Sanctuary-Based Research: Research For Animals
As the name suggests, sanctuary-based research is scientific research conducted at animal sanctuaries. But it means more than just the physical location where research is carried out; it is an ethical approach that strives to combat the widespread scientific assumptions that contribute — either directly or indirectly — to the continued instrumentalization of animals. It is research with animals that is ultimately, and most importantly, for animals.
Sanctuary-based research differs from the standard, often exploitative, research with animals in two key ways: the types of questions asked and the ethical approach taken to answer those questions. It is an approach that decenters human needs, preferences, and desires, and asks, “Who is this animal?” at a species level and — more importantly — at an individual level. From there it asks, “What are their needs, preferences, and desires?”
Farm Sanctuary, which provides a permanent home for formerly farmed animals in upstate New York (the traditional land of the Seneca people, part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy), has recently established a research department dedicated to interrogating these types of questions. For example, in our upcoming study of emotions and learning with Cornish Cross chickens (known in the industry as broiler chickens), we are not asking, “Can chickens solve a learning task?” because we know they can based on our lived experiences with chickens and the scientific literature. Rather, we ask, “Do chickens experience joy when they successfully complete a learning task?” (Keep reading to discover the preliminary answer to this question.)
Ultimately, we ask questions hoping that the answers can be used to change the way the public views and treats farmed animals.
Sanctuary Research Guidelines
However, our animal-centered approach does not come at the expense of scientific rigor. In fact, because we want what we learn from the animals to be accepted by both the public and the scientific community, a strong commitment to scientific rigor is imperative. We don’t do this alone; we have an advisory committee of respected and accomplished scientists and ethicists guiding us and giving us feedback. They help ensure that our studies are both rigorous and ethical.
In collaboration with ethicist Dr. Lori Gruen, Farm Sanctuary’s research team developed a set of ethics guidelines that must be followed during any and all research activities. These guidelines draw inspiration from the Belmont Report, which aimed to address the ethical concerns associated with performing human research, and a 2020 paper by Van Patter and Blattner that explored ethical considerations with non-human animal research. They include the following principles:
- Capacity For Autonomy: All residents are recognized as persons and all participation is voluntary.
- Nonmaleficence: Invasive research is prohibited. Social, behavioral, psychological, and economic harms to any person, not just those participating in a study, must be avoided.
- Beneficence: Participants must benefit from the research. This could be a short-term benefit by ensuring the study provides a fun and enriching experience for them or a long-term benefit by changing the way society views and treats farmed animals.
- Justice: When a benefit is uncovered, we aim to provide it to all residents.
- Reciprocity: Participants are considered co-creators of knowledge. Researchers commit to learning and listening to the communication patterns of the residents while actively working to shift the power balance of the participant/researcher relationship in favor of the participant.
While we hope that these guidelines might inspire those within the scientific community to change their relationships with animals, we also hope to provide advocates with science-backed knowledge on the inner lives of animals which can, in turn, be used to change hearts and minds. This information can be used by advocates to provide evidence in support of legislative efforts, to educate people on who animals are outside a human-centric worldview, and to reach people who might not be swayed by other sources of knowledge.
When communicating scientific information, care must be taken to avoid reinforcing the fallacious notion that other animals are deserving of compassion because they share similarities with humans — this only serves to reinforce the idea that humans are most worthy of care, and that other species exist on a sliding scale from there. Through science, the participants of sanctuary-based research can further tell society who they are and what they are capable of beyond their capacities for suffering, when they are free to live outside of the horrors of animal agriculture.
Joys Of Learning: Sanctuary-Based Research In Action
Let’s revisit the emotion and learning study with Cornish Cross chickens mentioned earlier. This is the first study where we implemented our research ethics guidelines. We were interested in whether access to learning opportunities would impact the participants’ emotions, specifically their optimism or pessimism.
This study has the potential to impact animal welfare for the billions of chickens raised and slaughtered for meat every year. Animal welfare is the way an animal experiences their world; it can range from very poor to very good. Animal welfare is influenced by three interrelated components: physical health, emotional well-being, and the ability to engage in natural behaviors. Because emotional well-being is an integral feature of animal welfare, understanding what influences animals’ emotional states can ultimately be used to improve their welfare.
There is an inevitable language barrier between human scientists and chicken participants. Despite this, we needed to do our best to let the chickens know what to expect during the study so they could decide for themselves whether they wanted to be involved. To do this, we first allowed chickens to become comfortable with our presence. These birds had been living at Farm Sanctuary for most of their lives and were generally accustomed to humans, so this didn’t take long.
