In early 2019, my girlfriend Melanie and I exchanged our city of Ghent, Belgium for the countryside. Belgium is a very small and very densely populated country, so you’re never really far from civilization. We’re certainly not in the middle of nowhere, but we do live amidst the fields and forests, and have our own six acre forest as a backyard. One of the reasons for the move (which I’m aware is not the most environmentally friendly thing to do), was that Melanie wanted to have a lot of room for rescued (and adoptable) animals. While she does structural work for animals in a vegan non-profit organization, she feels she wants and needs direct contact with animals, and she’s very good at helping, rescuing or healing animals in need.
All of this leads me to the fact that since our move, individual animals – both domesticated and wild – are much more a part of my life. In this article I want to write about some things that I have observed in terms of dilemmas in dealing with animals, and especially about the well-being of wild animals.
All creatures, wild and not so wild
Right now, the animals who live on our domain can be divided in four groups:
- Rescued farmed animals: chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl and rabbits. Most of these come from (factory) farms where they were raised for food. A group of chickens was used for animal testing in an animal production research facility (and later released). There are also some adopted peacocks. All of these critters live in our yard in closed off areas (I’ll get into why they are not roaming in our forest later).
- Rescued companion animals: two dogs and five cats. They come from shelters and now live in the house, with the option to go to the yard. These are the only animals we already had in our previous home in the city.
- Rescued wild or semi-wild animals, like ducks and the pheasant Lady Gaga. They come from a wildlife rehabilitation center and were set free in our yard, where they now live on their own.
- Wild animals who are naturally around: foxes, squirrels, martens, rats, pigeons, crows, bats, salamanders, frogs, all kinds of birds, and of course tiny animals like insects and worms. Also the occasional deer who jumps over the fence.
Caring about wild animals
The animals in the fourth category are largely out of our control and for many people also should be out of our care. “Nature” or “the wild” seems to be a fundamentally different sphere than the domesticated sphere. What happens in nature, so these people believe, should stay in nature. Humans should not interfere and should just allow nature to take its course.
My view is slightly different. Apart from the fact that humans often do influence nature and wild animals, I believe that we should be concerned with what happens in nature whether we have an impact there or not. The different groups of animals I listed above have different relationships with us, and with people in general, but the one thing that they all have in common is that they are sentient, no matter how and where they live. Being sentient is the main relevant criterium for me to care or not care about what happens to someone or something. So I obviously care about the well-being not just of my dogs and cats, or the pigs in the factory farms, but also of the animals in the wild. When they suffer, I care about their suffering, whether the cause of their suffering is humans or nature. I’ve heard some animal advocates even call it speciesist not to care about the suffering of wild animals, because we would care, for instance, about a human tribe in the Amazon that has had no contact with the rest of the world, but is suffering horribly. We would tend to interfere.
I had been reading about wild animal welfare for a couple of years, but our move to the countryside has made the plight of wild animals much more concrete for me. In the rest of this article, I’ll list some examples of confrontations with especially wild animals, and confrontations between wild and domesticated or rescued animals that made me think and that might make you think as well. This is a controversial topic. I suggest you try to practice slow opinion.
There are the foxes
One night not long after our move to the countryside, when Melanie and I were watching Netflix, our two dogs suddenly started barking at someone or something outside. Normally we don’t even look up from this, but that night they sounded angrier than usual. Through the window we saw two foxes, right on the corner of our property. We had been warned by the previous owners and by neighbors that their chickens and geese had been taken by foxes, so we were fearing the day they would discover our own flock. As my girlfriend went to the porch and shooed the animals away, I remember thinking that there were only a few options, all of them bad for someone who likes animals and is concerned with their well-being:
A. The foxes will catch some of our chickens;
B. We manage to protect our chickens, but the foxes will get to someone else’s chickens, or will catch other animals; or
C. The foxes won’t catch chickens or enough other food and their young (extremely cute animals) will starve to death.
And I thought: this system sucks.
We knew it was only a matter of time before the foxes would come back. About a year later, they attacked the fenced off chicken-area (we have three of them) that is the furthest from the house. Previously, a roommate had stayed in a caravan right next to it, together with her two dogs, but because of COVID-19, she had chosen to live somewhere else. The dogs being gone was probably the reason that the foxes took their chance. This was also the only area where the coop didn’t have a locked door, so the chickens could come outside in the early morning as they wished. One morning, my girlfriend found several dead roosters and saw that several more had disappeared. In total, we lost six that night. We felt it was best to not bury the ones that the fox had left behind, but just leave the dead bodies for the predator to pick them up, so that they could still serve as meals.
We have since further secured that area with an electrical fence, and my girlfriend makes sure the chickens are inside every night and opens the door manually in the morning (the two other coops have automated doors, but we can’t find one big enough to allow entrance and exit for big roosters). In principle all the birds should be safe from the foxes now, except for the ducks. We hope they’ll have the good sense (and the time) to retreat to the middle of one of the ponds when they see a fox. We also plan to build a little island for them (as an aside: the island should not have a coop on it because then the ducks might lay eggs where we wouldn’t be able to get to them, so we’d be bringing even more animals into the world).
