The Gladiator Sparrow: Ethical Issues in Behavioral Research on Captive Populations of Wild Animals
This case discusses whether humans should consider animal suffering and sentience when conducting research; and, who is stopping an experiment justified on the grounds that animal welfare takes precedence over human intellectual endeavor?
Clarisse is a graduate student in a psychobiology program at a small state university. A year ago, she defended her dissertation proposal and began her thesis project. Her work addresses the development of aggressive behaviors in nonhuman animals. For decades, the prevailing notion in her field had been that these behaviors are largely innate. She designed her thesis research to test for environmental influences on the development of these behaviors in a small bird species, the Gladiator Sparrow, Zonotrichia aggressivus.
To obtain the detailed developmental data that are necessary to answer her research questions, she must carry out her studies in captive settings. At the university's field biology station, Clarisse has access to a large enclosure in which she houses her study subjects. In preparing for this work, she and her adviser have gone to great lengths to make the enclosure as natural as possible, including planting the major tree species that are the natural habitat of these sparrows.
Based on earlier published studies with gladiator sparrows in the wild, Clarisse knew the density of birds she should house in the enclosure in order to achieve the reported natural density of this species in the wild. This information is crucial to her work, because if there were too many individuals in the enclosure, problems due to overcrowding may result.
Clarisse has also done a thorough electronic database search of behavioral interactions in this species and in related species. She knows that fighting among these species has been reported to be common, and she has indicated in her approved Animal Care and Use Protocol that she might lose some birds due to their normal aggressive interactions. As part of her protocol, she plans to release all healthy birds at the end of each year's study at the site at which they were captured, and then capture an additional set of birds for the next year's research.
At the beginning of her first year's research, Clarisse captured the sparrows she needed and brought them into the enclosure. She monitored their behavioral development and social interactions closely over the course of the first year and found that the birds displayed all of the behavioral patterns reported for the gladiator sparrow in the wild.
However, starting about two weeks ago and corresponding with the approach of the birds' breeding season, she has begun to observe far more aggressive interactions among the birds and more aggression than she had foreseen from her literature search. Males were attacking other males, and females were attacking other females. Clarisse was surprised at the frequency of aggression. Yesterday, she discovered a dead male and a dead female in the enclosure, both of which were first-year birds. She also found more evidence of several birds, and even some of the older birds, constantly being attacked.
Feeling she should end the experiment, she talked with her adviser about stopping the study. He told her he would support whatever decision she made, but that he didn't think the losses she found were out of the ordinary for the species. As he felt he really did not have enough experience with her study species, he also encouraged her to speak to Drs. Cabral and Marable, two field biologists who had studied this species for decades and were now retired.
Immediately after meeting with her adviser, Clarisse telephoned both researchers. Both told her they had seen this intensity of aggressive behavior in the wild, but that it usually slowed considerably after the first weeks of the breeding season. She spent several hours that afternoon and evening in the library and found older reports in the literature that also indicate a high level of aggression and fighting in the species early in the breeding season.
1. Should Clarisse continue the study? Aside from the loss of a year's work, what are some of the ethical considerations in this case?
2. The high level of aggression seen in the sparrows in the enclosure is known to be normal in wild populations. Is this fact relevant to her decision? Why or why not?
Clarisse decides to continue with the experiment. Over the course of the first two weeks of the gladiator sparrows' breeding season, she loses 12 of the 30 birds with which she began the study a year ago. Six of the 12 were killed by other birds, and the other six had to be housed in a separate cage to recover, as they were constantly being attacked by their cage mates.
However, the first year of her thesis work has provided Clarisse with a wealth of data on behavioral development in this species. As she reviews the data she has collected, she finds answers to all the questions she needed to answer to set up the next year of her studies. She found considerable evidence that social experience influenced behavioral development, evidence that could not have been obtained in the wild with this species. Although she is not comfortable with the loss of individuals in her study, she decides to continue with the thesis work as originally planned.
3. In retrospect, knowing the losses, did Clarisse make the right decision to continue with the study during that first year? Do the consequences matter?
4. To try to minimize the possibility of losses of individuals in the next year of her study, Clarisse considers reducing by 50 percent the number of sparrows she had originally planned to use. She presents the idea to her committee in her annual meeting with them. They discuss the costs and benefits, and decide that the lowered density would be too artificial in the enclosure and would seriously weaken her interpretations of normal behavioral development in the species. Is this a justifiable decision? What issues are being weighed here? What obligation, if any, does Clarisse have toward her study subjects?
