Present, not used (part 2): Caring for less visible animals


Present, not used (part 2): Caring for less visible animals

Not all practices in animal research are equally visible.

In part 1 of this blog series, we introduced the idea of a ‘spectrum of visibility’ in animal research, with some animals – such as those whose lives are affected by research, but not research subjects – found towards the less visible end of the spectrum. We showed that making these animals more visible to the public through counting and statistics may be one strategy for increasing their visibility, since counting is related to accountability.

In this post, we move from thinking about visibility of animals to consider the relative visibility of research ‘animal practices’. As John Law and Mara Miele explain:

‘Animals are an effect of practices. The logics of practice are multiple, diverse and hold together more or less uneasily in a variety of complex or even messy ways.’ (2011, p.59)

Compared to experiments themselves, the sourcing of animals is less visible to those on the outside—not just to publics, but also those whose work doesn’t include procuring animals for research.  

We suggest that the laboratory animal breeders and trappers of wild animals who do that work of procurement experience first-hand the affective and ethical challenges involved, and that such direct engagement and care may underpin their drive to tinker within these systems to minimise ethically troubling outcomes. An important role for social scientists, we suggest, is to increase the visibility not only of animals ‘present, not used’ in research, but also the practices involved in caring for these less visible animals.

Bred, not used

Animals ‘bred, not used’ pose affective and ethical challenges within the laboratory. They cause difficult emotions because where the animals have no use but still have associated costs (technician labour, housing, food, and so on), to the question of what to do with these surplus animals, “the easiest answer (…) may be to cull”, as one of our interviewees put it. Because of the focus on avoiding pain and suffering under A(SP)A and animal welfare ethics more broadly, humane culling carried out in accordance with the regulations is not generally considered a welfare issue—although this common idea that “death is not a welfare issue” has been questioned in the animal welfare literature. This means that animals bred in the laboratory but not needed in experiments are typically euthanised.

Yet suffering in the research laboratory is not only restricted to animals; studies have identified ‘euthanasia stress’ and associated emotional distress for animal care staff who are involved in culling animals. As another participant (a university facility manager) put it: “no one likes to do [it], technicians especially. They hate it if they have large excesses and you’re having to kill off mice.” The recent cull of animals as a result of coronavirus lockdowns has further illustrated this affective distress, as researchers and ATs were forced to cull animals at an increased scale and over a shorter timeframe than usual.

In addition, ATs find killing easier if the animals are contributing to research, and therefore conversely struggle more with the culling of unused animals. From their perspective, not only should culling be avoided, but also the animals’ breeding experiences – from mating to giving birth and raising their young – have important welfare implications, and should not be done for no reason. For instance, when telling us of a time when a researcher inadvertently bred far more animals than they needed, an interviewee reported responding: “You’ve changed their hormones, you’ve put them through pregnancy – for what?”

Unsurprisingly, then, interviewees identified the ‘overbreeding’ of animals as ethically problematic, especially if seen as unnecessary (as we discussed in our previous post, they feel differently about ‘avoidable’ versus ‘unavoidable’ surplus). The goal instead is that breeding should be efficient, as reflected in guidance from the regulators. In our fieldwork, we have encountered different strategies used by animal care staff and researchers to avoid wasting animals.

One strategy is to avoid unnecessary births in the first place by encouraging good breeding management practices. Animal care staff often take a proactive approach to minimising so-called ‘wastage’ by querying with researchers whether animals will be used and whether colonies need to be reduced, refreshed, or archived. Because mice breed and grow relatively quickly, ATs take on the task of checking in with the researchers who may not be in the animal house as regularly and offer advice about how to manage colony size to match supply and demand.

Where existing animals are not suitable or needed for experiments, researchers may offer them informally to others (normally within the same animal facility), at cost or for free. Redistributing the mice may not reduce demand, but it repurposes animals towards a different end. Unused animals can become experimental animals for someone else, or alternatively may become sources of tissue after death (even if in these cases they will still be categorised as ‘not used’ in the statistics). In one institution, we heard of surplus mice becoming a source of animals for A(SP)A-related training courses, instead of animals being purchased for this purpose, thus leading to an overall reduction. We were also told of (historical) instances where culled surplus animals’ bodies ultimately became reptile food for zoos or the pet food industry.

Finally, we heard of tissue freezing for the future, as a means of extending the possible usefulness of these mice into a less defined horizon. However, a couple of our interviewees questioned whether this may soften some of the affective charge of wasting mice, rather than addressing the problem.

Caught, not used

Unlike in the laboratory, where researchers typically aren’t responsible for culling animals bred but not used, in the field researchers are the ones who must deal with bycatch: animals accidentally captured that are not useful for the research (e.g. they’re the wrong sex, age, or species). This is because usually researchers are the ones doing the trapping themselves, though they may also be assisted by skilled citizen scientists (e.g. bird ringers).

In many cases, bycaught animals are simply set free after capture. However, researchers are well aware that just because they’re set free again doesn’t mean the process of being caught was neutral for the animal, or that they’ll necessarily be okay after release.