Rats and the problem of thriving
Predation on our rescued animals is not the only issue we face. Take the example of rats. We naturally attract rats because the feed for our chickens is all over the place. The rats even climb up to the bird feeders and eat all the food we put out for the wild birds! Recently we found a nest of little rats, who were extremely cute. A couple of rats is not a problem, but we don’t want to be inundated with them. This too, sucks: when a population does well and thrives, it may easily get too big. This blew my mind, but under ideal conditions, two rats can be responsible for – wait for it – up to 15,000 descendants in one year!
There are several ways for an animal population to be kept in check, and none of them is really good. Basically, when a population thrives, this will attract predators (whose population will grow) to feed on them. Or, if the predators are absent or too low in numbers, the population might become too big for the resources available and individuals will die through lack of food. And then of course there are also diseases and other natural causes that may decimate them in painful or less painful ways.
In the case of our rats, with their reproduction rate, neither of these – in themselves cruel – solutions will work, so us humans will probably have to do something. We obviously don’t want to use poison. We have caught some young rats with a live trap, and released them a couple of miles further on, but it seems we won’t catch any more now. They’re very intelligent creatures.
If we can’t catch them and if we don’t want to kill them, it’s back to the other solutions. Some could be caught by predator birds, and our dogs and cats might catch one or two. These methods may give ourselves more peace of mind as we are not the ones doing the killing. We sort of delegate the task to other creatures who have no moral agency and therefore it can’t be considered a bad deed. But are the rats themselves any better off? While there is no real problem with other animals catching rats, it can still be painful or stressful for the rats to die that way. One exception is when predators catch animals who are already suffering.
The most humane way to deal with overpopulation, it seems to me, is contraception. Making sure individuals are not born seems to always be a kinder solution than killing the ones that are already alive. I need to investigate where we are with rat contraception, and if there’s any product that can do the job for us in a way that has as few side effects as possible.
Anyway, again, this system sucks.
Of squirrels, crows and owls
There are other things going on in our yard besides foxes attacking chickens and rats getting too numerous. We’ve sat on the edge of our seats watching baby squirrels learn the ropes and be too adventurous in the trees with too little experience. The first time we saw one of the creatures fall, he or she survived by landing on a pack of leaves. But at a later moment we found a young dead squirrel on the forest floor.
We know that the crows who are flying around have the horrible habit of making their prey defenseless by going for the eyes with their beaks. We actually heard a story of a hobby farmer (not a fan, obviously) who had to stop breeding his rare breed pigs because the crows were attacking their eyes!
On several occasions we found dead pigeons, and once a dead owl – maybe he’d eaten a poisoned rat somewhere in the area – on the forest floor. We regularly find a bunch of feathers, a testimony to an attack by a predator. Bats apparently catch up to 8,000 insects in one night (do we care about the insects?). If the bats come out of hibernation too early, however, and there not enough insects yet, they may die of starvation.
A special dilemma – one caused by humans this time – is the situation with the fish. There are carp in one of the ponds, put out there by one of the previous owners to fish on. The carp would not naturally be there, and are not exactly good for the pond. They would also not be good for attracting more of the rare fire salamanders that we’ve spotted on two occasions. But what to do with the carp now that they are there?
Very rarely our own presence in nature is to blame for some casualties: we have seen our cats catch the occasional bird or rat, like I said, and we’ve seen some birds flying against our windows. All in all, I like to think that our presence is overall positive, and we take care of this piece of land as well as we can (we certainly do it more responsibly than previous owners).
I’m sure that as time goes by, I’ll unfortunately gather more examples of things going on in the trees, in the brush, in the ground… things that I probably don’t even want to know about.
Chickens and their eggs
Let me come back to the topic of population size one more time. My girlfriend has been rescuing animals – mainly cats – for years, and we are acutely aware of how many animals need help. We obviously try not to help bring more domesticated animals into this world. Still, our rescued chickens are a problem in themselves. Hens are going to lay eggs (I can put up a whole philosophical discussion about what a vegan does with the eggs, but that’s not what this article is about), and if you don’t watch out, before you know it you’ve got a hen brooding on her eggs somewhere and then suddenly appearing with a small army of little chicks.
One could of course opt not to have a roosters so the hens’ eggs can’t be fertile, but the presence of a rooster is good for the flock of hens (the rooster will protect the hens and will help look for food). And obviously, there are also roosters in need of adoption, so they need a place too.
