Wolf Stories: Animal welfare and the evolution of animal ethics

When wildlife ethics started and how it has changed over time.

In this article, we’ve interviewed David Fraser (C.M., Ph.D.), a Professor Emeritus in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia. His 50-year research career has focused on the welfare and management of both free-living and captive wildlife, as well as farm and laboratory animals. In this interview, we explore the history of animal ethics, complicated management decisions around conservation and animal welfare, and how we might resolve such conflicts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did animals begin to fall within the scope of moral consideration?

There are two examples going back from prehistory, from a hunting culture and a pastoralist culture, both of which have clear ethical components linked to a particular worldview.

If you think of Indigenous cultures in North America, there were strong ethical things that needed to be done, some of which get grouped under the heading of respect. An example would be the Innu people in northern Labrador and the effort they made to avoid offending a bear that they had killed. They realized they had to kill the bear, but they needed to show it great respect so that other bears would cooperate in the hunt in the future. So, they did things such as cleaning the bear’s skull, giving it gifts and putting it up on a pole so that the bear could continue to see. If we think of ethics being about what you ought to do, this was an ethical system that involved showing respect to animals linked to a world-view, quite unlike the Western worldview, that saw people as by no means the dominant species, but as a somewhat challenged species that needed the cooperation of other animals.

In Indigenous cultures in eastern North America, a common creation story has a woman falling out of the sky and being rescued first by birds and then by other animals. The story is that at the time there was no dry land for her to live on, and so the turtle offered to use its shell as the base for the dry land. Then a toad brought up soil that could grow on the turtle’s back, creating a place where humans could live, referred to as ‘Turtle Island.’ 

On the west coast, a common version is captured in a wonderful Bill Reid carving where humans are trapped in a clamshell until the wise raven comes up and opens the clamshell and lets the people out into the world. There’s a worldview that sees people as by no means in charge of other animals, but rather as dependent on other animals and needing to show them appropriate respect. 

Then in western culture, look at the influence of the Judeo, Islamic, and Christian traditions, which came from a pastoralist culture where people were raising cattle, sheep, and goats as the basis of their economy. There you had a worldview that says people are created specially by God and are put in charge of animals. Here we have an ethic that says, all right, it’s fine to use animals in appropriate ways, but there are inappropriate ways that you have to avoid, and people are responsible for the animals in their care. It really became an ethic of care. In fact, the idea of the conscientious animal care-giver was so revered that it was used as a metaphor for God’s care of people: you often see images of Christ, not as king, teacher, or military leader, but as a Good Shepherd. 

Those early examples show how the ethical ideas–-how you should act—are related to a worldview that is linked to how people live. So, we see a hunting culture and a pastoralist culture with completely different views of animals, and different ethics coming out of it.

Wolf sitting in the grass near a beach.
Photo by Jeff Reynolds.

What are the different ethical approaches that have been applied to animals in recent centuries?

In more recent times, in Western thought, we see several different ethical proposals that should be applied to animals. Some of these can be traced back clearly to ancient Greece. 

There’s a wonderful book by an Aristotle scholar, Richard Sorabji, called Animal minds and human morals, that talks about the evolution of animal ethics within ancient Greek society. There you had, for example, moral vegetarianism—in the school founded by the philosopher Pythagoras. They considered a strong kinship between people and other species to the point that it would be wrong to kill any species for food or religious sacrifice. 

Moral vegetarianism was one of several different traditions, and it persisted for many centuries. By the time of Roman authors, you had people repeating it; for example, The Teachings of Pythagoras by Ovid, repeats the view that it is wrong to kill animals. Another Roman author wrote a whole treatise on moral vegetarianism. That was there right back at least 2000 years ago.

However, two other schools of thought, which were the dominant schools of thought in Greek culture—the Stoics and the Epicureans—had different theories of justice. They concluded that animals don’t fit into the system of justice, and therefore, they are outside the ethical system. There was that contrast right from the time of ancient Greece.

