I encountered one of the most staggering instances of a cognitive bias a few years ago when I was working as a researcher studying flying snake locomotion. Shockingly, the cognitive bias I experienced came from me.
Despite decades of being a vegetarian and then vegan, it took me several years of research to confront the discrepancy between being an animal advocate and a scientist studying animals. Although my work is non-invasive—primarily involving filming snakes doing their natural movement behaviors—it is incredibly difficult to work with wild animals without confronting tough questions about how interacting with a snake, even for just a day, affects their life from then on.
Although I’ve tried to answer these questions for myself, there just isn’t enough data on the lives of animals living in the wild to determine how my work has affected the animals I study. Realizing this, I stopped conducting experiments, converting the last chapter in my dissertation to a computer modeling project. I also started working at Wild Animal Initiative, where we support scientific research that can help us understand and improve the lives of wild animals.
Wild Animal Initiative operates within the wild animal welfare movement. This movement lies at the intersection of conservation, animal advocacy, and effective altruism. But just as I failed to recognize bias in my own research, not seeing the cognitive dissonance between my care for animals and my research, biases also exist within these communities and our movement.
One kind of bias that can arise within communities is failing to include relevant perspectives. Even though our particular approach to wild animal welfare is only a few years old, the wild animal welfare community has already made the mistake of excluding crucial perspectives. In particular, the relevance of the conservation community to wild animal welfare work was ignored for years. This opinion only began to shift shortly after I joined Wild Animal Initiative last year.
An unnecessary division
Concern for animals living in the wild has long been a part of the animal welfare conversation, but the topic gained traction in the effective altruist community only within the last decade.
Effective Altruism (EA) is a charitable movement that prioritizes problems that are large in scale, relatively undervalued, and tractable to work on. EA intersects with animal protection in the “effective animal advocacy” movement. Wild animals are a natural fit for EA because they exist in such huge numbers, so improving their quality of life might turn out to be one of the best ways to make the world a better place.
Although concern for animal welfare has been growing in the conservation movement as well, when I joined Wild Animal Initiative in 2019, the EA movement had hardly engaged with conservationists at all.
After all, wild animal welfare appeared to be significantly at odds with conservation. Although many conservationists care deeply about wild animals, conservation typically works to preserve biodiversity, which is (very roughly) the number of different kinds of animals.
And although almost no research has explicitly investigated the relationship between biodiversity and animal welfare, these two concepts are not the same: it is possible to have lots of different kinds of unhappy animals, for example, which might be good for biodiversity, but bad for welfare.
Based on these differences, early wild animal welfare researchers largely dismissed the relevance of conservation work. Many thought that our priorities were too different, and that conservationists would be disinterested—if not outright hostile—toward wild animal welfare work.
Finding the common ground
Yet this dismissal was too hasty. Wild Animal Initiative has been largely successful in discussing our work with conservation ethicists and biologists. These individuals have pointed out that low biodiversity generally leads to decreased ecosystem stability, and it is a reasonable hypothesis that the collapse of an ecosystem would harm the welfare of the animals living in it. If this hypothesis is correct, there could be valuable overlap between our communities.
Of course, this hypothesis is not a foregone conclusion. To truly establish the complete relationship between biodiversity and individual welfare will take decades of study, and the answers will likely depend on the ecosystems and populations in question.
But as our discussions with conservation professionals have made clear, the conservation movement comprises a large body of people who care about wild animals, many of whom at least wish to make conservation practices more humane. Although conservation work has historically focused on animal collectives (in contrast to the EA and animal welfare focus on individuals), the question of how to consider individual animals in that paradigm is ongoing within conservation. Common ground is more common than we had thought.
Overall, failing to consult the perspectives of conservation scientists biased our thinking about the best way to promote wild animal welfare in the sciences. It was also strategically unwise, given that conservation scientists and activists have existing ties to land management and policy-making communities.
These connections are hard to invent from scratch and critical to the success of the wild animal welfare movement. My colleagues and I had been failing to see that our movement will be stronger and more effective if we are able to find common ground with conservation, and move forward together.
Missing perspectives are missed opportunities
Our misstep with the conservation community is just one example of how failing to include relevant perspectives can lead to poor reasoning and bad outcomes. For Wild Animal Welfare, conservationists represent a key community whose perspectives were missing from our work, and our work was weaker as a result.
But more widely, within both EA and the animal advocacy community, a more significant exclusion has been occurring for decades: the exclusion of the voices of people of the global majority (including Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander folks, and those who are mixed).
