Animal Ethics

This week, we learned a bit about ethical theory and discussed how animals are treated in different scenarios. Students can find my notes on ethical theory on the Scholar page.

There are a couple options for you to blog on this week:

First, you could answer the question prompt we didn’t get to in class: “You are a tenure-track Assistant Professor with a “significant” research appoint and are contacted by a manufacturer that wants you to test their product “SLO” in a horse model. Your Department Head has high expectations for you and although you have been working hard and have come very close on several grants, you are still searching for more funding that will help you be successful in getting tenure. What questions do you want to ask and what information do you want to have in order to decide whether you will agree to do the project for them?  What factors are involved?  How will you decide whether you will take this company up on its offer/request for your expertise?”

Second, you could consider your relationship to the multiple non-human animals and species that matter to your own life. We’ve talked about our confusing relationships to animals – as food, as companions, as helpers, as research subjects. etc. In your own life, which of these relationships can you bring into focus?

Third, we talked about ethical theory and ways to articulate our relationships to animals. What sort of language do you employ or encounter in your own life with regard to non-human animals, and how does this fit with the theories we spoke of? Is there some model or overriding question that you think about in terms of non-human animals?

Fourth, you can go back to the last post that Amanda made on human-animal chimeras for research and reply to that.

Thanks in advance for your responses.


  1. Having grown up with animals and worked with them for my entire life, it was a difficult journey moving from owning pets and taking in wildlife to veterinary medicine and biomedical research. I struggled with coming to terms with animal research in college where my PI decided not to have me work with his animal studies because of my interest in veterinary medicine and how unhappy he observed laboratory vets to be.
    I noticed researchers use language that helps us not to identify with research animals and to mechanize the process. Terms like “it” instead of “him” or “her”, “sacrifice” or “terminate” or “euthanize” instead of “kill”, and “subjects” or “study” instead of “patients” or “animals.” There is some overlap to pets and the veterinary medicine side with the term “euthanize”, but other than that, we use more personal terms like “baby”, “child” or “patient” and refer to the owners as “parents” often. We tend to humanize animals in this context and treat their lives as invaluable. Sometimes, clinicians in vet school take this to the point of devaluing the human life (student) who is caring for the animal with the outcome of the case or the animal’s recovery being the only thing of import.
    The way we treat animals is confusing and seemingly does not fit under the ethical theories we discussed. Perhaps the closest is consequentialism, specifically utilitarianism, except that we define it as working for the greatest good for humans and assume that animals will have to suffer in order to minimize human suffering.
    I struggle with this still. None of my research has required animal studies yet, but I know it will eventually. It’s hard to imagine coming home to my pets and calling them my kids and then going to work and knowing what I’m doing will not benefit those specific animals there but will end their lives. Most vets seem to be able to live with this dichotomy. Many hunt and nearly all have chosen to participate in terminal surgeries of either sick large animals who will be euthanized sooner or later or dogs bred specifically for vet students to perform terminal surgeries on prior to graduation. When offered alternative surgeries (non-terminal), only roughly 11/82 students chose the alternative for small animal while none to my knowledge chose alternative for large animal. It says something about how we value different animal species.
    Yet, no researcher likes doing animal studies and wishes there was another way. It’s a reminder that our world is broken and to live we have to kill. That we are uneasy about it is really the surprise. It’s the way the world has always been should we choose to see it. I’m for minimizing the lives taken for the good of others and prioritizing human life while minimizing animal suffering as much as possible.
    The best story I ever heard to sum this up was told to me by our laboratory veterinarian in vet school. which I will paraphrase here. The surgeon who pioneered kidney transplants, Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, was asked about his work. He said that in the first group he transplanted kidneys into, the majority died. He revised his techniques and operated on a second group of subjects, similar to the first. The majority of them survived. For the third group he operated on, only 2 died. In the fourth group, all survived. Puzzled, the interviewer asked why he did a fourth group, since only 2 died in the third group. Starzl replied that the first three groups were dogs while the fourth group consisted of human babies. If he had started with humans, he would have killed at least 15.
    I knew I would have to live with animal research once I heard that story. I’ll provide as enriched an environment and as much care as possible for those animals, but I can’t choose animal life over human life.

