Vet ethics: guardian dogs

I recently attended the annual AVA conference in Melbourne. In one of the talks, Chris Johnson, a Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Tasmania, discussed the use of so-called guardian dogs to protect livestock on Australian farms. This idea involves a new approach to a longstanding animal welfare and farming problem.

Livestock such as sheep and lambs are sometimes lost to predation from foxes, dingoes and wild dogs. A traditional approach to this problem is to lethally cull potential offenders. Methods of culling include shooting and baiting with poisons. The 1080 poison causes muscle tremors, convulsions and death. Few people would doubt that baits have significant welfare implications.

Yet predation of livestock also has welfare consequences. The mauling of lambs not only harms the lambs but also creates great anxiety for the farmers, both because of concern for their animals and for their own livelihoods. Continue reading Vet ethics: guardian dogs

Vet Ethics: Curly questions around wagging tails

A new book by an American author poses some troubling questions for veterinarians and our profession. The book is called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets (University of Chicago Press). Its author is Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and writer on animal topics. For example, in Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, co-written with the famous scientist Mark Bekoff, Pierce challenged us to recognize the existence of genuine moral or ethical behavior in the nonhuman animal kingdom. This is a startling claim, because most of us assume that only human beings are capable of moral behavior. Pierce and Bekoff argued that this assumption is contradicted by scientific evidence about animal capabilities.

The challenges in Run, Spot, Run are of a different sort. Pierce aims to unsettle us – including the veterinary profession – with some difficult assertions and truths about pets and our relations with them. Indeed, she thinks there are some very thorny and deep problems inherent in the contemporary practice of pet keeping. Given that most veterinarians deal with companion animals, these claims are worth being aware of. After all, forming close relations with companion animals is really a very modern, historically late phenomenon. We are just starting to reflect on its meaning and implications. Continue reading Vet Ethics: Curly questions around wagging tails

Vet Ethics: Harambe’s death: zooming in on zoos

The shooting of a 17-year-old male gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo after a child fell into his enclosure provoked a huge international reaction. The reaction was comparable to previous outpourings of anger and sadness following the killing of Cecil the lion by an American trophy hunter, and the killing of Marius the young giraffe by the Copenhagen zoo because he was surplus to breeding requirements and not required for display purposes.
In fact, Harambe’s killing generated a variety of emotions and responses. Obviously, people were upset at the loss of the gorilla’s life. Part of this response may have been bound up with the fact that gorillas are endangered. But another key aspect of the response was that gorillas are highly intelligent and emotional animals. Someone who knew Harambe said that he was always thinking. Animals like Harambe, we were reminded, have unique personalities. His killing was called a tragedy and even likened to homicide by some people. Continue reading Vet Ethics: Harambe’s death: zooming in on zoos

Vet Ethics: Man’s dominion and the worth of animals

In his book Animal Welfare: A Cool Eye Towards Eden, the well-known welfare scientist John Webster criticises the contribution of moral philosophy to the question of the treatment of animals and their welfare. Webster writes:

The moral philosophy approach to animal welfare – i.e. based upon our thoughts and values, not theirs – tends to generate broad, bold (and careless) conclusions such as ‘Man has no right to cause any animal to suffer’”.

He gives just two examples of such “moral philosophy”: A book by Andrew Lindsay, a Christian author who has attempted to interpret the meaning of “Man’s Dominion” in a way favourable to animal rights; and the famous book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. While admitting that he admires and shares a passion for animal welfare with these authors, and is also well disposed towards aspects of Singer’s utilitarian philosophy, Webster claims that their work is not really helpful. In fact, their work is all too easily debased into empty or wrong-headed slogans. Webster holds a view that “Man” rightly and necessarily has “Dominion” over the animals. He broadly favours traditional forms of animal use, like animal agriculture, so long as they treat animals humanely and fairly. Continue reading Vet Ethics: Man’s dominion and the worth of animals

Vet Ethics: The business of animal abuse

Over the last few years there have been two explosive Four Corners reports about animal abuse associated with Australian animal industries. The first, as you will recall, was the expose on live animal export. In that report, the public learnt that many Australian animals exported to overseas destinations were subject routinely to the most shocking and abusive treatment.

The more recent Four Corners report, of course, revealed to a mass audience the existence of widespread cruelty in the Australian greyhound industry. The public was informed of the practice of live baiting greyhounds – or “blooding” them as participants have long called it – which causes in small animals like possums, piglets, and rabbits extreme fear and suffering.

In one sense, the “ethics” of this treatment of animals is clear-cut: both industry and the general population condemn it as unacceptable, and such treatment of animals in Australia is a criminal offence. Continue reading Vet Ethics: The business of animal abuse