Guidelines For Non-Invasive, Respectful Research With Animals
From medicines to psychological phenomena, animals have been used in all sorts of experiments, tests, and research to avoid putting humans in harm’s way. While there are guidelines in place to avoid “unnecessary” suffering (as defined by humans), the underlying philosophy that harming lab animals is an acceptable and sometimes necessary part of research is still widely accepted.
This study argues that we should be treating nonhuman animal test subjects with similar care and concern that we give to human test subjects — as well as those that are generally afforded to companion animals. The three principles outlined in this study are non-maleficence, beneficence, and voluntary participation.
Non-maleficence is, simply, the absence of harm to animals for the benefit of humans. More specifically, this means that intentional or negligent harm to animals in experiments is unacceptable, and researchers should carefully examine their experiments to ensure that harm is minimized. Experiments that cannot be performed without harming animals, or which cannot be guaranteed to be harm-free, should not be performed until it can be made clear that there is little risk posed. This extends to second-order harms. For example, the authors note that it is common practice to refrain from identifying the precise locations of endangered species in research. However, the authors would like to see this principle extended to all animals used in research where there is the potential for harm to come to them.
The principle of beneficence states that animal participants should benefit from the study in some way. This could be short-term, such as performing enjoyable activities in the study, or long-term, such as improved overall livelihoods. The authors stress that this should not be a simple assumption that increased knowledge will eventually, at an indeterminate point in the future, lead to unspecified benefits to the broader animal population. Researchers need to have a good idea of what benefits will be gained, which animals will benefit, and at what point (roughly) the benefits will materialize.
The basis of this principle is reciprocity: just as the researchers benefit from the research, so too should the animals. This treats them as active participants in the study, rather than “things” that are used for the good of others. In philosophical terms, we should extend to animals Kant’s imperative that we must always treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means. The animal is a living, thinking, feeling being, and should be treated as such. This includes how the animals are written about in the study and in research notes – researchers should avoid language that characterizes animals as things, and use language that emphasizes their individuality and capacity for sentience, emotions, and intelligence.
Finally, the authors come to perhaps the most difficult principle to implement: informed consent. Of course, animals cannot consent in the same way humans can. To make this possible, the authors suggest consulting with experts on the animals in question. For wild animals, this could come in the form of biologists, ecologists, or veterinarians. For domestic animals, this could be a legal guardian whom the researchers trust to act in the animal’s best interest. Furthermore, this consent must be ongoing – that is, if an animal appears to be in distress during the experiment, the experiment must stop until the animal is comfortable again, or ended outright.
The authors close with three additional considerations. First, the issue of inducements, such as food. The authors believe fully that withholding food or other vital resources are clearly unethical, but there may be room for positive reinforcement. However, they see this as appropriate only as an extra reward, not a tool to make an animal do something they otherwise would refuse. Furthermore, they stress the need to avoid the animal becoming dependent on rewards. The authors also cover the issue of privacy, which is not usually something we consider with animals. They conclude that observing animals in open spaces is acceptable, but stop short of condoning practices such as placing cameras or recording devices in private animal areas such as dens or nests unless the researchers are reasonably sure that no bad effects will come of it.
The authors finally question the idea that further research is always good – that knowledge for the sake of knowledge might not be justified, especially if gaining that knowledge does harm to another being. The authors close by envisioning a future in which a network of researchers serve on voluntary review boards to the point where ethical principles could be standardized and comprehensive. They hope that this article provides a starting point for an expanded conversation surrounding animal research ethics and a move towards a less-speciesist research framework.