5. Would the answers to these questions be different if the species Clarisse chose to study were a cockroach? a lizard? Norway rats obtained from an animal breeder? an orangutan? What are the justifications for treating each species similarly or differently in a study like this one?
6. Imagine Clarisse were studying an endangered species for which information on breeding biology was desperately needed. Would these considerations potentially affect the decisions about animal care and use?
Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000.
Should Clarisse continue this experiment? The central moral issue in considering that question is whether the birds' interests should be taken into account in evaluating whether or how to conduct the experiment. If the answer is "No, their interests should not be taken into account," then, assuming the experiment is well designed and likely to yield useful results and hence is a good use of resources, there is no reason not to have undertaken it in the first place or continue the experiment If the answer is "Yes, the birds' interests should be taken into account," then one must determine what their interests are and what bearing consideration of their interests should have on a decision to undertake the experiment, modify it or continue the experiment.
Moral status of birds
To ask about the moral relevance of their interests is to ask about the moral status of birds. Are they the sort of entities that have moral standing, that is, entities that at least have interests of some moral importance and perhaps moral rights, or are they rather like rocks, which have no interests, no moral status?(1) Relevant to the question of the birds' status is whether birds can feel pain or suffering. If they cannot experience pain or suffering, then one central objection to this experiment is removed. The birds cannot be harmed in this sense, so perhaps there is nothing wrong with the experiment. Historically some (the philosopher Descartes, for example) have held that birds (and other animals) do not experience pain. That view is not widely held in the scientific community, although there may be debate on the extent of pain and kind of suffering such animals experience. I will not focus on this view.
Even if one grants that the birds in this case experience pain and suffering during the experiment or later as a result of the experiment, one might take the position that such a fact is morally irrelevant to whether or not to conduct the experiment. One might hold, as did the philosopher Kant, that "animals are to be regarded as man's instruments, as means to [man's] ends.(2) One can admit that the birds experience some forms of pain and suffering, but argue that their pain is of no moral relevance whatsoever to the question of whether the experiment is morally permissible. Some in the scientific community may hold this position. The fact that we have and observe the Animal Welfare Act, however, indicates that most people agree that research animals' pain and suffering is somehow a relevant factor. Although this position raises important ethical and philosophical issues, since the locus of disagreement tends to be elsewhere, I will not focus on this view, either.
At the other end of the spectrum, some hold that both humans and other animals (at least animals with a sufficiently rich psychological life) have inherent value, that is, they have "morally significant value in themselves, apart from their possible usefulness to others and independently of the. . . overall status of their mental life."(3) This view, developed by Tom Regan and called "inherentism" holds that at least some animals have the same moral status as humans provided they are capable of having beliefs and desires and acting intentionally.(4) Consequently, they are not to be used merely as means for human ends. If this view is correct, there is no justification for using these sorts of animals in any scientific research. If birds fall in the category of animals with inherent value, there ought to be no balancing the interests of the birds against those of humans. Clarisse should not have undertaken the experiment and should discontinue it immediately. As Regan himself admits, however, there are difficulties in determining which animals are psychologically rich enough to fall in this category.(5)
Even if one does not accept the inherentist position, a more common position holds that birds and other animals have some sort of moral status because they are sentient creatures, capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Sentience is the feature relevant to determining moral status. Humans have at least a prima facie duty not to cause any sentient being pain. The pain of any sentient creature counts, and the pain or pleasure of humans does not automatically override that of other animals. That is the utilitarians' view.
If one accepts this position on sentient beings, one still might argue that although the birds in this experiment experience pain, suffering, and death, those facts are irrelevant to determining what to do in this particular case. That is not because the birds' pain, suffering or death is morally irrelevant but rather because their pain and suffering was not causally connected to the experiment. Gladiator sparrows are aggressive. They attack and perhaps kill each other in the wild. If the same aggressive wounding and killing goes on in the wild at the same level as Clarisse observed in her cage, then one might argue that she had here a kind of natural laboratory. She was simply passively observing, in a convenient forum, what would have happened to these birds in the wild.