Much more recently, in the 1600s, there was the starting of a reaction against the cruelty that was commonly seen in England—cruelty to animals and cruelty toward people. At that time, people could have an ear cut off for theft, and vagrants might be branded with a hot iron so that they would be identified as not belonging to a community. And there were public executions left and right. This cruelty, to humans and to animals, created a reaction that has been called “sensibility.”

One of the first exponents of sensibility was the Earl of Shaftesbury in the early 1700s who wrote about how these acts of cruelty, whether to people or to animals, reflect a defective moral character. He felt that people naturally are inclined to be kind and sympathetic, and that acts of cruelty represent a perversion of human spirit, and this needed to be stomped out in order to improve the moral tenor of the society.

This thinking wasn’t specifically about cruelty to animals. It was about cruelty in general, but cruelty to animals was part of the picture right from the start. Today, we talk about the link between abuse of animals and violence toward people, for instance, within the home. That was clearly part of the picture right from the 1700s, where reformers wanted to stamp out cruelty and believed that that would have benefits both for animals and for people. 

This was a line of thought which philosophers would call “virtue ethics,” meaning that the focus is on fostering virtue and eliminating vice as a basis for deciding what’s morally right. 

The second line of thought, coming slightly later, was developed by Jeremy Bentham in the 1700s. This is what philosophers would call “consequentialism”— judging an action not by the intentions or the virtuous moral character of the person, but by the consequences that flow from it. John Stuart Mills’ formulation of this was that the right action is the one that causes the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. Bentham clearly saw that this principle also applies to animals, and that as long as animals experience pain and suffering, then their response to an action should be taken into account; it’s not just about people.

A third line of thought, which moral philosophers would call “deontology,” was based on respecting rights or rules. In modern times, this would be Tom Regan with his book The Case for Animal Rights. He claimed that it isn’t enough to judge actions by their consequences or by the virtuous intentions of the person. We need to identify what kind of beings have the right not to be interfered with. He made the argument that, at least, mammals of a year of age or more have such rights. Being a little cagey about which animals are included, he raised the issue without really solving how much trouble that criterion gives us. What about fish? What about the worms that we use to catch fish?

All three of those views—virtue ethics, consequentialist ethics, deontological ethics—were discussed in the 1700s and carried through to the present day. When there was a rebirth of philosophical interest in animals starting about 1960, we saw Peter Singer advancing a consequentialist view in the 1970s and Tom Regan advancing a rights-based view in the 1980s. I would say that virtue ethics was already embedded in our culture at that time, because intentional cruelty to animals had been illegal for many years.

A fourth element here, which is getting a little closer to a virtue view, is what you might call feminist ethics, where the idea is not to look for the most basic foundational principle and then use logic to decide your actions, but rather is based on relationships. There are some leading exponents of that today. One of the first was Mary Midgley. In her book Animals and Why They Matter (1983), she made it clear that she was not trying to create some foundational ethical system, but rather to look at the relationships that we have with animals, and how those relationships really inform our sense of right and wrong.

Coastal wolf
Photo by Bertie Gregory

How did animal welfare science start and how does it relate to animal ethics?

Ruth Harrison’s book, Animal Machines (1964), triggered a huge public concern about how farm animals were being kept in the new intensive systems. That led to the creation of the UK Government’s Brambell Committee in 1965 to investigate the issue, and they proposed that scientific research should be done to improve our understanding of the welfare of farm animals.

That report led to the release of some funds for research, and in 1971, my job was created in response to that release of funds. On the back of that recommendation from the Brambell Committee, David Wood-Gush and Frank Elsley in Edinburgh put together a grant application and they got a grant to hire somebody to do research on the welfare of pigs. And that was me.

“I had to think hard about whether I was allowed to use the term ‘distress’ in a scientific paper because, of course, I’d been taught that the emotions of animals fall outside the realm of science.”