Both the animal advocacy and effective altruism communities have historically been dominated by white people, but of course, white people are not the only group that cares deeply about animal welfare—nor do they control the majority of global interactions with animals.
Consider that China is the largest producer of eggs, representing 42 percent of production according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and five nations (China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain) dominate global fishing. Although there is very limited aggregate data for human effects on wild animals, the majority of animals likely live in tropical reefs and rainforests.
These data illustrate that animal advocacy is an inherently global activity. People of the global majority have relevant local knowledge that must be included to understand how to help animals living in their regions. Acknowledging and incorporating that knowledge is as important to effective advocacy as reflecting on how our actions in the global west affect animals living worldwide.
Of course, taking action to eliminate racism is critical for improving the world, regardless of the ramifications for animal advocacy. But if the EA and animal advocacy communities fail to stand for (and not simply passively against) antiracism, we will also lose valuable perspectives that can only come from having different lived experiences—not just the perspectives of people of the global majority who are excluded, but the perspective of any talented person who wants to accomplish good for animals without supporting racist systems.
I know this is true because I have almost walked away from these communities myself, disquieted by the attitudes toward racism I found within them.
Meeting the effective animal advocacy community
In the process of joining the burgeoning wild animal welfare movement, I have become more familiar with effective animal advocacy. When I first took a job at Wild Animal Initiative, a friend warned me that there were racist attitudes circulating in effective altruism. I knew the demographics of the group were very homogenous in race and gender—Rethink Priorities’ 2019 survey found the community was 87-percent white and 71-percent male.
But it’s hard to pin down the position of “the average effective altruist” on social issues, because there is little central organization, and the most vocal people writing about effective altruism on the internet are not necessarily the people working at or funding EA organizations. With that caveat in mind, I still found enough to be concerned.
Some writers on the effective altruism forum, a message board for the community, recite tired arguments for why it’s “not our job” to address systematic racism. Others argue that racism may exist here and there, but is not widespread. Few EA organizations publicly discuss what, if anything, they are doing to combat the incredibly homogenous demographics of the space.
Although EA emphasizes a utilitarian philosophy toward charitable causes, I have seen numerous arguments about race that focus on analyzing the intent of a particular action, rather than whether the consequences of that action support racist outcomes. Together with the hostility and arrogance I sometimes encountered while giving talks, these experiences were enough to make me question whether I should take the job as Executive Director of Wild Animal Initiative at all.
What EA has to offer
Despite the lack of obvious support for antiracism within EA, some features of the community do seem very positive. Most EA donors are aware of the overhead fallacy and trust EA organizations to know how best to use their donations. This attitude is unfortunately uncommon in other nonprofit sectors. EA is also “cause-neutral,” in the sense that the movement is concerned with the broad goal of making the world as good as possible and exploring what that means, rather than focusing on a single “cause area” like animal welfare or global health alone.
Yet, defining what it means to make the world a better place without incorporating viewpoints from representatives of the global majority seems doomed to be a biased definition. Of course, individuals can try their best to empathize with people who are different from them, but empathy can only go so far towards developing a detailed and nuanced understanding of what someone else’s experiences are like.
I don’t wish to undervalue the contributions of the many people of the global majority who do participate in EA. But given the overwhelming demographic bias in the community, perhaps it is unsurprising that despite the emphasis on cost-effectiveness, the efficiency of organizations working simultaneously to stand against racism and improve the welfare of animals has been undervalued.
In a recent Facebook exchange, I witnessed a dispute about the value of DEI work within animal advocacy in real-time. One objector wanted to know if animal advocates are now also expected to track the effects of our work on reducing global poverty or figure out how we can be better allies to all marginalized groups. My answer is a resounding “yes.”
Focusing exclusively on animal welfare may be easier for operations, but ignoring the interactions between our work and other problems is not a good strategy for realizing the best possible global society.
Although charities and cause areas have diverse goals and missions, all the best charitable work is united by a desire to make the world a better place. Focusing exclusively on animal welfare may be easier for operations, but ignoring the interactions between our work and other problems is not a good strategy for realizing the best possible global society.
Given effective altruism’s stated goals, the community should be more open to organizations trying to simultaneously achieve their stated mission while furthering justice and equity in our society, not less. Similarly, animal advocates often ask other movements to incorporate animal considerations into their work, like asking environmentalists to also push for factory farming abolition. It is only fair that we in the animal advocacy community do the same.
