COVID-19 and wildlife research ethics


COVID-19 and wildlife research ethics

The COVID-19 crisis is foregrounding long-standing questions about wildlife research ethics and nature-society relationships.

The COVID-19 crisis has clearly had significant effects on animal research, including research in the field. Due to financial constraints and travel and social distancing restrictions, tough decisions may need to be made about culling research animals, not only in the laboratory but also by researchers who work with wildlife held in outdoor research stations such as field insectaries and aviaries. Field-based researchers also face additional challenges not seen in labs, such as the disruption of long-term monitoring projects, potentially for the first time in decades. And, field researchers face challenges relating to zoonoses.

The risk of zoonotic disease transmission (i.e. between humans and animals) has been much-discussed following the novel coronavirus outbreak given the virus’s likely origin in bats. But for field researchers zoonoses pose an additional problem: research animals may at some point become infected with the virus, either from the research team or from other humans such as visitors or local people.

The great apes, being our close relatives and susceptible to other human diseases (e.g. wild great apes have died from Ebola, polio, and other coronaviruses), are thought to be especially at risk of catching coronavirus. Other animals could also potentially catch the virus, such as bats, cats, and mink.

Given the risk of zoonotic disease transmission from humans to wildlife, important questions for wildlife researchers (perhaps especially primatologists) are: When, and why, should you treat a sick study subject? Does your answer depend on whether or not the disease was transmitted to study subjects by humans, or even by members of your research team? These questions tie in with long-standing debates about whether or not researchers should intervene in the lives of their wild animal subjects beyond the requirements of their research.

When to treat sick wildlife?

Wildlife researchers very often view their role as being to observe the behaviour and ecology of wild animals without influencing them. A common worry is that interventions, such as treating unwell wildlife, will ultimately have unforeseen and possibly negative consequences on the population or ecosystem as a whole, no matter the good intentions or the positive effects on individual animal welfare. Rescue all the foxes, and there will be fewer rabbits due to increased predation, and so forth. Researchers may even be concerned about interfering with the process of evolution, if for example they were to disrupt natural selection by rescuing animals that otherwise would have died. Researchers therefore worry that if they perpetually intervene they will not end up studying the working of “nature” at all, but rather the effects of their own interventions.

This is not merely a scientific matter, but also an ethical one. Why, you might ask, should we care if we’ve preserved “nature”, if doing so means that we have to let animals suffer? Justifications for not intervening to help sick wildlife therefore rely on a belief that preserving nature (or, at least as critics would argue, a particular vision of nature) is a good in itself. This is a fundamental tenet of conservation philosophy, though animal liberation/rights and welfare advocates might reach similar conclusions about non-intervention by other reasoning, such as emphasising non-human autonomy, or seeing the workings of nature as beautiful and possibly even more important than wild animal welfare.

Yet some illnesses and ailments experienced by wildlife are clearly caused by humans. If, as this non-intervention ethical framework often supposes, humans are separate from nature, then surely saving animals from human-caused diseases and injuries is not intervening in nature per se? By this reasoning, many wildlife researchers I have spoken with – for my doctoral research on orangutan conservation and the AnNex POLEs research project – have said that they would not interfere if a wild animal study subject were suffering from a “natural” ailment (e.g. a symptom of the ageing process), but they would always help if they had caused the problem, such as if animals are injured by the researchers’ traps. Some added that they may also intervene if humans in general (not just the research team) had caused an illness or injury, such as if an animal were hit by a car. Thus, Jane Goodall famously administered polio vaccines (via bananas) to her chimpanzee research subjects when they contracted the virus, likely from humans in a nearby village, and gorilla researchers have similarly vaccinated their study subjects against measles.

If we accept this logic a new problem emerges: where exactly is the line between “natural” and “unnatural” (i.e. human-caused) problems? An orangutan researcher I spoke with clearly articulated the subjectivity of this “grey zone” by describing a case of a young orangutan whose home had been wiped out by a nearby sand mine. Socially stressed in her new home, the orangutan spent a lot of time “sneaking away” from other females on the forest floor (fairly unusual for orangutans, which are ordinarily arboreal). One day, while sneaking about on the forest floor, the orangutan was mauled by a leopard. Should this be classed as an unnatural event, and as such should the researchers intervene? As the researcher described, while he personally would not have intervened, others at his research site chose to help. Ultimately it didn’t matter either way, as the infant eventually died of a parasitic infection (also probably a result of spending so much time on the forest floor), but the case illustrates some of the complexities of arbitrating between “natural” and “unnatural” causes of animal suffering.

Researchers may not just disagree on where to draw the line between “natural” and “unnatural” ailments, but they may also feel compelled to help for other reasons, such as saving the last members of an endangered species, or feeling compelled to mitigate visible animal suffering, even if the cause is “natural”. For example, some primatologists once stopped a group of male chimpanzees from killing a mother-infant pair in a neighbouring group, though this intervention was widely opposed by other researchers.

Researchers I’ve spoken with have also at various points admitted to intervening just to stop animal suffering. A researcher interviewed for the POLEs research admitted to sometimes administering antibiotics for wild mammals’ infected wounds, justifying this on the grounds that perhaps the stress of being captured exacerbated the injury and therefore justified treatment. Indeed, even the researcher who would not personally have helped the orangutan mauled by a leopard acknowledged that “when you look the animal in the eye” it’s pretty hard to turn away, and even he sometimes feels compelled to help. We social scientists sometimes talk about this in terms of the power of affect: broadly speaking, non-linguistic, bodily forms of communication.

Intervention and COVID-19

So, what if researchers, or other humans such as tourists or locals, pass on the novel coronavirus to wildlife? Would researchers see it as appropriate to intervene? I expect that most would, if they could, since the transmission of the virus to wildlife around the world would be pretty clearly caused by humans. However, their ability to actually act on this impulse is limited – you can’t just give a wild gorilla an oxygen tank, or ask gorillas to socially distance from one another.

Perhaps, then, the best that researchers can do is attempt to prevent the virus from ever reaching their study populations in the first place. Some are already doing this, with researchers cancelling fieldwork and attempting to keep humans in the local area away from wildlife. They are also drawing on traditions in field research inspired by past zoonotic disease outbreaks, such as the already common practice of researchers remaining “socially distanced” from great ape study subjects.

Even if intervening to help wildlife suffering from COVID-19 is impossible, posing the question of whether, and why, researchers should help highlights important questions about ethics of wildlife research, and about how best to conceptualise the relationship between humans and nature, researchers and researched. These have become important subjects of attention in environmental humanities and social sciences in recent years, with the point often made that humans and the natural world are not separate but rather mutually shaped by one another. This is especially true given that humans are increasingly the dominant influence on the world’s climate and environments. You could therefore argue that most suffering experienced by wild animals is in some way connected to human actions.

Wildlife researchers are often well aware of the inseparability of nature and society. For example, ethnoprimatology (a subfield of primate field studies) is founded on the idea that non-human primates rarely, if ever, live in “natural” settings free from human influence, and that it is both interesting and important to understand how humans and other primates affect each other’s lives. What this realisation means for wildlife research ethics, and in particular the treatment of sick wildlife, will remain an important topic for discussion in future.

When, and why, should you treat a sick study subject? Does your answer depend on whether or not the disease was transmitted to study subjects by humans, or even by members of your research team?
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