Research requires greater oversight to prevent suffering of wildlife

Sidney, British Columbia

Whether harassing, harming or killing animals accidentally or purposely – via invasive techniques or ‘experimental’ lethal control – some research can cause pain and distress in wildlife. Motivated to prevent such suffering, new research reveals a potentially transformative process to ensure careful and ethical conduct by wildlife scientists.

Scientists from Raincoast Conservation Foundation, University of Victoria, Alpha Wildlife Research & Management, and University of Saskatchewan reviewed more than 200 peer-reviewed academic journals that commonly publish wildlife research, evaluating the presence and comprehensiveness of ‘Animal Care’ requirements of authors. The study, “Publication reform to safeguard wildlife from researcher harm,” released today in PLoS Biology, found troubling patterns but also identified clear opportunities for change.

The study revealed that journal policies on animal care were either absent or weak. One third of the journals had no animal care policy. Only 14% of peer-reviewed journals with animal care policies required documentation of animal care approval from research institutions (e.g., universities). Just 22% had a statement on best practices during fieldwork.

The shortcomings identified provide compelling evidence that the editorial landscape is ripe for reform. Given that publications measure the success of researchers, peer-reviewed journals are ideally positioned to influence scientific conduct associated with animal care.

Why is change needed? “Many inhumane methods continue to be pursued in wildlife research, despite our empirical understanding of the suffering they can impose,” said lead author Kate Field, a researcher with Raincoast Conservation Foundation and graduate student at the University of Victoria.

The authors argue that failure to safeguard “wildlife welfare” can also harm the research process. “Ethical conduct in science is key for the public’s support of scientists, and key for maintaining our social license”, said Field, adding, “Science that violates animal welfare principles risks jeopardizing this privilege”.

Co-author Chris Darimont, of Raincoast Conservation Foundation and UVic adds, “Even for non-lethal approaches that involves capture, for example, sound science requires that animal subjects be physiologically and behaviourally unencumbered by harm. Methods that harm research animals risk perpetuating inhumane methods and bad science.”

The authors conclude by offering journals a new template for animal care policy (Animals in Research; Reporting on Wildlife [ARROW] Guidelines). This resource provides a minimum set of mandatory steps required by authors, which can be adapted to a wide variety of journals that cover wildlife research.

Publication in academic journals is the final and arguably most important step in the research process, comprising an essential feature of the reward structure for academic scientists. Consequently, by dictating requirements for publication, journals have considerable influence in shaping best practices among researchers. However, the opportunity to shape best practices regarding the welfare of wild animals subjected to research has been largely overlooked.