Q&A: Former LEAP Student Fellow Alisa White ’23 on Local Policy Approaches to Wild Animal Welfare

Headshot of Alisa White

A new, first-of-its-kind policy brief by scholars at New York University School of Law’s Guarini Center on Environmental Energy & Land Use Law, New York University’s Wild Animal Welfare Program, and Yale Law School’s Law, Ethics, & Animals Program (LEAP) identifies how cities can incorporate wild animal welfare into institutions, planning process, and policies on land use and the built environment. The policy brief, “Wild Animal Welfare in Local Policies on Land Use and the Built Environment,” and its accompanying highlights document were published in March 2024. The brief’s lead author, Alisa White (YLS ’23, YSE ‘23), is a Legal Fellow with New York University School of Law’s Guarini Center on Environmental, Energy & Land Use Law and a former LEAP Student Fellow. LEAP Postgraduate Fellow Laurie Sellars spoke with White about the policy brief and its policy recommendations regarding wild animal welfare.

This brief examines myriad ways in which local governments can incorporate wild animal welfare into policymaking. Why consider wild animal welfare in cities and the built environment? Why focus on local policies rather than those at the state or federal level?

This policy brief focuses on wild animal welfare because it is a missing issue at all levels of government. By wild animal welfare, we mean the biological, behavioral, and mental functioning of individual wild animals, which can range from generally negative to generally positive. Wild animals are those animals that live autonomously from humans and include everything from foxes and birds to butterflies and caterpillars. Cities around the world are home to many different types of wild animals.

While there are some policies that focus on biodiversity and species-level concerns, wild animal welfare is not being considered across the board. As we describe in the policy brief, there is scientific evidence to show that many wild animals are sentient or sufficiently like to be sentient. Put simply, wild animals have subjective, lived experiences, and it is important we take them into account in policymaking and planning. In addition to wild animals mattering for their own sake, the health of wild animals is intertwined with the health of humans and the environment. The policy brief highlights examples of local policies that are “win-win-win,” with benefits for humans, wild animals, and the environment.

We chose to focus on local government action on wild animal welfare for several reasons. First, local governments are already reshaping their policies around land use and the built environment to respond to climate change, including adapting to climate stressors such as flooding, sea level rise, drought, and extreme heat. In this time of change, there are opportunities for local governments to take wild animal welfare into account and implement policies that benefit humans, wild animals, and the climate. Second, local governments can act as policy innovators, testing out policies that can be implemented in other localities or even higher levels of government. Third, local governments, at least in the United States, have significant authority over land use policy. 

Local policies on land use and the built environment shape the lived experiences of humans and wild animals in cities. For wild animals, these policies shape whether they can move between patches of habitat, find places to nest and take shelter, forage for food from trees and bushes, and avoid stressors like artificial light at night, high-decibel noise, air pollution, and extreme heat. In addition, collisions with windows and vehicles are significant sources of mortality and suffering for wild animals, and the frequency of those collisions are shaped by local land use and built environment policies.

Overall, this policy brief emphasizes that there are many things that cities can do to support wild animal welfare in the near term. Personally, it has been a wonderful experience to be the lead author on this policy brief. I have found it uplifting to research and envision how cities can implement local policies that allow humans and animals to thrive, even in this time of climate crisis.

What are some examples of how cities might incorporate wild animal welfare into local policy?

There are many options for cities seeking to incorporate wild animal welfare into local policy. The policy brief breaks these down into two groups: overarching approaches and discrete policies to support wild animal welfare. In the policy brief, we use “cities” for short, but we include policies that could be implemented by cities, counties, towns, and other units of local government.

For overarching approaches, cities can get started by incorporating wild animal welfare in their existing planning processes and wildlife monitoring. Many cities already have existing planning processes that affect wild animals including climate action plans, stormwater and green infrastructure plans, biodiversity plans, capital investment plans, and more. Cities could start by including sections in these plans about wild animal welfare or otherwise consider how different aspects of these plans affect wild animal welfare. Similarly, many cities have some form of wildlife monitoring, at least in their parks or other open spaces. Cities could gather data on environmental conditions that affect the welfare of wild animals, such as exposure to anthropogenic noise, artificial light at night, and high temperatures. Monitoring for wild animal welfare would ideally measure more than just the presence or absence of animals in a given area and include assessing rates of disease among animals, starvation of animals, and other measures of animals’ body conditions. 

As cities build their capacity to consider wild animal welfare, they can move toward establishing an animal welfare office or official or developing a planning document for animal welfare. An animal welfare office or official could serve a coordinating role — helping agencies across the city consider animal welfare in their planning and policies. For one example, the animal welfare office or official could support other city departments with developing checklists to incorporate wild animal welfare into the design and maintenance of green infrastructure and open spaces. An animal welfare planning process and planning document could also support city-wide consideration of the welfare of wild and captive animals. The policy brief highlights examples of city animal welfare officials and planning processes from Amsterdam, Netherlands and New York City.

