There’s more to the lives of wild things than sur­vival and death. What about how they feel? To save rare an­i­mals, we should be ask­ing if they’re happy, says Richard Smyth.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Talking Point - RICHARD SMYTH writes about wildlife and his­tory. His lat­est book is A Sweet, Wild Note (El­liott & Thomp­son, £14.99).

We are in the midst of the sixth mass ex­tinc­tion event. Bio­di­ver­sity is in global decline. The In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN) es­ti­mates that around 22 per cent of mam­mal species, 14 per cent of birds and 21 per cent of rep­tiles are vul­ner­a­ble to, or threat­ened by, ex­tinc­tion. This is an on­go­ing eco­log­i­cal cri­sis that should con­cern us all.

The an­i­mals them­selves, how­ever, re­main strangely in­dif­fer­ent. They are not agog over the lat­est IUCN pie charts. They don’t watch in hor­ror as the pop­u­la­tion data tail­spins down­wards. They don’t care. An­i­mals, by and large, aren’t big-pic­ture thinkers.

What they do care about is hav­ing some­thing to eat, stay­ing warm, avoid­ing preda­tors and find­ing sex­ual part­ners. When these things are un­der threat, that’s when an­i­mals start to worry; that’s when the stress re­sponse kicks in. The phys­i­o­log­i­cal net­work known as the neu­roen­docrine stress axis goes to work. The im­mune sys­tem is mo­bilised and lev­els of the steroid stress hor­mones called glu­co­cor­ti­coids – cor­ti­sol and cor­ti­cos­terone – spike in an animal’s blood­stream.

But stress needn’t be a bad thing. These re­sponses ex­ist for a rea­son. “Stress can tell an animal if it’s in dan­ger and pre­pare the body to fight or flee from that dan­ger,” ex­plains Michelle Rafacz, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Bi­ol­ogy at Columbia Col­lege, Chicago. Where stress has pos­i­tive ef­fects, Rafacz says, it’s known as eu­stress (the Greek pre­fix eu means ‘good’ or ‘well’). Eu­stress can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween sur­vival and death. Pump­ing stress hor­mones may pro­vide the kick a snow­shoe hare needs to evade a pur­su­ing Canada lynx.

Hav­ing a hun­gry lynx on your tail is an ex­am­ple of acute stress. This is part of ev­ery­day life for most free-liv­ing an­i­mals. It’s not thought to have harm­ful long-term ef­fects. Of more con­cern to con­ser­va­tion phys­i­ol­o­gists – sci­en­tists who study how or­gan­isms re­spond to en­vi­ron­men­tal change – is chronic stress. A 2014 pa­per char­ac­terised this as a prod­uct of “chronic ex­po­sure to un­pre­dictable or un­con­trolled en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges” – chal­lenges like the de­struc­tion or frag­men­ta­tion of habi­tat, for in­stance. Which is where we come in.

“Hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties, such as land de­vel­op­ment


or noise from re­source ex­trac­tion, log­ging or traf­fic, can all in­duce stress in wild an­i­mals,” says Ben Dantzer, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan and lead au­thor of the 2014 pa­per. “This is quite wor­ri­some, be­cause an­i­mals may be ex­posed to chron­i­cally high lev­els of stress hor­mones.

“Some­thing is stress­ful when it is un­pre­dictable,” Dantzer adds. “If an­i­mals know when an aver­sive stim­u­lus is go­ing to hap­pen, they may be able to ad­just or adapt to it and not ex­hibit a stress re­sponse. When it is un­pre­dictable, like most an­thro­pogenic ac­tiv­i­ties, they may not be able to ad­just.”

The long-term ef­fects of chronic stress on wild an­i­mals aren’t well un­der­stood. So far, it has not been pos­si­ble to es­tab­lish for sure whether or not the stress as­so­ci­ated with hu­man ac­tiv­ity has neg­a­tive ‘fit­ness con­se­quences’ (that is, ad­verse im­pacts on their ca­pac­ity to sur­vive and breed) for an­i­mals liv­ing free. The lives of wild crea­tures are com­plex; it can be nighon im­pos­si­ble to es­tab­lish chains of cause and ef­fect with any cer­tainty.

But we do know that where hu­man ac­tiv­ity causes dis­rup­tion in a habi­tat, the an­i­mals that live there are likely to get stressed. How do we know? A lot of it has to do with poop.