For example, small mammals like shrews have a very high metabolic rate, so they need to be provided with food and water in traps to avoid starvation. This means that trapping poses a potentially high risk to shrews (a study suggested between 10 and 90% mortality) and must be done with great care. Accidental trapping of shrews is therefore a particular problem.

Various steps are taken to avoid these kinds of issues. Many modern trap manufacturers now add shrew-sized holes to allow unintentionally trapped shrews to escape. Researchers talked about trapping at certain times of day and periods of the year (e.g. avoiding breeding seasons), using sticks to block entrances to traps to avoid larger animals getting in, and marking traps with scents to attract only their target species. However, these tactics almost inevitably fail at some point (e.g. Dr Julie Lane told us about a farm dog who was repeatedly caught in a trap marked with leopard urine). Researchers will also often wait for a period to check that bycaught animals recover from capture before releasing them.

Perhaps because they witness capture-related problems first-hand, researchers repeatedly observed that capture is the most stressful part of a research protocol for wild animals, given that animals often experience stress akin to being predated. Researchers often mentioned this piece of wisdom in a context where they were criticising the lack of regulatory oversight of capture compared with other research procedures (see part 1). In other words, researchers often seemed to feel that the trauma animals experience in trapping was not fully visible within policy.

Things become even more challenging for researchers when bycaught animals need to be killed after capture. This might occur if animals are not recovering from a capture-related injury, or if they accidentally catch a non-native species such as an Egyptian goose, grey squirrel, or muntjac deer. Under the EU regulation on Invasive Alien Species (1143/2014), setting such non-native species free after trapping them is illegal.

Yet wildlife researchers and citizen scientists often seemed to feel that killing these creatures, as they are legally obliged to do, is distasteful, or even unethical. Bird ringers talked of how no one wants to ever kill a healthy bird, even of a non-native species. A researcher explained regretfully that his days sometimes begin with the unpleasant task of despatching (the term used for killing in the field rather than the lab) non-native species, which he often has to do with his bare hands or another affectively challenging method given limited equipment in the field.

Another researcher admitted to even having broken EU law by releasing a grey squirrel he’d caught, which resulted in a £5,000 fine. The native red squirrel, which the non-native grey squirrel out-competes, is currently only found in Scotland, the very north of England, across Ireland, and the occasional pocket elsewhere (e.g. the Isle of Wight). Given that the researcher released a grey squirrel well beyond this range, he thought: surely there is no conservation benefit to killing this particular grey squirrel? He also talked about affect: squirrels are “the hardest ones” to despatch because people love to feed them. He therefore reflected that you have to be “prepared in your mind” for despatching bycatch.

Making animals and care practices visible

Animals caught or bred but not used are entangled with animal research in the practices of supplying animals for science rather than experiments themselves. These entanglements bring animals ‘present, not used’ into contact with specific people (ATs, researchers, citizen scientists), who are responsible for caring for, and killing, these less visible animals. However, the very practices of procuring animals, and the relations of care and suffering involved in them, may remain relatively obscured from view.     

Perhaps, then, it’s not only animals that are along a spectrum of visibility, but also practices. The experimental moment is highly visible, described in everything from methods sections in scientific papers to activist posters (representations which all have particular messages and blind spots). In comparison, the sourcing of, and caring for, experimental animals and their less-visible others is much less so—thus obscuring the kinds of affective engagements and ethics that are at stake in these processes.

While, as Eva Giraud points out, proximity does not necessarily lead to caring about and being affected by animals (and the reverse), our examples highlight that proximity does do something in making certain animals and their experiences visible. Those responsible for care and killing may therefore attempt to make animals ‘present, not used’ more visible to others involved in research. For example, ATs query researchers whether breeding is necessary, and wildlife researchers advocate for more regulatory attention to trapping.

Feminist scholar Annemarie Mol and colleagues have argued that care practices involve an ongoing negotiation of different values and priorities at stake in any given local context: good care is the enactment of a “practical tinkering, of attentive experimentation” (2010, p. 13), which Beth and Emma have used to describe how ATs implement and innovate ways of applying the 3Rs.

We can also think of the everyday actions of those wild animal trappers and lab animal breeders dealing with animals 'present, not used' as tinkering. By waiting to check if a bycaught animal is okay before release, or seeking to redistribute animals to avoid waste, they tweak these practices of animal supply to address the ethical challenges they face, to try to smooth the disharmony between practices that perform and pattern the orderings of these animals' lives. Proximity enables these humans to tinker as a way of trying to approach the acknowledged tensions between the end goal and animals’ interests. At the same time, the humans experience (and may be motivated by) the affective load of caring for and killing less visible animals.

The role of the social scientist can be to make heterogenous research animal practices more visible, to show how less visible animals are also entangled in research, how they are also cared for, and what structures are in the way of greater visibility and better care (e.g., regulations in the field and lack of recognition of AT breeding expertise). This is a key mission of AnNex, including but not limited to the work we’ve discussed in this blog series.

The experimental moment is highly visible ... In comparison, the sourcing of, and caring for, experimental animals and their less-visible others is much less so—thus obscuring the kinds of affective engagements and ethics that are at stake in these processes.