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Paper calls for safeguards against unethical research on wildlife

Many journals publish research that is based on the treatment of wild animals that would never be allowed in a laboratory setting.


The treatment of animals used in scientific work has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, as institutions responded to intense public scrutiny and increasingly stringent guidelines around how animals are used in research. While this pressure originated from purely ethical considerations, researchers have more recently come to realize that the quality and reproducibility of results will improve when test subjects – human as well as animal – are treated humanely.

Field researchers are now weighing this same prospect for their own work on wildlife, an area that has received far less attention. At first glance it might appear that the typical process of tracking, sedating and tagging a wild animal for a short period would be far less disruptive than continuous confinement in a laboratory, but often this experience is stressful enough to be fatal. Catastrophic changes in health – including a spike in body temperature, severe muscle spasms, and systemic breakdowns such as kidney damage – define a condition known as capture myopathy, which has been analyzed for several decades across a wide range of species studied in their native habitats.

According to Kate Field, a researcher with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a master’s student in the University of Victoria’s department of geography, peer-reviewed articles in major journals are often based on the treatment of wild animals that would never be allowed in a laboratory setting. She is the lead author of a recent paper in PLoS Biology that drew upon examples of “grossly inhumane” research methods, such as a controversial cull of hundreds of wolves in Alberta by researchers interested in determining the effect of predator reduction on caribou populations. Critics claimed this strategy was at odds with established animal welfare standards, although the researchers defended their work by suggesting that the sacrifice of individual animals was necessary to study the fate of animal populations.

For her part, Ms. Field insists that scientific publishers should take on more responsibility for sorting out such conflicts. “Given that publishing is at the core of the academic reward system for scientists, journals are in a potentially powerful position to improve conduct through their policies,” she says. “I don’t think wildlife-oriented journals have purposefully or mindfully decided to avoid animal care policies, but given the progress that has been made in the care of laboratory domestic animals, this may simply represent a lag in response.”

The PLoS paper analyzed 206 journals, about two-thirds of which had some formally stated policy on the treatment of animals; of those, only about a quarter had statements that dealt with animal care in the field, and even fewer demanded that authors must abide by common requirements such as replacing or reducing the use of animals whenever possible.

Ms. Field suggests journal policies could set the stage for “compassionate conservation,” a strategy that balances the welfare of individual animals and the welfare of populations, so that neither suffers unnecessarily. It was the perception of suffering that drove the major revisions in contemporary laboratory practices, which might still not satisfy all observers but have nevertheless shed an unprecedented amount of light on this aspect of science, she notes.

“Use of wildlife to generate new knowledge hinges on implicit consent from the majority of society,” the authors conclude. “Because the public generally cherishes wildlife, mistreating them jeopardizes the privilege of trust in the scientific endeavour.”

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  1. Melissa Belvadi / June 13, 2019 at 08:53

    Shouldn’t this issue properly belong to the universities’ research ethics boards? Or do those only consider research involving human subjects? I would be interested in hearing from readers at many institutions as to whether and how research involving animals, in labs or the field, is vetted at the institutional level.

  2. Tom / June 13, 2019 at 16:39

    To clarify, in Canada, and by and large worldwide, all research on wild animals must pass ethical review by a university Animal Care Committee. The principles of replacement, reduction and refinement are applied. All respected journals require that research presented in publications has passed ethical review. Not all journals require that this statement is included in the published manuscript.

  3. Gail Clark / June 21, 2019 at 20:47

    Excellent! Thank you for shedding light on some of the most inappropriate ways in which we treat our wildlife, even in the name of science. The mention of the “hundreds of wolves” in Alberta prompts me to wonder about redundancy in that and many other studies. Sometimes I feel sad seeing the “wild” being stolen from the wild ones. Most mammalian species are caught using various types of traps. The following study seems to be one of few available to the general public but you may find it interesting. Thank you for your Efforts and concerns regarding this somewhat contentious topic.

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