Indeed, Clarisse belatedly discovers from researchers and early reports in the literature that gladiator sparrows exhibit the intensity of aggression in the wild that she observes in her cage. If she were able to determine by literature search and field observation that the birds exhibited a level of aggression and outcomes that closely match what she later observed with her caged birds, then one might argue that she is simply a passive observer and that the experiment contributes nothing to the pain and suffering of the birds. Suppose she were able to determine by field observation in advance of the experiment that for every 30 birds in the wild, six to twelve would be killed and a number seriously injured during the first few weeks of the mating season. One might argue that her intervention had caused no harm and thus it would be acceptable to carry out and continue the experiment. On the other hand, if the aggression observed in the wild matches that in the cage but may not result in such serious injury or death because the birds under attack are not imprisoned with no chance for escape, then of course Clarisse's experiment has contributed to the pain and suffering of the animals.
Even if the levels of the birds' injuries and deaths in the wild match the outcomes in the cage, there are other considerations. The notion of the animal's "suffering" in this context typically includes tension, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and fear. Do the acts of aggression in the cage create more of this sort of suffering since the birds under attack cannot escape? Do all the caged birds experience suffering in the capture process or when they discover they are trapped in an enclosure? If the aggression is learned behavior, will birds released from the cage have learned a higher level of aggression than their wild counterparts, and will they pass that on to the wild population, thereby raising the level of pain and suffering in the wild population? If any of these outcomes occur, then Clarisse's experiment has increased the birds' pain and suffering and her experiment is not merely a natural lab in which their pain and suffering is morally irrelevant.
One can of course debate whether birds are capable of emotions such as fear and anxiety or capable in general of experiencing the emotional pain of the events in this case. Some would argue that the basis for attribution of emotions in animals is as good as the basis for the attribution of pain.(6) Some would argue that we are as certain that some animals have emotions as we are that other people have emotions. "We are as sure that a bear is angry as that a spouse is angry."(7)
Even if we grant, as it may be reasonable to assume, that the birds in this case experience pain and suffering in the cage that they would not have experienced in the wild, some might argue that, nevertheless, the experiment was morally justified in principle. The birds' pain and distress, although morally relevant, nevertheless, is somehow outweighed by the benefits of the experiment.
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Assessing the benefits of this experiment
The benefits of conducting the experiment may include the value of the knowledge we expect to gain as well as benefits to other stakeholders. Assume for the moment that the experiment is well designed and executed so that we gain maximal knowledge. It appears that the objective is to try to determine whether gladiator sparrows' aggressive behavior is largely innate or if significant environmental factors influence the development of aggressive behavior in the species. It is not clear if it is expected that the findings of such a study could be generalized to aggressive behavior in all nonhuman animals or to aggressiveness in humans. One might argue that the more general the implications of the findings, the more valuable the knowledge gained in the experiment.
Suppose that the experiment indeed gives us some additional understanding of whether gladiator sparrows' aggression is largely innate or learned. What is the benefit of that knowledge? 1) This knowledge will not have any direct instrumental benefit to the welfare of birds in the study. It is not on the order of a therapeutic experiment to help those specific birds in the study. Given that there are no benefits to the subjects of the experiments, it is clear that the benefit to the birds does not outweigh the pain they experience. 2) It may have instrumental value for the promoting the welfare of the population or species if we learn something about their behavior that could be used in conservation strategies to protect this species. It is not at all clear that is an expected outcome of the experiment, hence it is not clear that one could argue that these birds' suffering is for the greater good of their population or species. From the birds' perspective, their burdens certainly outweigh the experiment's benefits for them individually or for the species. 3) Serious human interests are not at stake in this experiment in the sense that animal experimentation designed to find a cure for a human disease might be considered a serious interest. 4) The experiment appears to have some value in yielding information intrinsically interesting to humans; it satisfies our desire to know and understand the world around us. Clarisse assumes the experiment will have relevance beyond the question of whether aggression is innate in this particular species. She is challenging a prevailing view that aggression is innate in animals. If she is correct, that finding could be significant for our understanding of the issue. This experiment might contribute to our understanding of aggression in humans, although one must always ask whether bird behavior would be close enough to human behavior to be relevant.
The intellectual benefits to humans lie in the broad advancement of scientific understanding of aggression in animals. Aside from any knowledge we may gain, what are the experiment's other benefits? It provides a research project for a graduate student. It may be part of a grant project that generates income for the department. It may provide a research program or career opportunities for the graduate student and her professors. In this experiment, the humans assume all the benefit; the birds assume all the burdens.
