The importance of animal welfare in scientific research

We thought it’d be nice to interview a few people from our research project to pick out different aspects of it. This is the first one.

--> So Merijn, your university pathway is quite unusual, tell me a little about it.

I started out as a philosophy student. At first I was mostly interested in political philosophy, but I quickly found a way to merge my passion for nature (and mainly animals) with my studies in the form of environmental philosophy. I wrote my master thesis on ‘the land ethic’, which is a philosophical doctrine trying to find  harmony between mankind and nature by finding a way to value nature for itself, instead of for the services it provides us with. I then did a Master of Science in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the university of Edinburgh, Something I took from there was the need for scientists, mostly biologists, to take into consideration the welfare of animals involved in scientific experiments, something that is not as obvious as it might seem. 

--> Do you think modern scientific research is correctly conducted in terms of animal welfare ?

Although I think that in terms of animal welfare there are more urgent matters at hand (i.e animal husbandry practices) there is not always enough consideration for the welfare of laboratory animals, especially those that are not released back (in the case of animals taken from the wild), and those that can not be used again for further research. Still, it is the moral responsibility of every scientist to minimise the stress and/or suffering an animal is exposed to while under the responsibility of this scientist. 

--> What issues did we come across during our research?

Our research involved two species of animals, shore crabs and rough periwinkles (small snails). As we wanted to test the predator avoidance behaviour of periwinkles from two different ecotypes, it was obvious from the start that complete avoidance of animals stress and suffering would be impossible. The issue we faced was that previous research involved the crushing of snails, as their damaged tissue releases an alarm scent to their conspecifics. We wanted to test whether there was a difference in this phenomenon between the periwinkles from different ecotypes, but some of us had moral objections to the crushing of snails, especially because of this research being mostly for educational purposes. We did, however, agree on using the alarm scent of snails that were injured (and eaten) by shore crabs in the previous experiment, instead of directly causing their death ourselves by crushing them. You may wonder why it would be more moral to have snails be torn apart slowly by shore crabs, than to cause instant death by use of a blunt tool. Indeed, this a great subject for a long debate while you’re in the pub with friends, and I would probably argue: I do not blame a lion for tearing apart a young gazelle, causing it a great deal of suffering, but I would not appreciate a researcher taking a gazelle into a laboratory and doing the same. Then again, there would be someone arguing that we took the easy way by having the crabs kill the snails, but since we put the crabs with the snails it was actually us who tore them apart. Ah, good old philosophy....


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