When there’s a rooster among the flock, you’ll get fertile eggs (sterilizing roosters is not cost efficient). The next possible step is to try to prevent the chicken from sitting on her eggs until they hatch. That’s easy to do if the chickens live on a small area, but when they have ample space with a lot of brush and trees to hide in, it’s a challenge. So without wanting it, all of a sudden we had eight extra creatures to take care of. It’s funny how as soon as they are in the world, you feel responsible for them, and want to protect them from the rats and the owls and other predators. My girlfriend built an extra coop to protect them. So far, we lost two (to unknown predators). One can imagine how many of them don’t survive their first days or weeks or months when they are born in the wild.
Animals living under the protection of humans
This brings me to a last but important point: the benefits for animals of living together with humans.
Humans can do horrible things to nature and to animals. But as should be clear, nature itself, without humans being present, can also be a bloody and messy place, with beings preying upon each other in the most ferocious ways, thus keeping each other’s population in check. It is hard to assess how high, on average, the well-being of animals in the wild is, how often they feel good and how often they feel bad, how intense and how prolonged the periods of suffering can be. But what I think is starting to become clear to me is that animals living together with humans, in a form of symbiosis, might possibly have the best lives of all. I think our chickens are generally better off than their wild counterparts. Ours have ample food and water, they get protection from predators (in so far as we’re successful), they get medical care when they need it, and they’re protected from the elements (my girlfriend has put a large bunch of them in the garage at night, during periods of intense heat). We don’t take anything from them, but if in some cases people trade all of that for eggs, for instance, I’m not sure if that’s a problem.
Yes, they are not free to go literally anywhere they want, like a wild animal might be free (although that freedom is still relative), but I am assuming that given a large enough space to live, they might care less about that lack of freedom – which in optimal cases maybe they don’t even experience – than they would mind being painfully wounded or killed by predators or suffering through the absence of enough food or water, or medical problems.
Side note: Even without the presence of foxes in our area, we would not let the chickens (and rabbits) roam freely in our forest instead of keeping them in the fenced off areas. Melanie noticed that, when the chickens were initially roaming free, they were catching wild frogs. The rabbits were in danger of eating plants that are toxic for them. And so we put them in fenced areas both for their own good and for the good of other animals. So it’s interesting to note that we made a decision for them, and that in the case of the chickens, our concern for the frogs led us to put the chickens in a smaller space (still quite large) than they otherwise might have. We could of course also make the choice to “allow” the chickens to eat the frogs, but it seems we don’t want to be responsible for that.
Some preliminary conclusions
Being close to nature and animals, both wild and domesticated, confronts one with a picture that is much more complex than the one that many animal advocates have from just dealing with animal rights and ethics in theory. I find that the dilemmas are plentiful, particularly if you take the well-being of wild animals seriously, and that there is still plenty of room for doubt, nuance, thinking, research, and new inventions.
Let me give you some of my preliminary takeaways from these concrete observations, as well as from my own decade-long consideration of these topics.
- Nature is in many ways astounding, awe-inspiring, beautiful, wild, and many other things. But at least for many individuals through big parts of their lives, nature is not idyllic. It’s not a peaceful garden out there. If there’s a god who made it all, I think he or she didn’t really know what they were doing. Or they were drunk when they made it.
- Wild animal welfare, and especially the absence of it, matters. We may not be the cause of the suffering, and the cause of the suffering may be in most cases amoral (no moral agency involved), but that doesn’t make it less harmful for the creatures suffering.
- We may not be able to do much about it at this moment, but we should have an open mind regarding searching and finding solutions in the future, technological and otherwise. Some forms of suffering will always exist, other forms of suffering we may help diminish, for instance through more efficient birth control schemes.
- While humans do an incredible amount of harm to animals, there are also benign humans, who, no matter their faults and shortcomings, try to be loving, caring, well-informed and well-intentioned towards all sentient beings. They might provide some animals with a life that’s better than a life in the wild, and this kind of symbiosis might provide for some of the best lives that can be found on this planet.
Conscious creatures in the wild have eaten each other and been eaten by each other for as long as they’ve existed. They have suffered adverse natural circumstances since they first appeared. Homo sapiens, the top predator, obviously wreaks a lot of havoc on the natural world. But what is also true is that this same Homo sapiens is the first being who is aware of the scale of the suffering that is going on in nature, and that some individuals of our species are researching how we can possibly make things a little better for the animals in the wild.
I am fully aware that nature is an incredibly complex system, that interfering in it could cause more harm than it solves, and that humans have interfered in nature many times with very bad consequences. I’m also fully aware that what humans are doing to animals, in factory farms and beyond, is the worst, and needs to be tackled first. The dilemmas I listed should not paralyze us and stop us from tackling priorities.
And yet, I dream of nature being one day a better place for all who live in it, wild or domesticated.
And I like to think that things like these begin in dreams.
PS: I’m not a biologist, animal behaviorist, or philosopher – I am nothing, frankly – so if you spot any mistakes, or have tips to improve the lives of the animals we live with, let me know in the comments!
Featured image: a wild fox. Image credit gianni, CC BY-SA 2.0.