Do such considerations justify continuing this experiment? We recognize that it is at least prima facie wrong to inflict pain and death on these birds. It would be wrong to kill them for our amusement or for trivial reasons. 1) That is why it would be wrong to wound and kill them in an experiment so badly designed that it yielded no benefits of knowledge. 2) That is why it would be wrong to kill and wound them in an experiment that yielded only trivial results. (Presumably the other personal benefits to researchers in conditions 1) and 2) would not outweigh the harm to the birds.) 3) That is why it would be wrong to kill or wound them in an experiment that could be alternately designed to substitute models or other means to obtain the same results. 4) That is why it would be wrong to use more than the minimum number of birds statistically required.
Even if all such considerations have been answered in this case (and, as the other commentator notes, it is not clear that all such considerations have been answered), should the study continue? The decision still comes down to weighing the knowledge gained against the birds' pain, suffering, and death that would not have occurred absent this experiment.
This call is perhaps closer than one might think at first. If considerations 1-4 are justifiable reasons for not conducting the experiment, it is not at all obvious that any significant knowledge automatically justifies conducting or continuing the experiment. Once one allows the moral significance of the birds' pain and suffering, one allows for the possibility that their pain and suffering could count for more than the value of the scientific knowledge gained by the experiment. There may be times when we might justifiably argue that some knowledge ought to be forgone or lost rather than inflict on animals the pain and suffering required by the experiment. Some ethologists have made that judgment in other experiments.(8)
It is important to recognize that we are weighing the birds' highest interests in not suffering or dying against humans' less pressing interests in extending their knowledge. The difficulty is in weighing this tradeoff and, of course, humans are doing the weighing. In this case, it does seem to be a very close call.
It is not clear from this case if findings from field observations before the experiment or from the experimental results at the end of Year 1 would be adequate to allow Clarisse to design models that could be used to test subjects' behavior without harming them or to identify reliable indicators of aggression while permitting intervention before actual aggression occurs. If the experiment could be carried on without the actual pain and suffering of aggressive attacks, then perhaps the suffering due to capture, captivity, and threat of aggression might reasonably be judged to be outweighed by the knowledge gained. The experiment or its continuation as so modified might be justified.
To Clarisse's credit, she did do the literature research required, although perhaps not sufficient. She did attempt to match the habitat setting. She did get the animal use committee's approval. She did intervene to protect injured birds. She did reassess the experiment before the end of the year in an effort to reassure herself that it was a "natural lab." She did consider a modified program for Year 2.
It is worth noting that the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approved the experiment. It is not clear whether they required or considered a detailed ethical justification for the use of these birds or gave that question the same level of consideration they gave to the study's design or theoretical importance. The burden for such considerations ought not to lie solely with Clarisse. That fact has implications for the training and sophistication in ethical thinking one ought to expect from such committees as well as universities' responsibility to ensure appropriate levels of ethical training for such committees.
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Author: Brian Schrag, Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.
When someone hears or reads about research on nonhuman animals and potential ethical problems with that research, the research typically has biomedical applications. This type of research uses non human animals as models for human beings, in experiments with new products or techniques. Ethical arguments against this research have generally fallen under two major views: a utilitarian view or a deontological (rights-based) view. From the utilitarian viewpoint, the question hinges on whether the study organism has the capacity for suffering; if so, we need to take that suffering into account.(1) According to this view, if we would not conduct an invasive and terminal experimental procedure on a one-week-old human infant, we probably would not be ethically justified in doing the same procedure on an adult dog.
From the rights-based viewpoint, the question of suffering is not the central criterion for evaluating our decisions about non human animal research. For this view, the major problem with non human animal research is that we are using living, sentient individuals as resources, as means to our ends.(2) Each animal is an "experiencing subject of a life" that has importance to that individual, regardless of the species in question and regardless of that individual's usefulness to us as researchers. Thus, according to this view, it is ethically wrong to ignore the rights of that individual animal and use it in an experiment as a model for disease or biological processes in our own species.
But what if the research does not have a direct, immediate application to our own species? What if, instead, we are interested in understanding the basic ecological and evolutionary processes that govern the living world? One field of research taking this approach and using nonhuman animals as research subjects, is the field of animal behavior. Ethologists, comparative psychologists, and behavioral ecologists study the behavioral patterns of nonhuman animals and humans in both captive settings and in the organisms' natural settings. The goals of the research are to understand the behaviors animals use to feed, reproduce, communicate, and avoid predation -- how these behaviors develop, the mechanisms by which they are elicited, what functions they serve, and how they evolved in the species. Indeed, for those of us concerned about the use of nonhuman animals in research, a solid understanding of the ethology and natural history of the species is fundamental to know what might be painful to an animal or what is an abnormal environmental context or stimulus for a species. To arrive at this understanding, research with nonhuman animals is necessary. While mathematical modeling, computer simulations, and strictly observational data often serve as the foundation for generating predictions about behavior, experimental studies involving manipulations are often necessary to test the predictions.
