*note: I am not speaking in Standard Philosophical Definitions of ethics here. This is a pile of thoughts.
I’ve been attending a two day class on animal handling and ethics at the University of New South Wales this week.
A month ago I took a similar course offered by University of Sydney, and I’ve gotta say, the UNSW version is way better. And I’m saying that even though it took 2 days of my time vs one for the USyd course. The USyd course was composed of similar elements, but much less intensive, and not as well done.
It’s really, really interesting how much they talk about the ethics of animal research and the importance of an animal’s wellbeing here. Vs. in the US where what I remember most from the half day orientation I got was the instructor advising us not to pick heavy mice up by the tail because sometimes their skin can come off. Pretty much anything would be more informative than that class was, but the UNSW course has been spectacular.
The course has included about an hour’s information on our safety as animal handlers, about three hours on how to properly handle and do procedures on the animals (more training to occur at the specific animal facilities people will be involved with), and the rest of the time on various aspects of the ethics of animal experimentation, and our responsibilities as researchers.
There is a huge focus on reducing the impact of animal experiments on the animals, and that includes using non-animal methods for parts of the study where possible, paying attention to the animal’s anxiety and general wellbeing, and planning experiments efficiently to use fewer animals. It seems to be standard here to provide rodents with some sort of house or shelter, and rats get wood to play with and chew on. I feel so much better working with animals when there’s at least a tiny semblance of environmental enrichment in their lives.
The animal’s state of mind is considered. Its importance is presented in two ways: the scientific practical consideration that anxiety and fear can significantly alter many results, in addition to the overlying Treat Animals With Respect standpoint.
Every procedure performed on an animal in Australia, every experiment planned, has to be approved by an Animal Ethics Committee. A similar system of approving protocols exists in the US. But there’s something really interesting going on here, specifically: every committee is composed of four members, a vet, a researcher, a layperson, and an animal welfare representative. They all have to agree that a given proposal is justified in its use of animals in that there are clear benefits to be gained, that there aren’t other alternatives to get similar data, and that there are adequate procedures in place to prevent animal pain and distress.
These committees oversee animals used for scientific research, teaching, agriculture field trials, wildlife studies…
My (albeit with limited experience in Australia) sense is that similar amounts and types of research go on here as in the states, but the way it’s thought about is what’s different.
The instructors of this course have been generally fantastic (it’s been fun to be in a classroom environment again, especially with good presenters), but the content is what has stood out. The focus of the course hasn’t been to drill facts or catchphrases into our heads. The focus has been to be thought provoking, to introduce perspectives and considerations that we may not have thought of. The aim seems to have been to make us into more thoughtful, deliberate, researchers, and that is awesome.