Animal welfare and conservation, the debate we must have: A response to Draper and Bekoff (2012)
McMahon, CR and Harcourt, R and Bateson, P and Hindell, MA, Animal welfare and conservation, the debate we must have: A response to Draper and Bekoff (2012), Biological Conservation, 158 pp. 424. ISSN 0006-3207 (2013) [Letter or Note in Journal]
We are delighted that our work (McMahon et al., 2012) has
stimulated fresh debate (Draper and Bekoff, 2012) surrounding
the welfare of wild animals in conservation research. We contend
that assessing individual animal welfare in the broader conservation
context needs careful thought. While Draper and Bekoff
(2012) raise a number pertinent issues around how best to ensure
that animals are treated humanely and with care in any research
project. The question of how this should be done remains unresolved.
We reiterate that the Bateson Cube approach offers
researchers, welfare advocates and bodies such as animal ethics
committees, a practical tool with which to assess the appropriateness
of a particular piece of proposed research. While Draper and
Bekoff question the value of assessments of the importance of research,
they are willing to castigate trivial research – as are we.
Since trivial research is of no importance, they already accept that
such judgements can be made. Responsible funding bodies are
bound to consider the importance of research when they decide
whether or not to support a grant proposal. Similarly those bodies
concerned with research projects that have implications for medicine
or the public good make assessments of the likelihood of benefit.
Indeed, the bio-medical community has used the Bateson Cube
successfully for a number of decades, proving the strength of this
approach. We can see no good reason why it should not be applied
to the welfare of animals in conservation research.
Conservation biology, the crisis discipline (Soulé, 1985) continues
to face new challenges and adopting proven tools such as the
Bateson Cube can only help resolves challenges in its path. For
example, within the burgeoning field of conservation medicine,
(the discipline that integrates veterinary medicine, conservation
biology and public health in order to advance biodiversity conservation)
applying such a well established process to a new situation
seems entirely appropriate. It is not our intention to oversimplify
or demean the importance of animal welfare in conservation
research. Rather, our aim was to highlight that in a complex,
emotionally riven debate such as animal welfare where decisions
are difficult and rarely clear-cut, we need the best, most objective
tools available. Undoubtedly, much remains to be resolved in how
the three axes in the cube are assessed and this remains the challenge
for all of us researching animals. Yet it is important to
remember that conservation scientists are not starting from
scratch, the Bateson Cube has itself seen refinement with use over
several decades. For example, Draper and Bekoff suggest that in
addition to the 3Rs of Replacement, Refinement and Reduction, a
fourth ‘R’, Refusal, be adopted by Conservation Biologists, yet this
is already explicitly represented in the Cube within the ‘unacceptable’
area of the Cube.
It is our sincere hope that Draper and Bekoff’s response is the
first of many in this debate, not because we are trying to pick a
fight, belittle or dismiss as sentimentalism concern for individual
animal welfare, but, because of the importance of ensuring high
standards of animal welfare in conjunction with the urgent need
for individual-based research in the face of increasing rates of
extinction. In many ways this is a debate that should have occurred
decades ago. It is only occurring now because species continue to
be lost at rates much greater than background extinction rates.
Extinction is forever, yet in the face of this onslaught public concern
for animal welfare has halted programs at critical junctures.
It is our collective responsibility to actively pursue a resolution
that is palatable to all sides of the debate. Without this we risk species
loss due to insufficient knowledge even at the expense of no
advance in the humane care and research of animals.
Maintaining high standards of individual animal welfare is central
to effective conservation science research conducted to advance
our understanding of individual life-histories, vital rates
and population viability. As Draper and Bekoff contend, considering
individual animals is essential. Using tools such as Bateson’s
cube which explicitly acknowledge this is an important step to
resolving the debate.