Dr. David Fraser

There were three papers from the early seventies—one on frustration in chickens, one on suffering in chickens, and one on distress in piglets—and those nail down a very early date for the scientific study of animal welfare. Ian Duncan was trying to find behavioural indicators of frustration in chickens, Marian Dawkins used the term “suffering” in a scientific paper, also on chickens, and I did some work on piglet distress calls. I had to think hard about whether I was allowed to use the term “distress” in a scientific paper because, of course, I’d been taught that the emotions of animals fall outside the realm of science. But clearly I was studying distress in the piglet, and so I used the term in a paper. 

When I started that job, I was 23, and David Wood-Gush, who was about 50, had been studying poultry behaviour for quite some time. However, his work wasn’t focused on welfare; it was more focused on improving production systems. He already had a little group of animal behaviour researchers, and with the sudden interest in animal welfare, that group expanded and reoriented its focus to animal welfare. Thus, for a decade or two before, people had been studying farm animal behaviour, but the idea of applying that to animal welfare really started about 1970.

Now, the relation of that to ethics: some people have been taught that science and values, or science and ethics, are separate spheres. This idea goes back at least to the 1800s. At that time, people in the sciences were trying to make clear that what they were doing was different from theology or philosophy, for example. The French scientist Poincaré was very articulate about this. He said the world of ethics is like one sphere and science is another, and they touch, but they don’t interpenetrate. So, an archeologist might have ethical considerations about whether it’s alright to dig a grave and what should be done with the artifacts, but those ethical considerations don’t influence what science is done or the conclusions that arise.

At that time, in the 1800s, I would say a lot of science was curiosity-driven. What type of rocks are these? Why are these boulders on the surface of the land when they are of a type of rock that isn’t related to the local rock types? How did they get here?

Today, however, a lot of science is what we might call “mandated science,” in the sense that it’s mandated by society to deal with issues that require decisions and guidance on things like food safety, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, human health, and so on. These are concerns in society, and science is asked to come up with information that will inform our understanding of these issues.

But, of course, these aren’t just curiosity-driven. These are cases where the science is done because of a concern about right and wrong. If scientists then try to say, “oh, we’re just doing the information gathering—we aren’t influenced by ethical considerations and our answers don’t lead to ethical conclusions,” they’re using far too simplistic a view. There are lots of people within animal welfare science who still talk that way, and after arguing for decades that they’re wrong, I have never felt that they really grasped the interplay between ethics and science in mandated fields. 

“In a mandated field, the very choice of research methods is influenced by what the scientists see as morally relevant.”

Dr. David Fraser

But people have very different ideas about what constitutes a good life for animals. Is it about the animal being healthy with no diseases or injuries? Is it about the animal being able to be in the natural environment, or doing its natural behaviour? Is it about preventing suffering and letting the animal enjoy life? Those different ideas about what is important for animals are very ingrained in our culture. They also are very ingrained in how different scientists think about the welfare of animals. And they are at the very basis of what data the scientists collect. 

When people think that animal welfare is really all about health and the animals living a long time and being free from disease and injury, then obviously what they study is disease, injury, and longevity. Someone else thinks, “no, animal welfare is really about whether the animal has a pleasant life and doesn’t suffer.” In that case, research has to be focused on contentment, suffering, and affective states. And so on. So, in a mandated field, the very choice of research methods is influenced by what the scientists, and the people they interact with, see as morally relevant.

A wolf walking in front of a camera trap.
Photo by Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, growing concern over nature and wildlife led to a very different approach to ethical issues involving animals. Can you talk a bit about the history of conservation in North America?

Compared to animal welfare, concern over wildlife conservation goes back much earlier. I think of John Muir in the 1800s; the efforts to protect the last of the bison after that horrendous amount of hunting had happened; the angst that happened after the extinction of the passenger pigeon. At least by the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was clearly a concern over wildlife conservation. 

Interestingly, in Great Britain people had already driven many species to local extinction. They lost their wolves and their bears much earlier, without this seeming to trigger major social concern. But in North America at least, especially as the bison are being driven from millions down to a few hundred, the conservation movement became clearly visible, well before concerns about animal welfare.