  2. In response to the question about being approached by a manufacturer to test a new product, I would be very skeptical to begin with. Commercial interests rarely are in tune with altruistic causes, and it is the responsibility of the middleman to balance out the two. I would be interested in firstly, how said product fairs better than the current standard of care, and if it does, is there a catch. Has the product been tested in vitro (in the laboratory), and if yes, what were the outcomes of the study. In the absence of in vitro models than mimic the horse pathology in question, is sufficient rigour being exercised in the production/manufacture of the product or have extensive safety and efficacy tests been performed on the product? Does the drug evoke symptomatic reactions for example, is it an inflammation-stimulating drug? Does it evoke other side effects? If we can sufficiently establish that the drug is safe for use, the next question would be efficacy. Is there any data supporting the efficacy of the drug for said causes? What would be the effects of a miminal dose on a healthy horse (drug potency)?
    Further I would look into the background of the company, their current products on the market and try to guage the cost versus benefit ratio of the drug.

  3. Jmcary has some very good points in this blog about the clash between human value and animal/pet value that exists in veterinary medicine. Memories of events that exemplify this cross my mind as I read the blog.

    It is probably surprising and unbelievable the point about clinicians putting animal lives over and above the veterinary students or junior vets caring for them. But as veterinarians our care for animals is sometimes stronger or put as a priority over the care of ourselves or the people around us. In the last month of my residency I was treating a horse near the brink of death from a large muscle infection in the middle of the night. As I was concentrating I noticed the owner watching the ultra-sound screen intently. I thought he was interested in the horse and started describing what I was finding, but he wasn’t interested. Instead he wanted to know how far through my residency I was, how I was finding it, and if I was happy: you see his daughter had done a large animal surgical residency. Excited I might have met his daughter; I asked what she was doing now. When I got his answer I was shocked and immediately understood his questions. On the last day of her residency she started a long car-trip home. I imagined her exhausted from multiple nights of no sleep, but totally ecstatic about being done, looking forward to the future. But she never made it. She fell asleep and her car ran off the road … At 3am that morning as I set my alarm for 6am to make sure I could get a thorough examination of my patient I thought about her – should someone have been looking out for her?

    My strongest relationships with animals have always been with horses. It takes an immense amount of trust to get on a 600kg animal, point it at a solid object and hope you will land safely on the other side. It also takes trust, in both the animal and your veterinary practices to stand behind, under or next to an animal that you are doing something unpleasant to. The names we call these animals conveys that trust like “buddy”, “mate” or “partner”. The names are very similar to those chosen for working dogs. It is less common to call these animals “baby” unless it is a pet that you wouldn’t expect to work. As veterinarians we identify the bond that owners have with their animals and work to honor that bond. Even if it means that we have no sleep, miss a meal or turn up late for a family event. If I was an ethicist I could say that this is ontology, or duty based ethics.

    So why does it seem that the ethical standpoint of veterinarians can change depending on the animal? Why have I trained to save a horse’s lives but have the ability to tell an owner that it is OK to euthanize their horse? I think it is because that, within reason, the human bond between the owner and you will always trump your relationship with the species or that individual. It also plays into the ethical relative theory. Most veterinarians would agree that it would be unreasonable for a family to pay $10,000 for emergency surgery on their family pony when it would put them into financial hardship. Believing that human quality of life trumps animal life leads us to feel OK to tell the family that euthanasia is an OK option. In contrast, many do not feel good about convenience euthanasia, demonstrating the ethical relative that is applied to every day clinical life.

    I have focused on the human-human, human-animal bond. As veterinarians and animal owners we need to put quality of life first, be it for the human or the animal. It is unacceptable to let our inferiors go without sleep for days or become irreversibly unhappy because we have put our patient lives first in an unreasonable way. In saying that, there is plenty of scope to provide quality care where the animal’s life and owner-animal bond is put as a priority. We can afford to skip a meal; we can’t afford to skip out on our lives completely.

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