How does one decide whether a given ethological experiment with non humans should be done -- whether it would be ethically justifiable? A decision model proposed by Bateson(3) and Driscoll and Bateson(4) provided a useful set of three criteria to consider: the likely amount of animal pain, the quality of the research question and design, and the certainty of benefit of the research. If these three criteria are envisioned as three axes stretching from a "low" ranking to a "high" ranking, a cube is generated. Not surprisingly, acceptable experiments with nonhuman animals occur in regions of the cube characterized by lower levels of animal pain, higher levels of research quality, and higher levels of certainty of benefit. Extreme amounts of animal pain would render an experiment not justified, even if the experiment were designed well and promised solid benefits. Alternatively, if an experiment exposed the subjects to little or no pain, it might be justified even if the experiment may not be strongly controlled or if the practical benefits or gains in knowledge were not perceived to be great. Further, a moderate amount of animal pain might be justified in a well-designed experiment if the study had a high likelihood of benefit.
An important extension of this decision cube would take into account what might be called a conservation criterion.(5) Research carried out on, or that might affect, an abundant species may not be justified on a species or population that was threatened or endangered. This conservation concern can conflict with other ethical views of animal research. For example, if one were studying the natural history of a small island population of marsupials that was being decimated by an introduced rodent species, under this conservation criterion one might be justified in trying to eradicate the rodent species (an action the rights-based view, for example, would see as ethically wrong).(6) When joining the decision cube to the conservation question, one is therefore faced with a number of potentially conflicting criteria in trying to decide whether a particular research project in animal behavior might be justified.
"The Gladiator Sparrow" case touches on many of these issues. The research is designed to reveal basic principles and processes of behavioral development -- the benefit that might accrue from the research may have no direct application to human welfare whatsoever. Then again, understanding socialization processes during development that lead to certain behaviors being displayed in a nonhuman animal species may be of some significance to our understanding of human behavior. With basic research like the study described in the case, one simply cannot know beforehand the practical results that might be obtained. The questions raised in the case touch on our notions of whether some groups of animal species may be more or less preferable as study organisms in behavioral research and how this decision might relate to utilitarian or rights-based views. They also relate to the fact that with behavioral research, the questions asked and the design of research are often inseparable from the ethical issues confronting the research. However, the remainder of this commentary will focus on one of the most fundamental issues in this case -- studying aggression in a captive group of animals.
In this case, the behavior in question is aggressive behavior, and a study of aggression in and of itself brings many of these ethical issues to the forefront. Perhaps the most central issue in this case is that, by definition, research on aggression will involve pain and suffering for some of the animals. Further, the study of aggression in a captive setting raises the stakes. Although a captive setting allows for increased experimental control and for extremely detailed observations of behavior and its development, in this case it also exacerbates the problem of animal pain. In a captive setting, an individual being attacked by another cannot escape the interaction by leaving the area, as might be the case in the species' natural setting. This concern has led some authors to view any captive study of natural behaviors like aggression, infanticide, or predation -- or any field study with manipulations to increase the likelihood of these events -- to be ethically problematic.(7)
In her discussion of ethical problems with studies of predation or aggression, Huntingford argued that the conflict between the pain involved in the experiment and the likely information acquired by doing the experiment will come out in favor of doing the experiment to the extent that six criteria are met:
It is informative to look at the case of The Gladiator Sparrow in light of Huntingford's six criteria (as well as those of Bateson, Cuthill, and Driscoll and Bateson, discussed above).
To summarize, Clarisse seems to have done a fair amount of preparation for her research, and she has met the expectations and concerns of her IACUC in developing her study. On the other hand, given the nature of her research project, she perhaps should have prepared more thoroughly. Had she known the extent of the aggression she would observe (and from the case it seems likely she could and should have known this), she could have been ready for what she would encounter with the birds. She could have set up testing situations, or in general could have been better prepared, to minimize the losses in her study as well as the amount of pain suffered by the birds, while still collecting the data required to answer her research questions.