Cities can also implement discrete policies to benefit humans, animals, and the climate. The policy brief highlights over 25 different policies across six categories: green infrastructure, tree canopy, ecosystems, buildings and developments, lawns and open spaces, and roads. Cities can also consider bundling together multiple policies that may benefit wild animals into a wildlife ordinance that applies to private lands throughout the city or in a specified wildlife district or area. The policy brief highlights an example from Los Angeles, where they have a draft wildlife ordinance in a wildlife district in the city.

The brief also identifies local policies related to land use and the built environment that can benefit wild animals. What are some examples of such policies, including those that have been successfully implemented as well as novel proposals presented in the brief?

Cities have already begun to successfully implement land use and built environment policies that benefit humans, wild animals, and the climate. It’s exciting to see these policies in practice and being proposed in more cities in the United States and beyond! For one, some cities are updating their green infrastructure (GI) plans and technical manuals to promote benefits to wild animals from GI. For example, Lancaster, Pennsylvania has a GI manual requiring that plant selection for GI take into account wildlife value, i.e. food and shelter provision to wild animals, to the extent feasible. For another example, over 100 cities in the United States have prohibited gas leaf blowers, which benefits humans and animals by reducing harmful air pollutants and high-decibel anthropogenic noise. High-decibel noise can interrupt animal movement patterns, foraging, communication, and mating and increase stress in wild animals. For policies reducing wild animal mortality and injury, some cities have passed policies requiring or incentivizing bird-friendly building materials to reduce the enormous number of bird-window collisions annually. I recommend reading LEAP’s report, “Building Safer Cities for Birds”, for more detail on bird-friendly building materials policies. Some cities have also found creative ways to reduce wild animal mortality from vehicle collisions, including building road overpasses and underpasses or implementing targeted seasonal or nighttime road closures for wild animal movement. For example, since 2012, the City of Burlington, Ontario, Canada has temporarily closed a section of road to reduce mortality of Jefferson salamanders during their annual spring migration.

I’m also excited about some of the novel proposals in this brief that, to our knowledge, have not yet been implemented. I’ll share two of those here. First, policymakers and cities could come together to update the Complete Streets Policy Framework to include wild animals and consider how street design impacts wild animal welfare. Streets are a significant source of mortality and harm to wild animals — including fatal and non-fatal vehicle collisions, negative impacts on animals from road noise, and preventing animals from moving between patches of habitat. Street design models like Complete Streets should take this into account. Second, cities could require consideration of wild animals as they select trees to plant in tree planting programs. Many cities are implementing tree planting programs to reduce the urban heat island effect from climate change, including with federal funding from the Forest Service. If selected in part for their value to wild animals, trees used in tree planting programs could also provide shade, shelter, nesting, and food for birds and other wild animals.

What challenges or tradeoffs, if any, might local governments face in implementing some of the policies described in the brief?

I first want to emphasize that this policy brief focuses on policies that may benefit humans, animals, and the climate and can be implemented by cities in the near term with relatively few welfare tradeoffs. By welfare tradeoffs, we mean tradeoffs between the welfare of humans and animals or tradeoffs between the welfare of different wild animals. Many cities have already implemented the policies described in this brief, and we list some of those existing examples.

However, there are challenges cities may face to incorporate wild animal welfare into policymaking and planning. Cities may face the challenge of competing priorities. Cities may already be overwhelmed with addressing climate and fiscal crises, among other issues. The policy brief focuses on examples of policies that can support climate change mitigation or adaptation while also providing benefits to humans and wild animals. Cities are already considering or adopting these policies for their human and climate benefits — it is not too heavy of a lift to consider wild animals as they do so.

Another challenge is scientific uncertainty about the impacts of local policies on the welfare of wild animals. The field of wild animal welfare is still developing, and cities should seek to build flexibility into their policy and planning processes for emerging wild animal welfare science. Even in the face of uncertainty, cities can take modest first steps to support wild animal welfare. The policy brief identifies examples of policies that may benefit wild animals and identifies the types of benefits the policies may provide — reduction in heat and noise stressors for wild animals, improvements in habitat connectivity for wild animal movement, increased access to shelter and foods from plants, and reduction in mortality. Cities can take policy action now based on the scientific understanding we have and, over time, refine these policies as their impacts on wild animals are better understood.

What, in your view, are the most promising policies that cities can adopt to improve wild animal welfare? Are there any cities in particular that are leaders in this space?

This is a tough question because every city is unique! We designed this policy brief as a menu of options so that local policymakers can choose policies that work best for their city. We feature examples of policies from dozens of cities in the report, but there are a few cities that have shown leadership in considering animal welfare more systematically in their policymaking, including New York City and Amsterdam, Netherlands. New York City has a first-in-the-nation municipal animal welfare office, the Mayor’s Office of Animal Welfare. Amsterdam has a Councilor for Animal Welfare and city-wide planning document (the Animal Agenda) to ensure the welfare of wild and captive animals is considered and advanced in city policies. Both cities also have a number of discrete policies for wild animal welfare such as Local Law 15 in New York City which requires bird-friendly materials for new construction or significant alteration of exterior glazing. In their Animal Agenda, Amsterdam has prioritized removing bottlenecks to wildlife movement throughout the city. These are two examples of cities that have dedicated resources to promoting animal welfare, including wild animal welfare.