In Michael Soulé’s article “What is conservation biology?” he argues that conservation has both scientific and ethical dimensions, but then promotes a detachment from animal welfare. What influence has this had on conservation as a concept and in practice?

When the concern about animal welfare started, initially in Britain, it then spread to the other British Commonwealth countries—New Zealand, Australia, Canada—and to continental Europe, but the US was really behind. I used to feel quite strange going to the US in the mid-eighties up to the mid-nineties because there was a resistance to even using the term animal welfare. So, when Soulé wrote this article in 1985, he was writing from a country that had by no means embraced concern about animal welfare. And so, I think he could be forgiven for not being contemporary at the time of writing that article. 

Also, I don’t know whether Soulé’s article prevented conservationists from considering animal welfare or whether it just confirmed that people who are thinking about conservation have a different mindset. In conservation you’re not thinking about the individual animal and its own well-being. You’re thinking at different organizational levels—the population, preserving the species, preserving the ecological system. You’re focused in a different way, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the individual animals.

When Soulé tried to define the field of conservation biology, he said that it is not about animals getting sick and suffering. That may be regrettable, but that’s not what we as conservation biologists are about. Did his view do harm to concern about wildlife welfare, or was he just reflecting a blind spot in American thought? And if he were alive today, would he take a very different view? I think he would. Someone recently said that before Soulé died, he expressed great regret about that wording in that article.

Wolf standing in snow.
Photo by Colleen Gara.

When did we start thinking about combining welfare and conservation issues?

One important paper came from Tony Sainsbury, Peter Bennett, and James Kirkwood in 1995 in the journal Animal Welfare. They did as good an analysis as they could at the time to think about welfare impacts on free-living wildlife. They included a number of human actions: some deliberate, such as hunting or the use of anticoagulant rodenticides, and some accidental causes of suffering to wild animals, such as car collisions. They tried to draw attention to this as a legitimate animal welfare concern. This was an early example of animal welfare scientists expanding their focus to free-living wildlife.

Then in 2008, we held a meeting in Vancouver. We got together 30 people, roughly 15 conservation biologists and 15 animal welfare scientists. Paul Paquet, Chris Darimont, Sara Dubois, and Liv Baker were all there, and we had an intense weekend in Vancouver, mapping out how conservation and animal welfare relate. I remember the title I used was “Conservation and Animal Welfare Science (CAWS): we’ve got the acronym, now let’s invent the field!”

One of the participants was from the Born Free Foundation in the UK. That organization started mostly just to advocate against animals being in zoos, but they broadened quite a bit to thinking about welfare of animals that are of conservation concern. They sponsored the next meeting. 

Then sometime later, in July of 2015, we had the group back in Vancouver for another meeting. We had about 120 people there. It was hosted by BC SPCA and the UBC Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia. That was the third iteration.

Then Daniel Ramp hosted one in Sydney, Australia. We hadn’t used the phrase “compassionate conservation” at the first meeting in Vancouver; the Born Free people started to use that phrase, but it was still about bringing the two fields together in a constructive way. But then Dan and Marc Bekoff (I would say) rebranded “compassionate conservation” to mean not causing any harm to any wild animal. This view faced some criticism among scientists within the two fields, so the term has become controversial in a way that was never intended at the start.

So, in brief, I would trace this kind of thinking back to the 1995 paper in Animal Welfare, and then to our 2008 meeting in Vancouver, and then to a modest string of meetings since then.

How does conservation relate to and sometimes conflict with concern for the welfare of individual, nonhuman animals?

At the most fundamental level, the conservation of populations and the welfare of individual animals are almost one and the same. The principle of protecting the natural balances and processes of nature is fundamental to both concerns, as well as to the welfare of people. Something like climate change, for example, is a looming disaster for conservation, animal welfare, and people.

