Veterinary surgeons should let themselves be guided by
the principle “In dubio pro animale” — roughly translated as
“When in doubt, support the animals”.
Katherine van Ekert Onay
One of my most challenging career experiences occurred during my first time at an animal-testing institute. Mice, crippled with advanced-stage arthritis, were intentionally deprived of analgesia, due to concerns about the impact of analgesics on the experimental results obtained. Neurosurgery, which requires, in the human world, performance by only the highest calibre of neurosurgeons after decades of training, was routinely performed on rats by nominally trained researchers, under non-sterile conditions. The ensuing tissue aggravation surrounding their electrode skull caps was nevertheless a mere drop in the ocean compared to what I could onlyassume was an astronomical headache induced by the intrusive electric implants. Yet, despite all of this, there was again, no analgesia.
As a veterinarian drawn to the profession, like many, out of a desire to care for animals, this incongruity unsettled me. The researcher had a clearly genuine tenderness for her rats; lovingly embracing them in her arms as if they were her own children. But can we really call ourselves animal carers, when we allow mechanisation and complacency to perpetuate what is, in any rational context, cruelty — wanton or otherwise? Faced with these situations, we must reach inside ourselves with honesty, and ask what we are really doing this for, where our priorities lie, and whether our responsibilities toward the research arena can be genuinely harmonious with our primary responsibility toward animals?
With concern for the welfare of animals on the rise, and recent bans on the use of animals for cosmetics testing in the EU, Brazil, Israel and India, we, as animal professionals, are provided with interesting dilemmas as to how we apply ethical principles to our own practice. We are at the front line when it comes to ethical debates regarding animals, but are correspondingly well-placed to provide leadership over how they should be treated — providing our scientific knowledge and practical experience to help society make informed decisions. Indeed, one of the key principles in taking our veterinary oaths is to uphold animal welfare. Yet I wonder whether we are doing enough to challenge the status quo in research? It is only after doing so that we can confidently and sincerely uphold our role as advocates for these species. We are guilty of hypocrisy, in endorsing legislation that permits surgically invasive procedures to be performed by ‘competent’, not ‘qualified’ technicians in the research arena, when this is normally the sole domain of a veterinarian. We apply double standards to how we accept pain, approving projects that cause animals to experience “pain and/or distress that will not be alleviated”; and assuming that because a mouse is eating and is relatively mobile, then they must be coping just fine.
Less explicitly, we dishonour the Three Rs principles of Russell and Burch with every day that we fail to disrupt our outmoded methods of sharing knowledge, which is currently safeguarded in the rigidly inaccessible silos of research faculties and institutions. As they stand, these ‘silos’ render it impossible to prove accurately the lack of viable alternatives to animal models and the need for the development of these alternatives. At least they should give us the opportunity to alleviate our concerns that we are doing ‘the best we can’, and that animal suffering is therefore inevitable, albeit unfortunate. As well as expanding our communication with research faculties and institutions, we need a greater reverence for the dissemination of negative results. This would represent a monumental move toward a reduction in animal wastage. Continuing this rigidity and inertia leads not only to delays in the acquisition of knowledge, but also causes me to question whether we are simply propping up the animal research industry in the interests of our continued employment and professional recognition, rather than serving the interests of animals, as we had originally intended.
But exploring the ethical implications of our personal actions can be challenging. As scientists, we find it safe and part of our natural territory to try to isolate science from any moral judgement about how we treat animals. A great example of this is found in the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, Welfare Sub-Committee Mandate, which states that it is their goal to address “scientific and technical questions concerning the protection of animals, notably in regard to husbandry, herd management, transport, slaughter and experimentation.”1 [The italics are the current author’s.]
Although an essential component, science alone is not sufficient, given that we work with beings who have their own inherent value and requirements. It is not only our moral responsibility, as animal professionals, to ensure that we see them beyond the utility they serve, but we also owe it to ourselves to honour the empathy that drove us to work with animals in the first place.
The 2010 amendment to the AVMA Veterinarian’s Oath provides some encouragement through its acknowledgement that animal welfare is a priority for the veterinary profession. The newly revised section reads: “Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”2 [The italics are the current author’s.]
It was this interest in challenging the dissonance and complacency that we ourselves had experienced in our veterinary training and work, that resulted in the formation of Sentient, The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics. The mission of Sentient is to offer scientific reflection within an ethical framework to work for improvements in animal protection. We provide a voice, and a solid, evidence-based platform that helps veterinarians to independently play their role in addressing animal welfare needs.
Sentient also promotes an ongoing commitment to the highest standard of care for animals used in research. Our philosophy is that animals should be treated with respect, befitting their status as sentient beings, rather than as mere tools for data collection.
We oppose any research involving animals that causes unrelieved pain, suffering, distress, lasting physiological harm or behavioural disturbance, or death as an endpoint. This means a priori rejection of some research proposals, including: a) the use of animals to test non-essential products (such as cosmetics, household products, alcohol or tobacco); b) procedures causing neurological damage; c) the in vivo exposure of prey animals to predators; or d) the use of great apes in research other than non-invasive observational studies with free-living or sanctuary populations.
The German Veterinary Association for the Protection of Animals’ Code of Conduct perhaps best sums up what animal professionals must do in these difficult circumstances. When in doubt, veterinary surgeons should let themselves be guided by the principle, “In dubio pro animale” — roughly translated as, “When in doubt, support the animals”.3 As society places increasing value on animal welfare and sentience, it will be up to animal professionals to maintain our standard as safeguards of the animals’ best interests.
1 Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (undated). Mandate. Brussels, Belgium: European Commission, DG Health and Consumers.
Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/food/fs/sc/scah/
index_en.html (Accessed 06.06.14).
2 AVMA (2014). Veterinarian’s Oath. Schaumburg, IL, USA: American Veterinary Medical Association. Available at: https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/
veterinarians-oath.aspx (Accessed 06.06.14).
3 TVT (1998). Codex Veterinarius. [Ethical guiding principles for veterinary behaviour with respect to the welfare and protection of animals (Edition from 1st June 1998).] Bramsche, Germany: Tierärztliche Vereinigung für Tierschutz e.V. Available at: http://ethics.iit.edu/ecodes/node/5157 (Accessed 06.06.14).