Humane Wildlife Research Translates Into Better Science

A new research paper shows that many journals have no ethical standards.

Posted Apr 11, 2019

"Sound science requires animal subjects to be physically, physiologically, and behaviorally unharmed. Accordingly, publication of methods that contravenes animal welfare principles risks perpetuating inhumane approaches and bad science."

Even for non-lethal approaches that involves capture, for example, sound science requires that animal subjects be physiologically and behaviourally unencumbered by harm. Methods that harm research animals risk perpetuating inhumane methods and bad science.” (Chris Darimont, of Raincoast Conservation Foundation)

I recently learned of a new essay published in PLOS Biology, available for free online titled "Publication reform to safeguard wildlife from researcher harm," in which researchers Kate Field and colleagues from Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the University of Victoria (Canada), the University of Saskatchewan, and Alpha Wildlife Research & Management convincingly argue that "inattention to the maltreatment of wildlife constitutes an ethical blind spot in contemporary animal research." In this very important essay they note, "Straightforward changes to animal care policies in journals, which our analysis of 206 journals suggests are either absent (34%), weak, incoherent, or neglected by researchers, could provide a practical, effective, and rapidly imposed safeguard against unnecessary suffering. The Animals in Research: Reporting On Wildlife (ARROW) guidelines we propose here, coupled with strong enforcement, could result in significant changes to how nonhuman animals (animals) involved in wildlife research are treated." An excellent summary can be found in a piece called "Research requires greater oversight to prevent the suffering of wildlife." 

I've long been interested in how to conduct solid field work while respecting the lives of animals and I wanted to know more about how this study originated and some more details about what these researchers learned. (See "Reflective Ethology, Applied Philosophy, and the Moral Status of Animals" and "Ethics and the study of carnivores: Doing science while respecting animals.") I was pleased that Kate Field agreed to answer a few questions about this seminal project. Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you write your essay?

"Publication in academic journals is the final and arguably most important step in the research process, comprising an essential feature of the reward structure for academic scientists. Consequently, by dictating requirements for publication, journals have considerable influence in shaping best practices among researchers. However, the opportunity to shape best practices regarding the welfare of wild animals subjected to research has been largely overlooked."

Despite no researcher wanting to cause harm or suffering, we were motivated to do this work because grossly inhumane methods sometimes pass peer-review. For instance, the use of strychnine-laced baits for wildlife had passed the peer-review process for a study published in a well-respected journal. We shed light on such examples to send a clear signal that there is an opportunity to improve oversight of the treatment of animals involved in research.

What are your main findings and conclusions?

Journals varied considerably in their inclusion of criteria. Of the 206 journals in our dataset, one third had no animal care policy whatsoever. For journals that did have animal care policies, just 22% had a statement related to best practices for animal care during fieldwork. This is problematic because, as other researchers have noted, animal care policies typically do not account for the behavioral and physiological variation that spans thousands of wild animals. As such, we propose a bare minimum template, which we labeled the ARROW (Animal Research: Reporting on Wildlife) Guidelines. This template animal care policy comprises guidelines that form a coherent baseline for journals currently lacking animal care policies upon which to build, as well as other journals to consider adopting.

Recommended minimum requirements for animal care policies in journals that publish research on wildlife (“ARROW guidelines”)

In the text of the manuscript, supplementary information, and/or cover letter, authors must

• state that they have obtained an institutional animal care approval and cite documentation

of such an approval (including relevant application number to support tracking)

• state that they have complied with the relevant national, international, and institutional guidelines regarding animal care, naming them

• state that they have complied with, and cite, animal care legislation in the countr(y/ies) where their research was conducted

• state that they took all measures possible to follow the 3R tenets and describe such measures

• for research involving wildlife (captive or in natural settings), state that they have followed taxon-specific guidelines for the ethical treatment of the taxa of study and cite such guidelines

Failure to comply with journal policies on the care and use of animals will result in manuscript

rejection. Editors maintain the discretion to reject work that imposes harm to research animals.

Why should researchers and non-researchers care about what you did? Do you think that treating research better makes for more reliable data?

Ethical conduct in science occupies a significant place in the public’s perception of the role of scientists, affording a social license to the research process. Humane treatment of wildlife during research will benefit the scientific process via receipt of trust from public realms. Moreover, sound science requires that research animals be physiologically and behaviourally unharmed. Interpretation of results derived from research animals who exhibit abnormal behavior due to harm could lead to erroneous interpretation of study results. 

Are you hopeful people working with animals will change their ways?

Yes. We have an opportunity to improve the quality of life for animals studied in the wild. I am hopeful that researchers working with animals, and journals that publish their work, will view this as an opportunity to safeguard from harm the organisms they likely devote their lives to wildlife.  Plus, the guidelines we propose do not ask too much from researchers. So, I remain hopeful. And our Open Data Set (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000193) will allow our team or others to track the improvements over time.

Thank you, Kate, for taking the time to answer my questions. Your recommendations align nicely with the goals of the rapidly growing field called compassionate conservation in which two basic guidelines are "First, do no harm" and "the life of every individual matters." (See "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation," "Killing 'In the Name of Coexistence' Doesn't Make Much Sense,The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human AgeIgnoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, and click here for more information on compassionate conservation.) I would like to see your essay become required reading for everyone--academics and non-academics alike--conducting research on wildlife. There's no doubt that more humane science results in more reliable data and your ARROW guidelines are an excellent way to assess what's being done and the effects it has on the lives of animals who are being studied. I also totally agree that "Ethical conduct in science occupies a significant place in the public’s perception of the role of scientists affording a social license to the research process...Because the public generally cherishes wildlife, mistreating them jeopardizes the privilege of trust in the scientific endeavor." Nothing is lost and much is to be gained when researchers set an example and do science while respecting the lives of other animals.