Animal welfare in the wild

“The question is not, can they reason?, nor, can they talk?, but can they suffer?”  These questions played over and over in my mind this past week as I walked cobblestone streets listening to French and gawking at tourists sipping their lattes in outdoor cafes.  Confused yet?  I was.  Seemingly half the world away from my home, and several worlds away from my Rainforest of Home, I found myself in Montreal thinking about Animal Welfare in the Wild.  Let me explain.

Owing to Raincoast’s leadership in using exclusively non-invasive research, I was called upon to organize and chair a conference session on “Wildlife Science and the 3 Rs”.  At the 8th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, ours was the oddball session.  About 750 of the 800 attendees were there to share how to “Refine, Reduce, and Replace” their use of animals in laboratory and farm settings.

Our rag tag bunch consisted of those interested in taking these principles into the wild, where they are largely absent but certainly belong. Our focus was exploring how wildlife scientists, often in noble pursuit of knowledge to help populations at risk from human activities, in fact can inflict tremendous suffering on the individuals they study.

Capturing wild animals using painful snares. Subjecting sensitive beings to anesthesia that can render them incapacitated for hours, at risk for many more, and off-their-mark for days to weeks.  Burdening already on-the-edge animals with radio collars for months to years.  Although the information generated can be valuable, it can come at a very big cost to those “subjected” to being research subjects.  We were there to find solutions with the 3 Rs.

We also heard from my session co-chair, wildlife veterinarian and researcher Dr. Marc Cattett that avoiding such invasive research techniques can actually lead to better science. He and his team has found stunning differences in body condition between grizzly bears that have been captured many times compared with those that have been captured only once.  Such an effect can lead to serious bias in research results.  More importantly, what the body condition difference signals is that these animals likely experienced prolonged distress. They suffered.

What I heard strengthened my resolve to continue our pioneering non-invasive work with bears.  For the questions running around in my head, first posed by a nineteenth century philosopher, are never more relevant. It is our collective job to ensure we do not cause suffering in animals we live to help.

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