March 2017 sees the release of a new and important collection of papers in animal ethics: Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals. The book, which is available in paperback, hardback and eBook format from Oxford University Press, is edited by Christine Overall, a Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Queen’s University and a member of the Department of Philosophy’s APPLE (Animals in Politics, Philosophy, Law and Ethics) research group.
Animal ethics is generating growing interest both within academia and outside it. This book focuses on ethical issues connected to animals who play an extremely important role in human lives: companion animals (“pets”), with a special emphasis on dogs and cats, the animals most often chosen as pets. Companion animals are both vulnerable to and dependent upon us. What responsibilities do we owe to them, especially since we have the power and authority to make literal life-and-death decisions about them? What kinds of relationships should we have with our companion animals? And what might we learn from cats and dogs about the nature and limits of our own morality?
Image taken from CBC.
Last year faculty and students from the Law School at Dalhousie submitted a freedom of information application to the university, asking for statistics concerning animals used in research over a 5 year period. This application was based on a similar FOI request submitted to Queen’s University, but whereas Queen’s continues to resist sharing information about the numbers and species of animals it uses, and the category of invasiveness of the procedures inflicted upon them, Dalhousie chose to release this information last month.1 Dalhousie should be commended for doing so, and for joining the growing number of Canadian universities recognizing their moral obligation to make this information available to the public. (Public disclosure is routine practice in the US and Europe.)
The use of animals in research and education is scientifically, pedagogically, and ethically contentious. There is growing public unease about inflicting deprivation, pain and suffering on animals in the name of science. This reflects both increasing concern about animal welfare/rights, as well as increasing knowledge about the ‘translation failure’ in biomedical research – i.e., the overwhelming failure of findings based on animal models to translate into human-relevant knowledge or therapies. There is a compelling public interest in being able to monitor the use of animals, and to conduct independent oversight of biomedical research.
Image taken from animal equality.net
Readers of the Queen’s Gazette may have noticed an article last week featuring neuroscience research at Queen’s focused on identifying the mechanism in the brain “responsible for interpreting how visual input from a scene determines where we look. This mechanism, known as a visual salience map, allows the brain to quickly identify and act on the most important information in the visual field, and is a basic mechanism for our everyday vision.”
But these same readers might be astonished to learn that this research, which “opens up opportunities” in fields such as visual robotics, advertising, and diagnosis of neurological disorders, is conducted using monkeys who are housed in barren cages in the windowless basement of Botterell Hall, where they live out their profoundly impoverished and miserable lives. During the research, the monkeys are immobilized in restraints for hours at a time, and ‘motivated’ to work by being denied liquids prior to work time. Before the research, they undergo surgery to implant electrodes in their brains, and screws in their skulls to hold a metal halo apparatus that supports the camera that tracks their eye movements.[i] They are given antibiotics because of persistent infections caused by these implants, often leading to chunks of skull necrosis and collapse, which can lead to death. All of this surgery and restraint is required because the monkeys don’t want to do this work. They have to be forced to sit still, to hold their heads still, and to look at the stimulus.
In QAD’s latest poster series, animals contact the ‘barbaric practices snitch line’ to speak out about the terrible things that happen to them in the biomedical labs at Queen’s.
Generally, when people talk about ‘cruel’ or ‘barbaric’ practices inflicted on animals, they are thinking in terms of actions that reflect a deviant individual personality (as in sadistic acts of torture), or practices of foreign or minority cultures (such as cockfighting). In Canadian law animal cruelty is defined in a way that exempts “generally accepted” cultural and economic practices. This means that animal farmers, trappers, slaughterhouse workers, scientific researchers and countless others can harm animals in horrific ways, while enjoying complete legal impunity, because their actions are classified as “generally accepted’ instances of animal use. If I, as an ordinary individual, sever a cat’s spinal cord to render her lame, or strap a monkey in restraints and deny her water to make her work for me, or deliberately induce bleeding in a hemophiliac dog, I am guilty of a crime. If a Queen’s researcher does these things, it’s considered a generally accepted scientific practice, or business as usual.
The goal of the barbaric practices poster series is to redirect the language of barbarism/cruelty away from minority practices, and aim it where it belongs, at routine, institutionalized violence against animals.