Research on Animals: the grey areas

How much use can we (should we) get out of something that violates our ethics?

It's an ethical question I struggle with a lot.

For example, today I went to a talk by Frans de Waal, a pre-eminent primatologist, author of The Age of Empathy.

I find his research fascinating and very useful for illustrating aspects of animals that we have long believed to belong solely to humans. His research explores empathy, fairness, cooperation, and other "positive" behaviours.

The tricky part comes with the kinds of research he is doing, which itself occupies a great range of uncomfortable ethics for me. He works at a primate research facility that is similar to a sanctuary – but is not a sanctuary – where the primates live in their family groups in outdoor enclosures. It is a type of captivity that is more acceptable than a zoo or a lab, but it is still captivity, and they are still subjected to tests (not invasive tests).

Am I as uncomfortable with studying animals at a sanctuary? What about tests of dogs' cognitive abilities, when those dogs are brought in from home by their guardians?
What about observing animals in captivity at a sanctuary – or possibly even manipulating their environment to run experiments that are entirely non-invasive?

What is it in this murky area of research that makes me uneasy?

Can I reasonably expect, at this point in time, to find research being done in a way that I would find completely ethical, especially where it concerns animals?

Two posts I've written about The Age of Empathy:


Isla :

You raise an excellent point. Part of why I feel the name Stop UBC Animal Research goes just a bit too far. Research is learning. I think we are meant to learn from animals. In a non-violent way. As long as the research is minimal, non-invasive, non-violent, I would keep an open mind.

In terms of observing animals directly to see how they react to captivity, though, I don't support that.

Maybe what makes you feel uneasy is that you wouldn't want someone watching you and your family?

What if an animal is injured naturally and at that point, doctors perform experimental surgery techniques?

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