“Fae­cal sam­ple col­lec­tion and anal­y­sis is per­haps the best way to measure stress

hor­mones, since it’s non-invasive,” says Rafacz. “And un­like some other meth­ods, hor­mones mea­sured in fae­ces ac­tu­ally give a con­sol­i­dated pic­ture of hor­mone con­cen­tra­tions over a 24-hour pe­riod, as op­posed to a snap­shot of what’s cir­cu­lat­ing in the body in that mo­ment, like what would be found in a blood sam­ple.”

Other re­searchers an­a­lyse hair, saliva, urine or even (in whales) ear­wax. Dantzer points out that blood sam­pling is of­ten con­sid­ered the “gold stan­dard” for the mea­sure­ment of stress hor­mones, but that it too has its lim­i­ta­tions. The process of trap­ping and sam­pling blood is li­able to send an animal’s stress lev­els sky­rock­et­ing. Sci­en­tists gen­er­ally have a three-minute win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to take a sam­ple be­fore new stress hor­mones flood the animal’s blood­stream.

Be­hav­iour can also of­fer clues to the lev­els of stress an animal is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Bird­song is one highly no­tice­able ex­am­ple. The wildlife sound recordist Bernie Krause tells me that, with the reg­u­lar­ity of sea­sonal change dis­rupted by global warm­ing, dawn cho­ruses have be­gun to show trou­bling symp­toms: “Lo­cal bird pop­u­la­tions seem to be un­der stress, ex­em­pli­fied by bio­phonic ex­pres­sion” – that is, bird­song – “which is now chaotic and in­co­her­ent.”

In his 2008 book The Bet­ter To Eat You With: Fear In The Animal World, Joel Berger de­scribed ex­per­i­ments in which he rigged up speak­ers to broad­cast wolf howls to Alaskan moose in or­der to mon­i­tor their re­ac­tions. Berger writes: “Be­cause an­i­mals can’t talk, we can only in­fer ac­tions that may re­flect fear… The most im­me­di­ate and per­haps sim­plest way to judge fear is by be­hav­iour.”

But hang on. We were talk­ing about stress. Now it seems we’re talk­ing about fear. Aren’t they dif­fer­ent? “Stress, fear and hap­pi­ness are in­ter­re­lated, as high stress is linked to fear and re­duced hap­pi­ness,” ex­plains Ed­ward Narayan, se­nior lec­turer at Western Syd­ney Univer­sity and lead au­thor of a 2016 re­view on the im­pacts of en­vi­ron­men­tal stress on Aus­tralian wildlife.

“Hap­pi­ness for a wild animal means be­ing able to meet its daily life-his­tory needs,” Narayan says. “These in­clude ac­cess to food, water and shel­ter, akin to hu­man ba­sic sur­vival needs. So if we can re­verse the im­pact of stress in an­i­mals, then their fear will au­to­mat­i­cally be re­duced and they will be able to ap­ply their energy re­serves to carry out be­hav­iour that meets their daily life-his­tory needs.”

Of course, ‘hap­pi­ness’ is a fuzzy con­cept. It’s dif­fi­cult enough to get a han­dle on in hu­mans; in an­i­mals, it’s even more elusive. Michelle Rafacz agrees. “What does it mean, for ex­am­ple, for an ant to be ‘happy’?” she asks. “We can’t ask it if it’s happy or look into its brain, but we can measure be­hav­iour and stress hor­mones, so that’s what we do. Even then, do we re­ally know if the ant is ‘happy’?

“I think it’s far more im­por­tant to first un­der­stand what it means to be a cer­tain species. How does it be­have in its nat­u­ral habi­tat? What as­pects of its en­vi­ron­ment af­fect stress? Does the animal have all of its ba­sic needs sat­is­fied? Once we un­der­stand these things, we can use them as a base­line of sorts for know­ing when some­thing is wrong.”

It’s hard to see how we can get closer to a def­i­ni­tion of animal hap­pi­ness than this: that a happy animal is an animal sim­ply do­ing what it does. Chronic stress com­pro­mises this. So when our ac­tions cause chronic stress, we’re mak­ing an­i­mals – for want of a bet­ter word – unhappy. Should we care about this more than we do?

The odd thing is, in some cir­cum­stances, we care about it a great deal. In dis­cus­sions of live­stock wel­fare, for ex­am­ple, the terms ‘stress’ and ‘dis­tress’ are of­ten used in­ter­change­ably. In the UK, guid­ance


on keep­ing pigs lists a range of fac­tors – in­clud­ing over­crowd­ing, feed de­fi­cien­cies and in­ad­e­quate ven­ti­la­tion – that can cause the an­i­mals stress; the guid­ance on cows and sheep places a sim­i­lar em­pha­sis on keep­ing stress lev­els to a min­i­mum.