At a more superficial level we can see a divergence. Conservationists might want to control an invasive species whereas welfare advocates don’t want any suffering to occur. But at the most fundamental level, basic actions to protect natural populations and ecosystems are good for both conservation and animal welfare goals.

“The principle of protecting the natural balances and processes of nature is fundamental to both [conservation and animal welfare], as well as to the welfare of people.”

Dr. David Fraser

With something like wolves and caribou, if we could protect the processes and balances of nature, we wouldn’t need to interfere with the wolves. If we do need to interfere with the wolves in the short term, that’s because we haven’t done a good enough job of protecting the processes and balances of nature. 

A large reindeer standing in a grassy field.

In cases where it’s going to take time to restore natural processes and balances, maybe there needs to be some kind of intervention to prevent species extinction. Kirtland’s warbler and the brown-headed cowbird would be an example: there probably was no way of protecting those last hundred Kirtland’s warblers without killing a lot of cowbirds. 

In cases like that, perhaps the most important thing is to avoid running with “oh, we’re only concerned about conservation, and welfare doesn’t matter.” Instead, we need to recognize different ethical concerns. Conservation is one; welfare is one; respecting Indigenous rights is one; honesty is one.  We need a decision-making process that brings together different concerns and all affected constituencies, so as to find the least harmful intervention and balance the different principles. I think that’s all we can do in these short-term cases where it’s going to take a longer time to restore natural processes and balances. 

One approach, for both conservation and conservation research, is to consult widely with, and use methods that will be acceptable to, the public. It’s such a basic thought and yet one that doesn’t appear to be absorbed well. Maybe there are cases where there needs to be some culling of wolves, but that should be a matter of public discussion rather than “conservationists” employing inhumane practices, sending the planes out with guns, or spreading strychnine poison. 

Can you expand on how we might resolve such conflicts?

The best-known of the animal ethics philosophers tended to search for a single foundational principle: should we use a rights-based approach, or a consequences-based approach, or a virtue-based approach? But medical ethics provides a different model. Medical ethics is a very complicated area where so many different factors enter in that there is no single principle that underlies it all, and they’ve come up with a group of four principles: doing good (beneficence); not doing harm (non-maleficence); giving the patient the freedom to choose freely, where they are able (autonomy); and ensuring fairness (justice).

There you have four mid-level principles which provide a very different approach to ethics; there’s no single foundational principle that everything flows from; rather, it’s a matter of having a discussion and some back-and-forth to decide on an action based on a consensus that takes all of the principles into account. 

That’s what we ultimately need to do in the case of animal ethics. As a first draft, I would suggest these four principles: first, to respect the traditional relational ethics that allowed people to live in harmony with animals for millennia. That would include Indigenous worldviews, and some of the pastoralist ideas that are still present in some parts of the world. Second, where we do take animals into our direct care, whether they’re domestic animals or wild animals in zoos, to provide them with good quality of life. Third, to minimize the harms that we cause, whether these happen directly or indirectly. This applies to things like slaughter plants and hunting. It also applies to how we plan roads, windows, and buildings so that we reduce the harms that we’re causing. Fourth, the most fundamental need, to protect the life-sustaining processes and balances of nature. 

If the ethicists would walk away from the search for a single foundational principle and work at developing a group of mid-level ethical principles which in combination would lead, through discussion, to good decisions—that would be my recommendation.

About Dr. David Fraser

David is Professor Emeritus in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). His 50-year career involved research on the welfare and management of free-living and captive wildlife, together with farm and laboratory animals. His work on moose in the 1970s showed the importance of aquatic feeding and established the role of highway de-icing salt in road accidents involving moose. In the 1980s and 90s, he led a team of researchers dealing with the welfare of farm animals. He has been at UBC since 1997. He has served as a scientific advisor to many organizations including the World Organisation for Animal Health (Paris) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Rome). He is the author of Understanding Animal Welfare: The Science in its Cultural Context (Wiley-Blackwell, 2023) plus several hundred other publications. In 2005, he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his work as a pioneer in the application of science to animal welfare.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
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