Friday, August 12, 2011

Vet Joke: The Clever Horse

A man riding out in the bush fell from his horse and broke his leg. He was a long way out, so the situation looked pretty grim.

Then the horse grabbed the man's belt in his teeth and dragged him to the shade of a nearby tree. He made the man as comfortable as he
could and then galloped off to get help.

The man discussed the incident a few weeks later with a friend, who--very impressed--praised the horse's intelligence.

"He's not so smart," said the animal's owner. "He came back with a vet."

Researcher Welfare

There is an editorial in Nature (issue 7343) about the death of an undergraduate student working late, alone, in a laboratory. The author comments on the need for better data about lab accidents and better safety precautions.

Of course, Nature has always had a rather strong "micro" focus where the only research environment seriously consider is the bench laboratory. I hope that any initiatives that develop will recognize that students and researchers in all environments frequently put themselves at risk during their everyday activities..

Working in a pig barn I found myself inhaling fine dust that was coughed up for days afterwards in a phenomenon the technicians blithely refer to as 'pig lung'. On the weekends personnel often work alone as the muck out, feed, and carry out any other necessarily activities like giving an unappreciative pig an antibiotic injection (which, based on their reaction, is not a pleasant experience). Even on busy days a research farm is large enough that you  could be trampled by a pig and pretty much eaten alive before anyone noticed.

In over a decade of research I encountered a safety officer only once. This individual walked passed hand-built (slightly smoking) equipment powered by a rank of car batteries, piles of equipment infested with mice, and a loose wall panel from which the wiggly tails of maggots peeked, to repremand a student for standing on a sow stall wall to adjust a camera. Quite why a free standing ladder with legs small enough to slip through the slats was considered a safer perch than than a steel structure bolted to the floor, well, I don't know.

Research is hazardous partly because each research project is unique and has idiosyncratic hazards. And there is strong pressure for those that carry out the hands on work to 'make do' with whatever resource are available.

We are all now quite accustomed to carefully considering the welfare of our animals as we design our experimental programs--perhaps it is time to take the welfare of our students, technicians and researchers just as seriously?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pets Help Avoid Allergies, Even During Pregnancy

Christine Cole Johnson has found that having pets in the home during pregnancy reduces a babies level of the immunoglobulins that contribute to the development of allergies.

Her result are presented in a paper titled: Effect of prenatal indoor pet exposure on the trajectory of total IgE levels in early childhood, to be published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Animal Welfare and the Precautionary Principle

The concept of the precautionary principle came out of environmentalism, but is now phrased more broadly.  For example, it is defined by UNESCO as:

"When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm this is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid of diminish that harm."

While this principle is often phrased to include only humans and/or the environment I feel it is equally important in the field of animal welfare. Many of the things we do to animals (such as surgery or close confinement) might reasonably be considered to cause some harm, although the scientific evidence is often missing, contradictory or ambiguous.

If we let lack of data always translate into lack of action this suppresses animal welfare research. The status quo becomes easy to protect simply by not providing the resources or access necessary to carry out definitive research. If, instead, we say that a reasonable expectation of harm obligates us to find a way to end the practice, those wishing to defend the questionable practice are obliged to present data proving harmlessness to continue to use it. The power balance shifts from those wanting to continue business as usual, to those calling for an end to a plausibly harmful practice.

And this obligation goes beyond showing an immediate need for the questionable practice, for example that beak trimming is necessary to prevent the even greater harm of peck injury and cannibalism. The precautionary principle clarifies that the use of a lesser harm to prevent a greater one is not ultimately satisfactory, and that progress must be made towards a system where our method of caring for these animals does not predictably cause significant harm to the animal--because even when the immediate cause is a conspecific, the ultimate cause is a breeding/housing situation that causes the animals to severely injure and kill each other. And removing the beak, while it mitigates the harm in the short term, is not solving the problem in a meaningful way.

The precautionary principle is often misinterpreted to mean: if in doubt, do not act.  But its true meaning is: if in doubt 1) act to prevent possible harm and 2) act to reduce doubt. It reminds us that doubt creates an obligation to act, not an excuse to accept a situation, even a situation where lesser harms are done only to prevent greater harms. Because acceptance of mitigation as the end point of welfare science leads us down the path of accepting that these fundamental ethical problems are 'normal' or that it is morally acceptable to live with them rather than act to bring them to an end.