Are Wild Animals Happier?

In case you missed it, I delve into the concept of animal happiness and whether wild animals are happier than others in a new post on SciAm's Guest Blog. So hop on over and check it out!

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Good article! It's something I have always wondered, too... and were homo sapiens happier before we started cultivating our food instead of just hunting and gathering it? I'd think knowing where your next meal is coming from lends itself to some degree of happiness and security.

I think my cats would be happier if I did nothing but stand by their food bowls and refill them as soon as they were emptied.

I see what you did there, Christie. A very well put together response - and with science! :-) Congratulations on getting the guest blog published, by the way.

You might be onto something - as a human, I place a high value on free will, and maybe that's not the same value a cow or a raccoon would give it. And I suppose I do have some nature bias.

The study with the captive cavies is interesting - the abstract of that study says that there wasn't a difference in stress hormones between the original, wild-caught cavies and the cavies who lived their whole lives in captivity. So it would seem that just being cared for by humans makes you happier, until you actually evolve toward a domesticated species. At least for cavies.

But let's assume the same thing is valid for cows and wild buffalo. If you plan on eating a large bovine in the future, you could breed an extra cow, which will have low stress, and is maybe therefore happier. If you weren't going to eat it, you presumably wouldn't breed it, because it costs you money to feed and care for it (I know this isn't how the cow economy works, exactly). So you have essentially created a happy animal, up until the point you kill her, which presumably involves some amount of stress and unhappiness. In the meantime, the buffalo that you would have eaten has been wandering around, being stressed out by life.

On the other hand, you could not create the cow, and kill the buffalo when you got hungry. The buffalo still lived his life at whatever stress he normally would have had, plus the stress of you killing him, minus the stress of whatever would have killed him if you hadn't come along. All together, probably a wash. In the meantime, you haven't added a happy cow to the world, and you haven't stressed that cow at the end of her life.

What choice do you make, all else being equal? I guess it's pretty close, but I'm going to go buffalo. Except the buffalo steaks I've had have been kind of dry. It's a leaner meat. The burgers are good, though.

Of course, the question of eating wild vs captive vs domesticated animals goes beyond an individual animal's well-being. Efficiency, economy, environmental effects, how it scales to feed an entire population, and how it affects other individual animals (which is apparently significant for elephants) all come into play.

Tom - Glad you liked it :). Your comment on my other post really got me thinking, so I had to investigate. Not that, as you said, an animal's happiness is the only deciding factor in how we go about getting our food, but it is an interesting thing to consider.

You've made some very good points here. I grew up on a small farm. My great grand mother raised chickens and rabbits and thought nothing about walking out in the front yard, grabbing a chicken and decapitating it. She let it run until the body dropped from blood loss. Within just a few minutes of the headless chicken falling silent, the remaining chickens returned to their regular process of scratching and eating. None seemed the worse for the experience of having one of their number turned into food.

Personal freedom is a human artifact. We've never been REALLY free. We're just free until the universe successfully kills us,,,

Gary 7

By GAry Ansorge (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

Your post about hormone levels in captive animals was interesting, thanks!

An issue however: Stress hormone levels are also low in depressed people.[1] It therefore seems problematic to equate happiness with these hormone levels. (which you didn't, but just barely) We might as well decide to think that even well cared-for captive animals are likely to suffer lifelong depressions.

To argue about wild vs captive animal happiness I'd rather look at more "sociological" values like freedom from parasites and access to medical care.

Just a note from a dropout philosophy-of-science-tist who enjoys being domesticated, but still won't eat meat that has been attached to large clumps of nerve cells.

[1] See eg