Next, we introduced the chickens to the study area: the hallway outside of their home pen. At this point, we had not yet set up any of our experimental materials. We opened the door to their pen and welcomed anyone who wanted to explore the hallway to do so. We paired this experience with food to make it more pleasant, and at the end, we thanked everyone — including those who did not participate — with a small snack.
On subsequent days, we gradually introduced the experimental materials that provided the chickens with the information they needed to decide whether they wanted to continue being involved. Some chickens never left their home pen, while others did once or twice and then opted out. Thirteen individuals continued to walk into the experimental area and became the initial participants in the study. They were Misha, Priyanka, Helena, Adora, Murielle, Killer Queen, Honeydew, Tia, Yoshi, Josie, Shirley, Dratch, and Tiny.
During this phase and throughout the study, we did our best to carefully observe the chickens’ body language and listen to their communication patterns. If someone told us they were uncomfortable, we removed what we believed to be the source of that discomfort. When they told us they were eager to participate, as many of the individuals listed above often did, we invited them into the experimental area. And occasionally, when someone who had initially chosen to participate decided to opt out, we helped them return back to their home pen.
To determine whether access to learning opportunities impacts chickens’ emotions, we developed a study in three phases. First, we needed to get a baseline measurement of their emotional state before learning. To do this, we used a judgment bias test. This test first involved training each participant that one bowl (either black or white and on the left or right) always contained a food reward, while the opposite bowl was always empty. For example, Tiny always received a few chicken pellets in a white bowl on the left while the black bowl on the right never contained pellets. Eight of our participants were able to successfully learn this and were thus able to continue through the study.
Next, we presented each participant with a never-seen-before gray bowl in the middle of the experimental area (called the “ambiguous bowl”), so it was a midpoint between the other two bowls in both color and location. If the chicken approached the gray bowl quickly, likely believing the bowl contained food, she was considered optimistic. If she was slow to approach the bowl or avoided it altogether, she was considered pessimistic.
After we got the baseline measurement of optimism or pessimism for each participant, we provided half of the participants with a learning opportunity — in this case, flipping the lid off of a bowl in a new location. Successful completion of this task prompted the human experimenter to raise a screen that ultimately gave the participant access to a food reward. The other half of the participants did not get access to the learning opportunity, but they did have to wait in the experimental area for the same amount of time before gaining access to the rewards. We then presented all of the participants with another ambiguous bowl to see if there were any changes in their emotional state as a result of their access (or lack thereof) to the learning opportunity.
We learned that, despite having no significant differences in optimism beforehand, chickens who had access to the learning opportunities were more optimistic than those who did not have access to the learning opportunities. We interpreted this to mean that access to learning opportunities led to more positive emotional states for the chickens who participated in this study.
When we took a closer look at the results, we also found that the group who did not have access to learning opportunities became more pessimistic after the experiment. Although this difference was not statistically significant, it warrants scrutiny. If access to learning opportunities was the only variable impacting chicken emotions in this study, then we predicted that those who didn’t have learning opportunities would not experience any change in their emotional state. Instead, perhaps their perceived level of agency or their inability to control their access to the reward had a negative effect on their emotions. We are currently collecting additional behavioral and physiological data in order to gain a better understanding of the various factors that could be responsible for affecting the chickens’ emotions.
Chickens Are Unique Individuals
It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the uniqueness of each chicken when we are advocating for the billions trapped within the current food system. But these study participants regularly — and often emphatically — reminded us of their individuality. For example, while the chickens who had access to the learning opportunities became more optimistic at a group-level, Yoshi became more pessimistic after the learning opportunity. Interestingly, Yoshi was also the only participant who tried to bypass the learning opportunity altogether and, instead, attempted to jump over the screen that was preventing her from accessing the reward.
Perhaps the learning opportunity we constructed was frustrating for Yoshi or wasn’t interesting enough to engage with, so she attempted to try to solve the task in her own way. It’s possible that because she was prevented from doing so, she became more pessimistic. However, she still voluntarily participated in subsequent trials and did eventually solve the presented task.
Yoshi, like all chickens within the food system, is a unique individual with her own personality, preferences, and interests. The preliminary results of our study support this. These results also suggest that at least some chickens would like access to cognitive experiences like learning that are virtually impossible to provide to a barn full of 30,000 individuals.
As we learn more about the inner lives of chickens and other farmed species through a sanctuary-based approach, we hope advocates can use this information in corporate engagement, legislative policy work, and other advocacy efforts to improve their lives while we fight to end a food system that is incapable of meeting the needs of every individual trapped within it.