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Taking on the more-than-human perspective on research ethics

Updated: May 7, 2023

By Kris Hill, Jes Hooper, Sarah Oxley Heaney, Michelle Szydlowski

The authors in a zoom call
Sarah (top left), Kris (top right), Jes (bottom left), and Michelle (bottom right) discussing ethics in relation to research and other-than-human animals.

We are a team of early career anthrozoologists who are excited to be presenting a workshop at the upcoming Research Ethics Conference 2023 (REC2023) conference.


What is anthrozoology?


We get asked this a lot!


Anthrozoology is the study of how humans and other animals interact socially and culturally. As an emergent discipline within the social sciences, anthrozoology is in its infancy regarding methodological practices. For anthrozoologists, research involves both humans and other animals as active participants and actors within ethnographic investigation. Concerned with the ethical implications of research beyond the human species, anthrozoologists are often faced with navigating how to protect and advocate for more-than-human informants. We face similar issues to other researchers working with vulnerable groups where unequal power dynamics are manifest. Anthrozoology therefore presents a unique lens through which to view the current research ethic processes and practices.


About us


Although we arrived here from diverse academic and professional backgrounds, all of us subscribe to the University of Exeter’s Anthrozoology as Symbiotic Ethics (EASE) notion of anthrozoology as symbiotic ethics, which considers all animals to be ethically significant beings worthy of dignity and respect. All of us chose our individual research focus based on a passion to help animals in some way (including humans who care for other-than-human animals). Through our shared ideologies and the synergy of our primary research interests, we have collaborated on several extra-curricular projects.


We believe the lives of animals are infinitely more important than any research project, career ambition, or the acquisition of knowledge and so we work together with like-minded academics to promote important scholarship, engage with non-academics, and advocate for other-than-human animals.


Animals outside of anthrozoology


Other-than-human animals are involved or impacted by research in a variety of direct and indirect ways. As anthrozoologists with ethical commitments towards other-than-human animals, we engage with and problematise complex issues surrounding our own research and that of more anthropocentrically driven research approaches.


Apart from the 5 Rs (refinement, replacement, reduction, reuse, and rehabilitation) in research ethics, other-than-human animals are rarely considered within the research ethics process beyond how they are treated in invasive laboratory experiments. The direct or indirect impacts on other-than-human participants or bystanders are often overlooked in social research. We ask how ethical considerations differ between institutional review boards, academic journals, and industry-sponsored research. We ask whether cultural bias means we are numbed to a cultural normalisation of how other-than-human animals are treated and how their perspective overlooked within research practices.


The Anthrozoology Podcast produced a two-part episode that built upon a workshop we hosted at the Research Ethics Conference 2021 (REC2021) titled ‘Problematising the Ethics Process: An Anthrozoological Perspective.’ The workshop presented the narrative of a fictive PhD researcher and project, based on experiences that can and do happen to researchers in our field. You can listen to our post-conference discussions here (part 1) and here (part 2). Many of these issues extend beyond anthrozoology and so are of interest to multiple research fields.


Join us at REC2023


Our workshop at Research Ethics Conference 2023 (REC2023) is titled ‘Integrity is doing the right thing when you don’t have to–when no one else is looking or will ever know’ (Marshall, 2002, p142).

Quote "Integrity is doing the right thing when you don’t have to–when no one else is looking or will ever know"
Marshall, 2002, p142

This quote illustrates how it is ultimately up to the researcher to act with integrity. Ethical review boards (ERB) are an important part of any research process because they provide an external assessment of the researchers' planned research. However, standards vary greatly between institutions and ethical approval does not guarantee the research is or will remain ethical. Ethical approval is granted at the onset, but researchers must remain cognizant of the ethical implications of their research throughout their study and reassess their practices in the event of unforeseen facets or consequences.


We will ask the audience to consider various elements of ethics and morality within research using four cases as a vehicle for discussion.


The case studies were chosen to open a dialogue concerning the use (and abuse) of other-than-human animals in social research. Through these cases, we aim to highlight ethics from a moral and institutional standpoint and to query whether published research that has cleared the ethical review board process, is in fact ethically and morally justified. We encourage attendees to consider their own potential cultural biases and how they react to each of the following cases.


Case One: Slaughterhouse empathy and emotional distress in goats


A study published in Animals earlier this year focussed on empathy in goats by recording their reactions to witnessing the slaughter of other goats.


Image of a goat with electrodes attached to their forehead
Placement of the EEG electrodes (Kumar et al., 2023).

In their paper, Electroencephalogram and Physiological Responses as Affected by Slaughter Empathy in Goats, Kumar et al., 2023, claimed a key aim of their research was to improve the welfare of goats destined for slaughter.


Do you believe such research is justified?


Case Two: The ‘Forced Swim Test’


The forced swim test (FST), conducted by biomedical researchers to measure the efficacy of antidepressant medication, involves drowning or near-drowning of mice to measure how long they sustain the will to live.


Diagram of the forced swim test
Figure is from Cryan et al. 2002

The above image is a figure from a peer-reviewed paper assessing antidepressant activity in rodents (Cryan et al 2002).


This method has been used since the 1970s, and recently has received renewed attention and a calling for it to be banned.


Even if they contribute towards improved human health, are such experiments ever justifiable?


Case Three: Bomb sniffing hero' rats


Reviled by many, companion animals to some, rats are hailed as heroes when employed to sniff out ordnance. We juxtapose their position as heroes with that of consent to be trained and their unwilling participation in fatal laboratory studies, ultimately deemed as a research commodity to further scientific knowledge. Based on research, APOPO is a nonprofit that trains pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) to save lives by sniffing out tuberculosis and tracking down land mines.

A giant pouched rat pulls a small ball on their vest, alerting researchers that they have located a mock victim.
A giant pouched rat pulls a small ball on their vest, alerting researchers that they have located a mock victim. APOPO.

Research into the potential of rats as bomb sniffing was commissioned to determine if rodents could be trained to detect bombs and is deemed successful from a human perspective.


However, this raises the question of how the research was reviewed and how the rodents' wellbeing was considered by any ethical review boards?


Is this form of other-than-human animal labour ethical within research practice?


Case Four: Animal welfare the slaughterhouse


Temple Grandin has been researching the slaughter of farm animals for decades. The research aims, claims Grandin, to improve animal welfare at the slaughter stage of processing their bodies as commodities for meat. Slaughter houses have implemented Grandin's recommendations, which arguably reduced the fear experienced by animals during their last few hours of life. However, Grandin’s research has been criticised as failing to consider the other-than-human animals destined to be slaughtered as ethically significant beings.

Professor Temple Grandin interacting with a cow
Professor Grandin

Is Grandin's work ethically justified or does it perpetuate other-than-human animal commodification?

 

We look forward exploring these and other questions at REC2023, and encourage you to join us as we delve deeper into the issues surround the case studies!




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