My recent essay called "Apes Swim and Dive and Birds Know Speed Limits" prompted a few people to note that the observations of the orangutan swimming were made at a non-accredited facility called T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species), a private zoo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that has repeatedly been cited for abuse and violations of USDA animal welfare regulations (see also and).
Should we use data from behavioral studies in which animals are mistreated?
My colleagues' comments made me think about a general question that comes up now and again, namely, are there data we shouldn't use because they were collected on animals, nonhuman or human, who suffered greatly during the research? To focus the discussion, I'm limiting myself here to behavioral studies of nonhuman animals (animals) because it's clear that numerous other challenging questions are raised in situations in which animals are harmed in biomedical research, for example, conducted primarily or solely for human benefits.
The question "Should we use data from behavioral studies in which animals are mistreated?" should be of great interest to readers of Psychology Today, and I hope people will comment on it. In the case of the swimming orangutan, the observations were novel and useful to people pondering the evolution of human behavior. According to one of the co-authors on the research paper, Nicole Bender at the University of Bern (Germany), "The behaviour of the great apes in water has been largely neglected in anthropology. That's one of the reasons why swimming in apes was never before scientifically described, although these animals have otherwise been studied very thoroughly. We did find other well-documented cases of swimming and diving apes, but Cooper and Suryia are the only ones we were able to film. We still do not know when the ancestors of humans began to swim and dive regularly."
Using existing data is one way of honoring the animals' sacrifices
My own take on this question is that it is permissible to use existing data as long as it is noted that the findings were conducted at a facility or facilities where there have been documented violations of accepted animal welfare standards and/or on animals who had been harmed during the course of the research, and that no more research should be conducted at these places until they change their ways and adhere to accepted animal welfare regulations. The data also must be used for the animals' benefits.
Of course, other questions arise including should we be conducting research on captive animals at all, are the accepted regulations really strong enough and adequately enforced to protect the animals who are kept in a captive situation, and are the data useful for furthering our understanding of a given question or species? Many captive animals are stressed and/or kept in conditions in which they can't perform species-typical behavior and researchers feel the data collected in these situations are of limited value.
I'm taking this stance about the use of existing data because if the information is useful for furthering our understanding of a given species and/or advancing existing theories or generating new ones but the animals regrettably suffered, using the data is one way of honoring the animals' sacrifices. I expect others may disagree with this view and I'd like to hear more because my position is not immutable.
This brief essay was motivated by discussion with renowned Duke University researcher Brian Hare (see also).