AWSELVA Journal Spring 2009

Should we (and can we) be impartial when teaching ethics?
Participatory learning
Two student-centred approaches to teaching animal ethics in a veterinary curriculum
Chairman's column: 

At a recent meeting I was challenged (and not for the first time) to say whether or not a wild mouse experiences less of a welfare insult than its laboratory cousin, when subject to similar injury. This is not a new question but does present an interesting scenario which many of us will have considered, I expect. If the nociceptive event is similar, do possible differences in the perception and processing of pain by the animal matter or is the perception everything? In humans we can see an analogous situation in the use of visual analogue scales/scores to report the severity of acute or chronic pain from the patient’s perspective, or in some applications the self administration of potent analgesics.

One difficulty in the case of the mice is that (probably) neither mouse can say to itself “my welfare is poorer than theirs”. We humans are required to make ethical judgements about the acceptability of levels of disbenefit of procedures (including keeping in captivity?) to laboratory mice through a cost-benefit appraisal but we don’t (often) do this for mice considered by some as pests, before they are fed large doses of anticoagulants. The “cost” on the balance pan represents our view of the attrition of an assemblage of welfare attributes which allow us tentatively and naively to place an individual on a welfare continuum. Do the mice fed dicoumerol not deserve this consideration or are we justified in taking different ethical positions to attempt to assess different situations, even for the same species?

Is there a qualia issue here – is it different to be a wild or laboratory mouse and do they have different conscious experiences? How significant are their different early life experiences in priming for later challenges? Looking at this in exactly the opposite way, does the laboratory mouse living under the comfort of the four of the five freedoms for much of its life, experience a greater effect of any procedure than a wild mouse would? After all, mice are generally afforded a low position on the sociozoological scale but I could perhaps make a case for pet mice being more highly regarded than lab mice, and lab mice more than a wild-living relative; do we have different duties towards them as a result?

In considering all of this I was drawn to the old riddle about “If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?“ and asked myself about the mouse we don’t see consuming poison or suffering thereafter. There is clearly an ethical issue here but is there also a welfare one? We all take for granted that wild prey species tend not to display signs of lack of fitness in order to avoid predation but do we really know that they do not genuinely experience less of a sensation of pain compared to other species? Might our anthropomorphic desire to “help” when watching the hapless wildebeest calf pitted against the lioness be genuinely misplaced?

I have been enjoying reading the very lucid new book by Peter Sandøe and Stine Christiansen entitled Ethics of Animal Use. Many contemporary ethical issues are laid out with considerable clarity and I commend the book to you all. Did it lead me to a clearer analysis of my mouse conundrum and give me a sound basis to respond to my questioner? At least there was recognition that there are ethical issues raised as a result of control of wildlife pests even if this has never been taken as a cause célèbre! Depending on one’s theoretical position, the most important aspects of pest control may be the exposition of the need of control in the first place and, subsequently, the choice of method. The use of rodents in the laboratory has, of course been much more widely aired.

Are ethical debates (often in which a number of AWSELVA members are involved) always likely also to be political hot potatoes? Following last August’s BBC TV programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed, dog breeding was heading in that direction though now some well-measured reviews are underway. I mentioned seal culling in my last column and seals closer to home have been in the news following damage to fish cages and the consumption of their contents. What methods might a fish farmer legitimately apply to protect his/her stock? Rather than lead to a thorough ethical deliberation there was impassioned (though brief) rhetoric on both sides. Perhaps a suitable forum for such a debate is lacking and the media coverage is the only way to fill the vacuum.

In the wake of a very successful meeting last October at Langford, when a large audience listened and contributed to discussions about the teaching of animal welfare science and ethics, I hope you will be encouraged, to join our next meeting in Oxford at the end of April – details elsewhere in this issue of the journal. We can accept a large number of delegates and so I look forward to seeing you all there!