean it's a good idea to intervene.

Gulls can act like serious jerks. This is the premise of an article Audubon published a few weeks ago after new research showed how adept the birds are at straight-up stealing food from other birds. Other scientists have documented Namibian Kelp Gulls killing and eating baby seals by first pecking their eyes out and then leaving them to die—if that’s not a jerk move, I don’t know what is.

We concluded that gulls may seem like jerks, but actually, we need to remember that their behavior, no matter how apparently violent, is ultimately driven by their fundamental need to survive in nature.

Apparently, we need that reminder more than I thought.

On Monday Vox published “Wild animals endure illness, injury, and starvation. We should help,” by Jacy Reese, a research associate for the non-profit Animal Charity Evaluators. The story has garnered quite a bit of discussion online. As the headline suggests, the premise is that wild animals are suffering, that this suffering is inherently bad, and humans should take steps to change this. Though the piece tries to convey a respect for the scientific process, it instead presents a staggeringly narcissistic view of the natural world that is an unexpected but no less powerful indication of how deeply the Anthropocene has sunk its roots—not just ecologically, but psychologically as well.

Should We Try to Stop Suffering?

The author doesn’t really grasp the extent to which his argument is stymied by its human-centric approach. He writes:

Nowadays many of us have little contact with the wilderness, making it easy to view nature with rose-tinted glasses. The images we see of nature feature mostly pristine landscapes or healthy, photogenic wild animals. But this incredible beauty masks huge suffering.

In other words, take off those rose-tinted glasses and instead put on a massive pair so pink with anthropomorphization you can’t even see through them. Reese then mentions the eye-piercing gulls as an example of this huge suffering, stating that “little thought has gone into the question of how to help wild animals avoid natural agonies.” There’s apparently no point to having a discussion over whether we should help wild animals avoid natural agonies—it’s just a matter of how.

A few paragraphs later, when Reese states that “just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good,” he’s not solving his problem—he’s furthering it. The judgment calls of “good” and “bad” are human judgments. The answer is no more that “just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s bad”—the answer is that it is nature, and it is neither.

Is It Even Possible for Us to Intervene?

Not only does he fail to make any sort of case for why we should act, Reese skips over the robust body of scientific evidence that shows why we should not. “Our first interventions in the wild probably won’t be dramatic,” he writes. Every scientist who has spent serious time considering the vast complexity of the natural world and its ecosystems knows this to be false. We don’t even yet have the capacity to fully grasp how profoundly our actions have reverberated across the planet, be they intentional or not. But the implications we can already see—from the start of global warming to rampant habitat destruction to the spread of invasive species—are nothing if not dramatic.

Beyond this, the actions required to end animal suffering (and again, for no other reason than that we feel it is the right thing to do) are anything but straightforward. Any step to protect the seals would be taken at the expense of the gulls, so how do we sort that? How would we even attempt to teach gulls to not peck out seals’ eyes? Such suggestions fail to grasp the enormity of the natural world: There are 130 million Song Sparrows in North America alone—and that’s just one of 30-some types of sparrow that live on this continent. Furthermore, were we to start delivering vaccines and contraceptives to wild animals, their populations would expand and contract violently, with potentially devastating ramifications for both the food chains and habitats in which they exist. And not to put too fine a point on it, but were we ever to create a world of vegan lions and vaccinated tree frogs and contraceptive-taking monkeys, how will we grapple with the sadness that these much-loved and protected creatures are still destined to die?

So What Can We Do?

It is here that we get to the crux of the problem—the reason why the Vox article may resonate with some readers is that for us sensitive humans, it is extremely hard to accept the brutality of the natural world. Anyone who’s ever carried a spider outside instead of squishing it understands the natural impulse to protect life and limit suffering.

It is for this reason that the scientific process can seem so cruel, and our reaction to it can be so irrational. I saw this firsthand earlier this year when the Internet collectively freaked out over scientists’ decision to kill one individual bird because their ability to study the specimen would likely help preserve the population as a whole. The intersection between animal rights activism and conservation sometimes presents us with some tough paradoxes, and forces us to make uncomfortable decisions. Successfully navigating what can at times feel like two equally noble but inherently contradictory sets of premises requires awareness that the end-goal often widens the scope beyond an individual’s own life toward the ultimate longevity of an entire population.

This is a point clearly lost on Reese, despite his attempts to square his human-centered beliefs with conservation as a whole:

We need to avoid exclusively considering structures like populations, species, ecosystems, and biodiversity. We must remember the other individuals that share this planet with us.

That is the easy conclusion—a comforting one, even. It discards all the complexities inherent in the natural world to presume that in the end, it’s individuals that matter. Which makes us, as individuals ourselves, feel good.

But  for conservation to truly succeed, we must channel the impulse to intervene on behalf of individuals into efforts that create an environment in which species and ecosystems can thrive on their own. Sure, we can put resources toward ensuring one beloved backyard bird survives and lives happily; it is far more efficacious to create an environment in which this species can survive on its own because it is evolutionarily fit to do so. In order to have any hope of being effective, conservation must rely on scientific rigor, not our own clouded responses to sympathetic scenarios. It’s only in this way that biodiversity may be preserved—even for murderous gulls.