In many con­texts it’s sec­ond na­ture to us to avoid caus­ing stress and un­hap­pi­ness in the an­i­mals around us. Most of us take good care of our pet cats, dogs, gold­fish and budgeri­gars. I feed my cat, give her things to play with, re­frain from kick­ing her down the stairs when I’m in a bad mood – and I don’t do this be­cause she’s a rar­ity, a threat­ened species, a cat on the brink of ex­tinc­tion (in fact, she’s a ten-a-penny res­cue tab­by­tor­toise­shell). I do it be­cause I don’t want her to feel stressed. I want her to be happy.

Re­ally, think­ing about con­ser­va­tion in terms of species is a very hu­man-cen­tric ap­proach. An­i­mals don’t care whether their species is thriv­ing or not. Or­cas are (next to hu­mans) the world’s most wide­spread mam­mals, but a Puget Sound orca go­ing hun­gry in pol­luted waters is con­cerned with its own pod, not its far-off cousins in the Ross Sea or the Nor­we­gian Basin. A lap­wing de­prived of its nest­ing habi­tat by a de­vel­oper’s bull­doz­ers doesn’t find much com­fort in the fact that there are other lap­wings, over in the next val­ley, that are do­ing very well. In­stead, it feels stressed – unhappy and afraid. And that’s our fault. How is this dif­fer­ent from kick­ing the cat?

The ques­tion be­comes even more press­ing when you con­sider the dev­as­tat­ing force of fear in an animal’s mind. In her 2005 book An­i­mals In Trans­la­tion, Tem­ple Grandin, pro­fes­sor of animal sci­ence at Colorado State Univer­sity, main­tains that “the sin­gle worst thing you can do to an animal is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for an­i­mals – I think it’s worse than pain.”

Most of the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture on stress and fear in wild an­i­mals fo­cuses on the im­pacts these things can have on their abil­ity to sur­vive and breed. Very rarely is stress con­sid­ered a detri­men­tal im­pact in it­self; very rarely do we see hu­man ac­tiv­ity – build­ing, log­ging, pol­lut­ing, mining, bull­doz­ing – framed in terms not of the species it might en­dan­ger, but of the stress it might cause wild an­i­mals.

This isn’t to say that a species-fo­cused ap­proach doesn’t have a huge part to play in con­ser­va­tion. Apart from any­thing else, it al­lows us to quan­tify things, to break down what’s left of the nat­u­ral world into data we can measure. We’ll never re­ally be able to do that with stress and fear, how­ever much poop, hair and blood we col­lect.

The prob­lem is, crisp, clean data can make things seem sim­pler than they are. So­lu­tions be­come less about com­pre­hend­ing com­plex prob­lems than about ma­nip­u­lat­ing the num­bers. The mod­ish con­cept of ‘de­ex­tinc­tion’ is a good ex­am­ple. So, we don’t have enough north­ern white rhi­nos or Cal­i­for­nia con­dors (or what­ever it might be)? We’ll sim­ply make more! Never mind the wider prob­lems that drive these species and so many oth­ers to near-ex­tinc­tion in the first place.

We’ll al­ways have a ten­dency to put our­selves first; we’re only hu­man, af­ter all. But that isn’t the same thing as be­ing wil­fully blind to the con­se­quences of our ac­tions. When we de­stroy habi­tats, we don’t just de­nude the bio­di­ver­sity of our planet, we cause chronic stress.

We cre­ate a cli­mate of fear and anx­i­ety in wild crea­tures. ‘Cru­elty’ seems a strange word to use in a con­ser­va­tion con­text; cru­elty, surely, means hack­ing the tusks from an ele­phant, or send­ing hounds af­ter foxes and hares. But it’s the word we’d surely reach for if we treated cats or dogs or pigs the way we treat free-liv­ing an­i­mals.

You might ar­gue that stress is nat­u­ral for an­i­mals. You’d be right. It’s nat­u­ral for us, too, but that doesn’t mean we like it. I’d take a dim view of some­one who stole my car or wiped my hard drive and then tried to shrug it off by say­ing: Hey, stress is just a part of life!

Species ex­tinc­tions are dis­as­ters. But death is only one el­e­ment, only one dat­a­point, in the wild world around us. The lived ex­pe­ri­ence of wild things mat­ters too. It’s an­other rea­son to tread care­fully, even among the com­mon­place.


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