Personally, I will not participate in EA and animal advocacy without challenging the racism I see within it, whether it’s intentional or not. As a white person, in the past, the significant emotional burden of speaking up has made me consider disengaging from the effective animal advocacy community. I know this burden must be exponentially more difficult for my colleagues of the global majority.
But I have found the support of others who believe that equity and justice are important components of making the world a better place. Creating community with these people has allowed me to continue to advocate for racial equity, even though I don’t have perfect answers for how to do that. By describing how Wild Animal Initiative has been attempting to be antiracist, I hope I will help the EA movement engage with multidimensional advocacy.
Creating a safe community for everyone
One of my first goals at Wild Animal Initiative was to demonstrate that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) go hand in hand with progress towards our mission. It was with that goal in mind that I attended the DEI Institute hosted by Encompass in February 2020.
The Institute aims to help participants explore how racism operates in their work and develop strategies to foster racial equity. I felt like I already had a decent understanding of DEI topics and some ideas of where to start at Wild Animal Initiative, but by the end of the conference, I had a wealth of additional information to support my next steps, and a group of fellow advocates to turn to for help.
My next step was to discuss antiracism with my staff, with the goal of ensuring that marginalized people are comfortable and successful in our workplace. We are doing our best to incorporate the question, “Where will bias show up?” into our regular conversations about our programs—we know they will so we’re framing this intentionally with curiosity and not trying to pretend we can rid ourselves of biases.
Given the ties between money and power in the nonprofit sector, we pay attention to how money flows around our organization to determine who we are giving power to or whose voices we are amplifying.
So far, this approach has led to us explicitly making space in our meeting agendas and program development processes to discuss whether suggested changes are promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. To strengthen and codify this approach within our organization, I plan to establish a DEI review board this year, which will examine both our internal procedures and external materials. The board will, of course, be compensated for the extra work this will entail.
To help ensure we are rewarding our staff for achieving DEI goals, we asked everyone to set six-month targets that include an equity and inclusivity component. We have also developed a set of hiring guidelines that focused on advertising open positions on platforms that don’t just target EAs, including job boards that reach people of the global majority. We plan to continue examining and improving our recruitment process to ensure it is not biased against people of the global majority.
DEI initiatives cannot end at hiring, though. Wild Animal Initiative has also recently decided to move to an algorithmically determined salary, inspired by our colleagues at Rethink Priorities. This approach uses an equation with transparent inputs, like location and years of experience, to determine what each person’s salary will be. We hope that this algorithm will remove any confusion about how pay is set, and eliminate biases that can arise within salary negotiations.
So far, my efforts have focused on how Wild Animal Initiative, as an organization, can do better on racial equity. Later this year, we will review the organization as a whole against the Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks, a system I learned about at the DEI Institute, which provides guidelines for organizational best practices. The GDIB helps clarify the difference between best practices (such as embedding DEI in the organizational culture) and reactive attitudes toward DEI (such as incorporating DEI only in HR or defining it very narrowly).
Eventually, I also plan to look outward to our community and support concrete efforts that will make the communities we operate in more equitable, and more effective. Within EA, I have started that process by speaking to my fellow executive directors, as well as other individuals with power in the community, about what they are doing to promote an antiracist environment. I look forward to seeing where these conversations will take me.
The examples I presented early in this piece are just a few ways failing to be inclusive can limit the effectiveness of our advocacy work. What’s more, failing to be actively antiracist leads to consequences beyond our organization. The purpose behind Wild Animal Initiative is one of promoting welfare: the highest welfare possible for as many individuals as possible. While our organization is primarily focused on wild animals, I want to achieve the best possible future for all beings. And the future with the highest welfare for everyone—no matter their race, their gender, their ability, their sexual orientation, species, or any other marker—is not one in which racism pervades our systems and society.
Throughout this piece, I’ve emphasized how incorporating DEI best practices contributes to our effectiveness at Wild Animal Initiative. But even if I couldn’t clearly see how antiracism efforts make our work better for wild animals, in particular, incorporating such efforts would still be a necessary step toward making the world a better place overall. Given effective altruism’s stated goal of maximizing the impact of our limited resources for good, I’m looking forward to seeing more effective animal advocates incorporate antiracism into our movement’s vision of a better world. At Wild Animal Initiative, we will continue to explore how best to do that, and share our progress and missteps as we go.
Michelle is the Executive Director of Wild Animal Initiative and a Ph.D. candidate in the Socha Lab at Virginia Tech.