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Animal Ethics

on December 9, 2011

My house mate is a zoologist and we quite like comparing animal and human behaviour. For example we were both studying altruism simultaneous abet from completely different angles and with different examples. Still its fascinating that some concepts considered human behaviour are actually all around us in nature anyway. It can sort of simplify it down maybe humans are not as complex as first thought. For example if squirrels can preform altruistic behaviour then is psychological research into research that explains it in terms of complex mental processes really valid?

Ethics are nowadays a big deal within psychology. Before doing any research you must consider the short and long term ethical considerations and implications of the research and this must also be reviewed by an independent board who decide if your research is ethically viable. Technically research involving animals should have the same ethical principles as human ethics but in reality do they?

One of the first things to do before conducting research is to gain informed consent form each participant. In human participants the usual way to go about this is to initially inform each participant of the experiment aims and what it involves and get them to acknowledge this by signing a consent form. However with animals this is impossible. You could of course explain your experiment to the animal taking part but it’s highly unlikely they are going to understand, unless they are some form of mutated species with super-human intelligence. The same goes for de-briefing a animal participant.

I suppose there is a debate that, like participants who are under the age of 18, the guardian of the animal could give consent. There is the same problem of course as under age participants that it is still not them giving consent, but the main argument with this suggestion is that those who are considered the guardian of the animal are also the ones wanting to experiment on them. Thus they are highly unlikely to consider the ethics of the animals at all.

Participants also have the right to withdraw after initially participating voluntarily. I guess it could be said that animals do voluntarily go to get the food often in experiments yet if that is their only source of food what real choice do they have? And they definitely do not have the right to withdraw. Even if they displayed negative behaviour where the experimentation is obviously harming them the researcher is not really going to take much notice because at the end of the day they want their results and they have probably become hardened against it anyway.

However the key ethical principle is that the participant should not be subject to any harm or distress whilst during the experiment or at any time afterwards and this is the ethical code that is easiest to directly apply to animals. Yet with animals not really being able to communicate how firstly do we know that they are experiencing harm?

There is the argument however that these animals never know any different, this does not necessarily make it right for them to suffer but that is often what they are bred for and it’s unlikely they will ever have to use ‘real’ animal behaviour in order to survive. Saying this I have volunteered at a dog kennel where many of the animals had been tested on leading them to be aggressive and have unnatural behaviour. Because of this they are unlikely to be re homed and will either be put down or live in kennels for the rest of their lives. At the very least if you are going to subject animals to harm and experimentation surly it should become the norm to treat them to a decent quality of life when alive and make sure that you are not going to make them someone else’s problem once you have finished with them.

Ethics is all about whether the ways outweigh the means but obviously the big problem with this is that you don’t know the ends until, well the end. The same applies to animal ethics and I personally don’t think we should really subject animals to harm, distress and possible death in the name of any science just as the same should apply to humans as what right do we have? It can be argued we are superior but does that mean we have to mistreat those considered less superior?

But we don’t live in an ideal world and animal testing and research is very useful to us and has influenced many key studies that have been replicated with human participants. The whole idea of conditioning is for one based on initial animal research, so I’m a bit on the face on the whole issue, though it upsets me some of the things that go on in the name of science. Fortunately there are ethical codes in place for research on animals and ethical forms still have to be filled in and considered by an independent board much like human research though the codes are no where near as strict.

Finally I thought I’d finish with a little fact from my housemate – a crab is the largest form of animal you can test on without having to consider the need for an ethics form, you know just in case any of you are budding zoologists in your spare time 🙂

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3 responses to “Animal Ethics

  1. psuc1b says:

    I think that animal experimentation can sometimes be necessary, for example in medical testing but I do think we need to think very carefully about how we treat them, both during and after testing, and whether the experiment is really justified. The argument you mention that the animals bred in labs never know any different so therefore its ok if they suffer is completely illogical. It is clear that while animals may think and feel differently to us they do feel distress and pain just as we do. Would it be acceptable to experiment on people if they had been born and raised in a lab and therefore didn’t know any different? Given the outrage in the case of Genie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_%28feral_child%29), I think not.
    What I’m trying to say is that I agree with you that some animal research is necessary and that there should be ethical procedures to protect animals from unnecessary harm.

    (P.S. This was a great blog to read, I really enjoyed how you structured your points around each of the ethical principles and your argument really got me thinking about how we treat animals.)

  2. psucfb says:

    Last year 3.6 million animals were used in experiments in the UK alone! (www.nc3rs.org.uk)

    This a truly shocking number, and at first it turns my stomach just thinking about it. However, thankfully under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA), all researchers are legally obligated to follow the 3 R’s when conducting any research on animals.

    Replace – use alternative techniques or avoid using animals completely
    Reduce – keep the amount of animals used down to a minimum
    Refine – minimise the suffering of animals as much as possible

    Before carrying out any study, the researcher has to show that there is absolutely no other way to test whatever the’re testing. Therefore, the 3 R’s are actively reducing the amount of animal research, as well as ensuring that the animals suffer minimum harm/stress, and are cared for appropriately.

    Your blog flows really well, and is easy to understand. I loved the beginning and end because it brought it down to a more informal and personal level 🙂

    http://www.nc3rs.org.uk/page.asp?id=7

    Robinson, V. (2005). Finding Alternatives: An Overview of the 3Rs and the Use of Animals
    in Research. School Science Review. 87(319).

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